Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Perverted Killer Died in California's Gas Chamber

The Girl He Killed

By Robert A. Waters

On the evening of August 19, 1952, sixteen-year-old Kathryn Knodel sat in her Redlands, California home watching television. Her stepfather, Erwin Knodel, was at work and her mother at a swim meet with her other children. Marie Knodel later told detectives that when she left the house, Kathryn wore "white twill shorts, a plaid shirt and had her hair tied in a pony-tail with a piece of red ribbon." When Marie returned home around 9:30 p.m., Kathryn was gone.

Marie thought she heard Kathryn talking and laughing with neighbors next door, so she didn't worry. At midnight, she left to pick up her husband from his job. When they returned, Marie checked on her daughter but couldn't find the teen. Even though it was early morning, the parents began knocking on doors in search of Kathryn.

An hour later, after awakening numerous grumpy neighbors, they had located no one who'd seen the girl.

While the Knodels continued their futile quest, Fred Lacy, a roofer, drove toward his home on Highway 99 from Indio to Palm Springs. Just before turning onto Ramon Road, he spied a half-naked body lying across the white line of the highway. Court documents state that he "did not stop but continued to Palm Springs where he reported the matter to the police department. The police proceeded to the spot described by the witness and found the body of a girl, quickly identified as Kathryn Knodel. The body was clad only in a brassiere and plaid blouse; it was lying on its back with the arms folded underneath. At that time, rigor mortis had begun to set in."

Funeral home personnel transported the corpse to the F. Arthur Cortner Mortuary in Redlands. There, Los Angeles "police chemist" Ray Pinker, on loan to Redlands PD, autopsied the remains. He determined that death had resulted from a skull fracture. He found six fracture wounds on top of Kathryn's head, possibly inflicted by a tire iron or some other hard object. Her jaw had been fractured in two places, and her face badly bruised. In addition, several teeth had been knocked out. 

Kathryn had been sexually violated--Pinker collected semen from her vagina. The chemist told reporters that her hymen had been torn. Oak leaves and red earth in her hair indicated the girl had been killed somewhere else, not along the dry desert road where she lay. Broken fingernails indicated Kathryn had struggled with her attacker. Evidence showed that the wound on the right back side of her head was the most severe. Pinker stated that it was the only single wound that could have caused death and "the girl might have survived had she received medical attention."

Thirty-seven-year-old John Chauncey Lawrance* quickly surfaced as the lead suspect. The brother of Marie Knodel, he visited often. Unlike his sister, he was well-known to local cops. He had deserted his common law wife after she became pregnant with their daughter. He owed a significant amount of child support and had been called into court recently. After agreeing to make payment, he was released. Lawrance had previously served hard time for armed robbery. At the time of the murder, he resided in San Rafael with a new girlfriend.

Four days after the crime, when Lawrance learned he was wanted, he turned himself in.

By the time he met with detectives, they knew a lot about his activities on the night of Kathryn's death.

Lawrance drove a distinctive 1936 Dodge, described as "dirty, rusted and faded." Witnesses reported seeing the car in various locations around the time the murder was thought to have been committed. At 11:30 p.m., his car got "stuck" on the railroad tracks in the nearby community of Garnet. Witnesses saw him struggling to remove a heavy bundle and dragging it about 30-40 yards down the side of the track. They watched him place the bundle in a wooded area then return back to the car where he persuaded a signal maintainer and fireman to help him dislodge his auto. Instead of going on his way, Lawrance drove alongside the track back to where he'd dragged the bundle. He was seen placing it in his car and speeding off.

As investigators checked out witness statements, they found blood in the drag marks beside the tracks. They believed Lawrance had taken Kathryn's body from the car so individuals helping him move the vehicle wouldn't see the dead girl.

Lawrance told investigators an unlikely story.

He had picked up Kathryn, he said, because she wanted to have "sexual relations" with him. He stated they had engaged in sexual acts twice before. After having sex this time, he said he had a flat tire. Katherine got out of the car and "squatted" beside him as he changed it. Lawrance stated that while he worked to raise the tire so he could replace it, the tire jack handle slipped, flew off, and struck Katherine in the head. She lay motionless just off the road, and he thought she was dead. Due to his police record, he decided to make the death look like a car accident. So he beat her with the jack handle and a thirty-pound rock later found near the crime scene with blood on it. He stated he took the body out to a lonely spot in the desert and dumped her onto the road.

The story was preposterous. Evidence showed Katherine had been raped and beaten severely. The girl had never shown any desire to hang around with the ne'er-do-well who sometimes visited her mother. The tear of her hymen, according to police chemist Pinker, proved that Katherine was a virgin before the night of her death. During trial, other medical experts agreed.

Investigators believed Lawrance had developed an obsession with the pretty young teen. He once attempted to give his old clunker to Katherine, but her mother wouldn't allow it. Some family members said he couldn't keep his eyes off her. On the night of the murder, he knew Katherine would be home alone and drove to the Knodel residence. There, detectives believed he either talked her into getting in his car or forced her. Lawrance then drove her to a secluded area and attempted to have sex with her. When she refused, cops said, he bludgeoned her to death. Pinker stated at trial that Lawrance likely had sex with Katherine after death.

The case fascinated Californians. Newspaper editors couldn't get enough, publishing numerous stories.

Kathryn's funeral was held at the Sacred Heart Church in Redlands. Three hundred people attended, including one hundred students from her high school. She was eulogized for having a zest for learning--in fact, he was a straight-A student. Kathryn had been a friend to many, said Father Casey, and no doubt rests in heaven. Meanwhile, her grief-stricken parents barely made it through the service without collapsing. She was buried at Hillside Cemetery in Redlands.

Police briefly suspected Lawrance may have committed additional murders, including that of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia. No other victims, however, were found that could be linked to the Redlands killer.

Lawrance was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. He appealed his conviction, but in a long, detailed enunciation of the facts known, the California Supreme Court affirmed his guilt and death sentence.

The NAPA Valley Register described his execution: "John Chauncey Lawrence (sic), 38-year-old Redlands sex killer, went to death in San Quentin's apple green gas chamber today hysterically shouting and protesting his innocence to his last gasp. The slight, balding killer of his 16-year-old niece trembled visibly and his face was chalk white when escorted into the octagonal death chamber...He was pronounced dead at 10:12 a.m."

NOTE: Most media at the time spelled Lawrance's name "Lawrence," which was wrong. People v Lawrance, 41 CAL.2nd 291 vigorously describes the case and the killer's rejected appeal.