GBI Says DNA Solved 1974 Killing of Ima Jean Sanders

11:15 AM, Dec 22, 2011   |    comments
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The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said Thursday DNA evidence has solved a 37-year-old disappearance in Middle Georgia.

The agency is adding 13-year-old Ima Jean Sanders to the list of victims murdered in 1974 by serial killer Paul John Knowles.

According to a GBI news release, Sanders disappeared from Warner Robins in August 1974.

Knowles, a 29-year-old Florida parolee, went on a cross-country killing spree in the spring, summer and fall of that year.

During that time, Knowles often stopped by Macon to visit a girlfriend and he killed some of his 18 known victims in Middle Georgia.

Knowles himself was killed during an escape attempt in December 1974.

A few weeks earlier, Knowles was captured near Atlanta after he wrecked his car trying to avoid a roadblock.

Officials brought him to the Bibb County jail where federal, state and local investigators tried to pry information from him about the people he killed.

Ronald Knight was the U.S. Attorney then and he still remembers Knowles demeanor in the courtroom.

"I'll never forget," Knight said. "He stared at me with these steel blue eyes. Boy, it was just like rays coming through you. He was an extremely composed individual. He was not nervous at all."

Knight sent details to authorities in areas where Knowles admitted killing people. One of those was the Ima Jean Sanders case.

Here's the message Knight sent out in 1974:

"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 ten 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."

The GBI told Knight about the latest developments this week.

"I got a call yesterday from a GBI agent in Warner Robins," Knight said. I wasn't surprised. There are other bones out there I'm sure."

Knight said he's pleased that Knowles died before his case reached his courtroom, expecially considering the number of lives he took.

"I was just so thankful that we didn't have to put up with him, because he was a guy that certainly deserved whatever he got, and he knew it. He knew it was going to come," Knight said. "He talked about it in the tapes that he would eventually be killed."

Knight also said Knowles was a precise criminal who tried to kill possible witnesses against him.

"We think people who do this are crazy, nuts and whatnot," Knight said. "This guy was extremely intelligent, extremely methodical, thought it all through and he set about to do exactly what he did."

GBI Agent Gary Rothwell said DNA from Sanders' family in Texas matched that from the remains found in Peach County 35 years ago.

Rothwell also said physical evidence matched Knowles' taped story of killing a young hitchhiker. Rothwell said the GBI is "reasonably confident that Knowles killed the girl."

Ima Jean's mother, Betty Wisecup, lives in Beaumont, Texas. We tried to reach her for comment but she did not answer the phone. 

 

The GBI released this statement on the case Wednesday:

1974 Disappearance and Murder of Teenaged Warner Robins Girl Solved

Perry, GA-On August 1, 1974, Ima Jean Sanders, a white female then 13 years old, disappeared from Warner Robins, GA, where she resided. In April 1976, skeletal remains of a young female were found in a wooded area off GA Highway 96 in Peach County, GA. The remains could not be identified and were retained by the GBI Crime Laboratory in Atlanta. 


In January, 2011, DNA samples from Sanders' biological mother and sister, now residing in Texas, were submitted by the Austin County Sheriff's Office to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI). There, genetic data derived from them were uploaded into the Relatives of Missing Person index of the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS)-a national DNA database containing known DNA of convicted criminals and missing persons; and questioned DNA from unidentified bodies and crime scenes.

This comparison indicated the genetic data from Sanders' mother and sister was consistent with DNA submitted by the GBI into CODIS from the skeletal remains found in Peach County in 1976. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) was notified of this match in July, 2011 and informed the Warner Robins Police Department (WRPD), which had original jurisdiction for Sanders' disappearance in 1974. UNTCHI confirmed the match with investigators in November, 2011, but admonished them to evaluate all associated case information before declaring the identity of the remains publicly.

WRPD investigators contacted the Peach County Sheriff's Office (PCSO) and the GBI Regional Office in Perry for assistance. The combined efforts of these agencies developed evidence to support the likelihood that Sanders was murdered in 1974 by noted serial killer Paul John Knowles. In 1974, Knowles went on a multi-state crime spree, committing at least 18 murders. It ended on November 17, 1974 when he was apprehended in a road block near McDonough, GA after kidnapping a Florida State Trooper and another man near Perry, FL and murdering them in Pulaski County, GA. Knowles was later shot to death by a GBI agent on December 18, 1974 while attempting to escape from custody.

During Knowles murder spree, he mailed audio taped confessions of his crimes to a Florida attorney. Following Knowles' death, the release of these tapes was the subject litigation ultimately reaching U. S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals prior to District Court Judge Wilbur Owens allowing them to be reviewed by a federal grand jury in 1975. Although the tapes were never disclosed publicly, there were rumors they included Knowles confession to murdering a teenage girl near Macon.

In recent weeks, WRPD, PCSO, and GBI investigators attempted to locate copies or transcripts of these tapes to verify whether Knowles' murdered Sanders. Meanwhile, the GBI Medical Examiner's Office was confirming the circumstances of the DNA match along with the cause and manner of Sanders' death.
Investigators spoke with current and former members of the U.S. Attorney's office, the U.S. District Court, the FBI, the GBI, and other agencies involved in the original investigations of Knowles' crimes and determined the only copies of the tapes and transcripts were destroyed after being ruined beyond repair in a flood of the Federal Courthouse in Macon several years ago. From GBI archives, however, investigators were able to retrieve a letter written in 1975 to the GBI by the then-U.S. Attorney that summarized Knowles' taped confessions on the tapes of crimes he committed in Georgia. 

In one summary, the letter states:
"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 ten 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."

Yesterday, the GBI Medical Examiner has confirmed the DNA match to conclude the skeletal remains are Ima Jean Sanders and determined the manner of death to be "homicidal means of undetermined etiology." Consistent with Knowles' claim; Sanders' jaw bone was not recovered. For the reasons stated in this release, investigators are reasonably confident that Ima Jean Sanders was murdered by Paul John Knowles in August 1974. Her remains are being released to remaining family for burial.

 

 

 

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