February 16, 2018

The 1986 Murder of Cara Knott

In 1986, Cara Evelyn Knott was a 20 year old San Diego State University student, with her life ahead of her, just waiting.  She was a vivacious, bubbly young woman and the stereotypical southern California girl - - blonde hair and a wide, beaming smile.

She was also responsible.  So, on the night of December 27, 1986,  when she didn't return home from her boyfriend's residence, her parents were immediately alerted.  Cara's father, Sam, drove between the Knott family home in El Cajon and her boyfriend's place in Escondido, searching for his daughter's white VW.  In the early morning hours of December 28, he spied her car off Interstate 15, on the old Highway 395 bridge, near the Mercy Road exit. 

Police were called and Cara was discovered 65 feet below the bridge, in a dry creek bed. She had been strangled and then tossed from the roadway above.

Cara's boyfriend was investigated as a potential suspect but quickly cleared.  She appeared to have no enemies and seemed to have been a victim of opportunity for someone.

Two days after her murder, local station KCST-TV was covering the homicide and a reporter from the station was interviewing a CHP officer during a ride-along segment on self-protection for female drivers.  After the broadcast, two dozen callers, mostly women, contacted authorities about the officer in the segment - - 38 year old Craig Peyer. Peyer, the callers said, had pulled them over in the same general area where Cara had been found and while he was not violent, he detained them for an inordinate length of time (up to an hour), asked them questions about their personal lives, requested dates and/or stroked their hair and shoulders.  These women bore an uncanny resemblance to Cara Knott.

It was also discovered that not only had a mother contacted authorities a month before Cara's murder to complain about Peyer pulling her daughter over at the Mercy Road exit off I-15 for no apparent reason but that Peyer had visible scratches on his face during the KCST-TV segment.

The picture of Craig Peyer began to change drastically.  Instead of the loyal, 13 year officer, it was revealed that he had a reputation for following young female drivers and pulling them over on the pretext of a citation or ticket and then becoming overly friendly with them.

One of Peyer's two ex-wives would reveal that he became "Mr. Macho" after joining the CHP, using the badge to flirt.

Witnesses came forward about the night Cara died.  She had last been seen alive at a Chevron gas station, roughly two miles from where she was found. The attendant at the station recalled seeing a CHP patrol car making a U-turn on the road just after Cara had pulled out.  Another witness recalled seeing a patrol car accompany a Volkswagen Beetle, thought to be Cara's, in that area at the time the murder occurred.   Perhaps the best witness was an off-duty San Diego cop, who noticed a disheveled and scratched Peyer drive in at high speed.  Peyer would claim he got the scratches from falling against a chain link fence in the CHP parking lot but the off-duty officer noted them a full hour before Peyer claimed to have gotten them.

Peyer attempted to falsify his logbook, trying to show that he had issued tickets in a different location at the time of Cara's murder but the ticketed motorists disputed his claims.

Physical evidence too would tie Craig Peyer to Cara Knott.  Gold fibers found on the dress she wore matched the gold braid on the shoulder patch of Peyer's uniform.  A drop of blood found on one of her boots was typed as AB negative - - Peyer's blood type.  AB negative blood is the most rare type of blood in persons - - only one percent of the population has it.  A rope found in the trunk of Peyer's patrol car had a pattern that matched that found on Cara's neck.

POS Peyer under arrest
On January 15, 1987, Craig Peyer was arrested and charged with the murder of Cara Knott.  In May of 1987, he was officially fired from the CHP.

There would be two trials in the case of the State of California versus Craig Peyer.  The first would end in a hung jury in February of 1988, with a deadlock of 7 to 5 for conviction.  Peyer did not testify.

In the second trial, his third wife Karen testified.  She mentioned that Peyer had returned home from work shortly after 11 pm on the evening of December 27, 1986 with scratches on his face and "a little tired."  The scratches, she said, were fresh but not dripping blood and she did not ask him how he had gotten them.  She insisted he exhibited no unusual emotions on that day.

Cara's parents during the trial
Peyer did not testify in his second trial either but this jury did not deadlock. They found him guilty of first degree murder - - the first ever conviction of murder by an on-duty CHP officer.  The judge, Richard Huffman, who presided over both trials, praised the CHP for working diligently to restore its damaged reputation following Peyer's arrest but also noted they had to share some blame for Cara's death, regarding their failure to act when a complaint about his behavior came in a month before the murder.  "I can't fix anything," Judge Hoffman stated. "I can only punish."

He sentenced Craig Peyer to 25 years to life.

Craig Peyer continued to declare his innocence in the murder of Cara Knott.  His wife, Karen, believed in her husband's innocence.

In 2004, Peyer was asked to contribute a sample of his DNA to a San Diego County program that was designed to use DNA samples to possibly exonerate wrongfully imprisoned persons.   Such testing was not available at the time of his trial and conviction.  Peyer refused.  When asked at a 2004 parole hearing why he would not provide such a sample, he would not answer the question.  At that time, he was denied parole due to his lack of remorse as well as his refusal to explain why he was innocent and yet not allowing any testing that could prove that innocence.

Peyer was denied parole again in 2008 and 2012.  In 2012, he was given a 15 year denial, making his next parole hearing in 2027, when he will be 77 years old.  He is currently serving his sentence at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo.

After his daughter's death, Sam Knott became an advocate for crime victims, campaigning tirelessly for law enforcement agencies to construct a way to monitor the locations ad activities of their officers at all times. He also pressed for agencies to ease the standard 48 hour waiting time before issuing a missing persons bulletin to officers in the field.

He and his family created a memorial garden in honor of Cara and other victims of crime underneath the bridge where Cara was found - - renamed in 1995 as the Cara Knott Memorial Bridge in her memory - - and planted oak trees and other beautiful plants and flowers in remembrance. Sam would often go there to tend the garden and pay respects to his daughter.

On December 2, 2000 he was at the garden when he suffered a fatal heart attack and died only feet from where Cara was found.

In the years since Cara's murder, some individuals have come forward to say that the Mercy Road exit off I-15 has strange or bad energy. Some claim it is haunted, hearing cries and screaming and even seeing spirits roaming the area.

As a result of Craig Peyer murdering Cara Knott, police now allow solo drivers to maintain driving until reaching populated, or safer, areas before pulling over during patrol stops.

What happened to Craig Peyer?  While some of his fellow officers reported him as "strange," others stated he was a good officer.  Perhaps there is truth to both.  He did act inappropriately with females and he did seem to target young blonde women, like Cara, who were driving alone.  He had apparently never been violent with one, though, before December 26, 1986.  So what would cause him to strike Cara with his flashlight (as the prosecution alleged), strangle her with a rope from his car and toss her body over the side of a bridge?   Only Craig Peyer knows for certain but it's possible that Cara threatened to report him for his behavior, whether that was questioning her about her personal life, asking for a date or touching her.  For Peyer, an alpha male who may have been aware that a complaint about him had been made a month earlier and who could have envisioned his 13 year career going up in flames, such a threat could have made him snap.

We will likely never know, as Peyer continues to maintain his innocence.

Memorials left at Cara's garden


  1. Replies
    1. Yes, he certainly was, Cassatt. A terrible abuse of authority and power.