A cruise ship captain in Texas led a double life for two decades after the murder of her husband—only to have her identity exposed while renewing her mariner’s license.
California native Cynthia Lynn Knox, 53, will spend three years in federal prison for stealing the identity of a dead baby to obtain U.S. passports, mariner’s licenses, and TSA credentials for the operation of her party yachts.
Since 1994, Knox had lived as Christina White, or “Captain Christina” to the revelers on her Houston-area luxury yachts. But her reign aboard the Royal Princess party ship would end soon after she applied to renew her license with the U.S. Coast Guard.
When federal prosecutors announced her arrest in March 2016, one retired detective and the family of her first husband, Harold “Skeeter” Lyerla, saw a glimmer of hope.
They believe Knox and John Litchfield—her second husband and yacht business partner—are connected to Lyerla’s fatal stabbing in 1988.
Indeed, when the feds interrogated Knox about her identity theft scheme, investigators from the Santa Barbara area arrived for questioning, too.
Victor Perea, who was convicted of slaying the 29-year-old Lyerla, was a landscaper for Litchfield and lived on his ranch. At a 2012 parole hearing, Perea claimed Litchfield convinced him to do it and that he saw Knox’s car drive past when he fled the crime scene, the Houston Chronicle reported.
Asked about the Lyerla murder, a Santa Barbara County prosecutor told The Daily Beast the case is still open but there’s no case pending against Knox or Litchfield.
“I can tell you that there’s not a statute of limitations for murder in California,” said assistant district attorney Stephen Foley. “And I can tell you that there certainly is an interesting connection between them [Knox and Litchfield] and the person who did the actual killing and was convicted of it.”
Foley said investigators with the Lompoc, California, police department are still seeking leads in the Lyerla murder case.
To Lyerla’s sister, Linda Pickarts, the pieces of the puzzle don’t add up.
“Her and John say they have nothing to do with Skeeter’s murder. Victor Perea didn’t even know Skeeter and he was living on John Litchfield’s ranch. That’s what blows me away,” Pickarts said. “It’s just like there’s a piece missing somewhere.”
When she heard of Knox’s happy new life in Houston, where her clients and crew adored her, Pickards said she was in disbelief.
“Everybody in Houston apparently thinks she’s just wonderful, and we’re thinking, ‘Huh, if they only knew the real Cynthia,’” Pickarts said.
The lovebirds met at a dirt bike race.
Harold “Skeeter” Lyerla, a motocross enthusiast since age 10 or 11, was competing in an event somewhere in California as Cynthia Knox watched from the sidelines.
They later moved in together, at Lyerla’s mother’s home. Knox’s father kicked her out of his house at age 18, and her new beau set up a room for her, Pickarts said.
They later relocated to a Thousand Oaks apartment complex, where Knox caught the eye of a much older businessman as she lay by the swimming pool.
Sixteen years her senior, John Litchfield wooed her with flowers and promises of an acting and modeling career. He also bought her a flashy new Corvette—and a rented apartment near his ranch, the Chronicle reported.
Litchfield hired Knox to clean his house in 1986, and they had an affair, according to Pickarts.
Litchfield did not return calls or emails left by The Daily Beast.
Lyerla believed what he wanted to believe about Knox’s relationship with Litchfield, Pickarts told The Daily Beast.
“In the beginning, he wanted to believe it was business. I think as time went on, he knew she was having an affair. I remember him and Litchfield and Cynthia were together, and Skeeter said, ‘You choose: me or him.’ And she chose Skeeter,” Pickarts said.
Despite their romantic upheaval, Knox and Lyerla married in Las Vegas in July 1987. Their baby girl, Kajsa, arrived nine months later.
“Everybody tried to tell him, and it’s like, he just didn’t wanna listen,” Pickarts told The Daily Beast. “My mom would try and tell him, and all of his friends.”
“He kept on trying to make it work. She was really into money and possessions. He was just a machinist but got her a boat. He was so tapped out just trying to please her,” Pickarts said of Lyerla, the youngest of four siblings.
At one point, Lyerla and Knox moved back in with his mother, Marilyn Marks, as he saved up to buy a modular home in Lompoc.
Pickarts said Marks only tolerated Knox, whom she allegedly caught in a closet secretly gabbing on the phone with Litchfield. The mother warned Lyerla that his new bride was dishonest, but it didn’t convince him to leave the bad romance.
“He was a good kid. Just really got into dirt bikes, had a sense of humor, was well-liked by everybody. Just a sweet guy,” Pickarts said of her brother.
“It’s just sad because… Cynthia walked into our family, destroyed it, and left, and got away with everything,” she added.
According to Pickarts, Litchfield was jealous of Lyerla and would throw eggs at his car and put sugar in his gas tank. (These allegations could not be confirmed by The Daily Beast, and Litchfield was never charged with any crime.)
Pickarts’ daughter, Tammy Lyerla, also remembers spending time at her grandmother’s home with Knox on Sundays.
“I think Skeeter loved her so much and wanted a family, that he believed her when she would tell him, ‘I’m not having an affair. He [Litchfield] is just trying to help me with my modeling career,” Tammy Lyerla said.
“All he wanted was a home and a family. He bought her a mobile home in Lompoc, [but] everything my uncle did wasn’t good enough. She always told Skeeter, ‘I’m going to hang out where the rich people are,’” the niece said.
Litchfield assured Knox she was going to be famous and even had a shutterbug snap shots of the young blonde in a bikini, Tammy Lyerla said.
When Knox moved into Lyerla’s mother’s home, she brought along an enlarged photo of herself modeling the swimsuit. “It was a huge photograph like some kind of painting by Monet. It was hanging in Skeeter’s bedroom,” Tammy Lyerla recalls.
“She acted like she deserved the best. The fact is… she didn’t work a day in her life for anything.”
As their marital strife continued, Cynthia Knox and Harold “Skeeter” Lyerla separated in the months after their daughter was born in April 1988.
Cynthia and baby Kajsa moved in with Litchfield, a moneyed investor with a ranch in Agoura Hills, and Skeeter stayed at their Lompoc residence.
In November 1988, Lyerla was found dead. He was 29 years old.
According to the Chronicle, which first detailed Cynthia Knox’s past life, Lyerla had played golf with a friend before he was murdered.
His buddy Kenneth McAllister testified that Lyerla confided in him about Litchfield, who he said had threatened to have him killed.
Lyerla and McAllister met at 6 a.m. on Nov. 21 for a round of golf. Investigators said Lyerla was stabbed to death after their game.
Another friend found Lyerla dead on his kitchen floor two days later, after Cynthia Knox called and asked him to check on Lyerla.
Lyerla died of a fatal stab to the back, a thrust that pierced his liver and diaphragm before reaching his heart, the Chronicle reported.
Investigators caught onto the killer, Victor Perea, after finding a bloody kitchen knife and single fingerprint in the sink.
Perea was a landscaping contractor who worked on Litchfield’s property and worked for him, retired Lompoc detective Harry Heidt told the Chronicle.
Heidt said that when he interviewed Knox, she appeared “very nervous.” To this day, he believes she and Litchfield had something to do with Lyerla’s death.
“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,” Heidt told the Chronicle.
The landscaper was convicted of Lyerla’s murder in May 1989 and sentenced to 56 years behind bars. (During a 2012 parole hearing, Perea claimed that Litchfield gave him $4,000 to kill Lyerla and that Litchfield convinced him that Lyerla was an abuser, the Chronicle reported. Perea’s parole was denied.)
Soon after the trial began, Litchfield proposed to Knox with a $12,500 diamond ring and they got hitched. Then Knox disappeared and thereby avoided being subpoenaed to testify in her first husband’s murder case.
Two months later, Knox and Litchfield divorced. And Knox and Lyerla’s daughter was found dead.
Kajsa Lyerla, only 15 months old, had drowned in a shallow pond at the Santa Barbara residence of her maternal grandparents in July 1989.
Kirkland Garey, a lawyer for the Lyerla family, said the story was that the baby opened a sliding door and walked into the pond when no one was looking.
Harold Lyerla’s mother, Marilyn Marks, believed Kajsa’s death was no accident, however.
In 1990, Marks filed a lawsuit against Knox, Litchfield, and others alleging the wrongful death of her son and granddaughter.
An amended complaint accused the defendants of violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act—alleging that they conspired to kill the father and daughter for life insurance payouts.
Those checks totaled $278,520, according to the complaint, filed in the Superior Court of California in Santa Barbara County.
The lawsuit accuses Knox and Litchfield of renting storage spaces under fake names to hide incriminating evidence, including the benefits manual for the Santa Barbara Research Center, a division of Hughes Aircraft Company, where Lyerla worked.
Knox and Litchfield married in Las Vegas so she wouldn’t be forced to testify against her new husband, or vice versa, about Lyerla’s murder, the complaint alleges.
The couple also made interstate phone calls and used interstate wire facilities as part of their scheme to hide evidence, the lawsuit claims. This allegedly includes calls between Litchfield and Knox—when she fled the state during Perea’s trial—to make arrangements for their Sin City nuptials.
The lawsuit claims that Lyerla’s former employer advised Knox that her 8-month-old daughter was a co-beneficiary under her deceased hubby’s life insurance policies and that the girl was was entitled to receive $139,260.
Shockingly, the complaint alleges that Knox tried to kill her own daughter three times after this revelation—an allegation Knox’s attorney denied. (Those allegations don’t appear to have been investigated by police.)
In November 1988, Knox administered an overdose of Advil in an attempt to kill Kajsa, but she survived, the lawsuit alleges.
In January 1989, the mother placed Kajsa in a bathtub full of water in an attempt to drown her and obtain the baby’s life insurance proceeds, court papers allege.
Then, according to the lawsuit, Knox “intentionally and feloniously drowned Kajsa in a fishpond on her father’s premises”—an “intentional killing” that allowed her to rake in all proceeds from Lyerla’s life insurance policies.
After Kajsa’s death, Knox received $25,000 from a third life insurance policy, the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit also accused Knox of fraudulently obtaining widow’s benefits from the Social Security Administration while she was married to Litchfield—and as misrepresenting her finances and marital status to obtain educational loans.
An appellate judge, however, tossed the case after ruling Marks had no standing to bring a wrongful death suit because she is not considered a sole heir—at the time the only person permitted to bring such legal action.
Knox’s current attorney, John T. Floyd, said he saw zero evidence to support allegations that Knox was involved in the deaths of her husband or her child.
“Cynthia had nothing to do with the murder of her husband decades ago,” Floyd told The Daily Beast. “Allegations that she may have had something to do with the death of her daughter [were] unsubstantiated and offensive.”
Floyd said Knox fled California for Texas because she was tired of the intense police scrutiny and harassment from Lyerla’s family. “She was getting anonymous death threats by mail or by phone. That, coupled with what she was getting from the police, pushed her over the edge,” Floyd said. (When asked about this claim, Lyerla’s kin denied harassing Knox or Litchfield.)
By 1994, Knox had adopted a new identity altogether: Captain Christina.
Litchfield and Knox stuck together, even after they divorced following Perea’s trial.
They moved to the Houston area together and launched a yacht charter and dinner cruise business in 1994. Their fleet grew to include yachts for weddings, with the waters of Clear Lake and Galveston Bay as a backdrop.
But Knox wasn’t known by her real name. At her company, Majestic Ventures, everyone knew her as Christina White.
Online reviews show praise for “Captain Christina” and “Captain John” for making sure their wedding ceremonies went off without a hitch.
Knox, who helmed the 95-foot Royal Princess, was “one of the best captains,” according to the man who trained her to steer ships.
Randy Pruitt, who owns CRP Marine, told the Chronicle that Knox—known to him as Christina White—was “very competent.”
As Christina White, Knox had easily obtained and renewed her mariner’s license four times over the span of 15 years. She also successfully acquired TSA documentation for entry into secure port areas.
When “Christina White” reapplied for her U.S. passport in 2015 and her mariner’s license last year, the feds began probing her true identity. Authorities checked her fingerprints and linked them to prints taken as part of Lyerla’s murder investigation.
As part of the probe, retired Lompoc detective Heidt identified a photo of “Christina White” as Cynthia Knox.
According to court papers, Knox obtained a copy of a birth certificate for a Christina White in July 1992 and used it to obtain a Social Security number under that name.
The real Christina White, however, was born in June 1965 in Santa Ana, California, and died the same day, and thus did not have a Social Security number.
After snagging the birth certificate, Knox obtained a driver’s license in Arizona using the stolen identity, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Houston.
Knox was arrested in March 2016 and admitted she was not Christina White but said someone else obtained White’s birth certificate for her. That month, she pleaded guilty to charges of making false statements in a passport application and aggravated identity theft.
In July, Knox was sentenced to 12 months for the phony passport and 24 months for identity theft. After her three-year sentence in federal prison, she will have one year of supervised release.
As the feds questioned Knox about her identity theft, California investigators flew to Texas to interrogate her about Lyerla’s death.
“There is no doubt she was leading a double life of sorts. She had changed her name and her identity to get away from a real bad situation in California,” her attorney, John T. Floyd, said. “It finally caught back up with her.”
“I believe she was treated very harshly by the local U.S. Attorney’s Office [in Houston] in an attempt to get her to cooperate to an extent that she just couldn’t do,” Floyd added.
Floyd said he and his client met with investigators from Santa Barbara who weren’t satisfied with her statements. He believes they wanted Knox to implicate Litchfield.
“When we would go over the story of her husband and his murder, she was moved to tears. When the authorities questioned her about her child, the poor lady fell apart,” Floyd said.
“I think she’s suffered a lot through these tragedies. That, coupled with the stress of that investigation, made her do something that was very stupid,” Floyd said of Knox stealing the identity of a dead baby. “It seemed like a good idea at the time, back when you could get away with this kind of thing. No internet. No databases checking these things up. It’s something she lived to regret.”
When asked why Litchfield and Knox divorced shortly after Perea’s trial, Floyd said the couple rushed to get married and it didn’t work out.
“He’s not her husband. They were married for a very brief time… during that murder investigation 20 years ago,” Floyd said.
Floyd said Knox and Litchfield were business partners but not romantically linked.
“Quite honestly, she is relieved this thing is all over and that she can start fresh without having to look over her shoulder all the time,” Floyd said. “She’s just dedicated to completing this sentence and getting out of there as soon as she can, then moving on with her life and with her true identity.
“And not being afraid of who she is.”