Craig Peyer, the only California Highway Patrol officer ever convicted of committing murder while on duty, was sentenced to state prison Wednesday by a judge who said Cara Knott's death could have been prevented if CHP officials had acted on an earlier citizen's complaint about Peyer.
Peyer, a 13-year CHP veteran before his firing in May, 1987, was sentenced to the maximum term of 25 years to life. He was convicted of strangling Knott, a 20-year-old San Diego State University student, on the night of Dec. 27, 1986, near an isolated off-ramp along Interstate 15 and throwing her body off a bridge 65 feet into a dry creek bed. He will be eligible for consideration for parole after serving 17 years, 8 months.
Superior Court Judge Richard Huffman, who presided over two emotional trials for Peyer, struggled to maintain his composure before imposing the sentence. After praising CHP officials for working hard to restore the agency's reputation after Peyer's arrest, Huffman said they had to share some blame for Knott's death.
The judge was particularly angered by a CHP sergeant's failure to take decisive action when a mother called to complain that Peyer had forced her daughter to stop on the darkened Mercy Road off-ramp one month before Knott was murdered in the area. The sergeant was "following the bureaucratic pattern of dismissing complaints," Huffman said.
Allowed to Continue
Huffman said that CHP officials allowed Peyer "to continue taking young women to the off-ramp, even after receiving complaints," and noted that the sergeant "commended Peyer for his tactics."
"The tactics were wrong . . . and they led inexorably to this tragedy sure as the sun came up this morning," Huffman said. If the CHP had acted on the mother's complaint instead of dismissing it, "Cara Knott would be alive and Craig Peyer would not be on his way to state prison," he added.
His voice cracked with emotion when he denied a defense request to consider probation for Peyer. At times, Huffman appeared to be fighting back tears.
"The crime in this case was an egregious, brutal crime. . . . The defendant took advantage of a position of trust and confidence. . . . He placed himself in a circumstance where he found it necessary to take the life of another person," Huffman said. " . . . A young woman was brutally murdered on the very threshold of life. . . . I can't fix anything. All I can do is punish. . . . There's nothing I can do. One family has almost been destroyed by this, and the sentence that the court will impose will do the same thing to another. There's nothing I can fix."
CHP officials declined to comment on Huffman's remarks because of a civil suit that Cara Knott's family has filed against Peyer and the CHP.
Knott's murder, which occurred in a largely undeveloped area, was one of the most widely publicized cases in San Diego County history. Early in the investigation, San Diego homicide detectives determined that the killer was probably a police officer; Peyer, 38, was arrested 19 days after the slaying.
Deadlock in First Trial
His first trial ended in February with the jury deadlocked 7 to 5 for conviction. A second jury convicted him of first-degree murder in June.
At the time of Peyer's arrest, CHP officials described their colleague as an exemplary officer who often did public relations for the agency.
But a darker side of Peyer was revealed during both trials and in a probation report that was compiled after his conviction. About 24 young women testified that Peyer stopped them at night for minor traffic violations at the same desolate off-ramp near where Knott was killed. The women, many of whom were allowed to leave without being cited, said they were detained for up to 1 hour and 40 minutes and asked about their personal lives.
Became 'Mr. Macho'
A probation officer reported that one of Peyer's two ex-wives said that he became "Mr. Macho" after joining the CHP, and that "the badge was a way to flirt."
Karen Peyer, Peyer's current wife, said she remains convinced of her husband's innocence. She wiped away tears as she rose to read a four-page statement to the court. In her remarks, which included repeated references to religion, Karen Peyer expressed condolences to the Knott family, which sat on the other side of the courtroom.
"Cara Knott was a gorgeous, vivacious, well-loved young lady. During the trial I felt the pain her family has had to endure, and I am deeply sorry that she was killed. But my husband was a friendly, vibrant and well-loved person too, and in my heart I know you have the wrong man," Karen Peyer said.
Peyer's Composure Cracks
Peyer, who did not testify at his trials and has not made any public statements about the case, broke down and cried while his wife spoke. It was the first time he had displayed any emotion in the courtroom.
Intertwined with references to love and compassion, Karen Peyer's remarks also included bitter references to the media and the legal system.
"From the time of Craig's arrest, he and our entire family have cooperated fully with everyone concerned, with the idea in mind of treating others as you would like to be treated. Unfortunately, that is not how the world is run, that is not how our legal system is run," Mrs. Peyer said.
After Peyer's conviction, his attorneys petitioned for a new trial on grounds that his right to a fair trial was prejudiced when results of a polygraph test that was given to him before his arrest were leaked to the San Diego Union. Defense attorneys wanted to question a reporter about the leak, but their appeal was denied by the 4th District Court of Appeal, paving the way for Peyer's sentencing on Wednesday.
Huffman had rejected attempts by the attorneys to question the reporter, ruling that the California Shield Law protected him from having to divulge information about his sources in court. The judge's ruling further frustrated Peyer's attorneys, who had complained all along about leaks to the press.
"Before Craig's arraignment, the media had him tried and convicted," Karen Peyer said. "By most people's expectations, the first trial was supposed to be a slam-dunk, and, when it wasn't, people began questioning, doubting, wondering. By the start of the second trial, we really believed there could be a fair and impartial trial held here in San Diego.
'Rumors Started Floating'
"Then, rumors started floating up and down the hallways that things were not going as planned," she continued. "Then a tiny little tidbit was sent to the papers. A confidential, inadmissible piece of information; a lie detector test . . . and now, the media pleads the Shield Act and screams it violates their rights. But it was all right for them to violate Craig's right to a fair trial and to be above the law."
Karen Peyer ended her remarks by expressing her love for her husband: "I love you Craig, and I am glad to be your wife. . . . I will always be committed to you."
Then, six members of the Knott family walked to the middle of the courtroom, where Cara's parents, Samuel and Joyce Knott, delivered brief remarks urging Huffman to impose the maximum sentence possible on their daughter's killer.
At Trial Every Day
"Words cannot express our emotions. We attended the trial every day, not out of a sense of duty, but because of our love for Cara," said Joyce Knott.
Samuel Knott read a statement and said he hoped "that this predator will never walk the streets again."
"He kidnaped and murdered our sweet Cara, hiding behind his badge and breaking his sacred trust to society. . . . We want to make sure this terrible horror does not happen to someone else. . . . Cara was innocent and she was special," said Samuel Knott.
Huffman denied a defense request that Peyer be allowed to remain free on bail while his conviction is being appealed. The judge said that he had received what his clerk estimated were more than 100 petitions and letters from Peyer's supporters asking him to exercise his discretion in imposing the sentence.
But, under the state's determinate sentencing law, there were only two possible courses that Huffman could have followed. He could have decided to put Peyer on probation because it was his first offense, or he could have sentenced him to the only prison term prescribed by law. He chose the latter.