Murder of Cara Knott
On the night of December 27, 1986, 20-year-old Cara Knott was driving south on Interstate 15 from her boyfriend's home in Escondido to her parents' home in El Cajon, when Peyer, who was on duty in a marked CHP patrol car, directed Knott to pull off the freeway on an isolated, unfinished off-ramp. It was later discovered that Peyer had also been harassing a number of other female drivers in the same area and pulling them over on the same off-ramp and was supposedly trying to pick them up as dates. In the Knott case, it was thought that the situation escalated to physicality when Knott threatened to report Peyer for his inappropriate actions. When he attempted to grab her she slashed and scratched his face. Peyer then bludgeoned her with his flashlight and strangled her with a rope. He then threw her body over the edge of an abandoned bridge where she fell into the brush below.
Coincidentally, two days later, while covering the investigation of the murder, a reporter with KCST-TV interviewed Peyer during a ride-along segment about self-protection for female drivers. At the time of the interview, Peyer had scratches on his face which, as details of the case unfolded, were thought to have been inflicted by Knott herself during the struggle with Peyer. He tried to explain that they were caused when he fell against a fence in the CHP parking lot, but the fence was found to be too high to be relevant to the scratches on Peyer's face. Moreover, witnesses at a gas station roughly an hour after the murder was thought to have occurred saw a disheveled Peyer drive in at a high rate of speed. One of them, who happened to be an off-duty San Diego officer, reported seeing the scratch marks an hour before Peyer claimed he got them.
Just after the KCST broadcast, nearly two dozen telephone calls, mostly from women, were received by authorities, with the callers reporting that Peyer was the officer who had pulled them over on the same off-ramp, even though in these cases Peyer was not hostile or violent towards them. They said that while he may have been friendly with them, he also made them uncomfortable. In some cases he gently stroked their hair and shoulders, which caused them some distress. In addition, there had been complaints about him prior to the murder by several women but were dismissed because of his reputation within the department.
Another witness said he saw a patrol car accompanying a Volkswagen Beetle, which was thought to be the one Knott was driving, in that exact area at about the time the murder was known to have occurred. Cara Knott was last seen alive at a Chevron gas station just two miles away from the murder scene. The attendant remembered seeing a marked CHP patrol car making a U-turn on the road just after Knott had driven away.
Peyer's own logbook revealed a hasty falsification about that time as well as a change he made to a traffic ticket that was actually written some time later. A rope found in his patrol car seemed to match the rope marks around the victim's neck. Gold fibers found on Knott's dress matched the gold braid on Peyer's CHP uniform shoulder patch. He had probably tried to minimize the fiber transfer by placing her body on the hood of his patrol car so that no evidence of her would be found in his patrol car.but did not notice that the fibers from his shoulder patch were stuck to her dress. Tire tracks on the bridge showed a car had hastily pulled out leaving black marks on the pavement, as what usually occurs when tire have a hard friction with the surface -- aka "burning rubber". Furthermore, a drop of blood was found on one of Knott's boots which was found to be consistent with Peyer's blood type (AB negative, the rarest type) and other genetic markers, although conclusive DNA testing was not available at the time of the investigation.
Peyer's fellow officers, including a female San Diego police officer, testified to the defendant's strange actions following the murder, with his continuous requests regarding the investigation's status and his attempts to justify the perpetrator's crime as a mistake. An internal investigation showed that while he stopped many drivers for various legitimate violations, most of them were females who were driving alone. Additionally, they were of the same age group and physicality as Cara Knott.
The first trial resulted in a hung jury. Upon retrial, testimony regarding a potential second suspect and a hearsay explanation for the defendant's scratches was ruled inadmissible, and Peyer was found guilty of murder, the first-ever conviction of murder by an on-duty CHP officer. In 1988, Peyer was sentenced to 25 years to life.
After conviction, Peyer continued to claim his innocence. In 2004, Peyer was asked if he would contribute a sample of his DNA to a San Diego County program that was designed and initiated to use DNA samples to possibly exonerate wrongfully imprisoned persons, since at the time of his trial and conviction such testing was not yet available. Peyer refused to provide any DNA for the test. At a subsequent parole hearing in 2004, when asked why he wouldn't provide a DNA sample, Peyer refused to answer. The board denied his parole on the grounds of his lack of remorse for the crime as well as for his refusal to explain why he was saying he was innocent yet he would not let anyone help him prove it.
Since that hearing, Peyer has been denied parole two additional times; in 2008, and 2012. He will be eligible again in 2027. Peyer is serving his sentence in California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, California.
The Craig Peyer case has been covered in the books True Stories of Law & Order: SVU by Kevin Dwyer and Juré Fiorillo (Berkley/Penguin 2007. ISBN 0-425-21735-3); You're the Jury by Judge Norbert Enrenfreund and Lawrence Treat (Ho lt Paperbacks 1992. ISBN 0-8050-1951-0); and Badge of Betrayal: The Devastating True Story of a Rogue Cop Turned Murderer by Joe Cantlupe and Lisa Petrillo. (Publisher: Avon Books (Mm) December 1991.)
The case was also the subject of a 2003 episode of the television show City Confidential, titled "Badge of Dishonor," a 2011 episode of the Investigation Discovery TV series, Unusual Suspects titled "Betrayal of Trust" (Season 1, Episode 2), and the TV show Forensic Files.
- "Timeline 1986". Retrieved November 14, 2009.
- Moran, Greg. "Former CHP Denied Parole Four More Years". Archived from the original on 2013-10-21. Retrieved 2014-08-18.
- "Board Denies Parole For Ex-CHP Officer Craig Peyer". ABC 10 News. 2012-01-11. Archived from the original on 2013-07-19. Retrieved 18 August 2014.
- 1988: A California Highway Patrolman Is Tried Once Again for a Shocking Murder Under the Freeway
- 2004: The Killer Cop
- 2004: Killer Peyer refused prosecutors' offer to test DNA
- 2004: Parole board to revisit Knott murder
- 2008: No Clemency for Peyer
- 2012: Parole denied for CHP officer
- Memorial page for the victim, Cara Knott (link removed)
- Video showing the SD Crime Victims' Oak Garden built at the scene of Cara Knott's murder. Directions included on YouTube.