The Killer Cop
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Although Sam Knott was a remarkable force of nature and the victor in many battles to make the world safer, such as the closing of Mercy Road (until it was finished) and enactment of victims’ rights laws, he did not win them all.
One of the enduring myths of the 1986 Cara Knott murder case is that it’s okay now for women drivers being stopped by authorities to pull over wherever they feel safe, not solely where the cop tells them to. It was against the law then, and it’s still against the law.
In the paranoia-filled aftermath of Highway Patrolman Craig Peyer’s arrest for first-degree murder, women were actually being arrested and jailed for refusing to stop for cops until they could pull into a place they felt safer.
Knott successfully lobbied then-Assemblyman Larry Stirling, a conservative Republican, to carry a bill giving women motorists the power to choose their own spot after being tagged by police. The bill had legs, but took a U-turn in the state senate, where in the end the Legislature pulled a reverse and upped the penalty for motorists who don’t pull over where and when ordered.
But such was Sam Knott’s style that he never ceased his efforts. While he didn’t change laws on that one front, he changed minds. By late 1991, he had convinced several local law enforcement agencies to adopt “a more sensitive protocol,” as authorities put it delicately, announcing the change in the way they handled nighttime stops for women.
The letters were pouring in—342 of them, some from as far away as Japan. Many were long, demanding and passionate; others decidedly perfunctory. All ended with the same plea to the California State Parole Board: Never release Craig Alan Peyer, prisoner D93018, the first California Highway Patrolman to be convicted of murder on duty.
“It’s unprecedented,” says Deputy District Attorney Rick Sachs, head of the San Diego D.A.’s lifer unit. “None of them are form letters. People [took] the time to write it all out.” In Sachs’ eight years in the division that oversees the most deadly criminals from America’s Finest City, he says he has never seen the current of anger and fear that preceded the potential unleashing of Peyer, who flunked his first parole hearing January 7.
But then, there has never been a murder case like this one.
“This crime shook the consciousness of the entire state,” parole board chairman Booker Welch told Peyer at the five-hour hearing, which was attended by a crush of media.
To comprehend the immense impact of Peyer’s crime, you have to go back to an era before the public’s shock-meter was blown away by the likes of O.J. and Rodney King, back to when the San Diego region was a million smaller in population, North I-15 was tumbleweed country, and drivers didn’t carry cell phones.
Go back to two days after Christmas 1986, when golden-haired San Diego State University student Cara Knott climbed into her white VW Beetle on a Saturday night. She had been nursing her flu-stricken boyfriend in Escondido and was headed back to the hillside El Cajon home where her family sat before the fireplace, watching Sleeping Beauty on video. As was her habit, Cara called first to tell her dad, Sam Knott, she was on her way.
It was the last the family heard from the 20-year-old. Nine hours later, her battered body was found, dumped from a bridge over what was then a little-used exit off I-15, remote Mercy Road, just north of Mira Mesa. She had been strangled.
In 1986, Peyer was a 13-year patrol veteran so amped up by his power that he liked to brag, “There are two people you don’t piss off in this world: God and a Highway Patrolman—and not necessarily in that order.” He was a hot pencil who kept CHP brass happy by writing more tickets than anybody. Secretly, he was using his highly polished Badge 8611 to stalk young women for weird, sexually tinged power games. He’d order them to his “favorite spot” off the I-15 freeway, and chat them up about their love lives, often for hours at a time. He’d get into their cars and fondle their handbrakes. He’d take them on little rides deeper into the desolate dead end of Mercy Road.
“It was like a grenade went off in a crowd of innocent people, and some people got killed, but everybody got hit with shrapnel to some degree,” says Paul Pfingst, former San Diego district attorney, of the lasting effects of the Peyer case. It was a more innocent time and a more challenging time to convince the public that a cop could be not only bad but murderous. Peyer, arrested 21 days after Cara Knott’s body was found, was first tried for murder in late 1987. The jury hung, 7 to 5 for conviction.
Pfingst became the deputy district attorney who put the bad guy away in a second trial in 1988, when Peyer was sentenced to 25 years to life. He’s serving his term at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, a medium-security prison where he lives among the general population.
Peyer is now 53, a grandfather gone gray who still wears the same steel-rimmed glasses he wore at his two murder trials. The leaner, buffer Peyer removed them when out of the parole hearing room and speaking to his newest lawyer, a public defender who doggedly persisted in mispronouncing his client’s name throughout the proceeding as Payer.
The former patrolman wore a strange half-smile during the hearing. He looked like Mr. Vanilla Civil Servant, the kind of guy the prison psychiatrist praises in his file as a low-level threat to society by dint of his “positive attitude.” The kind of outwardly passive mark who, those attending the hearing learned, got jumped last summer by a new con flexing muscle in B Quad.
The shrink, the public defender and Peyer made much of the sterling record prisoner D93018 has compiled for himself in 15 years of incarceration. But the one woman on the three-member panel of the Board of Prison Terms appeared unmoved. Commissioner Donna Henderson McBean ripped into Peyer for trying to con the board, especially for his claims he never saw such key documents as statements from two ex-wives, one of whom said he had tried to choke her.
“For you to sit there, deny the crime, deny you have anything to work on, I find incredible,” said McBean. She lambasted Peyer for ignoring repeated prison orders to enroll in a mental-health program for anger management and overall therapy.
Prisoner D93018 proudly told the board he has signed up for a self-help course titled “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.” As McBean excoriated him, Peyer remained impassive but dug his fingers deep into his palm, so hard they nearly bled.