No trace of suspect 3 years after baffling murder

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Fennville — The alleged strangling of his wife in 2015 was just the first of a string of unusual behavior by Butch Knight.

Cindy Lou Stalley hugs mother Carolyn Clore last month. Sara Knight, another of Clore’s daughters, was slain in January 2015. Knight’s husband has been missing since, suspected of the crime.

Police say the Fennville man then covered the body with a sheet, called law enforcement authorities about the death and left phone numbers so they could contact relatives of Sara Knight. He later sent money to have the body cremated.

Despite tipping off the cops, Knight didn’t seem worried about being caught, according to police. He drove to Maine and stayed at a hotel for four days, chatting up the owner and other guests. And then he vanished without a trace.

Knight said police would never catch him, and almost three years later he has kept his word. His trail has long since gone cold. Instead of tips and leads, police say they’re left with questions: Where is Knight? Is he still alive? Did he freeze to death while trying to cross the Maine-Canada border? Why did the retired truck driver kill his wife, whom he seemed to treat lovingly before and after her death?

“It’s really frustrating,” said Detective Craig Gardiner of the Allegan County Sheriff’s Office. “I’m sure the family is frustrated, even more than us.”

Indeed, relatives of victim Sara Knight, 48, are exasperated. They don’t understand how a bald guy who is 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds has gone undetected. They also point out he’s 69, diabetic and hard of hearing.

“I don’t understand why they haven’t gotten him,” said Sara’s mother, Carolyn Clore. “He told them what he did, even wrote me a letter. He’s making a fool of them.”

Before all the questions and sadness, there were love letters and the outside appearance of happiness.

Police say Butch Knight strangled Sara, covered her body with a sheet and then called law enforcement about the death.

Butch and Sara Knight met when she was taking care of his parents as a respiratory therapist. Despite the 18-year age difference, they were married in 2001. Both had two children from earlier marriages.

They wrote each other tender notes throughout the 13-year marriage, relatives said. Sara loved Valentine’s Day, so each year Butch got her an oversized card. He called her honey bunny. She called him her everyday valentine.

Butch was an avid outdoorsman who got Sara interested in hiking and kayaking, said her daughter, Roxanne Cameron. Living in Maine for six years, they went camping and mountain biking, skiing and snowshoeing.

“It was a real true love story,” Cameron said.

‘Um, I strangled her’

It ended in January 2015. An emergency dispatcher for Allegan County received a call about a body in a home near Fennville. The caller, speaking matter-of-factly, didn’t identify himself or the victim.

“OK, um, I strangled her,” he said. “She is dead, and she is laying on the living room floor. You need to get law enforcement out there to do whatever they do with dead bodies.”

The dispatcher asked the caller for his name.

“That’s not important,” he said. “I’m getting ready to leave the country.”

Police first thought it was a hoax. What killer calls in his killing?

They found Sara’s prone body in the middle of the living-room floor. Placed on a table near her was a folder with phone numbers and addresses of relatives.

The caller’s voice was later identified as Butch Knight’s by his son. The coroner estimated Sara had died two days before the Jan. 13 phone call.

During the two days, Knight emptied their bank account of several thousand dollars, police said. He pawned a rifle and bought a Glock 22 semiautomatic pistol and 40 rounds of ammunition from a firing range near Grand Rapids. The call was made from a cellphone near Ann Arbor, police said.

On Jan. 15, Knight checked into a motel in Rangeley, Maine, which is 15 miles from the Canada border. The remote area is surrounded by mountains, forests and lakes. The couple had previously lived 60 miles south in Turner.

Changed appearance

At Town & Lake Motel, Knight paid cash and used an assumed name. When the motel owner asked what brought him to Maine, Knight said he was snowmobiling, but he didn’t seem to have a snowmobile, the owner later told a television reporter.

Knight ditched his Subaru Forester in the parking lot of a Walmart 35 miles from the motel and apparently hitchhiked back, police said. Surveillance video from the store showed he had dyed his gray hair and mustache. With a Russian hat and thick black mustache, he looked like Joseph Stalin.

On Jan. 17, one day before what would have been the couple’s 14th anniversary, Knight mailed a package to Sara’s mother, police said. It contained $2,000 wrapped in newspapers and a letter asking the family to honor Sara’s wish to be cremated.

“That’s exactly him. He wanted the last bit of control over her body,” said Sara’s friend Julia Haverinen of South Paris, Maine. “He’s the most controlling human being there is.”

The rambling, four-page note also excoriated Carolyn Clore and other relatives for a longtime family rift that had distanced Sara from them, Clore said. Sara had fought with the family over the disciplining of her rambunctious daughter, Angelica.

Clore gave the letter to police, who declined to share it with The Detroit News.

The Subaru, eventually shrouded with snow, wasn’t discovered until Jan. 31, police said. The license plate had been removed. After connecting the car to Knight, police began searching the store’s surveillance tape.

By then Knight was long gone. He hasn’t been seen since checking out of the motel Jan. 19.

But before disappearing, he had asked locals about snowmobile trails and how long it would take to walk to a mountain seven miles away, police said.

Where is Butch?

The search for Harold Wesley “Butch” Knight has taken police from Maine to California, from Texas to Alaska.

They visited several Amish communities near Rangeley to see if he was hiding there. They had discovered books about the Amish in Knight’s pole barn.

Sara’s family tried to help. They sent hundreds of fliers to places the couple had visited in several states. They sold T-shirts to raise $2,800 for a reward for Knight’s capture.

“No Evil Goes Unpunished,” read the pink shirts. “Justice for Sara Lee.”

The slain woman’s daughter tried to provoke Knight by sending him private and public messages on social media. One was in the form of a poem. “Roses are red it was my moms mad love for you but now her love is cold like the cell that will soon hold you,” Roxanne Cameron wrote on Facebook in 2015.

Several people have said they spotted Knight in the intervening years, but none of the claims panned out.

If police had to take a wild guess, they said Knight could be in Canada. But they also said he could be dead.

It had been snowing heavily at the time he disappeared. If he had tried to slip across the border on foot, he may have frozen to death, said Detective Gardiner. If he had a vehicle, police aren’t aware of it.

Rift in marriage?

In the letter to Clore, Knight gave a reason for the murder, but neither the police nor her family believe it.

He said he was involved with drugs and his wife had seen something she shouldn’t have, said Clore. She couldn’t remember if Knight said he was selling or using drugs.

Police said they haven’t found any connection between Knight and narcotics.

“Everything he says turns out to be the opposite,” Cameron said about her stepfather.

She said she may know why her mother was killed. She believes Sara was getting ready to leave Butch.

After graduating from the University of Southern Maine in 2012, Sara couldn’t find a job as a respiratory therapist in the state. So she began looking in Michigan.

While she interviewed for jobs in Michigan, Butch remained in Maine. She found a job in Grand Rapids in 2013 and the couple moved into a home near Fennville the following year.

Since the murder, Cameron has discovered a bank account for her mom that Knight apparently didn’t know about. Also, Sara had asked a friend about moving in with her, the friend told Cameron.

But Cameron doesn’t know why her mother wanted to leave the marriage. She didn’t know if her mom was involved with another man.

She said her mom wasn’t one to discuss personal troubles. Indeed, Sara’s Facebook page gave a glossy picture of her marriage.

“Happy Anniversary to my sweet husband!” she wrote on Facebook in January 2014. “A few years ago we said ‘I do’ and changed our lives forever!”

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell