ATLANTA — Georgia investigators used DNA and other evidence to link the slaying of a 13-year-old girl who went missing in 1974 with a serial killer who was blamed for murdering at least 18 people, authorities said Wednesday.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said agents were "reasonably confident" that Ima Jean Sanders was killed 37 years ago by Paul John Knowles.
Ima Jean was living with her mother and her 4-year-old sister in Warner Robins, Ga., when she disappeared in August 1974. Her sister remembers getting upset when Ima Jean told her to stay at home while she hopped in a van with some friends. She never saw her family again.
"That's the last anyone ever heard of her," her mother Betty Wisecup told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "She up and disappeared and we had never heard anything about it."
About two years later, authorities found skeletal remains in a wooded area in Peach County in the central part of the state, but investigators at the time could only tell that they belonged to a young white female. Her family, haunted by her disappearance, was left wondering about what happened.
"It's been almost 38 years and I'm thinking maybe she has amnesia, maybe she got into a car wreck and no one ever found her," said Ima Jean's sister, Sharron Chessher "We just never knew. Now we do."
The break in the case came in January, after a Texas investigator working on another cold case realized that data from Ima Jean's killing wasn't entered into a database designed to match unidentified remains with missing persons cases. Wisecup, who lives in Beaumont, Texas, submitted DNA, and investigators said this week it matched the skeletal remains.
"If you talk about a proverbial cold case, this would have been it," said special agent Gary Rothwell. "It was the family that never forgot."
Hard-to-find documents were also used to help link Knowles to the killing. Amid the crime spree, Knowles mailed audio confessions of his crimes to a Florida attorney, but the recordings were never released publicly and the transcripts were ruined a few years ago by flooding at a Macon courthouse.
Investigators tracked down a 1975 letter buried in the state archives that was written by a former U.S. attorney who summarized Knowles' confessions.
The letter said Knowles picked up a young female hitchhiker named "Alma" in August 1974 and brought her to a wooded area outside Macon, near where the remains were found. He raped her, strangled her and then left her body, the letter said. He returned to the area about two weeks later to bury the jawbone.
Knowles was captured in November 1974 near McDonough, Ga., after he kidnapped a Florida state trooper and another man. He killed both of them. Knowles was shot to death a month later trying to escape custody.
Warner Robins police Capt. Chris Rooks, who helped investigate the killing, said he hopes it brings the family a "sense of closure they would have never had."
Ima Jean's relatives were still struggling with the news. Chessher, for one, said learning what happened to her sister was "like having the air sucked out of the room."
The family is trying to raise money to bring Ima Jean's remains to Texas, where Ima Jean's mother will place them in an urn in her living room and later bury them in a family plot. Chessher said only then will the family be able to start to heal.
"To know the details of what she saw, looking through her eyes, it doesn't get any easier," Chessher said. "Even when we get her home and properly bury her, knowing what that man did will never leave our hearts and souls. I know that we have to forgive, but it's going to take a long time."