Arrest made in death of girl, 9

Published April 14, 1996|Updated Sept. 15, 2005

Police charged a neighbor of Jessica Knott on Saturday with killing the girl, saying he lured the 9-year-old to her death with a dog named Punkin and a Happy Meal.

Detectives said the voice of a man telling 911 dispatchers where to find the fourth-grader's body is that of James Edward Crow Jr., 34.

Crow was charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping. He was being held without bail on a suicide watch Saturday at the Seminole County Jail.

"If he's the one who did it, I'm just glad they got him off the streets before he hurt anyone else," said Jessica's father, Kevin, 44.

Crow was questioned several times in the week since Jessica's death, and he admitted seeing the girl about 5:15 p.m. April 5. Jessica was last seen reading a book outside her building at the Los Altos luxury apartments at about 6 p.m, police documents show.

Crow denied killing her. However, according to a police affidavit, as Crow was being taken to the police station on Tuesday, he asked an investigator for the state attorney's office: "Have you ever transported anyone that murdered a 9-year-old girl before?"

When Jessica was found just before 10 p.m. at a city pumping station on Montgomery Road, she was covered with hairs that matched those on Crow's sharpei dog, Punkin, and hairs in Crow's truck, records show.

A medical examiner determined that Jessica died of suffocation from a large hand placed over her face, documents state. Police say she was not sexually molested.

Neighbors said Crow, known to them as "Eddie," frequently walked his dog around the complex, talking to children of all ages. He and his wife, Karen, 39, a nurse temporarily stationed at Florida Hospital Altamonte since November, have no children. Crow is unemployed.

"Everybody knew this guy, and he knew everybody else. You don't want to think it was him," Lesli Maffia, 25.

Based on residents' tips, police focused on Crow early in the investigation. Monday, they searched his car and apartment at the Los Altos complex, where he lived a few buildings from Jessica's apartment.

Police found a coloring book and a McDonald's Happy Meal bag in Crow's Chevrolet Blazer. An autopsy revealed that Jessica had eaten within an hour of her death.

Police also noticed that the Blazer's tires were new and discovered that they were bought Monday at Sam's Club, replacing tires that were just 18 months old. A clerk at Sam's Club told police the tread on the old tires was not worn out, according to the affidavit.

Police found one of the old tires, but it did not match tread castings that were taken at the pump house, records state. The other three old tires have not been located.

Police say other clues point to Crow. When Jessica was found, she was missing one tennis shoe. A maid told authorities she saw a child's tennis shoe in the apartment on Monday and threw it in the dog's cage, but the shoe was not found during a search of Crow's apartment on Tuesday.

The 911 tape, which police would not release, is considered a crucial piece of evidence. The call, saying where Jessica could be found, was made to police before Jessica was reported missing. Jessica's mother, Margaret "Peggy" Knott, 37, listened to the tape on Monday and said the voice sounded like Crow's.

Karen Crow's brother, Michael Nelson of Tennessee, said Crow has never been in trouble. A woman who answered the phone at Crow's parents' Tennessee home said he was a "kind and gentle person" and must be innocent.

Crow's father "wanted me to tell you that there's no way his son did this," the friend said. "And his mother feels the same way. They're in absolute shock. They can't believe it."

Neighbors said they felt some relief but would not relax until they are sure that Crow is guilty. Meanwhile, they are keeping a keener eye on their children and considering a Neighborhood Watch.

Jessica's parents say they know she was frightened but hope she didn't suffer.

"Basically, I'm still numb," Peggy Knott said. "I feel like I'm in a nightmare, and I'm afraid of what the weeks will bring as far as missing my child and dealing with the loss."