A lawyer representing the family of Cara Evelyn Knott has filed $3-million claims each against California, San Diego County and Poway accusing them of "gross negligence" in connection with the 20-year-old student's slaying in December.
Patrick Frega said Friday that he filed the claims earlier this month--a prerequisite under California law to suing any public body. If the claims are rejected, or if the recipients fail to respond within six months, Frega is free to sue them in state court.
The claims allege that the California Highway Patrol was negligent in employing Officer Craig Alan Peyer, the 13-year CHP veteran charged with murder in the Dec. 27 slaying. They also accuse the San Diego County Sheriff's Department of negligence in refusing Knott's family's pleas to investigate her disappearance the night it occurred.
"Against the state and CHP, it's pretty obvious for allowing someone like Officer Peyer out on the roads," Frega said late Friday. "It's like a loose cannon, or a guided missile--having someone like Peyer, who they knew or should have known has this propensity toward violence."
As for the Sheriff's Department, which adhered to a policy against investigating missing-persons cases within 24 hours of disappearance, Frega said: "The police procedures for trying to find the missing person were so outrageous. My client, the Knott family, had to find their own daughter."
Knott's body was discovered in a creek bed off Interstate 15 by her brother-in-law on the morning of Dec. 28 after an all-night search by relatives.
The San Diego County coroner's office concluded that the San Diego State University student had been strangled and thrown 75 feet off a highway bridge.
Peyer, 36, a 13-year CHP veteran, was arrested Jan. 15 and charged with the woman's murder. He is free on $1-million bail. His preliminary hearing is scheduled to begin Monday.
Shortly after Peyer's arrest, several women told San Diego police that Peyer had stopped them under unusual circumstances. They said he had pulled them over near the same I-15 off-ramp where Knott was strangled. They described his behavior as unsettling.
In addition, a 17-year-old San Diego youth said Peyer had stopped him on the freeway the night that Knott was killed. He said he discovered later that Peyer had changed the time on the ticket to about the time of the killing.
On Friday, Frega said he sent the claims by certified mail earlier this month to the state, county and city. He said the claims cite the CHP, the Sheriff's Department and the sheriff's Poway substation, to which Frega said the Knotts appealed for help.
Frega said he intends to sue all three entities if his claims are rejected, which he said is common. In addition, he said he will sue Peyer, who lives in Poway with his second wife.
"It is just at this point very difficult to put down a figure as to what the life of a 20-year-old is worth," said Frega, who cited the trauma, emotional pain, and loss of a child's company. "What you do is get a jury of 12 from the community and let them decide."
Earlier this month, the CHP completed its investigation of Peyer but opted to withhold its findings until after the preliminary hearing. CHP officials had said they would decide on whether to fire Peyer after completing the investigation.
Peyer remains on administrative leave with pay, drawing his $33,000-a-year salary.
Meanwhile, Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego) has asked the county grand jury to look into whether police agencies may have failed to follow a new state law that requires police to accept a missing-person report "without delay." Legislators amended the state Penal Code in 1985 to require police to take such reports when they are called in. The law went into effect Jan. 1, 1986.
However, in recent interviews, only one of the four police agencies contacted by Knott's family on the night of the killing said they were aware of the law and had incorporated it into their department's policy manual.