Sam Knott has heard it from relatives and friends -- a kindly suggestion,
little something to mull over.
Oh, it may sound simple to some. Enough, one says. It is time now.
But not so for Sam Knott. He still sees his 20-year-old daughter, Cara,
dead, lying at the bottom of the canyon, her body broken, her skull
smashed, her neck bloodied from the piece of yellow plastic rope used to
strangle her; all this done at the hands of a cop -- A COP.
So it has been 12 years, now. Numbers, meaningless numbers.
Walk away from that?
And what then becomes of his mission, his fight to honor Cara and remember
her and to protect others as innocent as she?
"How can I?"
And Sam Knott limps from his chair. He coughs. His eyes seem to show
much fury and agony, all these years later, even though his daughter's
killer, Craig Alan Peyer, whom Knott still calls "the monster," is doing 25
years to life and much of the world has moved on, as it always does.
His daughter's murder at the hands of a 13-year veteran California Highway
Patrol officer shocked this region like few other crimes.
But Sam Knott did not fade into the background, as so many victims do,
deadened by the loss and then by the system, which, in Knott's opinion,
It was his family that frantically searched and found Cara. Police wouldn't
budge because she hadn't been missing the required 48 hours. (Knott got
that policy changed.)
It took two trials to win a conviction. The first ended with a deadlocked
Throughout, Knott stepped on toes. He made noise. He became a crusader
what was then a controversial new movement that argued that victimshave
rights, they have a voice.
And while Knott has helped bring about new laws and police policies
Cara's death, he has also experienced setbacks and some criticism,
whispered by authorities who say they have responded well to deficits in
Knott won't buy it. He wants more done. And now.
So never mind the whispers and the gentle tugs that come today. Never
the heart attack four years ago, the hip-replacement surgery, the colon
cancer last year.
The 61-year-old dismisses the idea as if it weren't even raised. And
goes, talking of Cara, of needed change, of battles yet to be waged,
speaking on this sunny day from his back porch in rural El Cajon from which
you can hear children at the nearby school, playing and laughing.
He still opens doors, see.
Who else can do that? Can't delegate that, he says. Can't just hand
someone and say: Your turn.
"If you haven't been through it, it's all academics," says Knott, who,
before his daughter was slain, was a financial planner.
That person seems to have disappeared. Batman could always change back
Bruce Wayne. But Sam Knott?
He remains -- in every sense of the phrase -- a tireless advocate.
Three months ago he dedicated a park honoring victims of violent crimes.
It's near the Mercy Road exit from Interstate 15 in Rancho Penasquitos,
where his daughter was taken by Peyer.
Peyer took dozens of young women there, pulling them over for minor
violations. He ordered them down a deserted, isolated dirt road, where he
would sometimes flirt with them, cajole them, even lecture them on fine
points of vehicle safety. Later, some of the women would testify that Peyer
made them uncomfortable and scared.
But Cara fought back.
And Peyer strangled and beat her and threw her off the bridge. Her body
found crumpled there, in the canyon. Sam Knott still sees this. He sees the
rope. And Cara's abandoned Volkswagen Beetle. And the little bit of blood
on her white boot.
And the doughy Peyer, in court, wearing glasses.
And that is what motivates him this Saturday morning. Look at his power,
still. More than 200 people showed up to plant oak trees, which is how
Knott memorializes Cara.
Oak trees stand for strength, eternity.
Among those present were San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, then-Police
Jerry Sanders, 5th District Councilwoman Barbara Warden and nearly a dozen
TV, radio and print reporters.
Knott limped here and there, walking with a cane, careful of the sloping
hillside that he hopes one day will be full of towering, muscular oaks.
He has hundreds more growing in his back yard.
He wants to build a similar memorial in Sacramento.
Doors open. Or else he pulls and pulls on them until they do.
Sam Knott happens to be good at this. Strange, no? To be thrust into
world -- this horrible world of savagery and justice-seeking that can
devour victims and their advocates alike -- and find yourself to be so
suited for your place at this wicked table.
Knott's eyes, his voice, his face -- Hollywood couldn't have cast a
But Hollywood creates endings; tough guys save towns, then ride into
There seems to be no ending here. And some people -- looking at the
his anguish -- worry.
So they gently say the word. Stop.
But Knott goes on.
Joyce Knott, his wife, used to worry.
She has gently said the word.
In a story published a half-decade ago, she said she felt it was time
Sam to move on.
But on this day she says, no, maybe not. Sam is making progress. Sam
He wants police departments to hold their officers more accountable;
wants better communication among local, state and federal departments.
Now, many have conflicting radio systems. They can't talk directly to
other over radios. Sam Knott shakes his head.
Thanks to ever-evolving technology, cops can be tracked, easily, what
computers and wireless systems.
They won't be able to roam free, like "the monster."
Such equipment would be for the officers' protection, as well. If one
down, help could come instantly.
Knott has made headway. An $83 million communication system now links
county emergency agencies, thanks in part to his years of lobbying. Knott
never lost hope, never stopped, never backed down.
Knott is not finished. He even envisions the use of satellites in this
effort to police law enforcement. He has pushed for this for years, as
Joyce Knott nods as he goes on.
She understands. Not everyone can.
They have seen counselors. One, a crime victim herself, was particularly
They have learned to find joy again, Joyce Knott says.
They adore the outdoors, for instance. They have a wonderful grandson
have another grandchild on the way.
"We have learned to focus on other things," she says.
They can go days without torturous flashbacks of the murder. Still,
day, the demons come, Joyce Knott says.
One recent night, for instance, she felt confused. She thought, for
reason, about fingerprints, how "the monster," so slick, so devious, had
not left any.
Peyer never admitted guilt.
And Joyce Knott, lost now, gone off to that different world, was seized
with the idea that prints must have been left on the trunk of Cara's car.
It was a strange thing to think. After all, nothing had been found in
Joyce knew this, of course. She knew the facts of the case inside and out.
Yet, her mind raced. Yes, yes, yes, there must be prints. On the trunk.
could anyone have missed them?
The very thought of physical evidence electrified her.
Then, just like that, her mind snapped back. The facts became clear again.
And she wondered: Why did I ever think otherwise?
Bill Kolender gently said the word.
Kolender, the San Diego police chief at the time of Cara's murder and
current San Diego County sheriff, thinks, like some others, that this is
taking a toll on Sam Knott's health.
"You have to feel for this guy, and the way this has possessed him,"
Paul Pfingst, the county district attorney, has never seen a victim
as committed to a cause as long as Knott has. Pfingst put "the monster"
away, he was the prosecutor chosen to try Peyer the second time.
Every year, Knott still brings poetry dedicated to his slain daughter
Pfingst's office. "This is his way" of coping, Pfingst says. "To not do
this would probably hurt him more."
Knott has shaken things up. Police now have to make priorities of missing
persons. There is now a law saying judges have to consider public safety as
a priority when determining bail. "The monster," even though accused of
murder, had managed to get free on bail.
The list goes on. And on.
But now, maybe it is time. Because the fight is not easy, never easy.
takes so much.
Sam Knott says this: "It is easy to get your hands around the monster.
Getting your hands around the system is another story."
The system is slippery. It answers to no one.
No, not quite. It answers to Knott.
That's what Superior Court Judge Larry Stirling says. When Stirling
assemblyman, he helped push Knott's causes into law.
Stirling, for one, doesn't want Knott to stop.
No one inside the system rocks the boat, Stirling says. The system is
monopoly; it has no competition, he says. It churns on, regardless of
"The bureaucracy would like him to stop, I'm sure," Stirling says.
Indeed, of late, there has been something of a backlash swelling against
victims rights groups and their gains.
Critics wonder: Are they seeking justice or vengeance?
Their lock-them-up, throw-away-the-key philosophy only creates more
victims, these critics argue.
The prisoners come out angry, not reformed, and some rob and steal and
murder and rape again, leaving other families to grieve, the critics say.
Knott calls that talk from academia. Talk from people who have not been
there. In hell, that is.
Some talk of forgiveness, saying that step is necessary to move on,
Knott says, flatly, no. "The monster," he says, has never offered
It is late morning, and Knott looks tired. He goes to his office and
out pieces of paper.
This proves it, his need to keep going. Because none of this stops,
ever, he says.
Knott got word recently of a proposed state law that would automatically
give first-time offenders parole if they have served their minimum
sentences without problem.
"The monster" is up for parole in 2005. He's been a model prisoner.
murder? It was his first conviction. He was a cop, after all.
This bill would set him free.
Knott fired off letters immediately. On the letterhead, as always, there
was the picture of Cara.
Beautiful young Cara.
And the proposed law is gone now. It lasted about a day. Those involved
with the bill say they were inundated with phone calls from victims rights
groups. The bill was badly drafted, officials say, and was not meant to
release violent felons.
Knott shakes his head. And he limps from the table, saying now you must
where he grows his oak trees.
They are deep in his back yard, where they inch toward the sun. Hundreds
them are clustered here. They are skinny twigs now. But, over time, they
will be magnificent. They will tower.
And here the sun hits Sam Knott in the face.
And here, you see him smile.
And here, at last, you see him at peace.