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A Father's Crusade : Eight years after a CHP officer murdered his daughter, Sam Knott is still trying to childproof the world.

August 21, 1994|STEVE SALERNO | Steve Salerno is a San Diego-based journalist now working on a book about a murder for hire. His last story for the magazine was "Weekend at Camp Sell-a-Lot," on new sales training techniques

At about 9:45 p.m. on a Saturday, two nights past the Christmas of 1986, Sam and Joyce Knott were seized by a living nightmare without pity or precedent. Their 20-year-old daughter, Cara, was guiding her white VW Bug along Interstate 15, San Diego's interior freeway, back to her home in El Cajon. She had just spent two days in Escondido playing nursemaid to her boyfriend, Wayne Bautista, who was ill with the flu. Her trip should have taken 40 minutes.

The San Diego State honor student was eager to get home--newlywed older sister Cindy and husband Bill were temporarily living with Cara and her parents. A second older sister, Cheryl, was also at home, and brother John, the "baby," was spending his first holiday season home after heading off to college. Cara and Cheryl had commiserated over the fact that this might well be "the last of the Great Knott Family Christmases," shindigs locally famous for their elaborate staging and panache.

Cara had phoned Sam and Joyce a little after 8 let them know she was leaving. Cara always phoned; it was a lesson Sam had drummed into his daughter since her earliest days behind the wheel. Thus when she failed to show up by 9:45, an alarm bell went off inside him.

He had Cheryl alert police agencies, then organized a search party, employing the meticulous attention to detail that had made him successful as both a hospital administrator and, more recently, investment counselor. Through the wee hours and into the frigid dawn, the family members drove, crisscrossing the two freeways Cara always took on her trip. They checked each exit, peering through the webby fog that had strung itself like a series of tennis nets between the rocky hills framing the roads. When that proved fruitless, they expanded their search to adjacent parks and mini-malls. Nothing. Sam Knott came home briefly to make more calls to the police and was stunned by the dispatchers' lack of interest. The responses he got varied from the glib ("girls will be girls") to the insolent ("If I had a dollar for every call I got about a missing person, I could retire").

At sunup, Cindy and Bill made their second pass at an exit just north of Mira Mesa, the approximate midpoint of Cara's journey. They had given it short shrift the first time around because the off-ramp led only to roads then under construction. But there, in a small dirt cul-de-sac far from the reassuring bustle of the freeway, Cindy Knott and Bill Weick found Cara's abandoned VW. Looking up, they noted the sign above the exit: Mercy Road.

The couple promptly phoned the San Diego Police Department; the cops took 40 minutes to show up, with Sam in hot pursuit. Leaning on his Olds Cutlass, Sam Knott watched one of the officers walk to the middle of the bridge that traversed a 65-foot canyon. He saw the young policeman glance down and hurriedly motion to a comrade. For a moment, the two officers conferred. Then they returned to their patrol car, opened the trunk and pulled on surgical gloves. It was an image that required no explaining, an image Sam knew, in that moment, he would never be able to purge from his mind.

At the base of the craggy canyon lay Cara Knott. It was later determined that she had been incapacitated with a terrible blow to her forehead, then strangled with a rope and dumped over the steep side of the freeway access road. "She looked," as one officer put it, "like a frozen Milky Way that's been slammed against a table."

The murder of the All-American girl was the lead item in Sunday's newscasts. The next evening, in an effort to calm female motorists, the California Highway Patrol agreed to provide viewers with a primer in highway safety. To do the ride-along segment, they tabbed an oft-commended 13-year-veteran, Craig Alan Peyer, who had served as the department's de facto media rep on previous occasions. It was only fitting that Peyer do the piece anyway, as the crime had occurred on his beat.

In his solemn, resonant voice, Peyer warned female motorists to "stay in your vehicle and lock all doors. Even if you have to wait all night, it's better to be in the safety of your vehicle than to try to walk and get assistance. Anything can happen. Being a female, you can be raped, robbed, all the way to where you could be killed."

At this point, the case twisted into the realm of soap opera. By the dozens, young women across San Diego began picking up their phones to report odd nighttime encounters with a CHP officer at Mercy Road; a couple of the calls came to Sam Knott. The women told of being detained by this officer, in the foreboding stillness beneath I-15, for up to 90 minutes. During these interludes he engaged them in "general chit-chat" (as one detainee phrased it) that bore scant relevance to minor equipment infractions for which they supposedly were stopped. Many of the women resembled Cara. Almost all of them drove small cars. A few of them owned Cara Knott's exact model VW.

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