JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Around the same time notorious serial killer Ted Bundy crossed the country kidnapping and murdering young women, another suspected serial killer that some have also described as handsome and charming was terrorizing victims in Florida and Georgia, and beyond.
His name was Paul John Knowles. He later came to be known as the “Casanova Killer.”
One journalist, who came to know him intimately, called him a “dreamboat” and said he looked like a “cross between Robert Redford and Ryan O’Neal.” But behind those good looks and polite demeanor, there was evil, investigators and families of victims said.
Knowles isn’t as widely known as Bundy, whose story rose to prominence in 2019 when Netflix released a popular documentary about his life, but some said his crimes were more heinous and more confounding. Unlike other well-known serial killers, Knowles followed no pattern.
Knowles is accused of indiscriminately shooting and strangling men, women, children and the elderly over a seven-month span in 1974. In some cases, the deaths involved sexual assault.
“Just about everywhere he went he left a body,” one former investigator said.
Knowles, who was born in Orlando in 1946, was formally accused of murdering four people in Georgia, two in Florida and one in Ohio, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported, but it is believed he killed at least 18 people and maybe as many as 35. No one is sure of an exact number.
Knowles never went to trial for the crimes he was accused of because he was shot by a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent while allegedly trying to escape custody just outside Atlanta.
Jacksonville jail escape starts spree
According to media reports, Knowles is believed to have started his killing spree in the summer of 1974 after he picked a lock and escaped from his jail cell in Jacksonville where he was serving a sentence for stabbing a bartender. His first known victim is believed to be retired Jacksonville Beach teacher Alice Curtis, 65, who died the night of his escape from jail after being bound and gagged during a robbery.
A Florida Times-Union report said five girls, ages 6 to 12, disappeared within three months in 1974 around the time of Curtis’ death. Prosecutors eventually concluded that two girls — Annette Anderson, 11, and her sister, Mylette, 6 — were abducted from their Oceanway home and killed by Knowles, according to the Times-Union.
Knowles later wrote a letter about some of his victims and claimed that he was responsible for the disappearance and murder of the Anderson sisters, First Coast News reported. He said he left their bodies at the end of Commonwealth Avenue, but police scoured the area and never found them.
But Sgt. Dan Janson with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Homicide Unit told FCN that he had doubts that Knowles was responsible, noting that some believed he exaggerated the number of people he had killed to gain notoriety. Knowles’ brother Clifton Knowles later said he did not believe his brother killed the young girls.
It is also believed that Knowles is responsible for the death of Marjorie Howie, 49, in Atlantic Beach. She was found strangled with her own stockings.
Several of the suspected victims of Knowles lived in Georgia.
In August 1974, it is believed Knowles forced his way into the home of Kathie Sue Pierce in Musella. Knowles strangled Pierce but left her 3-year-old son unharmed.
In November of that same year, Knowles befriended Carswell Carr in Milledgeville and was invited back to Carr’s house in an affluent neighborhood. It was there he is believed to have stabbed Carr to death with a pair of scissors at least 27 times and strangled Carr’s 15-year-old daughter.
“That was the bloodiest crime scene I have ever seen,” retired detective James Josey said.
Kathy Pierce, 24, of Musella in Crawford County, was another of his suspected victims, according to the AJC. Hitchhikers Edward Hilliard and Debbie Griffin, who were killed near Milledgeville in early November 1974, are also linked to Knowles. Griffin’s body has never been found.
West Coast killings?
Knowles’ first string of murders may have happened in San Francisco in May 1974, according to “The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers.”
Author Michael Newton wrote that Knowles was serving time in the Florida State Prison in Starke when, through letters, he formed a connection with a California divorcée. The woman visited Knowles in prison and helped get him released, according to the book, and Knowles later proposed to her.
But after Knowles flew to San Francisco, the woman got cold feet and called off the engagement. The woman said Knowles projected an “aura of fear” that terrified her, the New York Daily News reported.
The night he was dumped, Knowles claimed that he went out and killed three random people in the Bay Area, according to Newton’s book, but those claims were never verified.
But the trip seemed to change him in a profound way.
When he returned to Jacksonville, that’s when police said the documented killing spree started.
Much of what is known about the murders linked to Knowles comes directly from him.
Knowles recorded confessions and talked in gruesome detail about his suspected murders on secret audio tapes that he sent to his Florida attorney, Sheldon Yavitz.
“Brace yourself, I’m a mass murderer,” Yavitz said Knowles once told him, according to an in-depth documentary about Knowles produced by Atlanta TV station 11 Alive.
Knowles told people he wanted to be famous for his killings, and he believed the tapes would help him accomplish that.
Yavitz, citing attorney-client privilege, came under fire and was arrested and charged with contempt of court for refusing to turn over the tapes.
“I said, ‘I don’t represent the dead,’” Yavitz said in a 2019 interview.
He eventually turned over the tapes to authorities after he and his wife were arrested for contempt of court.
On the recordings, Knowles described 16 murders in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Nevada, Texas, Virginia and Connecticut.
In 2011, a transcript from the tape helped identify the remains of a Texas girl, Ima Jean Sanders, who was missing since August 1974.
Those confession tapes later vanished.
Ones that got away
But not everyone who crossed the path of Knowles suffered a brutal death that ended up on those tapes. It was documented that he formed brief connections with two women in particular, and they lived to tell about their experiences. Some think letting them survive was a calculated move.
One of the lucky ones was Sandy Fawkes, a British journalist who met Knowles in a hotel bar in Atlanta. Fawkes said the two became lovers and eventually parted ways after a few days together. Fawkes went on to write a book about their encounter titled “Natural Born Killer: In Love and on the Road with a Serial Killer” where she talked about “how he charmed her, and how she nearly became his 19th victim.” She later learned he had killed just two days before they met.
Another known survivor was a young Florida copywriter named Barbara Mabee Abel. Abel said she was abducted by Knowles in West Palm Beach and driven north to Fort Pierce where she was repeatedly raped. Abel was tied up but was able to escape.
“I had no idea how many he had murdered,” Abel said in an interview many years later. “He tried to keep telling me, and I wasn’t listening.”
Abel said she believes her life was spared because she was a copywriter and Knowles told her he wanted to write a book about the murders he committed.
“He wanted to be famous. Famous for what? Murdering a person?”Abel said.
Abel eventually did write a book — “One Survivor: 35 Dead How I Became the Sole Kidnapped and Raped Survivor of the Casanova Serial Killer (Paul John Knowles)” — but it failed to launch Knowles to fame as he had hoped.
Knowles’ brother and lawyer both later said they believed Knowles knew that he would eventually die or be arrested and he was trying to set up a book deal and have the proceeds go to his mother.
Capture and death of a killer
The beginning of the end started when Knowles was pulled over by Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Charles Campbell in Perry, a small town about 70 miles west of Lake City, after Campbell recognized the stolen car he was driving.
Knowles was able to take Campbell hostage, according to FHP, and used the patrol car siren to pull over a motorist, James Meyer, and take his car. He was accused of handcuffing both men to a tree in Pulaski County, Georgia, and shooting them in the head.
Two days later, Knowles took off running after he crashed through a roadblock in Georgia and rammed into a tree. A huge group of officers and dogs chased him, but it was ultimately a hunter carrying a shotgun that stopped Knowles in his tracks and held him until he was arrested.
Knowles didn’t live much longer.
According to the AJC, in December 1974 Knowles was being taken from the Douglas County Jail to a location where he said he left a gun used in one of the murders. On the way there, GBI said he picked the lock on his handcuffs and tried to take an agent’s gun.
“[GBI Agent Ron Angel] pulled his five-shot revolver and shot and killed Knowles, shot him three times in the chest,” GBI Agent Roy Harris told a Macon TV station. “The car went off the road and crashed. Fortunately, they were not hurt too badly and that was the end of that career.”
Knowles was 28 at the time of his death.
But Knowles’ lawyer said he didn’t buy Georgia law enforcement’s story.
“I can’t believe he attempted to escape,” Yavitz said, according to the AJC.
When Knowles died, so did any hope of learning more about the trail of death he is believed to have left behind.
But investigators across the country, even today, are still trying to piece together unsolved murders that may have ties to the most notorious serial killer you probably haven’t heard of — until now.