The Killer Cop
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Cara would have been 38 this month. She ran track for Valhalla High, worked summers at the San Diego Zoo, tried to save endangered animals. She wanted to teach school, marry her boyfriend and have four children, just like her mother.
In death, Cara became a symbol for victims’ rights—the cause for a crusade led by her father, Sam, a balding, bearlike man whose steely determination would change laws, police policies and many public minds in his quest to find justice. He sued the state for allowing a warped cop to run loose—and won a $2.7 million settlement.
Peyer’s crime chained Cara’s family to a life sentence of emotional pain, her mother, Joyce Knott, told the parole board. “I do feel that he did kill Sam as well. He always felt that he had failed his little girl by failing to protect her. His death was a slow, agonizing one.”
For 17 years, Peyer has lived on his own private iceberg—maintaining his innocence and his silence, not testifying at either trial or explaining publicly what made him betray the badge and the public trust. The parole hearing was the first time he had been forced to directly answer questions about his actions and to face the Knott family. Through his lawyer, he maintained his right not to talk about the crime itself, though he repeatedly denied it. He carefully avoided looking at the family.
But the iceberg is melting fast beneath Craig Peyer, Kearny High class of ’68, Vietnam veteran. Every other month, his parents, Eileen and Hal Peyer of San Diego, visit him in prison. They are in their 80s, and one imagines it’s a hard trip, though neither parent will speak to the press.
Peyer receives regular visits from his third wife, Karen. They met in 1984 when she was a young stay-at-home mother who moved in next door in Poway. Months later, both divorced their spouses and married each other. Less than 18 months later, with Karen at home with an infant and another child in diapers, Peyer was arrested for murder.
For 17 years Karen has stood by her man. After her husband’s conviction, she relocated to Santa Maria in the blue-collar edge of Santa Barbara County, about 40 miles from the prison. In 1998, she filed for bankruptcy. Two years later, she earned her credential and now teaches elementary school.
In December 2003, the 45-year-old Mrs. Peyer wrote to the parole board asking for Craig’s freedom and offering to let him move in with her. Yet in October, records show, she filed for divorce, listing assets of an $80,000 condo, a $57,000 annual income (including his $52-per-month prison salary), her statuette collection, a porcelain doll collection and a collection of commemorative plates. The incongruity of the divorce filing and her willingness to allow a paroled Peyer to move in with her are unexplained. Karen Peyer does not talk to the press either.
Peyer still wears his wedding ring and referred frequently during the hearing to his “current wife.” His stepson Jason, now 20, doesn’t visit anymore.
Peyer appealed his conviction, citing a wide range of allegations that included prosecutorial misconduct and tainted physical evidence of fibers and blood that crucially linked the cop to Cara Knott in the pre-DNA days of 1987. His appeal was rejected in 2001.
Peyer had the chance to put up or shut up—to use improved forensic technology to prove his protestations of innocence. The D.A. requested a DNA sample from Peyer for the Innocence Project, a program backed by the D.A.’s office to reexamine old cases with new technology to ensure justice prevails.
Peyer declined. And when asked at the hearing, he refused to explain why.
Deputy District Attorney Joan Stein was Pfingst’s co-counsel for the second Peyer trial. She says she still thinks about the Knotts every night when she drives home from the downtown Hall of Justice to her North County home, passing over the Knott Memorial Bridge (which Sam Knott had succeeded in renaming). “I have a daughter of my own who’s starting to drive, and I will tell her how to be safe out there,” says Stein, who argued against Peyer’s parole at the hearing.
Though this crime may be old, and memories fade as new horrors grab the public spotlight, it’s likely many San Diegans still remember the case whenever they see a patrol officer’s red light in their rear-view mirrors.
“[Peyer] did more to ruin the reputation of law enforcement in San Diego than anyone in history,” says Pfingst. “It has taken years to recover. For some people who were here then, that mistrust is still in the back of their minds.”
Peyer told a court officer he never saw anything wrong with his forced chats with lone young women far from screaming distance of civilization. He told the parole board he was so respected by the CHP he was used in public relations assignments. In fact, he was assigned by the agency to present public safety tips in a TV news segment immediately following the discovery of Cara Knott’s body off the I-15. It is one of many freakish ironies of the murder case.
That post-Christmas night in 1986, after Sleeping Beauty awoke from the dead in the TV show, her father suddenly leaped up, jolted by what Sam later described as “a call to my soul.” It was 10 p.m., and Cara was only about an hour late returning home, but he said he knew something was horribly wrong.
For eight hours, the family searched for Cara up and down freeways and offramps. Their frantic calls to four police agencies were ignored—it was then the rule that 48 hours had to pass before police began looking for a missing person. That was among the first laws Sam Knott later helped change.
Then came the equally crucial impulse of son-in-law Bill Weick, married to Cara’s sister Cynthia. As the young couple searched Mercy Road for the second time that night, Weick ignored the barricades and road-closed signs, steering his own VW bug along the rutted dirt road for miles until they saw the gleaming white of Cara’s car.
Cynthia found the passenger door still locked, Cara’s new purse and an overnight satchel in the backseat. The front driver’s window was rolled halfway down, the keys still in the ignition. Cara’s new white leather jacket was gone. They drove to a pay phone to summon police and launched the legal machinery that took three weeks to net Patrolman Peyer.
“He was counting on nobody finding her for weeks, maybe never,” says Weick. “He expected her car would be stolen, and the crime scene would be gone. What he didn’t count on was us.”
Sam Knott said his soul felt his daughter’s death in 1986. In November 2000, at 63, he suffered a fatal heart attack only a few yards from the spot where Cara’s body had been thrown.
But he left a tribute there, too. One of Sam’s victories had been to turn the bleak wasteland where Cara died into a flourishing nature preserve, dedicated to Cara and fellow crime victims. From acorns, Sam grew the native oaks planted off Mercy Road, and his trees dedicated to Cara are growing throughout the county now, donated to nonprofit groups.
Joyce Knott routinely speaks to police academy classes and other groups about victims’ rights. She keeps tabs on her husband’s efforts to use technology to increase police accountability, to track their movements—for their safety and that of the public. She still plants Sam’s acorns.
Peyer will again be eligible for parole in 2008. Joyce Knott says she will be at that hearing.
“I want inmate D93018 to know Sam may be gone, but our family is strong, and we will be here forever.”