Collateral Damage: John List Part 2

Part 2 of a 2-part series about John Emil List who murdered his family in Westfield, New Jersey in 1971.

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SEXUAL MATERIAL AND VIOLENCE THAT MAY NOT BE SUITABLE FOR ALL READERS.

While others have written the story of John List’s murders, he wanted the world to hear the story from his own point of view. Journalist Austin “Red” Goodrich, himself quite a character (During the Cold War he spied for for the CIA posing as a journalist), first met List when he visited him in the New Jersey State Prison in 1990. Like John List, he had grown up in Michigan, attended the University of Michigan, and served in the same platoon as John during World War II. With so much in common, they quickly became friends and decided to collaborate on a self-published book about John’s crimes from which he hoped the proceeds could financially help his struggling second wife. They apparently failed to vet the project legally, as it is against federal law for a convicted criminal or his family to benefit from any enterprise that involves the crime. Red Goodrich became the sole beneficiary of the proceeds.

I have read the 115-page account and will save you the trouble: It is an awful book, deplorable literature and rife with uncorrected proofreading errors. In the introduction, List explains his reasons for writing the book: “It may be helpful to psychiatrists and moralists (Christians and others) and I hope will ease the pain caused by my actions to the friends and relatives of my victims.” In light of what he says after that, it is hard to believe it could ease anyone’s pain. Helen’s mother and sister Jean were alive at the time, as were Patty’s coach Ed Illiano, and Alma List’s relatives.

He describes an idyllic childhood, although he admits his mother was overly protective and a close relationship with his father, although neighbors and relatives describe the elderly John Frederick List as a cold, distant man who concentrated on his small business and paid scant attention to his family. His family’s history is summarized in considerable detail, and he seems to be proud to claim a distant relative, German Army General Wilhelm List who reportedly had a regiment named for him and was promoted to Field Marshall, serving in World War II under Adolf Hitler.

John quotes a military associate who hypothesized that John’s desire to move up the ranks of the U.S. army had a genetic basis. In point of fact, List never rose beyond the level of an enlisted man in the infantry, served only five months in Europe, and saw very little combat. Perhaps his lifelong love of complex military games where he always controlled Hitler’s army was also genetic! He devotes nearly a quarter of the book to discussing a somewhat exciting military career of which he was much more impressed than his commanding officers or fellow soldiers. While he wrote detailed letters to his mother during his deployment and named many soldier friends and colleagues, few of them noticed him at all.

He goes to considerable lengths to fairly portray his first wife Helen and to describe a relatively happy marriage. As seemed to be his habit, he could not keep up a narrative for long that did not center on him and his needs. In a few sentences he casually manages to destroy his wife’s reputation. He implies that as the proverbial hot-blooded widow she seduced him, then faked a pregnancy to get him to marry her. Years later she wanted a divorce, an event that would have been a first in the List family (and in Helen’s too, he adds as an afterthought). She spent lavishly, had contracted syphilis from her first husband and hide the fact from John for some time, was an alcoholic, and they had an unsatisfactory sex life. Then he started in on Helen’s daughter from her first marriage, Brenda. Apropos of nothing, he says that Brenda became pregnant when she was 16 and married the baby’s father from whom she was frequently separated. John visited her to “keep her spirits up” but without Helen, who he claims was too upset to see her daughter. The piece de resistance was a remark he attributed to his daughter Patty when she was three or four years old:

Our Patty commented that Brenda had certainly messed up her life. I wonder [said John] if Patty would have acted the same way at that age. Sadly, she died before she reached Brenda’s age. Patty was 16 years and 10 months old at the time of her death. (Italics added for emphasis.)

He accomplished two goals by repeating–or more likely inventing–this scene. First, he raises the question of whether Patty’s life would have been ruined by immorality had she lived longer and second, he totally abdicates responsibility for her death. “Sadly she died,” he says, not “I killed her.”

His unsuccessful accounting career is attributed obliquely to his wife’s excessive social drinking, or to company politics or changes in business venue. List is silent on the subject of his inability to earn more than $25,000 a year, even when his position was briefly Vice President and Comptroller of the First National Bank of Jersey City, New Jersey. His lack of job success resulted from his inadequate social skills, his rigidity on the job and failure to keep up with the times as accounting began to reply more on computers, and his insistence that he deserved promotion. John List rarely saw himself as others saw him. While some people described him as kind, generous, and mannerly, others saw him as peculiar, cold, and self-centered.

His self-serving narrative goes on to describe teenaged children whose behavior was out of control. The evidence? — He discovered Patty playing with a Ouija Board with her friends, and all the children were in the kitchen with him when he discovered a small snake on the drainboard. They knew he was afraid of snakes and Patty was the ringleader behind this prank, he assumed.

Now as to the murders. He says he wishes he had not killed his family and prays daily for forgiveness. He explains his long decision-making process, the perceived infutility of leaving his family helpless without him, and his fear that committing suicide would severe his connection with God and prevent him from being reconciled with his family in heaven. His ability to weigh the moral equivalence of suicide compared with the murder of five people is astonishing. Reverend Alfred Scheips was John’s college Lutheran chaplain and he was called as a witness at the List trial. He was asked to compare his church’s relative views on suicide compared with murder. Finally, he was asked whether he believed there was a greatest sin, one for which there could be no forgiveness. He thought for an instant, then replied with a quote from Christian apologist and author C.S. Lewis: “Pride is the greatest sin.”

Regarding the acts themselves, he recalls them in horrifying detail and explains that he killed all of his victims from behind so as not to cause them undue fear, and that his bullets killed each of them painlessly and quickly. All, that is, except for possibly John:

“…After I shot my namesake, his body twitched with convulsions. Seeing this, which had not occurred with any of my other victims, I must have panicked because I emptied the Styre and some of the .22 bullets into John. …I am sure that John was killed by the first shot and that his body movements were only muscular reflexes operating in some automatic manner. In any case, the tragedy was finished.”

He reproduces his five-page confession letter he left for his minister, Pastor Rehwinkel. It ends with this: “p.s. Mother is in the hallway in the attic–3rd floor. She was too heavy to move.” John List was a cold, cold man. Among his final chapters, one is titled “Fast Forward Into a New Life,” an apt description for what John did after he cleaned up the blood, ate his dinner, got a good night’s sleep, and headed off for Colorado. Unfazed by what he had done, John recorded his activities every day between November 9, 1971, which he describes as “the killings,” through November 20th when he arrived in Denver, in his Perpetual Calendar.

There he was “born again” (his words) as Robert P. Clark, a man who found work, a new church, and a loving wife “Out West Where It’s Best.” In his narrative he slips in a few paragraphs about the handwriting analysis ordered by his friend and co-author, Red Goodrich. Mark Hopper of the Handwriting Research Corp., apparently concluded that List’s handwriting revealed a writer who was “very intelligent, analytical, disciplined, curious, careful, conscientious and cautious.” On the other hand, Hopper also found a person who could not sustain employment, had poor social skills and “a low capacity for social tolerance along with high levels of anger, aggression, and instability.” He concluded that this was the handwriting of a person who needed psychiatric intervention. Hmmm.

His final chapters describe his arrest and conviction and life in prison which, for the most part, sounds pretty compatible with John List’s love of routine, order, solitude, and lots of rules. He divides one chapter into sections for “Bad Stuff” and “Good Stuff.” While you would not be surprised to hear what he considers “bad,” you would perhaps be caught off guard to hear what he considers “good.” It is, he says, human kindness. I wonder if he ever thinks about human kindness in the context of his actions. Is everything finally forgivable? John List died of heart disease complicated by pneumonia in 2008. Now I believe he knows the answer to that question.

Anne Perry Wrote About What She Knew

PHOTOS AND SOURCES: Top left: Murder scene of Nora Parker Rieper (Murderpedia.org), Below left: Nora with her daughter Pauline (Murderpedia.org), Lower Right: Pauline Parker Rieper and Juliet Hulme leaving the magistrate’s office after being committed for murder trial (Christchurch Star-Sun).

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SCENES OF EXTREME AND GRAPHIC VIOLENCE AND REFERENCES TO SEXUAL MATTERS AND IS NOT SUITABLE FOR ALL AUDIENCES.

If you are a fan of mystery novels, particularly British mysteries, you may recognize the name Anne Perry. Since she began in 1979, Perry has published more than 60 Victorian mystery novels, many in popular series such as the William Monk and Charlotte and Thomas Pitt novels. The books have sold 26 million copies worldwide and have never been out of print. Included in her published writing are 27 Christmas-themed books and novellas, as well as books about World War I and a smattering of miscellaneous novels.

What you may not know is that in 1954 Anne Perry was called Juliet Hulme. At that time she was a lovely, intelligent 15-year-old whose manner was mature for her age and who loved stylish clothes…and she helped her best friend Pauline Parker murder Parker’s mother.

Juliet’s father, Henry Hulme was well known internationally as a mathematician and a nuclear physicist. The Hulme family lived in England. In 1948 he accepted the leadership position of rector at Canterbury University College in Christchurch New Zealand and moved his family there. Her mother Hilda was an attractive socialite who loved music and art, entertained lavishly, and was well known to be “sexually outgoing.” We will talk about that later. Juliet’s brother Jonathan, nicknamed Jonty, was born five years after his sister. The Hulme family lived in an affluent suburb of the city of Christchurch in a lovely brick and stucco home owned by the university. The property included a tennis court, woodlands, a meandering stream, an orchard, nearly 40 acres of well-tended gardens, and a housekeeper.

All was not, however, serene in the Hulme household. Juliet had suffered serious bouts of tuberculosis throughout her childhood and lived off and on in sanitariums, with relatives, and in boarding schools as far from home as Barbados and South Africa from the time she was 8 until she permanently rejoined her family’s New Zealand household at age 11. Henry and Hilda loved their daughter, but found her difficult to manage and discovered it was often easier to have her live apart from the family. Another unusual feature of their lifestyle was that Bill Perry, a Canadian businessman known publicly as a “close friend of the family,” was in fact Hilda’s lover and beginning in 1973 lived in an apartment connected to the Hulme’s residence. Hilda had been a volunteer marriage counselor for her church and met Bill when he came to her for counseling about his own crumbling marriage. Hilda finally told her husband that she wanted a divorce; she and Henry were headed toward one, but insisted that it be “civilized” which seemed for them to mean slowly.

Pauline Parker, by comparison, was unattractive, unpopular, and wore a near-perpetual scowl. As a result of a childhood case of osteomyelitis, a serious bone infection, she had been sickly from the age of 5 and sustained a slight limp. Her family was lower middle class; Bert Rieper, her father, managed a fish shop, her 17-year-old sister Wendy worked as a sales person in a lingerie shop, and her mother Honorah–called Nora–kept house in their large, somewhat ramshackle home which had been converted to a boardinghouse. The first born Rieper child had died in infancy, and another daughter, Rosemary, had Downs Syndrome and lived in an institution. Nora Rieper had a demanding life and was known to be strict with her children and may have physically disciplined them. Unbeknownst to the children, Bert and Nora had never actually married; Bert had been married with two children when he fell in love and ran away with Nora. At the time of her murder trial, Pauline Rieper was astonished to learn that her legal surname was Parker, which was her mother’s maiden name.

Christchurch Girls’ High School, a public school with an outstanding academic reputation, was the tenth school Juliet attended, most of them unhappily. While she tested with an extraordinarily high IQ, she was regarded as disrespectful to her teachers and behaved as if she were in a higher social class than almost everyone she encountered. She was narcissistic, condescending to her peers, and demanded to be in charge in every situation. Pauline and Juliet became acquainted at Girls’ High in 1953. When they first met, Pauline had excitedly told her mother that Juliet was the first person she knew whose strong will matched her own. The two had been excluded from all physical activities in the gym and playing fields due to their weak constitutions, and so spent many solitary hours together. They devoted their time to writing and discussing a rich collaborative fantasy life.

Juliet and Pauline soon became inseparable, spending days, evenings and overnights with one another, usually at the Hulme home. There the girls secretly crept outside at midnight to share a picnic with wine in the yard or to ride Juliet’s horse. Nora Rieper disapproved of the Hulme’s freewheeling social style and often used the threat of keeping Pauline from her friend’s company to make her compliant. It worked but also fueled Pauline’s growing anger at her mother and desire to stay away from her family and home.

Both girls had lost their virginity to boys they knew casually, but over time they developed their own sexual relationship. Juliet was the most knowledgeable about the subject, but Pauline became an eager student. The latter kept an almost-daily diary and described in detail their long baths together and time spent in bed when their parents were unaware of their activities. While both girls later denied having had a homosexual relationship, Pauline’s June 13th diary entry suggested otherwise: “We spent a hectic night going through the Saints [their private name for their beloved male film stars]…We have now learned the peace of the thing called Bliss, the joy of the thing called Sin.”

Despite their physical and personality differences, Juliet and Pauline had a lot in common. They were both lonely girls who came to share a rich fantasy life in which they believed they had access to a “4th World,” one that few other people were aware of, and where they would go when they died. They disdained organized religion and believed that they were more beautiful, clever, and talented than other people. They were especially proud of their writing abilities. Juliet preferred the poetic form while Pauline wrote novels and plays. They were much-enamored of then-popular American film stars, Mario Lanza, James Mason, and Mel Ferrar in particular. For a time they saved money to travel to America to meet their film heroes–their private name for them was “Saints”– and have their books published. None of these traits and unfulfilled plans were shared or confirmed by outside sources.

To complicate matters further in the disordered Hulme household, Henry had become embroiled in office politics at the University which forced his premature retirement in the spring of 1954. He planned to pursue a research career in England. Juliet’s tuberculosis was not yet completely cured, so her parents decided she would return to South Africa where her paternal aunt operated a boarding school rather than to chance the damp English winter weather. Hilda planned to take Jonty with her back to England, perhaps with Bill Perry, while Henry would accompany Julie to his sister Ina’s home in South Africa, then proceed on to England. By June of 1954 the Hulme home atmosphere was tense.

To relieve some of the pressure, Hilda and Henry told Juliet and Pauline that they would pay for Pauline to accompany Juliet to South Africa and hinted she would continue on with them eventually to England. All that was required were Nora’s and Bert’s approval. Pauline’s parents believed that Juliet was a poor influence on their daughter and contributed to her displeasure with her own family life, so they hope Juliet’s departure would reduce Pauline’s ugly temperament and disdain for her mother especially. Their refusal to approve was guaranteed.

Knowing that the friends were soon to be parted, both sets of parents were very indulgent, allowing the girls to spend even more time together than usual. In early June Pauline suggested to Juliet that their separation problem could be solved easily if they killed her pesky mother. Nora wasn’t very happy to begin with, Pauline argued, so how much would she lose by being dead? A little reluctantly, Juliet agreed.

Pauline was allowed to stay with Juliet for two weeks in June, the weeks preceeding Nora Parker’s murder. The two best friends confirmed their murderous plan by June 19th and spent the remaining days planning the event. Pauline determined to spend more time at home interacting happily with her family. She would do the chores her mother required cheerfully. Then, having been successfully duped, Nora would agree to an afternoon outing with both girls, a kind of farewell to Juliet, as Nora was unlikely to see her again. Juliet and Pauline doubled down and began to plan the details of the attack.

On Monday, June 21st, Pauline suggested to her mother that the two of them and Juliet take a short bus trip the next day to Victoria Park, a pleasant area on a hill overlooking Christchurch. There they would enjoy tea and have a little hike in the woods. Tuesday morning, June 22nd, Juliet selected a half-brick from the garden and placed it in her shoulder bag. She had also removed a blue decorative stone from a piece of costume jewelry and stored that away too. Her father drove her into town where she had been given permission to have the noon meal with Pauline’s family.

Nora insisted on fixing midday dinner for Bert and Wendy before they left, so the Riepers and Juliet shared a cheerful repast together before the ladies left for the bus stop. Doing her part that morning, Pauline had tucked a single lisle stocking into her purse. In her diary the night before, she had recorded that she felt as if she were anticipating a surprise party. “Mother will be dead. How odd and yet how pleasing,” she wrote. The following morning she continued, “I felt very excited and ‘the night before Christmas-ish’ last night.”

The day was sunny and in the low 60 degrees, a comfortable temperature for a forest amble. The three walked a short distance from the bus stop to a single story tea kiosk where Nora ordered tea for herself and soft drinks for the girls as well as cakes, scones, and chocolates to make the snack festive. According to the manageress of the kiosk, the group appeared to be congenial. After consuming their small meal, they headed off toward a downward trail.

Pauline lead with Juliet’s brick now inserted into the stocking. Her mother followed and Juliet brought up the rear. They crossed a rickety bridge composed of slender logs. A few yards beyond, Nora announced that she had had enough hiking. The group reversed its course. Juliet, now in the lead, dropped her blue trinket and pointing it out to Nora who bent to examine it. Pauline slammed her brick-laden stocking into her mother’s head. Nora moaned and tried with her hands to block the blows now coming in rapid succession. The murder was much more difficult than either Pauline or Juliet had foreseen. They took turns striking Nora repeatedly until she stopped moving. Then they ran back to the tea kiosk and reported that Pauline’s mother had been badly injured, possibly dead. She had fallen on the path and struck her head on a rock, they said. An ambulance needed to be immediately dispatched.

Police reported to the crime scene almost as soon as the ambulance arrived. Investigators noted the numerous head and facial wounds the woman had sustained and immediately concluded that Nora had not been the victim of an accident. They began to collect evidence and transferred Nora’s body to the mortuary. Bert Rieper was contacted. Stunned and horrified, he was required to identify the body of the love of his life, the mother of four of his children.

Henry Hulme had been quickly summoned to the tea kiosk to collect his daughter and her friend. He took them to his home immediately and he and Hilda saw that the two girls were bathed, their bloody clothing washed, and they were given their supper. Not far behind, detectives appeared at the residence and requested permission to interview Juliet and Pauline separately. Their request was honored. Juliet denied any role in the homicides and Pauline accepted full responsibility for them. The parents had consented to the interview of both girl without the presence of attorneys, an error they all lived to regret, and the girls were subsequently arrested.

Both families secured legal counsel, and the prosecution and defense teams obtained reputable psychiatric experts to plead their cases of culpability or mental incapacity. The cases were tried together in the late summer of 1974, Juliet and Pauline were reportedly relaxed, laughing and exchanging whispered remarks throughout the trial. Juliet refused to see or communicate with her mother who attended the trial daily; her father and brother Jonty were now living in England. Bert was too grief-stricken to attend and was never able to bring himself to reestablish a relationship with his daughter.

After five days of testimony, a jury found both young women guilty of murder without mitigating psychiatric circumstances. As minors, Pauline and Juliet were sentenced to indeterminate terms, a minimum of five years, and much to their dismay in separate penal institutions. Within a week of the trial Hilda Hulme legally changed her name to H. Marion Perry and she and Bill sailed to England without seeing Juliet and never returned to New Zealand. After Hilda’s divorce from Henry became final, she and Bill married.

The girls, at the time of sentencing 16 and 17 years old, each served 5-year terms in which they toiled in their respective laundries, sewing rooms, and housekeeping staffs. They were released two weeks apart and allowed to legally register with alternate names to protect their identities. Juliet Hulme became Anne Perry, her surname taken from her stepfather. Pauline Parker became Hilary Nathan. They never saw one another again.

Anne lived in England and in San Francisco for five years, supporting herself as a librarian, a nanny, and in various other entry level professional jobs. She eventually settled in the small village of Portmahomack in Scotland. Beginning in 1974 she began publishing her numerous popular historical crime novels and actively participated in a local Morman congregation. In 1979 a New Zealand journalist tracked her down for the first time since her release from prison. While she repeatedly insisted that she had paid her debt to society and wished to put the murder behind her, she gave several interviews to the press. After Bill Perry’s death, her mother settled nearby and mother and daughter reconciled and became close. She continues to write and publish. A Google search will produce many more recent photos and information about her life and her books.

Hilary eventually moved to the Orknay Islands, a desolate spot in the far north of Scotland, about one hundred miles away from Anne’s home. Until her whereabouts was discovered in 1997 and she retired, she had lived in the tiny village of Hoo St, Werburgh in Kent where she taught special education and operated a riding school, her lifelong dream. She was described by neighbors variously as a nice woman and an eccentric one. Once discovered, she quickly sold her property. The new owners found a mural in one of the bedrooms, probably painted by Hilary. It depicted two young girls, one blonde like her best friend Juliet and the other dark like she had been. The blonde girl was riding a horse into the sky while the dark girl tried to restrain the horse and rider to the earth. Regardless of what Anne Perry was able to put behind her, Hilary Nathan apparently still carried some ghosts.

Hilary has refused to give interviews but she has permitted her sister Wendy to speak on her behalf. Wendy reported that Hilary, a devote Roman Catholic, is another person than the one who murdered her mother in 1974. She lives a solitary life devoted to prayer and attends daily mass in a nearby town. She lives like a nun, perhaps working out her own salvation.

It may be true, as Anne Perry says, that there is nothing to be gained by dwelling on past events that cannot be undone. She once told a journalist that she had gone down on her knees in prison and prayed about her participation in the event. She has never, though, claimed any responsibility for it. Public humiliation is not the only or best way to pay one’s penance, yet it does seem to me that something more than “sorry” is due.

During the trial some psychiatrists hypothesized that Juliet and Pauline were bound together in a folie a deux, a sort of psychotic hallucination they came to share. After hearing all of the testimony the jury concluded that they knew what they were doing was wrong and had been able to control themselves. No amount of bad parenting or childhood illness excused them from taking full responsibility for their actions. Only Anne and Hilary will ever know the truth of what happened on that June day or why.

Much has been written and produced about the Nora Rieper murder. The case was included in a number of crime anthologies, and in 1991 the first serious treatment was published, Parker and Hulme: A Lesbian View by Julia Glamuzina and Alison J. Laurie. Also in 1991, the play Daughters of Heaven. written by American playwright Michelanne Forster, opened in the Court Theater in Christchurch. Perhaps most famously, in 1994 filmmaker Peter Jackson and his wife and collaborator Fran Walsh released the film Heavenly Creatures, starring Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, which launched Winslet’s film career.

I am personally grateful for many newspaper accounts and articles written about this case, and especially for two books that have provided a wealth of facts and opinions that have influenced this account. They are Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century by New Zealand barrister and author Peter Graham, and The Search for Anne Perry by Joanne Drayton, also a well-known New Zealand author. The more I research and read and interview, the less I feel I know about the motives behind seemingly inexplicable murders. These are mysteries behind mysteries and while I may never understand them, they continue to grip my mind and my soul. If you are still reading I believe they grip yours, dear reader, too.

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

Famous Murders of Manatee County

The first time I learned about the 1999 murders of Sherry Brannon and her daughters, 4-year–old Cassidy and 7-year-old Shelby, was in the class, “Famous Murders of Manatee County,” that just-retired sheriff Charlie Wells was teaching at the Lifelong Learning Academy in Sarasota. It was a sunny, warm, breezy February morning in 2008 and about 40 adult students waited restlessly to hear about their first case.

Charlie stood at the front of the room looking exactly like a sheriff should look: He was attractive and muscular with good posture and a full head of white hair. He drew immediate attention as he spoke in a commanding voice, introducing Major Connie Shingledecker, a trim, pretty brunette who wore her forest-green Manatee County Sheriff’s Office uniform with authority and grace. They looked like movie stars playing the roles of cops.

Major Shingledecker was in charge of the unit responsible for criminal investigations, child protective, narcotics and vice, so she had been in charge of the Brannon investigation and was going to present the case to our class. She could have been a corporate executive, well coiffed with tasteful cosmetics, and she deftly handled the Power Point presentation she had loaded on her laptop and was projecting on an overhead screen. She spoke confidently in well-modulated tones as she laid out the details of the investigation.

Sherry’s estranged husband, Albert “Dewey” Brannon, had called 911 a little before 10 a.m. on the morning of September 16, 1999. It was Sherry’s birthday. According to the 911 records, he said he had been trying to reach Sherry since early morning and she hadn’t answered her landline or her cell. When he called St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersberg where she worked as a cardiac rehabilitation nurse, her supervisor Barbara said Sherry had atypically not come to work or called. Barbara told Dewey that Sherry’s mother had also called the cardiac department. She hadn’t been able to reach Sherry and was further worried when the girls’ school had called to report that her granddaughters were not in school either. Finally, said he had been alarmed because the Brannon house was isolated on a 5-acre lot in a new development, and the only other occupied house, the Balam’s house next door, he knew was empty because the couple was at the hospital having a baby.

Dewey was a road supervisor at Sarasota UPS South Terminal, and he later told Manatee Sheriff’s Office detectives that the UPS managers were preparing to go to breakfast when he told his boss he was going to retrace Sherry’s route from home to work in St. Petersberg. Dewey’s work pal Billy Schmitt offered to ride along but he refused the offer, saying if something had happened to them he wanted to be alone when he found them. Schmitt thought that was an odd comment.

Unbeknownst to Sherry, Dewey had fallen in love with another woman who had divorced from her husband just a week earlier. The couple spoke on the phone frequently, and Dewey called her on his way to Panther Ridge to tell her what was happening. “She wouldn’t have done anything stupid, would she,” she had asked. “I mean the divorce was going fine, right?”

According to Shingledecker’s investigative information, the divorce had not been going fine. Sherry and Dewey disagreed about the support payments he offered, and while he had promised her she and the girls could stay in the house, his initial proposal required them to sell the house and split the proceeds. Sherry had been furious.

Dewey had been at the house the night before, on September 15th, while Sherry prepared for a sleep over birthday party planned for Shelby two days later. He’d arrived an hour later than expected and Sherry was mad when he got there. They argued about the status of her jeep’s oil leak he was unsuccessfully attempting to have repaired while she temporarily drove his Ford 4X4. He finally peeled noisily out of the shell driveway in the jeep about 9:00 p.m. Detectives later discovered that Dewey’s truck had been “keyed” heavily along the driver’s side, possibly by Sherry.

When Dewey arrived at his family’s house between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m. the next morning, he found the front door locked and his truck in the garage where it had been parked the previous night. No one answered the front door when he rang the bell, then knocked loudly. Then he peered through a sidelight window beside the door and saw Sherry laying on her back on the foyer hall in a river of blood. He kicked open the door.

At first he had not seen Cassidy who was sitting on the floor near her mother’s head and the door hit her. “Where is your sister,” Dewey asked her and reported that she’d whispered “Upstairs.” Grabbing her, he raced up the stairway to the second floor and there found the body of his oldest daughter, laying in the fetal position on the floor of Cassidy’s bedroom. Like her mother, she too was saturated with blood.

It was only then that Dewey realized Cassidy was also badly injured. He had initially seen the blood that soaked her small tee shirt but thought it was from contact with her mother’s body. He ran with her in his arms downstairs and out to the jeep where he initiated the 911 call. He told the dispatcher to send help and erroneously reported that his wife had committed suicide, killed one of his daughters, and badly injured the other.

Within minutes the property crawled with emergency medical technicians, forensics experts, detectives and patrolmen, a Bayflite helicopter for Cassidy, media vehicles, Sherry Brannon’s parents Bob and Dolly Meyer, and curious onlookers. When she got to that part of the case, Major Shingledecker’s professional armor slipped for a second and she was entirely without defense. “When I got there, knowing that one child was being Bayflited, I had such a strong feeling of hope that she’d live and be a witness to what had happened. …” The investigation into the most brutal murder to ever occur in Manatee County had begun.

Connie Shingledecker looked up from her laptop and faced the audience. She summarized, ticking off facts the sheriff’s office had initially noted: Dewey reported being the last person to see his family alive and the one who found their bodies the next morning. He had refused his friend Billy’s offer to accompany him to the house. He had a girlfriend unknown to his wife. He could not afford to keep his family in the new home they loved. His truck had been maliciously keyed, possibly to taunt him. He falsely reported that his wife had killed herself and harmed their children. He knew the family was isolated with no neighbors to help if there was trouble.

Then she added one caveat before Wells called for a short break. “It’s really hard to come back from a wrong judgement about the perpetrator. You have to ask yourself whether the informant is telling the truth. Do your best to verify that what’s been said is true. Look for collaboration.”

Until that moment I thought I had heard a fascinating but open-and-shut case. A dozen times while she talked I had said to myself. “Dewey did it.” Now I wasn’t so sure.

Fruits, Instrumentalities and Evidence

After thirty-five years and many false starts, I am (finally) writing full time, for myself and not for my business. In 1983 I joined a writer’s group and pretended to understand writers who claimed that their process was difficult, even unpleasant. I was 34 at the time and loved to write, and it never occurred to me that I couldn’t get published. Now I don’t know whether I can, and I’m afraid to reach out and try. I’m afraid to tell people that I’m writing true crime because it sounds cheesy. I’m afraid I’ll sell the book but then get cancer and die before I finish writing it. I’m afraid to interview the victims’ and perpetrator’s families because I don’t want to open old wounds or ask rude questions.

Writing true crime is hard work! I’ve read and re-read the investigative interviews conducted by the Manatee County Sheriff’s detectives, letters I’ve exchanged with the man who confessed to the murders, the articles written by Bradenton journalists. I’ve read the search warrants asking that the murder scene be searched for “fruits, instrumentalities, and evidence,” and learned what that means. I’ve researched the psychological profiles of killers, especially killers of children, and the subject of writing about murderers (See Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer).

I’ve written some chapters, re-written them, and edited my re-writes; I’ve crafted a book proposal and a query letter to send to potential literary agents. I’ve researched agents who might be interested in representing true crime manuscripts. I’ve created lists of follow-up questions to ask everyone I’ve interviewed and lists of new questions to ask all the people I have yet to interview. It’s true that all those tasks need to be done. But first, I need to write as much of the book as I possibly can now.