Sister of girl killed by serial killer recalls fateful day in Warner Robins

WARNER ROBINS -- Sharon Chessher was among family members gathered in a conference room of a Texas police department when a Warner Robins detective broke the news: Her sister who had disappeared 37 years ago was believed to be a victim of serial killer Paul John Knowles.

Chessher, 42, said Warner Robins police Capt. Chris Rooks started the Dec. 12 meeting by telling the family, “We found Ima, but ...”

Rooks, head of criminal investigations, then laid out what authorities believe happened to 13-year-old Ima Jean Sanders.

“It was like all the air was sucked out of the room,” said Chessher, a paralegal. “We all lost it.”

Skeletal remains of a young female found in a wooded area off Ga. 96 in April 1976 recently were matched to the teenager, with investigators “reasonably confident” that Sanders was murdered by Knowles in August 1974, said Gary Rothwell, special agent in charge of the GBI’s Perry office.

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

A little more than a week ago, Chessher traveled from her home in Deer Park, Texas, south of Houston, for the meeting at the Nederland Police Department. She was joined by her mother and another sister, both of whom had given DNA samples to authorities that were used to identify the skeletal remains belonging to the missing teen. Sanders’ father and his wife were also there.

Chessher was 4 years old when her sister vanished from Warner Robins in 1974.

A few weeks earlier, Sanders unexpectedly had called their mother to say she was at the bus station in Warner Robins and to come get her. She’d run away from home in Beaumont, Texas, where she lived with her father. The mother and father had divorced in 1968. Sanders, who had been unhappy, often ran away from home, her sister said.

Sanders joined her sister, mother and her mother’s new husband, who lived in a mobile home off Ga. 247. The mother cleaned mobile homes, and her husband did maintenance work on them.

The sisters were inseparable. Another sister, Charlotte Taylor, had died six months earlier after falling off the family’s houseboat in Florida and drowning. Chessher, who saw the toddler fall into the water, said she had been traumatized and clung to Sanders.

Although she was young, Chessher said she clearly remembers her sister’s regular group of friends pulling up in a conversion van. Sanders acted and looked older than she was, and her friends were a few years older, Chessher said. Her sister also was known to hitchhike, which was not that uncommon in the ’70s, Chessher said.

Sanders left with the friends, telling her sister to go inside the mobile home and lock the doors.

“I remember being upset,” Chessher said.

That was the last time she saw her sister.

Chessher said her mother reported Sanders missing to authorities and searched for her before finally returning to Texas the following year. Rooks said he could not find any record of Sanders having been reported missing to local authorities. Considering the age of the case, Rothwell said that would not surprise him.

Authorities believe Sanders was hitchhiking when she was picked up by Knowles and carried into a wooded area where he raped and strangled her.

Below is an excerpt from a letter written in 1975 by then-U.S. Attorney Ronald T. Knight. 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.”

Chessher said Rooks told the family Knowles probably picked up her sister about 10 miles from the mobile home where she was walking alone. Chessher believes her sister was hitchhiking to the mobile home, having abandoned her friends when she was ready to go home and they were not.

“I always told Mom she didn’t run away from us,” Chessher said. “Something had to have happened to her.

“I never fathomed it would have been so horrendous,” she said.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.