Skip to comments.Parole Board To Revisit Knott Murder (Ex CHP Officer Seeks Release)
Posted on 01/06/2004 7:58:26 AM PST by Scenic Sounds
Few who have lived in San Diego since the 1980s can drive past the Mercy Road off-ramp along Interstate 15 without thinking of Cara Knott, her assailant and a community's loss of some trust and innocence.
A small green sign by the side of the freeway announces "Knott Memorial Bridge," a reminder that it was near there in the winter of 1986 that an on-duty California Highway Patrol officer strangled a 20-year-old woman he had pulled over during a traffic stop.
Tomorrow, Craig Peyer, now 54, is scheduled to appear at a hearing inside the California Men's Colony medium-security prison in San Luis Obispo where a three-member panel will decide whether he should be paroled.
The chances are slim that Peyer will win his freedom. Most "lifers," or people sentenced to an indeterminate amount of time in prison 25-years-to-life in Peyer's case never get out of prison. And none has ever been released on the first appearance before a parole panel.
A spokesman for the state Board of Prison Terms said the hearing will "be largely to create the legal foundation for subsequent hearings." Some lifers, Bill Sessa said, experience a dozen or more parole hearings.
San Diego Deputy District Attorney Joan Stein, one of the prosecutors who won Peyer's conviction after two highly publicized trials in 1988, said it will be up to Peyer to convince the panel he is no longer a threat to society.
What Peyer might say is unknown. Stein knows only that Peyer is being represented by Anthony Hall, a state-appointed lawyer from Los Angeles. Hall did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
By all accounts Peyer has been a model prisoner. He has never been disciplined for rules infractions, and he has become a leader and spokesman for the other inmates.
He also has never admitted guilt.
It will fall to Stein to retell the story, and to impress upon the panel the enormity of the crime and the impact it had upon those closest to Cara Knott and on San Diego County.
"This is an ongoing thing," Stein said. "When teenage daughters get their driver's licenses, their mothers tell them, 'If you get pulled over, go to a lighted place.' This is an ongoing lesson and an ongoing loss."
The fatal day After spending the day of Dec. 27, 1986, with her boyfriend in Escondido, San Diego State University student Cara Knott phoned her parents in El Cajon shortly after 8 p.m., and told them she was on her way home. A half-hour later, she was seen buying gas in south Escondido. By 10 p.m., when she had not come home, parents Sam and Joyce Knott led the family on an all-night search.
Just before dawn, Knott's sister Cynthia and her husband found Cara's empty white Volkswagen Beetle parked on a dead-end frontage road near the Mercy Road off-ramp of I-15, about 10 miles south of Escondido.
A few hours later, San Diego police found Knott's body under a nearby 65-foot-high bridge.
Within a week, investigators began to consider Peyer a suspect. Women called police to report they, too, had recently been on the frontage road. They had been pulled over by Peyer, who had directed them down the dark byway. His behavior during the stops, they said, was odd and unsettling. Eventually about a dozen women would testify.
On Jan. 7, 1987, Peyer's patrol car and CHP locker were searched by police. The next day they went to his Poway home and questioned him for more than six hours.
On Jan. 15, Peyer was arrested at his home. Tire tracks left at the scene, a blood spot, fibers found on Knott's clothing and the reports from the women linked him to the crime.
The idea that a sworn police officer could be a murderer shocked the community. Women began to refuse to pull over for police until they could reach a well-lighted, populated spot.
History of case A year after Peyer's arrest, a mistrial was declared in his murder trial when a jury that had deliberated for seven days announced it was deadlocked 7-5 in favor of conviction. New prosecutors were assigned to the case, including Paul Pfingst, who would later use the Peyer conviction as a catalyst for a political career and an eight-year stint as district attorney. With Stein sitting second chair, the second trial began in April 1988. On June 22, 1988, after four days of deliberation, a jury returned the verdict of guilty of first-degree murder. Peyer continued to deny his guilt at his sentencing, and his wife, Karen, said she was sure the wrong man was convicted.
Phil Jarvis was head of the San Diego Police Department's homicide unit at the time. He's now a sheriff in northern Idaho, and is one of many people who have sent letters opposing parole for Peyer.
"I kind of believe the foundation for rehabilitation is accepting responsibility for what one has done," Jarvis said. "He's never expressed any kind of remorse, never taken responsibility. I don't give a damn if he's a model prisoner or is held in high esteem by the other convicts."
On Friday, Joyce Knott, Cara's mother, said she will make a statement during the hearing, as will Cara's oldest sister, Cynthia.
"It's been torture," she said. "I can't describe the pain it is causing my family to go through this. The idea of having to face the monster again and having to be there in the prison. ... It sure did make the holidays more stressful."
Sam Knott, Cara's father, perhaps the most active and tragic figure in the aftermath of the killing, died three years ago at 63. He suffered a heart attack inside his car just a few hundred feet from where his daughter died.
"Peyer's actions prematurely killed Sam," Jarvis said.
After his daughter's murder, Sam Knott became a crusader for victim's rights and police accountability. He was haunted by his daughter's death, and years after her murder would break into tears when discussing aspects of the case.
In early 1999 Knott dedicated a park, a memorial grove, honoring victims of violent crime near where Cara's body was found. He had been at the park picking up trash just before he was stricken.
What's ahead Sometimes family members of victims will make a videotaped statement to be played at parole hearings in the event of their deaths. Sam Knott never got around to doing that, Stein said. "He just couldn't quite make himself do it," Joyce Knott said. "In retrospect, I'm sure he would have."
Instead, a montage of television news clips featuring Sam will be shown tomorrow to the Board of Prison Terms panel, which will include two governor-appointed commissioners and a deputy commissioner.
The first date Peyer could be paroled if things went his way at the hearing would be sometime in January 2005, said prison board spokesman Sessa.
For an idea of how unlikely parole for Peyer is, Sessa said, consider that during the five years when Gray Davis was governor the board conducted about 14,000 parole hearings for 6,000 inmates sentenced to life in prison.
Out of all of those hearings the board moved to parole 370 inmates. Davis then reviewed each of those decisions and reversed them in all but eight cases.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appears to be setting a different pace. Since becoming governor, Schwarzenegger has reviewed 17 decisions by the board to parole lifers. He has let six go forward and reversed 11 decisions, Sessa said.
Peyer is not required to attend tomorrow's hearing and may decide not to be there. It's also possible he could decide to call the whole thing off, Sessa said, in which case his parole wouldn't be considered for a year.
J. Harry Jones: (619) 542-4590; firstname.lastname@example.org
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Good Lord, no. Even if I tried, I could not ever forget this case.
Cara was a school mate of my eldest son. I remember her being at our house once. Cara was as sweet as she was beautiful. A truly nice girl. Such a loss.
I was in the 8th grade when this happened and went to school with Cara's sister. Also Craig Peyer's wife (a very nice lady, betrayed by Peyer) was a substitute teacher of mine. This story hit way too close to home and I will NEVER forget it. My heart still goes out to the Knott family and always will.
None of us will.
As compensation, we live in one of the most beautiful climates in the world.
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