A surprise witness in the trial of a California Highway Patrol officer charged with killing a San Diego college student testified Friday that he saw a CHP cruiser stop a car similar to the victim's on the night the woman was slain.
Robert Calderwood testified that the southbound CHP patrol car stopped the light-colored Volkswagen beetle about 8:30 p.m., shortly after the time police said 20-year-old Cara Knott left Escondido for her parents' home in El Cajon after buying gasoline. The style and color of the vehicle fits the description of the victim's car.
On his way home to Fallbrook about an hour later, Calderwood, who had gone to San Diego on business, said he again saw a CHP car on the east side of the freeway driving fast in a southeasterly direction, toward Mercy Road and away from the site where Knott was slain.
Craig Peyer, a 13-year CHP veteran, is charged with killing Knott on Dec. 27, 1986. Police said she was killed after a struggle on the old U.S. 395 bridge near Interstate 15 and the Mercy Road off-ramp between 9 and 10 p.m. Her body was thrown 65 feet into a dry creek bed, where it was discovered by San Diego police the next morning. Knott's car was found parked about three-tenths of a mile from where the body was found.
Defense Attorney Surprised
Calderwood's testimony appeared to stun defense attorney Robert Grimes, who made it clear in his questioning of Calderwood that he was having trouble believing his account of occurrences. Grimes led Calderwood through a testy cross-examination.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph Van Orshoven said that prosecutors met with Calderwood for the first time one week ago. When asked by both attorneys why he waited more than a year to step forward, Calderwood said he knew he would have to testify sooner or later but waited to contact authorities because he was afraid for his family's safety.
Calderwood, a milkman and Amway distributor, testified that he is a retired combat Marine who served two tours in Vietnam with a one-year tour as a Massachusetts police officer in between. On the night of Knott's death, Calderwood testified, he was driving south to San Diego from his Fallbrook home to recruit a man for his Amway business and to collect money from a woman. He decided to make the nighttime drive despite failing to arrange appointments, Calderwood said.
While on Interstate 15, he happened upon a CHP cruiser with lights flashing, pulling over a Volkswagen near the Mercy Road off-ramp. The Volkswagen pulled over to the shoulder but the CHP officer used the cruiser's loudspeaker to order the car down the off-ramp.
"I heard the highway patrol car say, 'Not there. Go down the off-ramp,' " Calderwood testified. " . . . It struck me as extremely unusual and risky for a highway patrolman to pull someone off and out of view."
Calderwood said that he remembered the stop because of its unusualness and because he remembered being concerned for the officer's safety.
Stopped for Coffee
Instead of driving into San Diego, Calderwood said that he got off at the next exit and stopped for coffee at a restaurant on Miramar Road. After making several futile attempts to telephone the two people he wanted to see, Calderwood said that he decided to return home.
By this time it was about 9:30 p.m., and as he drove northbound on Interstate 15, Calderwood said that he saw a CHP patrol car, with lights off, going at "a high rate of speed" on old U.S. 395--now a bike and jogging trail--that leads to the darkened Mercy Road below the freeway. Knott was killed a little more than half a mile from where the old highway meets Mercy Road.
Under questioning by Grimes, Calderwood said that he heard radio reports of Knott's death on Dec. 28, 1986, and of Peyer's arrest on Jan. 15, 1987, but he insisted that he has not followed the case closely. He did tell Grimes, however, that he had once met Peyer while doing landscape work in Peyer's neighborhood, but could not recall the date of the meeting.
More than 20 women have testified during the trial that Peyer stopped them near the Mercy Road off-ramp at night and ordered them down the darkened ramp to isolated Mercy Road with his car's loudspeaker.
"This case has not been a big deal as far as my daily activities went," Calderwood said in explaining how he kept what he saw on Mercy Road to himself, except for three instances when he discussed the event with friend, Betty Bahnmiller.
Decided to Wait
Furthermore, he knew that the case probably would not go to trial for more than a year and decided to would wait until then to approach authorities, Calderwood said. He said he never "intended to hide his testimony."
But Calderwood also said that he felt that police had more than enough evidence to have Peyer prosecuted.
"It became apparent to me that I had observed more than I cared to . . . The speed of this investigation and arrest led me to believe . . . that the highway patrolman had done a terrible job of concealing evidence," Calderwood said.
Then, citing the Sagon Penn case where a man was cleared of killing a police officer and wounding another officer and a civilian ride-along, Calderwood said that he feared that any statements he gave to authorities "might not always be used in the interest of justice."
Grimes expressed incredulity.
"Didn't you have reason to think that your testimony would wrap it up, put a bow on it?" Grimes asked. But Calderwood was forbidden to answer by Superior Court Judge Richard D. Huffman.
Calderwood said that he discussed what he saw on the Mercy Road off-ramp with Bahnmiller, who works as a store manager at the Naval Amphibious Base, on three occasions--a few days after Knott's body was found; the day after Peyer's arrest, and about 10 days ago.
But Bahnmiller testified Friday that Calderwood never talked to her when Peyer was arrested.
Calderwood told Van Orshoven that he considered himself a "key witness in a murder case." But under questioning by Grimes, Calderwood said he did not consider himself a key witness and added that "I'm not pleased to be here at all."
Calderwood's testimony was preceded by another startling event. Juror Lisa Longacre, 24, an American Airlines flight attendant, was excused at the request of the defense. Friday's court session was delayed by about 90 minutes as Huffman and the two attorneys met with each juror individually in Huffman's chamber.
When the session began, Huffman announced that he was granting the defense's request that Longacre be excused, but he prohibited attorneys for both sides from discussing Longacre's dismissal.
Criminalist John Simms was on the stand when the trial recessed for the weekend. Simms testified that microscopic gold fibers recovered from each of Knott's hands matched the gold thread in the patches taken from Peyer's CHP jacket.
"Based on the overwhelming microscopic similarity," Simms said. " . . . The fibers could have come from these patches."