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Crime News Sins of the South

Paul John Knowles, Who Was "More Vicious" than Ted Bundy, Terrorized the South in the ‘70s

Paul John Knowles — who is believed to have killed at least 18 people — has been described by investigators as "evil."

By Jill Sederstrom

Ted Bundy, Dennis Rader, and John Wayne Gacy are known as some of the country’s most notorious serial killers — but there’s one equally brutal killer who is often overlooked. 

How to Watch

Watch Sins of the South on Oxygen Sundays at 7/6c and next day on Peacock. 

Known for his good looks and charismatic personality, Paul John Knowles terrorized the south in the 1970s, with authorities connecting him to the killing of at least 18 people with seemingly no distinct pattern or motive to his violent acts as he drifted from one state to another. 

“I think he was more vicious than Bundy was,” retired investigating officer James Josey told Atlanta station WXIA-TV of Knowles’ heinous acts, which took place in the South — a region highlighted in the new series Sins of the South, airing Sundays on Oxygen.

Before he was gunned down by a Georgia Bureau of Investigations agent while trying to make a brazen escape in 1974, Knowles himself claimed to have taken the lives of 35 people, but authorities have said he was known to embellish his crimes and have been unable to verify those claims.

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“Just about everywhere he went he left a body,” one former investigator told Florida station WJXT.

Who was John Paul Knowles? 

Knowles was born in Orlando, Florida  in 1946, but according to his own account, it wasn’t long before he began to use his good looks and charm for devious means.

“I’m a criminal, and I’ve been a criminal since I was a little kid,” he once told a psychiatrist in tapes obtained by WJXT, adding that “nothing” good had happened in his life.

Knowles first headed to prison as a teenager, according to The Macon Telegraph

In July of 1974, Knowles escaped from a Jacksonville, Florida jail cell where he was being held for stabbing a bartender, per WGXA.

What did the Casanova Killer do? 

That same month, Knowles is believed to have claimed his first victim. Authorities believe he went on to kill at least 18 people as he traveled through Georgia, Florida, Texas, Nevada, and Alabama. 

"He had no compunction about killing you, makes no difference whether he strangled you, whether he shot you, whether he stabbed you or what," Josey told the station. "He was a martial arts expert. He was tough. He was mean."

But Knowles was also known to be charming, once even impressing a British newspaper reporter he met at an Atlanta Holiday Inn bar. The reporter — who engaged in a brief affair with the killer — would later describe him, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, as sensitive with “gaunt good looks.” 

Paul John Knowles smokes a cigarette.

His Victims

The exact number of victims Knowles killed is not known. While he claimed in recordings sent to his attorney to have killed 35 people, he was also known to exaggerate his crimes and craved fame and notoriety.

"He wanted a book written, he wanted a movie done, and the proceeds to be split with his mother," Josey said, according to WMAZ

Knowles was formally linked to the murders of four people in Georgia, two in Florida, and one in Ohio, according to The Atlanta Journal Constitution, but investigators believe he killed at least 18.

The killer’s first known victim was 65-year-old Jacksonville resident Alice Curtis, who was later found bound and gagged, per WGXA. 

It’s believed he was also responsible for the death of 49-year-old Marjorie Howe, who was found strangled to death with her own stockings. Authorities believe he took her husband’s guns and a television from the home, WXIA-TV reported.

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In August of 1974, Ima Jean Sanders, a 13-year-old girl, went missing from her Warner Robins, Georgia home. Her remains were found in a wooded area two years later, but they wouldn’t be positively identified until decades later. Her death was connected to Knowles in 2011 after he said in the recordings of his crimes that he had raped and strangled a young hitchhiker in August of 1974 named “Alma,” according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 

“He solved this case himself,” Josey told the paper. “He had an ego trip, so he made those tapes. Without those, she’d just be another unidentified victim.”

The same month Sanders disappeared, Knowles is believed to have broken into the Musella, Georgia home of Kathie Sue Pierce. He strangled the young mother, but left her 3-year-old son in the home unharmed. She was found in the bathroom with a phone cord wrapped around her neck

A few months later, in November, authorities say Knowles struck up a friendship with Carswell Carr and was invited back to his Milledgeville, Georgia home, where he stabbed Carr to death more than 27 times with a pair of scissors and then strangled his 15-year-old daughter, per WJXT. 

“Seeing a child killed like that is just awful. It's something I remember to this day,” Former Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Roy Harris told WGXA.

Authorities believe that Knowles was also responsible for the killings of hitchhikers Edward Hilliard and Debbie Griffin, who disappeared in November of 1974. 

What happened to Paul John Knowles?

Knowles’ crime spree began to unravel on Nov. 16, 1974 when Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Charles Campbell pulled him over for a routine traffic stop, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page

During the stop, Knowles grabbed the officer’s service weapon, held him hostage, and, using the trooper’s patrol car, pulled over driver James Meyer. Knowles allegedly drove both men to Pulaski County, Georgia, where he handcuffed them to a tree and shot them in the head, per WJXT. 

He was later captured at a roadblock near McDonough.

The next month, Knowles, 28, was accompanying law enforcement officials to the scene of one of his crimes when he used a paperclip to open his handcuffs. Knowles lunged for Douglas County Sheriff Earl Lee’s gun and was shot in the chest three times by GBI agent Ronnie Angel.

“I did what I had to do; I just did my job,” Angel would later tell the Atlanta Journal Constitution, describing the killer as “evil.”

To learn more about other killers who operated in the South, check out Sins of the South, airing Sundays on Oxygen.