1974 Disappearance and Murder of Teenaged Warner Robins Girl Solved
Perry, GA-On August 1, 1974, Ima Jean Sanders, a white female then 13 years old, disappeared from Warner Robins, GA, where she resided. In April 1976, skeletal remains of a young female were found in a wooded area off GA Highway 96 in Peach County, GA. The remains could not be identified and were retained by the GBI Crime Laboratory in Atlanta.
In January, 2011, DNA samples from Sanders’ biological mother and sister, now residing in Texas, were submitted by the Austin County Sheriff’s Office to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI). There, genetic data derived from them were uploaded into the Relatives of Missing Person index of the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS)-a national DNA database containing known DNA of convicted criminals and missing persons; and questioned DNA from unidentified bodies and crime scenes.
This comparison indicated the genetic data from Sanders’ mother and sister was consistent with DNA submitted by the GBI into CODIS from the skeletal remains found in Peach County in 1976. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) was notified of this match in July, 2011 and informed the Warner Robins Police Department (WRPD), which had original jurisdiction for Sanders’ disappearance in 1974. UNTCHI confirmed the match with investigators in November, 2011, but admonished them to evaluate all associated case information before declaring the identity of the remains publicly.
WRPD investigators contacted the Peach County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) and the GBI Regional Office in Perry for assistance. The combined efforts of these agencies developed evidence to support the likelihood that Sanders was murdered in 1974 by noted serial killer Paul John Knowles. In 1974, Knowles went on a multi-state crime spree, committing at least 18 murders. It ended on November 17, 1974 when he was apprehended in a road block near McDonough, GA after kidnapping a Florida State Trooper and another man near Perry, FL and murdering them in Pulaski County, GA. Knowles was later shot to death by a GBI agent on December 18, 1974 while attempting to escape from custody.
During Knowles murder spree, he mailed audio taped confessions of his crimes to a Florida attorney. Following Knowles’ death, the release of these tapes was the subject litigation ultimately reaching U. S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals prior to District Court Judge Wilbur Owens allowing them to be reviewed by a federal grand jury in 1975. Although the tapes were never disclosed publicly, there were rumors they included Knowles confession to murdering a teenage girl near Macon.
In recent weeks, WRPD, PCSO, and GBI investigators attempted to locate copies or transcripts of these tapes to verify whether Knowles’ murdered Sanders. 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 spoke with current and former members of the U.S. Attorney’s office, the U.S. District Court, the FBI, the GBI, and other agencies involved in the original investigations of Knowles’ crimes and determined the only copies of the tapes and transcripts were destroyed after being ruined beyond repair in a flood of the Federal Courthouse in Macon several years ago. From GBI archives, however, investigators were able to retrieve 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.”
Yesterday, the GBI Medical Examiner has confirmed the DNA match to conclude the skeletal remains are Ima Jean Sanders and determined the manner of death to be “homicidal means of undetermined etiology.” Consistent with Knowles’ claim; Sanders’ jaw bone was not recovered. For the reasons stated in this release, investigators are reasonably confident that Ima Jean Sanders was murdered by Paul John Knowles in August 1974. Her remains are being released to remaining family for burial.
I am happy that this family can now have some closure.
HOUSTON – A Deer Park woman finally has some answers about the disappearance of her older sister more than 37 years ago.
But those answers are perhaps more disturbing than the decades of “not knowing” that came before.
Sharon Chessher was only four years old when Ima Jean Sanders told her goodbye.
Chessher remembers watching her then-13 year old sister walk across the grass and away from their home, near Macon, GA.
She was never seen alive again by anyone in the family.
Years later, Sharon Chessher’s mother and sister submitted their DNA to authorities.
And earlier this month, the family was summoned by detectives.
“They shut the door,” recalls Chessher. “He said, ‘I have news: we found Ima.’ And then he was like, ‘but.’ And it was just like…” Sharon Chessher shrugs. “He said it was a random act of violence by a man that went on a killing spree.”
That man, Paul John Knowles, apparently picked up Ima Jean Sanders, perhaps as the teen was trying to hitchhike home.
Knowles admitted raping and strangling her and then dumping the body, during a six-month multi-state murder rampage.
He bragged of killing more than 35 people and so far police have linked Knowles to 18 violent homicides.
In late 1974, Knowles was captured and a month later he was shot dead while trying to escape police custody.
Next month, Sharon Chessher is hoping to have her sister’s remains – a leg bone, an arm bone and a skull – returned to Texas for a private memorial.
It is sad that it took so long for the pieces to come together.