Prime suspect in Ragged Island murders hanged himself, death certificate says

Published 3:55 pm Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Editor’s noteA new state law requires Virginia State Police to maintain a publicly accessible online database of unsolved homicides, unidentified bodies and missing-person cases. Three of the database’s 60 cases are from Isle of Wight County. This is a follow-up to the first Isle of Wight case, which The Smithfield Times profiled in its Sept. 28 edition. The Times will publish stories on the other two cases in the coming months.

Samuel “Sammy” Rieder, who’d been retired Isle of Wight County Sheriff Charlie Phelps’ prime suspect in a September 1987 double murder, was himself discovered dead roughly three years later.

The Smithfield Times has obtained a copy of Rieder’s death certificate, which states the 31-year-old was found in his Chesapeake mobile home the morning of Aug. 8, 1990, hanging from a doorknob with an electrical cord around his neck.

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Thirty-five years ago, on Sept. 21, 1987, a sheriff’s deputy on nighttime patrol had found 20-year-old David Knobling’s pickup truck parked at the Ragged Island wildlife refuge – doors closed but unlocked, driver’s side window down and its radio left playing with no one inside.

Two days later, a beachcomber discovered the bodies of Knobling and 14-year-old Robin Edwards on Ragged Island’s shoreline roughly a mile from the James River Bridge. Both had been shot in the back of the head at close range.

The Times interviewed Phelps last month for the 35th anniversary of the unsolved Ragged Island case. He said he’d come to suspect Rieder of the crime for his inconsistent statements to police. Rieder, Phelps recalled, initially claimed to have stopped at Ragged Island out of curiosity on Sept. 23, 1987, when Knobling’s and Edwards’ bodies were found, then claimed to have seen Knobling’s truck parked at Ragged Island days earlier, and eventually admitted to taking money from Knobling’s wallet – but denied shooting either victim. A polygraph test Phelps gave Rieder at the time proved inconclusive as to whether he was telling the truth.

The FBI, according to the agency’s website and past press releases, believes the Ragged Island case to be linked to three additional double homicides with similar circumstances known as the Colonial Parkway Murders, which occurred in Virginia from 1986 through 1989. Though there was no evidence at the time linking Rieder to any of the non-Isle of Wight County murders, “there were no more Colonial parkway murders after his death,” Phelps said, asserting Rieder to have died by choking himself while masturbating.

The Times had been unable to locate an obituary or other record of Rieder’s death. Bill Thomas, brother of Colonial Parkway murder victim Cathy Thomas, provided the Times with a copy of Rieder’s death certificate on Sept. 30 after reading the Times’ interview with Phelps.

According to the certificate, a Norfolk medical examiner ruled Rieder’s 1990 death a suicide, listing a cause of “asphyxia by hanging” and a diagnosis of “depression” as “contributing” to the death.

Who was Samuel Rieder?

According to his death certificate and, Rieder was born Dec. 3, 1958, in Portsmouth to Gilbert Homer Rieder and Imogene McIntosh, who had married two years earlier. Gilbert died Dec. 31, 1986 at age 51.

The Times has found little documentation of Rieder’s childhood. According to the Times’ archives, an a Jan. 6, 1986, Isle of Wight County grand jury indicted Samuel, then 28, on one count of forgery and uttering. A Suffolk grand jury then indicted him three weeks later, on Jan. 27, on two counts of grand larceny and three counts of forgery and uttering.

According to Blaine Pardoe’s and Victoria Hester’s 2017 book, “A Special Kind of Evil: The Colonial Parkway Serial Killings,” Rieder had just been released from a jail sentence for forging a $60 check and was working as a dishwasher when he called in one of the early tips the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office received in the Ragged Island case.

According to Rieder’s death certificate, by age 31 he was working as a truck driver.

DNA recovered

The Virginia State Police, now the lead investigating agency in the Ragged Island case, told the Times in September that the agency’s Bureau of Criminal Investigations “will not confirm any specifics about any evidence seized in an active investigation.” According to Bill Thomas, however, there was “a small amount of badly degraded DNA evidence” taken from Edwards’ body.

“It is 35 years old and has been exposed to sea water, but private DNA lab Othram has had outstanding results with similar crime scene samples of evidence,” Thomas said. “If the Virginia State Police are willing to have Othram do the tests, the Colonial Parkway Murders families are willing to crowdfund the money (usually around $5,000) to conduct the tests.”

The Texas-based company’s personnel, according to Othram’s website, are “experts at recovery, enrichment, and analysis of human DNA from trace quantities of degraded or contaminated forensic evidence” to “close previously unsolvable cases.”