GALVESTON - Capt. Christina White was known to the denizens of South Shore Harbor Marina as a generous, friendly presence. A slender woman with a warm smile, she would treat dockworkers to a cold Coke while they fueled her yacht, the Royal Princess, a 95-foot party boat that plies the waters of Clear Lake and Galveston Bay.
It was something White had been doing on and off since 1994, when she and her former husband arrived in the Houston area from California and went into the charter cruise business in League City.
That's where she crossed paths with Randy Pruitt, the owner of CRP Marine in Seabrook, who trained her to captain the big boats that ferry clients out onto the water for dinner cruises, weddings, Christmas parties and other events.
"I trained her, and she was one of the best captains," Pruitt said. "She was very competent."
Reviews of Majestic Ventures yacht charters posted online mostly bear that out, with new brides gushing about "Captain Christina" and the friendly crew that helped make the big day "special."
Captains of vessels that carry more than six paying passengers are required to renew their U.S. Coast Guard licenses every five years. White's was up for renewal early last year. She filled out a renewal application, submitted to the required physical exam and drug test and waited for her new license.That simple, routine act would prove to be her undoing, and set in motion the unraveling of a closely-held, 20-year-old secret.
On March 16, 2016, federal agents and local police swarmed into South Shore Harbor Marina and arrested White.
Harry Heidt had worked for the Lompoc (Calif.) Police Department for 33 years when he retired as a detective in 2004, still troubled by one of the few cases in all those years he believed he had not, despite a conviction, successfully cracked.
In March last year, Heidt was at his home in Lompoc when he got a call from the U.S. State Department about a possible break in the nearly 30-year-old case. It emailed him a photo of a woman it identified as 53-year-old Christina White, a League City cruise-ship captain who had applied to renew her mariner's license. When Heidt opened the file, staring at him from his computer screen was an attractive woman with light brown hair he knew as Cynthia Lynn Knox.
Heidt first crossed paths with Knox in November 1988, during the investigation of the murder of Harold "Skeeter" Lyerla, her husband at the time, who was found stabbed to death on the kitchen floor of his mobile home in Lompoc.
Before Knox and Lyerla were married, they lived in an apartment near Thousand Oaks, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb.
At the apartment pool, Knox caught the eye of John Litchfield, a self-styled investor who owned a ranch in nearby Agoura Hills. Smitten, he began sending her flowers even though she was seeing Lyerla, said Linda Pickarts, Lyerla's sister. He employed her as a house cleaner, and they began an affair in 1986 despite her continuing relationship with Lyerla, whom she married a year later, according to court records.
Litchfield was infatuated with Knox and jealous of Lyerla, Pickarts said, and eventually lured her away from her husband with a new Corvette, promises of an acting career and a rented apartment for her near his property, according to court documents.
The last person to see Lyerla alive was Kenneth McAllister, Lyerla's friend and golfing companion. McAllister testified that Lyerla confided that Litchfield had threatened to hire someone to kill him.
Lyerla met McAllister at 6 a.m. Nov. 21, 1988, for a round of golf. Two days later, a friend of Lyerla's found his body on the kitchen floor between the refrigerator and sink with a dish cloth over his face. He had been stabbed four times, twice in the back and twice in the front. The fatal thrust from the back cut through the liver and diaphragm before piercing his heart. Investigators determined he died after returning from his golf game.
Police found a kitchen knife with traces of blood in the kitchen sink and a single fingerprint on the kitchen faucet.
Heidt recalled that he first learned about the man who was convicted of killing Lyerla, Victor Perea, while questioning Knox. Perea was a landscaping contractor who did work for Litchfield and lived in a house on Litchfield's property until the day of the slaying.
"She was very nervous," Heidt said about his interview with Knox. "In talking to her in the interview room, I just asked her straight up, not knowing anything about Perea, I asked who was the meanest bad guy who would do something like this? She said there was this guy working for John (Litchfield) who is kind of mean."
Perea had never met Lyerla, but his fingerprint matched the fingerprint on the faucet, and he was arrested and charged with the murder. Perea's mother-in-law phoned him in jail to wish him happy birthday and he told her that he had been "set up" and that "a rich rancher dangled money in front of him to frighten or scare this man," according to court documents.
Litchfield bought Knox a $12,500 diamond ring and married her on May 6, 1989, just as Perea's murder trial got underway. Knox disappeared and could not be subpoenaed to testify. Litchfield took the Fifth Amendment during his testimony, invoking his constitutional right not to incriminate himself.
A jury convicted Perea of first-degree murder on May 20, 1989, after a 16-day trial. He was sentenced to 56 years imprisonment. Heidt remained convinced that Knox and Litchfield were somehow involved, and he retired from the Lompoc police department with the case still open. Knox filed for divorce from Litchfield two months after Perea's trial, leading the attorney for Lyerla's family, Kirkland Garey, who now lives in Michigan, to suspect that they married to avoid having to testify against each other.
About the same time, Knox and Lyerla's 13-month-old daughter, Kajsa, drowned in a shallow fishpond.
Harold Lyerla's mother, Marilyn Marks, sued Knox and Litchfield in 1992, accusing them of conspiring to kill Harold and Kajsa Lyerla in order to obtain $279,000 from Harold Lyerla's life insurance policy. The lawsuit accused Knox of killing her daughter to obtain the half of the life insurance assigned to her.
The case eventually was dismissed after an appeals court ruled that Marks did not have legal standing to sue.
The same year the civil lawsuit was filed, Knox obtained the birth certificate of an infant named Christina White, who died in 1965, and used that document to establish a new identity. With a new Social Security number, according to the indictment against her, she was "also able to obtain driver's licenses, passports, mariner licenses and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) documentation allowing her to enter secure port areas."
Knox, now calling herself Christina White, and Litchfield ended up in Houston in 1994 and started a cruise business with offices on Marina Bay Drive in League City, offering yacht charters and dinner cruises out of Kemah and Galveston.
As Knox and Litchfield built their new lives, investigators kept the Lyerla murder case alive, repeatedly visiting Perea in prison. Perea maintained his innocence until a 2012 parole hearing, when, according to a transcript obtained by the Houston Chronicle, he claimed that Litchfield paid him $4,000 to kill Lyerla.
In Perea's account to the parole board, he was drinking and snorting cocaine before he drove to Lyerla's mobile home in Lompoc. He told the board that Litchfield had been "brainwashing" him into believing that Lyerla was abusing his wife and daughter. "I went there under a delusion that I was being told by (Litchfield) of the horrible things that (Lyerla) was doing to his daughter and wife, which were … I found out later they were not true," he said.
As he left the murder scene, he saw Knox's car drive by, he told the board.
Perea's statement to the parole board was inconsistent with the evidence in several respects, and prosecutors can't use his confession, said former Santa Barbara County Assistant District Attorney Lynn Cutler, who prosecuted Parea.
"Mounting a case with a convicted murderer is problematic," Cutler said.
The case remained in limbo until Christina White applied to the U.S. Coast Guard last year to renew her mariner's license and the life she had so carefully built began to unravel.
The Coast Guard would not say what aroused suspicion about the application. Knox's attorney, John Floyd III, said her fingerprints on an application for renewal of her mariner's license were linked to the investigation into the slaying of her former husband. Exactly how the link was made is unclear because Knox's fingerprints taken by Lompoc police were never digitized, said Heidt, the detective who investigated the Lyerla slaying. The U.S. Attorney's Office would not comment.
In March this year, a year after she was arrested, Knox pleaded guilty to aggravated identity theft and making false statements in a passport application and remains free on bail until her sentencing, scheduled for July 12. She faces a mandatory two years in prison for the identity theft and up 10 years imprisonment for making a false statement.
After Knox's arrest, Litchfield posted a $15,000 bail for her release on condition that he forfeit $250,000 if she flees or fails to appear in court. Litchfield said he does not know her whereabouts. Asked about Perea's confession, Litchfield said Perea was untrustworthy. "If that was a true statement, then 20-some years later don't you think the police would have done something about it?"
Harold Lyerla's family remains convinced that Knox and Litchfield hired Perea to kill him."They are so obviously guilty," said Pickarts, Lyerla's sister. And both of them remain suspects in the minds of Cutler and Heidt.
"Anybody that heard the case would have to believe that at least John Litchfield was involved and probably Cynthia," Heidt said. Santa Barbara County Assistant District Attorney Stephen Foley is now handling the criminal case, and detectives from California have interviewed Knox here.
"At this point there is not sufficient evidence to file a case against Cynthia (Knox) or John Litchfield," Foley said. Litchfield, 69, defended Knox, saying she assumed a false identity to escape harassment by California authorities and the family of her slain husband, he said. "The facts are that in the situation in California she was getting death threats," Litchfield said. "The police were instigating people to stalk her."
Knox's attorney advised her to disappear, Litchfield said.
"She did not in any way use that name to harm anybody," he said. Neither he nor Knox had anything to do with the death of Harold Lyerla, he said.