The county grand jury is examining the possibility that San Diego police failed to follow the law when they did not take a missing person report from the family of Cara Evelyn Knott on the night she was slain.
Ed Meyer, foreman of the grand jury, emphasized that the inquiry is a study--not an investigation--to determine if, in fact, "an investigation is appropriate" and within the jurisdiction of the grand jury.
The inquiry was initiated by a request from Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego). In a Jan. 20 letter to Meyer, Stirling raised the possibility that police may have failed to act in accordance with a new state law that "mandates police to accept a missing person report without delay."
Legislators amended the state Penal Code in 1985 by requiring police departments to take missing person reports as soon as they are called in. The law went into effect on Jan. 1, 1986. However, of the four police agencies contacted by Knott's family on the night of her murder--the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, and the San Diego, Escondido and El Cajon police departments--only El Cajon police said they were aware of the law and have incorporated it into their department's policy manual.
"It's an administrative directive. We respond immediately to all calls of missing persons, whether they're from our jurisdiction or not. Those outside of our jurisdiction we report . . . to (the) appropriate resident agency. This has been El Cajon police policy since Jan. 1, 1986, when the law went into effect," Lt. Bob Lein said.
Spokesmen for each of the four police agencies acknowledged that Knott's family called their departments on the night she was killed to report that she had failed to arrive home. But spokesmen for each department said that family members never asked their officers to take a missing person report.
Although Stirling is asking for an investigation, he said that he is not accusing San Diego police of illegal conduct. His letter to the grand jury mentions only the San Diego Police Department. Stirling acknowledged that even if police had taken a report, Knott's death probably could not have been averted.
"Right now I'm just asking questions; wanting to know if the department is aware of the change in the law. If they aren't aware, maybe the grand jury can issue a report or something to make them aware . . . The difficulty I have is that I don't have the facts. All I can do is inquire in an official manner. I'm in a hiatus, believing there is a problem but not having any evidence to prove that . . . It seems to me that the only contribution we can receive from these tragedies is to learn from our mistakes," Stirling said.
Meyer said that he has appointed a special panel of grand jurors to look into the matter.
"The request is in the hands of a group to check whether an investigation is appropriate at this time and whether it's in our jurisdiction. That's about all I can say at this point," Meyer said.
Knott, 20, was strangled on Dec. 27 and her body was thrown from a 75-foot-high bridge into the bed of Penasquitos Creek. Her white Volkswagen was found parked on the bridge. Officer Craig Alan Peyer, 36, a 13-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol, was arrested Jan. 15 and charged with Knott's murder.
Knott, a San Diego State University student, called her parents at 9 p.m. to let them know she was leaving for the family's El Cajon home from her boyfriend's house in Escondido. Samuel Knott said that, when his daughter had failed to arrive 45 minutes later, he began calling police agencies. He attempted to file a missing person report with San Diego police.
According to Knott, San Diego police cited a department policy of declining to take such a report until a person has been missing for 24 hours. Judith Rowland, an attorney for the Knotts, said Monday that family members were unavailable to comment on Stirling's letter, or on police and sheriff statements that they were never asked to take a missing person's report.
On Monday, a San Diego police spokesman said that he was unaware of Stirling's call for an investigation, and he denied that the department has a policy of waiting until someone is missing for 24 hours before taking a report. Cmdr. Keith Enerson, who said that he was unaware of the change in the law, added that Knott and other family members who called police on the night of the murder never asked to file a missing person's report.
According to Enerson, San Diego police received three calls from the Knott family on the night of Cara's murder.
"In the first call they asked if there were any accidents involving a white Volkswagen. The second call, they said they were looking for her and asked if there were any accident reports . . . The third call was when they told us they had found the car. The family never requested that the department take a missing person report," said Enerson.
Although he said he has not talked to the Knott family, Sterling said it "appears" that police did not take a missing person report simply because Samuel Knott did not use the word "missing" when talking about his daughter.
"Police departments are obligated to protect and serve lives . . . I don't think that a citizen, particularly when he's terrified or distraught, should be required to use just the right word in order to get police to respond accordingly," said Stirling.
Enerson said that San Diego police respond to reports of missing persons on an individual basis.
"There is no time limit, no magic formula. It depends largely on the circumstances, and each case is different . . . When a small child is missing for 30 minutes we take a report and react immediately. When an adult is missing, we look at the circumstances. If we have reason to believe that the person is legitimately missing or reason to believe foul play, we take a report. But you can't use the same formula for each case," said Enerson.
Sheriff's Department spokesman John Tenwolde said that deputies are not bound by a "24-hour" rule when dealing with a missing person. Stirling said that most departments in the state still follow a "24 or 48 hour rule" when dealing with missing persons.
"It's not a policy that dictates we wait 24 hours. The policy is to consider each case on an individual basis. It depends on the circumstances surrounding the disappearance. On some cases we react immediately, especially when a child is reported missing or when an adult is missing under very suspicious circumstances. But generally, we don't respond when someone is reported late by a few minutes," said Tenwolde.
Escondido Police Lt. Earl Callander said that Knott's family called Escondido police on the night she was killed, but police declined to act.
"They asked for help in looking for her, but we didn't take action because they called when she had been missing for only 45 minutes. The fine point of the law is 'what's the interpretation of a missing person?' If they did the same thing tomorrow (call to report Knott was 45 minutes late) we still wouldn't take it (missing person call) if she was only missing 45 minutes," said Callander.