A former deputy sheriff with ties to the Colonial Parkway murders -- a series of unsolved homicides that occurred in Virginia in the 1980s -- has pleaded guilty to scamming family members of the victims.
On Tuesday, Fred Atwell Jr., a former Gloucester, Va., deputy, 62, pleaded guilty in York County-Poquoson Circuit Court to one count of obtaining money through false pretenses.
According to prosecutors, Atwell was behind a phony car raffle, in which all of the proceeds were supposed to go to "the Colonial Parkway Victims Fund." The car, however, never existed and Atwell admitted he kept money that the victims' families gave him for fees associated with the raffle.
"As the brother of one of the Colonial Parkway murders victims, I am sorry to see ... Atwell has seemed to have had a meltdown, which resulted in his attempts at fraud," Bill Thomas told The Huffington Post. "Atwell has created distraction when we needed to have focus," added Thomas, the brother of victim Cathleen Marian Thomas.
In 2009, Atwell was considered somewhat of a hero when he discovered some crime scene photographs connected with the Colonial Parkway homicides had been inappropriately taken from the FBI's Norfolk office. The photographs were being used as a training tool for a security company and a number of the images had been leaked to the media.
Interest in the two-decade-old puzzle of the Colonial Parkway murders had pretty much fizzled out when the photos were uncovered.
Some suspect the killings were the work of a possible serial killer, due to a shared location and other similarities. But the murders have all remained unsolved.
The first two victims were Cathleen Thomas, a 27-year-old stockbroker in Norfolk, and Rebecca Ann Dowski, a 21-year-old business management major from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. They were found in October 1986 along the York River by the Colonial Parkway. Both women had been strangled and their throats were cut.
The next fall the bodies of David Lee Knobling, 20, from Hampton, and Robin M. Edwards, 14, from Newport News, turned up in the Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge. Both had been shot in the back of the head.
Roughly six months later, on April 9, 1987, Richard "Keith" Call, 20, a college student, went out on his first date with Cassandra Lee Hailey, 18, from Grafton. The following day, Call's vehicle was found abandoned at the York River overlook on the Colonial Parkway. Multiple searches were conducted for Call and Hailey, but no other trace of them has ever been found.
Less than two years later, Annamarie Phelps, 18, and a friend of Phelps' boyfriend, Daniel Lauer, 21, disappeared over Labor Day weekend in 1989. Lauer's car was found abandoned at a rest area on the westbound side of Interstate 64. That October, a hunter came upon the couple's skeletal remains less than a mile from the rest area. They had been stabbed to death.
Over the years, many theories have surfaced regarding who was responsible but crime remained unsolved.
Atwell's discovery of the 84 graphic photos brought a lot of media attention to the unsolved homicides. Almost immediately, the FBI announced it was conducting a top-to-bottom review of the cases in its jurisdiction.
View photos related to the Colonial Parkway case.
While the FBI and the Virginia State Police examined the Colonial Parkway cases, the families of the victims joined together to support one another and conduct their own investigation of the cases. During this time, Atwell became a constant figure among them.
Joyce Call-Canada, sister of victim Keith Call, said she still can't believe that Atwell -- someone the victims' families had been so grateful to -- could have hurt them so deeply.
"I was shocked that Fred Atwell lied to the families," Call-Canada told HuffPost. "I did not expect that from him at all."
Atwell is scheduled to be sentenced in May. He faces as much as 10 years in prison.
With the Atwell controversy out of the way, Thomas said he is hoping authorities will redouble their efforts to solve the Colonial Parkway murders. He is seeking action from Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who he said previously promised to examine the case.
"Gov. Bob McDonnell, where is your follow-up as you promised to the Colonial Parkway Murders families?" Thomas asked.
The governor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from HuffPost.
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