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‘Under Cover Of Knight’ explores lingering questions about mysterious death in small-town Texas

How well do you know your neighbors? For the few folks who knew Sue Knight in Athens, Texas, that question is still haunting them decades later.

She seemed to pop up in town out of nowhere, with no connections to Northeast Texas and a charming British accent. But her sudden death was even more mysterious – leading to suspicious phone calls and a sheriff’s dire warning.

It’s a story producers Jenna Burnett and Caroline Hamilton couldn’t let go, and they follow it in a new podcast called “Under Cover of Knight.” Burnet and Hamilton spoke with the Texas Standard about a few of the mysteries surrounding Sue Knight – including if that was even her real name.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I don’t think I’ve ever heard this story before, but it’s quite amazing. Jenna, how did you come across it, and what made you want to go out to Athens and dig deeper?

Jenna Burnett: Well, actually, I’m born and raised in Texas. Been here my whole life. And when I saw a Texas story come across my desk, I was thrilled, very excited to jump in. It really all started because Heather, one of our executive producers, grew up in Athens – about an hour and a half outside of Dallas – and knew the man who was named the executor of Sue’s estate after she died – Sue Knight, the person whose mystery we’re trying to solve.

Caroline, what was your reaction when you heard about this story?

Caroline Hamilton: You know, I was really fascinated. There’s so many interesting tidbits in this story that just really draw you in. There’s a call from the CIA. There’s, you know, all these mysterious things that happen. And I just had to know more. I had to find out what was going on in this town.

So you start out this story with the executor of Sue’s will, Steven and his wife, Jamie. Who are they, and why are they so important to this story?

Jenna Burnett: Steve and Jamie really didn’t know Sue that well. They knew her sort of casually. Sue had rented from Steve when he was working as a property manager at one point. So they were really surprised to find that Steve had been named the executor of Sue’s estate. And really, he’s the one who started experiencing all of the strangeness around her case.

After she died, he received a phone call from someone saying that they were from the CIA and wanted to take custody of the body. Similar story: Receiving a phone call from someone saying they were from Scotland Yard. And then he got sort of a warning from the the sheriff, who was his friend. He asked him to look into it, and the sheriff said, “you should wash your hands of this and walk away.”

And it’s bothered him ever since. It’s been 25 years. And so now he is really invested in finding out what actually happened there.

How long ago did this happen?

Jenna Burnett: Sue died in 1996.

So this has been an unsolved mystery since then. You know, the folks who knew her, who you talked to, Jenna, how did they describe Sue when she was alive?

Jenna Burnett: Isn’t that a great question? So many people have so many different stories. Some people say that she was very secretive and very quiet and stayed to herself. Other people say she was the friendliest person you’d ever meet. So that’s part of what we’re trying to do in this podcast, is sort of paint a portrait of this woman who’s been gone for so long and who so many people didn’t know very well.

Caroline, Athens has a population of something like, I think just under 13,000 people – pretty small place. When you visited and saw where Sue lived her last days, did it help being in that city when you were trying to untangle the mystery, or did you have just more questions? What were you hoping to get when you went there? 

Caroline Hamilton: Yeah, I mean, I think Athens is definitely a character in this story. The town itself, the people that live there are all a part of this. Going to Athens, seeing Sue’s house, seeing where she worked, where she lived … the interesting thing to me is, why did she pick this place? It is a relatively small town, but it’s filled with, you know, hardworking, well-meaning people.

So that was really the question that popped into my head going to Athens: What about this appealed to a British woman coming to America and finding a place to settle?

Why do you think the people you talked with continue to have these lingering questions about Sue’s death? It’s got to have to do with the fact that nobody really knows what happened, why she appeared and ultimately disappeared, I guess.

Jenna Burnett: That absolutely feels spot-on to me. It’s stuck with these people for so long because so many of them knew and loved her but always had questions. And I think, you know, it’s always shocking when you lose someone unexpectedly and at such a young age. She was only 43 when she died. And so there are natural questions there. But just the added element of being from the U.K., landing in a sort of small-town Texas area and making a life for herself there.

And there are things like, she was a sharpshooter. Steve found medals in her house, and when he opened her door, there were teddy bears in various states of dismemberment all around the house and very little furniture. And you know how small-town Texas is – like, everyone sort of starts talking about it, and suddenly all of the pieces start connecting.

When Sue died, were there any signs of wrongdoing or that she might have died a death that was unnatural? What was the cause of death listed, by the way? 

Caroline Hamilton: There was no sign of wrongdoing. She was found deceased in her home with the doors locked. Her official cause of death was ruled a suicide. And I think that was honestly even more shocking for a lot of her friends, family, loved ones. And so because of that, there’s been a lot of, well, I would say a lack of closure around her death. And I think that’s just bothered people ever since.

Something that strikes me – I guess this is the reporter side coming up – but are we sure that her name was “Sue Knight”? Is there any question about that? 

Jenna Burnett: There are definitely questions about her name. In trying to nail down her past, we’ve uncovered several last names. She always went by “Sue” or “Susan,” but we have “Perkins,” “Ingersoll,” “Wilmot,” “Knight,” of course, “Hogan,” “Sinclair” at one point … she had several different names over the course of her life.

Well, that raises some red flags, to say the least. Did she ever say what she was doing before she came to Athens, Texas? Did she have a, I don’t want to say “cover story,” but my goodness, if she had a bunch of aliases, you got to wonder. 

Jenna Burnett: Truly, she had a bunch of aliases. She had a bunch of identification with those aliases. It seems like she was going by many of those names throughout the course of her life, not just one at a time. We definitely dig into in the course of the podcast where she came from, and it was really hard to track down because really when she came to Athens, she pretty much had cut ties with almost everybody from her past. So that was definitely a challenge that we faced.

Well, without putting out any spoilers, what should the audience expect over these upcoming 10 episodes? I mean, it sounds very much like a search to get to the bottom of someone’s death and all kinds of surprises along along the way. 

Jenna Burnett: Absolutely. To get to the bottom of someone’s death and to get to the bottom of someone’s life – who was she, really? What did she spend her time doing? Who did she really know? Who did she trust?

Over the course of 10 episodes, you can expect to hear us digging into those mysteries. You can expect to hear directly from the people who experienced them at the time in real life. So a lot of this podcast is narrator-less; you definitely hear us in conversation and in conversation with the people we interview, but most of this story comes from the mouths of the people who lived it.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.

Kristen Cabrera is a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, where she saw snow for the first time and walked a mile through a blizzard. A native of the Rio Grande Valley, she graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American (now UTRGV) and is a former KUT News intern. She has been working as a freelance audio producer, writer and podcaster. Email her: kcabrera@kut.org