Article, Photos & Research by David Johnson:
The Cara Knott Murder and the San Diego Crime Victims Oak Garden
The 1986 murder of twenty year-old Cara Knott by California Highway Patrol Office Craig Peyer was a case that shook the San Diego region like an earthquake. It frightened women young and old, it horrified parents who wanted to believe their daughters were safe in our community, and it engendered a gut level distrust of police that persists in many to this day. It still evokes a visceral reaction from hundreds of thousands of San Diegans, and it was every bit as shocking back then as was the Chelsea King murder that brought the region to its emotional knees a quarter of a century later.
The creative force behind the oak garden concept was Cara’s grieving father Sam Knott who lobbied for the better part of a decade to have the area dedicated to his daughter. His work reached fruition in 1996 when the site was dedicated as the Cara Knott Memorial Oak Garden. It was re-dedicated in 1999 as the San Diego Crime Victims Memorial Garden, undoubtedly with the blessing of the Knott family. In that year, Sam Knott transplanted scores of Oak saplings that the family had grown from acorns in their back yard.
Since its dedication the park has grown into an oasis where the lives of dozens of victims of crime and violent death are commemorated. It is the gathering point for periodic events in which family and friends of those who are remembered here gather and continue the process of recovery. It has also become something of a destination for followers of paranormal phenomena. If you are unable to visit the garden personally, here is a YouTube clip that beautifully captures its essence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F5lJJ2wpb6o
The Cara Knott Murder
In the several days following Christmas of 1986, Wayne Bautista of Escondido was suffering from the flu. His girlfriend Cara Knott had been caring for him for several days, but shortly after 8:00 in the evening of December 27, she phoned her parents at their home in El Cajon to inform them she was on her way home. She was last seen alive when she refueled at 8:27 at a Chevron station about two miles from the murder scene. Most of what follows will be stated as fact, rather than allegation, because there is not a shred of credible evidence to even suggest that Craig Peyer did not murder Cara Knott, or that anyone else did.
Peyer was a thrice married California Highway Patrol officer who was known in the trade as a “hot ticket;” or one who wrote an unusually large number of traffic citations. He had been a CHP patrolman for thirteen years following a two year hitch in the Air Force. He generally worked afternoon or graveyard shifts, and his usual beat was the Interstate 15 stretch between Balboa Avenue and Poway Road. While on duty, he had a disturbing habit of pulling over attractive young women in his police cruiser, directing them to exit at Mercy Road and drive down the off-ramp to what was then a deserted dead end in the years before Scripps Poway Parkway linked Interstate 15 with Pomerado Road. In the space at the bottom of the off ramp, Peyer often detained and carried on uncomfortably personal conversations with the women for as long as two hours unseen by drivers along the freeway above. In every instance preceding this one, the incident ended with the woman driving off safely. This time, it ended with the violent strangulation death of Cara Knott.
Why did this confrontation go so wrong? Was Cara so appealing to Peyer that he was unable to control his actions as he had in every other instance? Or did Cara, who had been trained to violently resist an assailant, believe her life was at risk and try to escape? Only one person knows exactly what happened that night and he is not talking. Whatever the trigger was, it is a certainty that once the assault began, Peyer knew his career was over if Cara lived to report it, and he chose his career over her life. As a final indignity, he dumped her body off a nearby bridge that spanned a creek bed below.
By 10:00 the desperately worried Knott extended family had begun a relentless search for Cara. They knew their daughter would never deviate from her plans without notifying them, and that minutes counted. Sam Knott’s pleas to law enforcement for assistance were met with the pronouncement that searches were not formally initiated until a person had been missing for 48 hours, so family members and Bautista worked on their own. They retraced her route up and down Interstate 15, but found no evidence of her whereabouts until Cara’s sister and brother-in-law decided to drive around barriers and explore the Mercy Road off-ramp. Soon after they found her car and police were called to the area. Shortly after 8:00 AM, an officer peered over the railing of the bridge and spotted her body.
In the days after the murder, police sifted through trace evidence and fielded calls from the public. Several people had reported a shaggy hitchhiker in the area on the evening of December 27th, but attention gradually shifted to Peyer. He had returned to the station at the end of his shift with scratches on his face that he claimed were the result of a fall into a chain link fence. He had also falsified an entry in his logbook, ostensibly to give himself an alibi for the murder. On that cold evening, the driver’s side window in Cara’s car was rolled down indicating she had been stopped by somebody she trusted. And there were the disturbing reports about inappropriate stops of young women that Peyer’s supervisor had received even prior to the murder. Adding these clues together, Peyer’s sergeant offered him up as a suspect to San Diego homicide detectives.
Peyer proclaimed his innocence during multiple interrogations, but fiber and blood evidence linked him to the crime. Fibers on Cara’s clothes appeared to be a match with a patch on Peyer’s uniform, and a spot of blood on her leather boot was AB negative, a type Peyer shared with one sixth of one percent of the population. He was given a series of polygraph tests in which his answers were judged to be deceptive. And colleagues reported several strange conversations with Peyer relating to the murder and subsequent investigation. On January 15, 1987, Officer Peyer was arrested and charged with murdering Cara Knott. In May he was fired for inappropriate conduct by the CHP.
To prosecute the case, District Attorney Edwin selected veteran Deputy D.A. Joseph van Orshoven. He was opposed by court appointed defense attorney Robert Grimes. The trial judge was Richard Huffman who a decade earlier had been the star prosecutor in the D.A.’s office, and who would go on to a long and distinguished career as a trial and appellate court judge. Van Orshoven had a well-earned reputation as a skilled prosecutor. But earlier in the month of the murder, he was arrested for drunk driving by the CHP, although in a departure from established procedures, he was not taken to jail. The 55 year old prosecutor had a measured blood alcohol level of .18. Clearly he was no longer at the top of his game. He allowed questionable evidence to be introduced, and stood by while Grimes effectively discredited his star witnesses. In the end the jury hung 7-5 in favor of conviction and Peyer was bound over for a second trial.
For the retrial Miller called on a young rising star in his office from New York named Paul Pfingst. He attacked evidence that had been allowed into the record of the first trial. The first jury had been told by defense witnesses that the cuts on Peyer’s face resulted from a fall against a fence. Pfingst argued that those witnesses were merely repeating what Peyer had told them, and none had witnessed the fall. Huffman blocked the re-introduction of that evidence. In the first trial Grimes had used the specter of the mystery hitchhiker to create an alternate suspect in the murder. Pfingst argued that the police had never seen or interrogated any such person, and testimony regarding the hitchhiker was also not allowed by Judge Huffman. With a more aggressive prosecution and a shorter list of confusing defense claims, Peyer was convicted of first degree murder.
At sentencing, an emotional Judge Huffman found plenty of blame to spread around. He excoriated CHP officials for permitting Peyer to “continue to take young women to the off-ramp, even after receiving complaints.” That practice, according to Huffman, “led inexorably to this tragedy sure as the sun came up this morning.” If the CHP had acted appropriately on earlier complaints against him, Judge Huffman noted, “Cara Knott would be alive and Craig Peyer would not be on his way to state prison.” He concluded by noting with considerable sadness, “One family has almost been destroyed by this, and the sentence that the court will impose will do the same thing to another. There’s nothing I can fix.”
Craig Peyer remains in prison and maintains a model record for behavior. He continues to maintain his innocence, although significantly, he turned down an opportunity to provide DNA which could have proven the incriminating blood stain was not his. For many years his elderly parents regularly made the trek to the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo to visit him. His wife moved north to be nearer to him and testified in parole hearings that she would be willing to provide a home for him if he was released.
Like his beloved daughter Cara, Sam Knott died in close proximity to the Crime Victims Oak Garden. In late November of 2000 he was by seen by a passing police patrolman at about 5:00 PM tending the garden and collecting trash. About 90 minutes later a second patrolman found him slumped over the wheel of his car a few yards away, dead of a heart attack. He was widely considered to be Craig Peyer’s second victim, refusing to even say the killers name and referring to him only as “the monster.” But during the fourteen years between Cara’s demise and his own he was highly consequential. In addition to establishing the park and nurturing the trees that are its calling card, Knott was a tireless and effective advocate for changes in laws and police practices that he felt contributed to Cara’s death.
In large part through his efforts, a number of police practices have been changed. In 1988 he gained passage of legislation that made responding to missing persons reports a priority for police agencies. In San Diego the Board of Supervisors appropriated millions of dollars to equip Sheriff’s patrol vehicles with computers, a move that enabled constant real time tracking of police vehicles. There was a major change that Sam Knott wanted but was not able to get passed into law, one that would allow women who were pursued by police to pull over when and where they felt safe. It failed in the face of substantial police lobbying, and in fact, you are still required to pull over when so directed by a patrol vehicle as soon as you can safely do so.
Paul Pfingst used the deserved credit he got for winning Peyer’s conviction as a springboard to taking his boss’ job. In 1994 he defeated Edwin Miller and served two terms as San Diego County District Attorney. As district attorney his office won a highly publicized conviction of David Westerfield in the Danielle Van Dam murder case, but it was his office’s perceived mishandling of the murder of twelve year old Stephanie Crowe that contributed to his narrow defeat by Bonnie Dumanis in 2002. He now works the other side of the fence, serving as defense attorney in high profile local cases.
Minus Sam, the Knott family and Wayne Bautista remain united around the singular goal of insuring that Craig Peyer dies in prison. Peyer has been up for parole three times, and each time a phalanx of Knotts rallied community sentiment against him. He had parole hearings in 2004, 2008 and 2012, and each time the testimony was loud and visceral. He will not be eligible for another hearing until 2027, at which time he will be 77 years old and several Knotts will be considerably younger. Following is a local Channel 10 clip from Peyer’s 2012 parole hearing that provides a sense of the power behind the Knotts’ advocacy: http://www.10news.com/news/board-denies-parole-for-ex-chp-officer-craig-peyer
It is a reality that Peyer did more damage to the image and reputation of police officers than anyone else has done. He was only the second officer in CHP history to be charged with a murder committed while on duty. He is a perpetual reminder that sometimes police abuse their power, and sometimes they do it egregiously. That is an issue that continues to percolate today, and will be a publicity live grenade as long as there are rogue cops. In this environment, the chances of Peyer ever winning his freedom are somewhere near absolute zero.
Not content with keeping Peyer on ice and changing police policies and practices, the Knotts also sued the state for monetary damages. The state argued that Peyer alone was responsible for their loss, while the Knotts’ lawyer countered that the state and the CHP were responsible both for what they knew, and what they should have known. A jury found for the Knotts family and awarded them $7.5 million in damages. The state appealed and the Knotts ultimately settled for $2.7 million.
Final Resting Place of Sam and Cara Knott
Sam and Cara Knott are buried in the Singing Hills Memorial Park, an idyllic setting in the Dehesa Valley on the outskirts of El Cajon adjacent to the Sycuan Resort and Casino property. This is the community in which Cara grew up and went to school. In a very real sense, Cara and Sam are back home together for eternity.
The cemetery was dedicated in 1996 (Cara was obviously originally interred elsewhere), and it is nestled among typical brown and rocky Southern California foothills. The parent company owns approximately 100 acres at the site, with about a third of that space dedicated to gravesites. It is among the most beautiful cemeteries I have seen.
To reach the Knott graves, cross the footbridge on the west end of the parking lot and walk about 115 yards along the right side of the grounds. Sam and Cara are buried next to each other a few yards from a tree. One can safely assume that Joyce Knott will join them here someday.