Named the “Casanova Killer” for his good looks and charming demeanor, Paul John Knowles was a lust and thrill killer who thrived on attention and idolized infamous outlaws like John Dillinger, Jesse James and Bonnie and Clyde. He began his four month cross-country killing spree in 1974 after escaping from jail, and lived off cash and credit cards he stole from his victims. Motivated by a desire to go out in a blaze of glory, rather than rot alone and forgotten in a prison cell, Knowles violently murdered his victims, collected newspaper clippings about their disappearances, and tape recorded a full confession for posthumous release to fulfill his dream of attaining infamy like his outlaw role models.
Born: April 17, 1946, Orlando, FL
Died: December 18, 1974
M.O.: Ranging from home invasion to picking up hitchhikers and kidnapping, Knowles’ M.O. regularly changed. He indiscriminately murdered men, women, children and the elderly. He raped many of his younger female victims and strangled them with their own nylon stockings. While strangulation was the most common method he used to murder his victims, he also shot some of his victims to death.
Motive: Driven by an underlying craving for attention, Knowles’ kills were his ticket to infamy -- a legacy that would immortalize him even after he himself was long gone.
Victim Count: 18 confirmed; 35 claimed
Best known for: A four month crime spree that spanned thirty-seven states; escaping prison; kidnapping and killing a police officer; kidnapping radio copywriter Barbara Tucker; and having a brief tryst with British reporter Sandy Fawkes, who wrote a book about it
Even from a young age, Paul John Knowles cared little for authority figures; he felt like he didn’t need them. So he habitually refused to do his homework, talked back to adults, stole, and once punched a girl in the face when she rejected him. Whenever his parents or teachers reprimanded him, Knowles lashed out in a terrible rage. His rebellion against authority won him attention from his friends, which encouraged his continued misbehavior. He idolized criminals who travelled across the country committing crimes, lost their lives in violent shootouts with police and achieved a level of fame on par with actors and professional athletes. And he wanted to be just like one them someday. Throughout his childhood, Knowles was in and out of The Florida School for Boys, a reform school with a terrible history of abusing, torturing and even murdering its young inmates. We don’t know if, or how badly, Knowles was abused, but it’s likely the place had a negative impact.
Over the years, Knowle’s love for being at the center of attention egged him to commit worse crimes, and he was in and out of jail for much of his life. At the age of seven, he stole a bicycle. At the age of nineteen, he stole cars and took a police officer hostage. At twenty-eight, he faced the electric chair for murdering at least eighteen people. He tried to live on the straight and narrow when he married Jackie Knight but he couldn’t shake old habits. Still, their marriage ended on good terms. Quite the opposite happened with Angela Covic, the woman he began corresponding with by letter in prison. When they made plans to marry, Covic hired a lawyer to get him out early, and Knowles set his heart on turning his life around. He took college classes, started looking for work as a sign painter and had full intentions of moving to San Francisco to get away from the bad influences provoking his recidivism in Florida. But Covic broke off the engagement upon his release. That night, Knowles killed three people, or so he claimed. While these alleged murders were never confirmed, he blamed Covic’s rejection for his escalation to rape and murder.
Knowles’ first confirmed murder happened on July 26, 1974, two months after Covic dumped him. After getting arrested for a bar fight and stabbing a bouncer, Knowles picked the lock to his cell and escaped. Looking for money and a car, Knowles broke into the home of a sixty-five year-old Alice Curtis, and she suffocated on her dentures when he gagged her. Whether the murder was intentional or not, he knew he was going back to jail for a long, long time, or worse, was going to get the electric chair. When faced with the choice of dying forgotten in a prison cell or going down in history as a big, bad outlaw, he chose the latter and drove off in Curtis’s 1971 Yellow Dodge Demon. Like Curtis’s car, Knowles frequently took mementos from his victims, including the tape recorder he used to document his confession. Many of the stolen goods he gave to his ex-wife as gifts.
It’s unclear how Knowles identified sexually, but gender was not a disqualifying factor for his victims. He raped and murdered women and teenage girls, strangling them with their own nylon stockings, and the gay men he killed were found in the nude. Knowles took thrill and pleasure from degrading his victims, changing his M.O. and, thus, grew bolder and more deranged the more he killed without getting caught. He even killed an on-duty cop and had sex with the corpse of one of his later victims. However, he never killed young boys, even if they witnessed one of his crimes, because they likely reminded him of himself from his reform school days. He also didn’t kill writers, because he wanted them to write about him when he dead, which was why he didn’t murder Barbara Tucker and Sandy Fawkes when he encountered them on his spree.
To ensure his place in history, Knowles turned the tape recording of his confession over to his lawyer Sheldon Yavitz, instructing him to release it posthumously. However, under police pressure, Yavitz released it sooner. When Knowles was finally caught, he relished the media frenzy that followed, but he was terrified of dying in the electric chair. About a month after his arrest, Knowles was shot to death during an escape attempt, avoiding electrocution and fulfilling his dream of dying as an outlaw.