Cold case solved: Girl, 13, was killed by serial killer in 1974

Authorities said Wednesday they have solved the case of a 13-year-old girl who disappeared from Warner Robins in 1974.

They say Ima Jean Sanders was the victim of serial killer Paul John Knowles.

Skeletal remains found in a wooded area off Ga. 96 in April 1976 recently were matched to the girl, said Gary Rothwell, special agent in charge of the GBI’s Perry office.

Investigators are “reasonably confident” that Knowles criminally killed the young girl in August 1974, Rothwell said.

In 1974, Knowles, 28, of Orlando, went on a killing spree across several states, killing at least 18 people, including a Milledgeville man and his teenage daughter. Carwell Carr, 45, was stabbed with a pair of scissors, while his daughter, Mandy was strangled in their home.

Knowles was captured in a roadblock near McDonough on I-75 north of Macon in November 1974 after kidnapping a Florida state trooper and another man near Perry, Fla., and later killing them in Pulaski County.

Knowles was shot to death by a GBI agent on Dec. 18, 1974, while attempting to escape from custody near Douglasville.

On Aug. 1, 1974, Sanders disappeared from Warner Robins. Two years later, in April 1976, skeletal remains of a young girl were found in a wooded area in Peach County. The remains could not be identified and were kept by the GBI Crime Laboratory in Atlanta.

In January 2011, DNA samples from Sanders’ mother and sister, now living in Texas, were sent to a national DNA database containing DNA of convicted criminals and missing persons.

The genetic data from Sanders’ mother and sister matched DNA from the girl's skeletal remains. Using this information, investigators developed evidence to support the likelihood that Sanders was killed in 1974 by Knowles.

Investigators said that during Knowles' killing spree, he mailed audiotaped confessions of his crimes to a Florida attorney. Although the tapes were never disclosed publicly, rumors spread that they included Knowles' confession to killing a teenage girl near Macon.

In recent weeks, investigators tried to locate copies or transcripts of these tapes. Meanwhile, the GBI Medical Examiner’s Office was confirming the circumstances of the DNA match along with the cause and manner of Sanders’ death.

Investigators determined that the only copies of the tapes and transcripts were ruined in a flood of the federal courthouse in Macon several years ago.

However, investigators were able to find a letter written in 1975 to the GBI by the then-U.S. attorney that summarized Knowles’ taped confessions on the tapes of crimes he committed in Georgia. In one summary, the letter states:

“Sometime in August 1974, Knowles picked up a white, female hitchhiker named Alma who represented her age as 13 or 14 but who appeared to be in her late teens. He carried this girl to a wooded area some distance from Macon, possibly west. He raped her and then strangled her and left her body in woods between trees. Approximately two weeks later, he returned to the location and found that the body had been moved eight or ten feet away, apparently by animals. The body was greatly deteriorated and barely identifiable as a human being. Knowles found her jawbone and buried it in the area.”

Meanwhile, the GBI medical examiner confirmed the DNA match and concluded that the skeletal remains are those of Ima Jean Sanders. Consistent with Knowles’ claim, Sanders’ jawbone was not recovered. Investigators are reasonably confident that Ima Jean Sanders was killed by Paul John Knowles in August 1974.

Sanders' remains are being released to remaining family for burial.