WARNER ROBINS -- A 13-year-old girl who disappeared from Warner Robins in 1974 is believed to be a victim of serial killer Paul John Knowles, authorities say.
Skeletal remains of a young female found in a wooded area off Ga. 96 in April 1976 recently were matched to Ima Jean Sanders, said Gary Rothwell, special agent in charge of the GBI’s Perry office.
Investigators for the GBI, Peach County Sheriff’s Office and Warner Robins police are “reasonably confident” Sanders was murdered by Knowles in August 1974, Rothwell said.
In 1974, Knowles, 28, of Orlando, Fla., went on a murderous crime spree across several states, killing at least 18 people including a Milledgeville man and his teenage daughter. Carwell Carr, 45, was stabbed with a pair of scissors, while his daughter, Mandy was strangled in their home.
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Knowles 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 attempting to escape from custody near Douglasville.
“When I began my career with the GBI in 1981, the crimes of Paul John Knowles and the manner in which he died was legendary within the agency,” Rothwell said. “I never suspected I would be involved in resolving one of his unsolved murders so many years later.
“For Ima Jean’s family, that must have been an eternity,” he said. “My heart goes out to them.”
Betty Wisecup, 66, the girl’s mother, described finding out what happened to her daughter after 37 years in one word: shocking.
“I’ve missed her, and I’ve always wanted to know what happened to her,” Wisecup said by telephone from Texas, where she lives now.But the revelation, especially the way her daughter likely died, has been horrific and disturbing, she said.
During his rampage, Knowles mailed audiotaped descriptions of his crimes to his Florida attorney. The tapes were never disclosed publicly, but there had been rumors the tapes included Knowles saying he murdered a teenage girl near Macon, Rothwell said.
Copies of the tapes and related transcripts were ruined in a flood of the federal courthouse in Macon and destroyed. The tapes had been reviewed by a federal grand jury in 1975.
But investigators were able to retrieve from GBI archives a letter written in 1975 by then-U.S. Attorney Ronald T. Knight. His letter to the GBI summarized Knowles’ description of the crimes in Georgia based on what the grand jurors likely heard, Rothwell said.
Below is an excerpt from the letter; Rothwell said the letter related what investigators believe happened to Sanders:
“Sometime in August, 1974, Knowles picked up a white, female hitchhiker named Alma who represented her age as 13 or 14 but who appeared to be in her late teens. He carried this girl to a wooded area some distance from Macon, possibly west. He raped her and then strangled her and left her body in woods between trees.
“Approximately two weeks later, he returned to the location and found that the body had been moved eight or 10 feet away apparently by animals. The body was greatly deteriorated and barely identifiable as a human being. Knowles found her jawbone and buried it in the area.”
Warner Robins Capt. Chris Rooks, head of criminal investigations, said the account recorded in the letter and the timeline of the disappearance of Sanders are compelling. The name given was similar, and the ages are similar. Also, the jawbone was never found, Rothwell said.
“Her timeline just happened to be when Paul John Knowles came through Georgia,” Rooks said.
Based on what investigators have been able to piece together, Sanders who Rooks said was described as rebellious by her family ran away from home in Beaumont, Texas, on July 4, 1974. She rode a bus to Warner Robins to be with her mother, who was living there at the time, Rooks said. Sanders was known to run away, he said.
Sanders arrived in Warner Robins and stayed with Wisecup a few weeks. Wisecup said she was living in mobile home off Ga. 247 with her second husband and a 4-year-old daughter.
On the day she went missing, Sanders was baby-sitting her sister, Rooks said. The sister recalled seeing Sanders get into a van. But how credible that is based on the age of the sister is uncertain, Rooks said.
What is known is that Sanders was never heard from again.
Also, there’s confusion about whether Sanders was reported missing in 1974. Wisecup said she believes she reported her missing to police but wasn’t certain of which agency. Wisecup said she once had the police report, but it’s been lost over the years.
Rooks said he could find no record of Sanders being reported missing. He recently flew to Texas for a meeting with the family. He and a Texas sheriff’s investigator told them the recent findings.
“It’s always hard to tell someone their child has died, especially under these circumstances,” Rooks said.
But in the end, Rooks said, the family can finally put to rest nearly 40 years of not knowing what happened.
Rooks started investigating the case in July after he was contacted by authorities at the Austin County’s Sheriff’s Office. A family member had seen a news report of a 1975 missing person case and wondered if it might be Sanders.
But the Texas investigator quickly determined the missing person featured in the news report was not Sanders and that she never had been entered as missing in any law enforcement or missing person database, Rooks said.
Wisecup and an adult daughter submitted DNA to Texas authorities and the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, Rothwell said. The resulting genetic data was uploaded to the FBI’s CODIS, or Combined DNA Index System. The national DNA database includes known DNA of convicted criminals and missing persons as well as questioned DNA from unidentified bodies and crime scenes.
Authorities had a match.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.