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.