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.
"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."
Ima was living with her mother and her 4-year-old sister in Warner Robins, Ga., when she disappeared in August 1974. Her mother, Betty Wisecup, said she came home from her job cleaning mobile homes and was told by the 4-year-old that Ima had hopped in a van. She never saw her daughter again.
"That’s the last anyone ever heard of her," 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.
The break in the case came in January, after a Texas investigator working on another cold case realized that data from Ima’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.
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 the federal courthouse in Macon.
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."
Wisecup said she was stunned by the news.
"I always wondered where she was," she said. "There wasn’t a day and night where I didn’t wonder where she was. And she would have been another unidentified person if we didn’t give the DNA."
She’s now trying to raise money to bring her daughter’s remains to her home in Texas, where she will place them in an urn in her living room and later bury them in a family plot.
"All we want to do is to bring her home and have a proper burial," she said.