Paul John Knowles: A Serial Killer You May Not Recognize

Top: Paul John Knowles Left: Cocktail Waitress Angela Covic Right: British Journalist Sandy Fawkes

WARNING: THESE CONTENTS DEPICT EXTREME VIOLENCE AND ARE NOT SUITABLE FOR A VARIETY OF READERS.

My writing partner, retired Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells, first told me the story of Paul John Knowles. Wells’ law enforcement career had begun with the Florida State Troopers, and in that role he worked and became friends with Trooper Charles Campbell, one of Knowles’ two final victims, whom Knowles kidnapped and killed in Macon Georgia in November 1974. That event will be the subject of another blog.

By the time Charlie Campbell was shot, Knowles, then 28 years old, had become a brutal predator who strangled, shot, tortured and raped at least 20 people; he claimed to have killed 35, as many as better-known serial killer Ted Bundy. There is no conceivable justification for such cruelty, but after researching his life and his crimes, it is possible to understand how such a monster came to be.

If nurture is a factor in creating a killer, Paul John Knowles’ family life would have easily qualified him. The 5 Knowles children lived near Jacksonville Florida with their parents in a 3-room house–a main room, one bedroom, and a kitchen. Their toilet needs were met by an outhouse. Paul’s younger brother Clifton Knowles told a reporter that if the things that happened in his family were to have occurred today, the children would have been placed in foster care. What his father described as a “whippin,” he said, “I called a beating.” The children bore bruises from his belt and Clifton said his father nearly beat Paul to death more than once. He would run off into the woods until he healed, then come home until the next time.

At age eight, he had stolen a bike and committed other petty crimes. Beatings not having tamed his son, his father turned Paul over to the state where he was placed in the infamous Dozier School for Boys located in Marianna Florida where he remained off and on until his early teen years. It was the ideal place to feed his growing rage. A reformatory that operated from 1900 until its forced closing in 2011, the institution was known for its extreme brutality. Boys whose spirits could not be easily broken, known as “The White House Boys,” were taken to a special building where they were severely beaten, raped, and sometimes killed by guards. The State investigation that resulted in the institution’s closure uncovered at least 81 child deaths that had resulted from abuse or neglect at the hands of Dozier School employees. An NPR documentary was produced that portrayed the school through the eyes of many of its victims, now adults who could finally speak up and defend themselves. In 2020, novelist Colson Whitehead won a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Nickel Boys, based on facts uncovered about the Dozier School. The reformatory did not “reform” Paul. It may very well have helped to transform him from a bad boy, a budding criminal, into a stone killer.

As an adult, Paul John Knowles was a red-haired, six feet tall handsome man sometimes described as a combination of Robert Redford and Ryan O’Neal, and dubbed “The Casanova Killer” because of his good looks and charm. In the last half of 1974, in at least 6 states, he killed 14 women and 6 men. Because he murdered several victims in a short time span at different locations, he was branded a special breed of serial killer known in law enforcement as a spree killer. Most of his victims were complete strangers. They did not resemble one another: They were gay and straight; men, women, and children; attractive or not so much; homebodies and hitchhikers; ages ranging from 7 to 65, engaged in various occupations–waitress, teacher, retiree.

He did not strike out because he lacked love or companionship in his life. Paul may have despised his father, but he loved at least three women: His mother for whom he wanted to publish his life story and support her with the proceeds; Jackie Knight whose marriage to him did not last, but nonetheless remained his lifelong friend; and Angela Covic, a San Francisco waitress and his pen pal who obtained his early release from prison. They intended to marry immediately, but when he arrived in California he found that she had become disenchanted and called off the nuptials. He claimed to have killed his first three victims that night in San Francisco although it could not be proven. Only weeks later, Knowles began the rest of his murder spree.

In July, he entered the Florida home of 65-year-old Alice Cooper, ransacked her residence, gagged and tied her to a chair, and stole her car. Cooper wore false teeth which slipped and caused her to die choking; Knowles discovered her body when he returned to her house a second time that night. She was his first victim.

That evening, while he was attempting to abandon her car, he spotted two family acquaintances, 7-year-old Mylette Anderson and her 11-year-old sister Lillian. Afraid they might identify him for police, he strangled the little girls and dumped their bodies in a swamp. These were victims 2 and 3. In addition to the trooper and James Meyer with whom he was kidnapped, 15 other strangers were murdered, singly and in pairs. A father and his 15-year-old daughter were killed. A mother was strangled in front of her 3-year-old child. He killed gay men whose bodies he left nude, and a woman whose corpse he had sex with. No one seemed immune from his carnage except young boys. Even when they were present at killings, he left them untouched. They reminded him, perhaps, of himself as a young boy, abused by his father and again by his keepers at the Dozier School. He could live again through these boys, unassaulted this time.

Sandy Fawkes was one woman he charmed but did not kill. She was a British journalist on assignment for an American publication and she met Paul John Knowles in the bar of a Holiday Inn in Atlanta Georgia. They spent the night together and while Fawkes reported that the sex was unspectacular, she accepted his invitation to travel to Florida and see southern America with a native. Why did he leave her unmolested? Many hypothesized that he wanted her alive because she was a writer, and he craved being famous like his hero Jesse James and having the opportunity to earn book royalties that he could give to his mother. As a convict he and his family could not have benefited from such a book, but he did not know that.

Moreover, his life ended on December 18, 1974, a month after parting company with Sandy Fawkes. He had been arrested again and was terrified of the electric chair. He accepted an invitation to accompany Georgia Bureau of Investigation Agent Ron Angel and Douglas County Sheriff Earl Lee on a road trip to visit some of his crime scenes in the hope of gathering more information about his motives and victims. Seated in the back of the squad car, he surreptitiously worked his hands free of handcuffs using a paper clip and made a grab for Lee’s gun, perhaps a bid for “suicide by cop.” Agent Angel obliged him with three bullets, ending six months of national terror.

Readers who may want to know greater detail about Knowles’ specific crimes are referred to Google or to any of the following resources: The Casanova Killer: A Documentary; The Casanova Killer: The Life of Serial Killer Paul John Knowles a Kindle edition written by Jack Smith and Marjorie Kramer; and Natural Born Killer: In Love and On the Road with a Serial Killer and Killing Time: The Bizarre But True Story of Two Weeks of Love and Terror, both written by Sandy Fawkes.

Thanks for reading, stay well, and keep safe!

NEXT UP: The Killing of Charlie Campbell and James Meyer

Murder in a Time of Coronavirus: Which One Was the Murderer?

Dewey Brannon at Sheriff’s Office the day he reported finding his wife’s body

Dewey Brannon a “person of interest”

By late October 1999, the public knew of one suspect and one “person of interest” in the Brannon murder investigation. The sheriff’s office defined a person of interest as someone who could not be excluded as a suspect, but for whom there was not sufficient evidence to make an arrest. Dewey Brannon, the estranged father and husband of the victims, fell into that classification. First, all professional murder investigators begin by looking at the people closest to the victims. Second, Dewey had behaved in ways that were viewed by some people as peculiar when he discovered the victims. He carried his injured 4-year-old daughter Cassidy with him while he checked the master bath linen closet to see whether his gun was still there before he called 911. In his 911 call he reported that his wife Sherry had committed suicide after harming their two children, although she had never threatened suicide and was by all accounts a loving mother. He knew that the only neighbors in the remote location where he built their house would not be home on the days the murders were committed and the bodies reported. Dewey consulted an attorney the day after the crimes were committed and refused to further discuss the case with detectives after that. He did not call the sheriff’s office to inquire about the progress of the investigation.

A few weeks into the investigation, Dewey had had enough of what he felt was undue attention on him. On a weekday when the weather topped 100 degrees, he walked eight miles to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office where he burst into the lobby, shouting and gesturing. “Either arrest me or clear my name.”

Sheriff Charlie Wells’ staff quickly notified him of Brannon’s presence and he went down to the lobby immediately. He told Dewey that he was not going to let him come into the sheriff’s office and raise hell. “If you want to come upstairs and talk to me like a gentleman,” he said, “we can do that.” After a brief pause, Dewey said he wanted to talk and followed Wells to his office.

The sheriff explained that he and his investigative staff wanted to talk to Dewey alone, without the presence of attorneys. He assured him that they were not trying to trap him, but to invite an honest dialogue between the murder victims’ husband and father and the investigative staff. After conversations between Brannon’s attorneys and the sheriff, then Dewey and the attorneys, Dewey decided to talk to investigators without his attorney. A lengthy and difficult dialog ensued in which Brannon detailed his frustrations with the focus on him, and Sheriff Wells explained what facts led to their unwillingness to clear Dewey’s name yet. Wells promised to do all he could to reach that stage expeditiously. Both agreed not to discuss the contents of their meeting with the press.

Larry Parks 2002

Larry Parks becomes a suspect.

Note: the names that appear below, Alicia Ruiz, Lisa Bennett, and Mac McEvoy, are pseudonyms which I used to protect the privacy of the individuals involved. The information contained here is accurate to the best of my knowledge. It was obtained from the official transcripts of interviews between Manatee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) detectives and those individuals, and interviews I conducted with the investigators and other MCSO officials. Most dialogue is taken verbatim from the transcripts, although I have occasionally filled in details that were consistent with the facts when no one was present to hear the actual exchange.

Previously, on September 3, 2019, I posted “A Piece of Yellow Twine” which described a sexual assault that occurred on October 22 1999, just weeks after the Brannon murders.

When Manatee County Sheriff’s officers questioned neighbor Alicia Ruiz the morning of the Lisa Bennett assault, Ruiz was able to name the suspect, a heavy equipment operator by the name of Larry Parks, the same man Lisa Bennett and Mac McEvoy identified for MCSO investigators. Alicia had dated Parks in 1997 and ’98 and knew him well. They were no longer a couple because his extensive drug use had become a major issue between them, but they remained friends. Larry called Alicia once when rainy weather had interrupted his job and borrowed money temporarily. She loaned him $200 which he repaid when he returned to work. He called her again to share his grief when his estranged wife, Deborah Sharp Parks, died in New York State in a weather-related auto accident in March of 1999, just months before the Brannon homicides.

Despite his positive relationship with Ruiz, detectives discovered that years before–between 1983 and 1985–Larry had been married to Deborah Sharp Parks for only two rocky years, and they had been estranged for 14 years at the time of the Brannon murders. When she left him, a pregnant Debbie took her then 2-year-old daughter Calley to New York State where they lived with her mother Virginia Ucci. She told her divorce attorney that Parks had been abusive to her and ignored their daughter.

Deborah Parks and Lisa Bennett had not been the only people to report Larry Parks’ violence toward women. Of the several women whom investigators interviewed about their relationships with Larry, only Alice Ruiz did not report violent incidents. In 1990, Tina L. Rowell filed a police report alleging that Larry had come to her home and started an argument, slapping her in the face and then retrieving a .357 handgun which he pointed at her, threatening to kill her. Ronald Hochstetler and Scott Richards, whom Parks also menaced, witnessed the attack.

Two years later Brenda G. Canaday said Larry physically and verbally abused her in a motel in October 1992; in July 1993 he called and threatened her and her boyfriend, then slit two of his tires; and in September 1993 slapped her face, pushed her and dragged her on the floor. Another time he came to her Carlton Arms apartment, carved “whore” on her front door, cut up her doormat, and pounded on the sliding glass doors of her deck. She got a restraining order which she later cancelled because they got back together.

They were apparently estranged again by December 1993 when Susan L. Moore reported that during an argument Larry had pulled a knife on her and said “If you mess with me, I will be back.” She nonetheless moved into his trailer where she lived until May 1995. When she tried to leave and retrieve her belongings, he made her pay $50 and threatened her with a gun. “He’s like a walking time bomb,” she told detectives. Two years later he began to date Alicia Ruiz and during that time, sounded like a totally different man. The bomb had temporarily stopped ticking.

Immediately following the incident involving Lisa Bennett and Mac McEvoy, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office investigators moved quickly to locate Larry Parks, which they did at the address Alicia Ruiz had provided. He unsuccessfully tried to outrun a pursuing Sheriff’s squad car and was arrested on sexual assault charges. Detectives prepared requests for search warrants of the Bennett and Parks residences. Nothing, Sheriff Wells had cautioned, was more important than preserving the freshness of the crime scene. Forensics technicians Beverly Copeland and Diane Williams each spent hours at the residences collecting and processing potential evidence. 117 items and swabs were collected from the Bennett home and an additional 114 items and swabs were collected at Larry Parks’ home. Among the evidence were yellow twine that resembled the twine found under Sherry Brannon’s body and a pair of Reebok shoes that looked like the bloody tread pattern left at the Brannon crime scene. A court order was secured to collect samples of Larry Parks’ blood and hair. A connection was beginning to emerge, and Captain Connie Shingledecker begged the Florida State crime scene laboratory to give the highest priority to processing and comparing DNA from Parks and from flesh found under Sherry Brannon’s fingernail.

Shingledecker says she is not a person easily brought to tears. She recalls that she cried at her wedding. She was conferring with investigators at the suspect’s home when she received a phone call from the lab. Larry Parks’ DNA was a match, and now for a very different reason, she cried again.