Modern forensics helped solve 1974 disappearance in Middle Georgia

bpurser@macon.comDecember 25, 2011 

WARNER ROBINS -- Not much was known about DNA testing when a young teenager vanished from Warner Robins in 1974, the same year that serial killer Paul John Knowles embarked on a murderous rampage that included the slaying of a Milledgeville man and his daughter.

Thirteen-year-old Ima Jean Sanders is now believed to be among his victims.

Authorities recently matched genetic material taken from DNA samples submitted by Sanders’ mother and a sister to DNA submitted by the GBI in 2008 from skeletal remains found in a wooded area in 1976. The GBI had kept the bones as evidence.

The match was made through the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, a national database containing known DNA of convicted criminals and missing persons and questioned DNA from unidentified bodies and crime scenes. The database, commonly referred to as CODIS, became fully operational in 1998.

“CODIS is what solved this case,” said Warner Robins police Capt. Chris Rooks, one of the investigators on the case.

With CODIS matching the remains to Sanders, authorities next linked the then-U.S. Attorney’s summary of the serial killer’s audiotaped descriptions of the Georgia crimes that were based on what a 1975 federal grand jury likely heard. Copies of the tapes and transcripts were ruined when the federal courthouse in Macon later flooded.

Authorities believe Knowles, then 28, of Orlando, Fla., picked up Sanders as she was hitchhiking, and took her to a wooded area where he raped and then strangled her.

Gary Rothwell, special agent in charge of the GBI office in Perry, who also investigated the case, said when the GBI first began working with DNA evidence, agents couldn’t even consider cases older than Jan. 1, 1989.

Starting the new program, authorities knew it would be deluged with information, said Rothwell, who joined the GBI in 1981. As a result, the cut-off date was set.

It would be into the 1990s when DNA forensics evolved to include the ability to glean information from bones and teeth, Rothwell said.

Within CODIS, the National Missing Persons DNA Database Program for the identification of missing and unidentified people was developed in 2000.

“DNA has opened many doors for locating missing persons,” said Bob Lowery, executive director for the missing children’s division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The center was established in 1984.

While the outcome in the Sanders case is not what anybody wanted, Lowery said, it does provide some answers for her family.

The case also offers hope for other families seeking answers in the disappearance of their loved ones, especially for older cases.

An online system that the public may access free of charge seeks to help solve unsolved missing persons cases through skeletal remains.

The Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System launched its repository for missing persons and unidentified human remains in 2009.

It’s more commonly called NamUs. The public may register to search and report information in the missing persons database and may search -- but not add -- information about unidentified persons. Coroners, medical examiners and law enforcement officers can input and review data.

A 2011 NamUs fact sheet estimated that there are 100,000 active missing persons cases nationwide at any given time. Also, more than 4,400 unidentified remains are found yearly, and more than 1,000 of those remain unidentified after one year. NamUs estimated that there may be up to 40,000 human remains that are unidentified.

Today, when a child is missing, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recommends that families ask law enforcement officers to immediately enter the child’s name and identifying information in the Missing Persons File of the National Crime Information Center.

NCIC is a national database for law enforcement that includes information on criminal history, fugitives, stolen property and missing persons.

In 1974, when Sanders disappeared, NCIC had been in existence for more than seven years. But GCIC, the state’s version of the national database, was in its infancy, having been established in 1973. NCIC’s Missing Persons File was implemented in 1975.

It’s unclear whether the family reported Sanders missing. In interviews with family members, the mother and a sister said Sanders was reported missing, while another sister said she was not. Rooks could not find any record of the case being reported. Given the age of the case, Rothwell said he would not find it surprising if there was no paperwork.

Also, technology was not what it is today. Information entered into the NCIC probably was done by Teletype, and not all agencies had a Teletype, or an electromechanical typewriter, used to communicate typed messages. Authorities without one would have had to drive to the nearest Georgia State Patrol post to input the data, Rothwell said.

“We’ve forgotten what it was like then,” he said.

Solving the 37-year-old disappearance of Sanders puts her among at least 18 people that Knowles killed. He was captured in a roadblock near McDonough on Interstate 75 north of Macon in November 1974 after kidnapping a Florida state trooper and another man near Perry, Fla., and later killing them in Pulaski County.

Knowles was shot to death by a GBI agent on Dec. 18, 1974, while trying to escape from custody near Douglasville.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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