By Bruce Hope
This story is part of a collaborative project between Project: Cold Case and a University of North Florida Journalism class. The student credited above wrote this story as a class project.
Cathleen Thomas, Cathy to family and friends, was one of those people. She always left a lasting impression on nearly everyone she met. Cathleen Thomas was a hero, a trailblazer, and a person who embodied both the ordinary and extraordinary in a life shortened by tragedy at only 27 years old.
In a terrible turn of events, Cathleen Thomas was murdered and found in a vehicle with her lover in Williamsburg, Virginia.
The United States’ Service Academies opened their doors to female cadets and midshipmen in 1976. Thomas, the daughter of a Naval Academy graduate, and sister of another, was a graduate of the second integrated class, attending from 1977-1981. She was one of the very early females to go forth on a path which few had walked before. The Thomas family was the first father, son, and daughter tandem to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy.
Thomas was the only daughter of four children born to an Irish Catholic family from Massachusetts. According to her older brother Bill, she was stereotypically Irish in her physical features; pale skin, blue eyes, bright red hair, with a sweet and innocent look. He describes her always having been “extremely smart and socially conscious,” even from a young age. He also described her as articulate and funny, but with a quick Irish wit.
Cathleen Thomas loved music growing up. She particularly enjoyed some of the top acts of the day, including the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Supremes. Cathleen later enjoyed listening to Cyndi Lauper and Joan Armatrading.
By all accounts, Thomas excelled at everything she did. As a high school student, she was an excellent athlete. Thomas played forward on the basketball team and competed in multiple events in track and field, including the 400M and the shotput. She was not originally a shot-putter, but her team needed one, so she took on the challenge and taught herself the event with minimal coaching.
She was a born leader, as would be evidenced by her future as a military Officer. According to her brother, she lugged the heavy shot home in her gym and began to work at it until she mastered it. In today’s era, she would have only to YouTube video of it, and coaching explanations, but at that time such a resource was not available. She read about it and studied the Olympics carefully in attempts to learn the nuances. With such determination, in true Cathleen Thomas fashion, she ended up winning the event in competition for her school.
Thomas, because of her athleticism, had a voracious appetite. She could and did eat any and everything in large quantities, but never suffered due to her activity level. Her brother remembers her fondness for Italian food, but also notes that she was game to try anything.
One friend from high school remembered finding out about Thomas’ desire to attend the Naval Academy during their senior year. While this was highly unusual at the time, “It was so Cathy because not only was it exceptional; it was groundbreaking,” the friend said.
The friend thought back to their shared time in high school. She remembered how well-liked Thomas was, and how, unlike most high school students, Thomas didn’t have a best friend. She was friends with nearly everyone.
Academically, Thomas was an excellent student. The same high school friend remembers that she was a great writer and had a facility for languages. She was a very good French student and an excellent communicator.
“I remember here presence more than any specific thing. There was just a sense of determination and passion around Cathy,” said the friend.
After seeking and acquiring her entrance into the Naval Academy (otherwise known as the family business), Thomas found herself immersed in a world that she was advised would be extremely challenging, both as a Plebe (first-year Naval Academy student), and as a woman. It was no less difficult than she had been warned, but her inner strength and determination brooked no option for failure. This was a time where sexual harassment and sexism ran rampant at the service academies, but Thomas drove on.
All Service Academy students are required to engage in some form of athletic pursuit. For Thomas, this was nothing new, but also served as a much-needed release from the stress placed on her both from the rigors of the military training environment and from being a woman within it. Thomas was on the basketball team and ran cross country.
Thomas graduated, earning her “butter bars” in the US Navy as an Ensign. It was the height of the Cold War, and Thomas had become fluent in Russian, to the degree that she was awarded “Most Improved Russian Student” at graduation.
Thomas’ first duty assignment was Norfolk, Virginia, assigned to the LY Spear. She was a logistics officer in charge of cranes and movement of torpedoes. Like everything else in her life, she dove into this with gusto, excelling as evidenced by numerous outstanding fitness reports (Naval Officer Evaluations) for her position. Multiple sailors referred to her as the best officer under whom they had ever served. In another testament to her excellence as a Naval Officer, she was one of the first females to become Surface Warfare Officer qualified.
Cathleen Thomas had intentions to follow her father’s footsteps and make the Navy her career. But other factors would hamper those dreams.
Thomas was gay, something which at that time could end a military career. She had met and fallen in love with a female shipmate. This, along with a paucity of options for females in the Navy at that time, led to the painful decision to leave the service following completion of her five-year obligation as an Academy graduate.
Thomas, however, was far from done making an impact. Following her discharge, she became a stockbroker for a Virginia Beach brokerage house. As with all her endeavors, she excelled at her work.
While working as a stock broker, she worked towards a master’s degree with the intention of a career with the state department or elsewhere that would allow her to maximize her military and language skills.
It was about this time that Cathleen’s life came to an end. Thomas and her girlfriend Rebecca Dowski were both killed in an incident that many believe was the first killing in the Colonial Parkway Murders. During this time, a serial killer had struck multiple times, mostly attacking couples, along the Colonial Parkway in and around Williamsburg, Virginia. Eight people, three couples killed with another missing and presumed to be dead, are believed to be victims of the unknown murderer.
“Cathy was 27 years old at the time of her murder. It was a huge loss,” her brother Bill said. “She would have made tremendous contributions to the world that can never be regained.”
Thomas and Dowski were on campus at The College of William & Mary helping friends with a class project. Dowski was a senior at the school. With Rebecca preparing to leave town for fall break, the couple went to grab dinner. On October 12, 1986, Cathleen’s white 1980 Honda Civic was found nose-down just over the river embankment. The initial thoughts of a wreck were quickly thrown out when investigators noticed the women’s bodies suffered rope burns and had their throats slashed. The interior of the car was also doused in diesel fuel in a failed attempt at setting the vehicle on fire.
Cathleen would have been embarrassed about the attention according to her older brother. Regarding her murder, she would have said, “Relax. It’s all good. I’m in a better place.”
Bill Thomas didn’t relax though. He has spent a great deal of time raising awareness for the Colonial Parkway Murders, including utilization of social media, www.facebook.com/ColonialParkwayCase/, and other victims of unsolved homicides.
If you have any information on the murders of Cathleen Thomas, Rebecca Dowski or any other Colonial Parkway victims, please call the Norfolk, VA FBI Field Office at (757) 455-0100.
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