née Cross (born March 12, 1946) is a mother and murderer,
known for severely abusing and murdering two of her children while
using the others to facilitate and cover up her crimes.
Theresa Cross was born in Sacramento,
California to Jim Cross and Swannie Gay. She was the youngest
child in the family and very devoted to her mother. When her
mother died in 1961, she went into a depression. At the age of 16
she married Clifford Clyde Sanders. They had a son Howard
together, but fought from time to time. This ended when she shot
him dead in 1964 while they were living in Galt, California. She
was tried and found not guilty. She was pregnant at the time and
would shortly deliver her second child Sheila in 1965.
In 1966 she married Robert Knorr, seven months
pregnant with their child. Her third child was Suesan born in
September, 1966. And her fourth, born a year later was William.
Her fifth born in 1968 was Robert.
She focused her anger primarily at her
daughters and trained her sons to beat and discipline the others.
She murdered her oldest daughter Suesan by burning her alive. She
then murdered her second daughter, Sheila, through starvation.
Knorr and her sons were arrested in 1993. She
first pled not guilty. However, when she learned that one of her
sons decided to testify against her, she pled guilty to all
charges to avoid capital punishment. She was sentenced to two
consecutive life terms. She will be eligible for parole in 2027.
Theresa Jimmie Knorr (born March 14, 1946) is
an American woman convicted of torturing and murdering two of her
children while using the others to facilitate and cover up her
Theresa Knorr was born Theresa Jimmie Cross
in Sacramento, California. She was the youngest child in the
family and very devoted to her mother. When her mother died in
1961, Cross went into a depression. At age 16, she married
Clifford Clyde Sanders. They had a son, Howard Clyde Sanders, in
1964. Their marriage ended when Knorr shot Sanders, 22, to death
in the summer of 1964 while they were living in Galt, California.
She was tried, but acquitted of the crime, having claimed self
defense. She was pregnant at the time and would shortly deliver
her second child, Sheila Gay Sanders, in 1965.
In 1966, when seven months pregnant with her
third child, she married the child's father, Robert Knorr. The
child, Suesan Marlene Knorr, was born in September of that year,
followed in 1967 by a son named William Robert Knorr, and in 1968,
another son, Robert Wallace Knorr, Jr. In 1970, Theresa gave birth
to a daughter, Theresa (Terry) Marie Knorr, named after herself.
None of Knorr's children were spared her
physical, verbal, and psychological abuse. However, Knorr had a
special hatred for her daughters Suesan and Sheila, fueled by
jealousy that the girls were growing up and blossoming into young
women while she faced the prospect of growing old and losing her
looks, according to an interview with her surviving daughter,
Terry, in an episode of A&E's Cold Case Files (titled
"Mommy's Rules"). For years, Knorr abused and tortured her
children in various ways, including burning them with cigarettes
and beating them. Knorr focused her anger primarily on her
daughters and trained her sons to beat, discipline, and restrain
In a heated argument in 1983, Knorr grabbed a
22-caliber pistol and shot Suesan in the chest. The bullet became
lodged in her back, but Knorr refused to seek medical help and
left Suesan to die in the family bathtub. Suesan survived, so
Knorr handcuffed her to a soap dish and began to nurse her back to
health. Suesan eventually recovered from her wounds without
In 1984, Suesan decided to tell her mother she
would like to move out. Knorr agreed under the condition that
Suesan let her remove the bullet from her back. The removal took
place on the kitchen floor, using Mellaril capsules and liquor as
the anesthetic. Knorr ordered Robert to remove the bullet with a
box cutter. Infection soon set in and Suesan's skin turned yellow
from jaundice and she became delirious. She lay dying on the floor
and Knorr permitted the other children to walk over her. As Terry
told Cold Case Files, Knorr told her other children that
Suesan's illness was a result of possession by Satan and that the
only way to purge the demon was with fire. She coerced Robert and
Bill into helping her dispose of Suesan. They drove her to Sierra
Nevada, Interstate 80 outside Truckee, laid her down, poured
gasoline on her and burned her alive
In 1985, Sheila also died at the hands of her
mother. According to Terry, Knorr forced Sheila into becoming a
prostitute and later accused her of transmitting an STD to her via
a toilet seat. Thereafter, Knorr's abuse of Sheila escalated.
Sheila was locked in a closet and died of dehydration and
starvation several days later. Her body was packed into a
cardboard box and dumped along the side of a road. She remained
unidentified for years afterward.
Subsequently, Terry claimed her mother forced
her to burn down the family's Sacramento apartment, hoping to
destroy any evidence that might implicate her in Sheila's death.
Terry later said she survived her mother's abuse because she stood
up to her and demanded to be allowed to leave the house.
Knorr and her sons were arrested in 1993 when
Terry contacted authorities after watching an episode of
America's Most Wanted, according to her Cold Case Files
interview. On November 15, 1993, Knorr was charged with two counts
of murder, two counts of conspiracy to commit murder, and two
special circumstances charges: multiple murder and murder by
torture. Knorr initially pled not guilty, but when she learned
that one of her sons decided to testify against her, she pled
guilty to all charges to avoid capital punishment. On October 17,
1995, she was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. She
will be eligible for parole in 2027.
The Afflicted, renamed Another
American Crime for overseas release, is a 2010 horror film
produced by Midnight Releasing in association with Afflicted
Pictures and written and directed by Jason Stoddard. Stars Leslie
Easterbrook, Kane Hodder, Michele Grey, Katie Holland and J. D.
Hart. Inspired by the Theresa Knorr case, the movie roughly
follows the real life events through a substantially compressed
timeline. Unlike the real case, the movie ends with the youngest
daughter killing her mother and one of her brothers before
Theresa was charged in the torture slayings of
her two daughters and arraigned in a
Salt Lake City courtroom on
November 15, 1993.
According to articles in the Sacramento Bee,
she was extradited to Placer County the following month, arraigned
before Superior Court Judge J. Richard Couzens and charged with
two counts of murder, two counts of conspiracy to commit murder,
and two special circumstances—multiple murder and murder by
torture—charges, which could result in a death sentence.
Theresa pleaded not guilty and was remanded to
the Sacramento County Jail. That same day, Judge Couzens ordered
William Robert Knorr prosecuted as an adult. Robert eventually
struck a deal with prosecutors and agreed to testify against
Theresa in exchange for a lighter sentence. One month later, all
charges against him, except a single count of conspiracy regarding
Sheila's death, were dropped.
When Theresa learned of the deal Robert made
with the district attorney's office, she decided she did not want
to take her chances with a death sentence and offered to plead
guilty in exchange for her life. District Attorney John O'Mara
agreed and on
October 17, 1995,
Theresa changed her plea to guilty. During sentencing, Judge
William R. Ridgeway characterized Theresa's crimes as "callousness
beyond belief," and sentenced her to two consecutive life
sentences. Theresa will be eligible for parole in 2027. If she
lives to see it, she will be 80 years old.
Robert, who was still serving out his murder
Nevada, was eventually
sentenced to three years in state prison. The court ordered the
sentence run concurrently with his 1991 murder sentence. William
was placed on probation for his role in the murders and ordered to
April 9, 2003,
The Plain Dealer, a
Ohio, newspaper, ran an article
entitled: "Searching for answers on mothers who kill." According
to the story, an American mother kills her child at the rate of
once every three days. "These cases are patterned and
predictable," said Michelle Oberman, a legal scholar and expert on
women who kill their offspring. "They are not shocking; they are
mundane. We just don't want to know what we know.
Mother Knows Best: The Story of Theresa
By David Lohr
On the morning of
July 17, 1984, 45-year-old Maybel Harrison was driving on
California's Highway 89 when she noticed a bright light
illuminating the woods. Concerned that a fire had broken out,
Maybel decided to investigate. From her vantage point on the
interstate, Maybel wasn't sure what she was looking at, but as she
made her way down the rocky slope to get a closer look, a
permeating stench stopped her. Alarmed, she ran back up the
incline and flagged down a truck.
stopped his truck when he saw Maybel waving her arms. When she
told him there was an unusual fire burning at the bottom of the
hill, Eden grabbed his fire extinguisher and the two headed toward
the source. After Eden doused the flames and the smoke began to
clear, he and Maybel discovered what appeared to be a charred
human corpse. As soon as the reality of the situation hit him,
Eden ran back to his truck and reported the grisly discovery to
authorities on his CB radio.
personnel were already surrounding the area by the time Tahoe City
Detectives Russell Potts and Larry Addoms arrived on the scene.
After looking over the gruesome sight, Potts requested that
criminologist Michael Saggs and Placer County Sheriff Donald J.
Nunes be brought in. Within an hour, the four men were taking soil
samples and photographing the area. The body was badly burned and
the lower portion of the victim's left leg was detached and lying
next to the body. The left arm was propped up on its elbow and the
right arm was extended at the victim's side. The only part of the
body not burned was the left side of the victim's face. It was
obvious that the victim was female: her breasts, although severely
charred, remained visible.
In all, investigators
collected more than 30 pieces of evidence, which they found on and
around the body. Among the items cataloged, a green Pepsodent
toothbrush, a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, a yellow and black
scarf, an underwire size 32C bra from J.C. Penney's, a black onyx
bracelet, disposable diapers, a pair of hoop earrings, and several
miscellaneous articles of clothing. After finishing up the crime
scene, investigators dubbed the body Jane Doe #4873/84 and sent
her to the Placer County Morgue.
Less than two
hours later, forensic pathologist Dr. A. V. Cunha conducted the
autopsy. The victim was between 18 and 22 years old, 5 feet 3
inches tall and weighing approximately 115 pounds. The body showed
signs of abuse, and there were two puncture wounds discovered on
the victim's back. The discovery of an ovarian tumor indicated
that Jane Doe had suffered a severe beating at some time prior to
her death. Her physical injuries were life threatening, but the
immediate cause of death was smoke inhalation. Following the
autopsy, Jane Doe's fingers were removed and sent to Sacramento
for prints. Her maxilla and mandible were also removed in case
dental records surfaced. Investigators had few clues to go on and
very little hope of discovering the identity of Jane Doe #4873/84.
According to the 1995 book
Mother's Day, by Dennis McDougal, Theresa Jimmie Francine Cross
was born on March 12, 1946. Her father, Jim Cross, was an
assistant cheese maker at Sacramento's Golden State Dairy, and her
mother, Swannie Gay Cross, worked at a local lumber company.
Theresa had an older sister, Rosemary, born in 1944 and two older
stepsiblings, William and Clara Tapp. The stepchildren were from
Swannie's first marriage, which unexpectedly ended with the death
of her husband in 1939.
The Cross family prospered over the years and
by the early 1950s they were able to move out of their small
Sacramento bungalow and purchase a large house in Rio Linda,
California. Nonetheless, their happiness was short lived, and
sometime during the late 1950s, Jim Cross fell ill with
Parkinson's disease. He could no longer work and was forced to
quit his job. Following his diagnosis, Jim fell into a deep
depression and often took his anger out on his children.
According to friends of the family, Theresa was a loner and
jealous of her sister Rosemary. If they weren't fighting over a
neighborhood boy, they were competing for their mother's
attention. Theresa was especially fond of her mother, and
outsiders felt that Swannie favored Theresa over Rosemary. In
retrospect, the afternoon of March 2, 1961, probably affected
Theresa more than anyone could have imagined. Theresa was
escorting her mother to a local store that day when her mother
suddenly collapsed. As Theresa held the woman in her arms, Swannie
breathed her last breath and died. Her cause of death was
congestive heart failure and on March 6, 1961, Swannie Cross was
buried at Sunset Lawn Cemetery.
Following the death of her mother, Theresa fell
into a deep depression, from which she never seemed to fully
recover. Without Swannie's income, Jim Cross could no longer
afford to keep the family home and was forced to sell it. Bit by
bit, every piece of security Theresa had known was taken away from
her. With her life in disarray, Theresa latched onto the first man
that walked into her life.
Clifford Clyde Sanders was five years older
than Theresa when the two first met at a mutual friend's house.
Within weeks, the young couple was in love and discussing
marriage. Whether Theresa actually loved Clifford or simply wanted
security in her life is anyone's guess. Regardless, on September
29, 1962, Theresa Jimmie Cross became Theresa Jimmie Sanders.
Shortly after the wedding, Theresa dropped out of junior high
school and the couple moved into a one-bedroom apartment in the
North Highlands district of California.
It did not take long for the marriage to start
going down hill. Theresa was very possessive of Clifford and kept
him on a short leash. On July 16, 1963, Theresa gave birth to
their first child, Howard Clyde Sanders. Things seemed to settle
down for a while, but eventually Theresa reverted back to her old
ways. Howard was unhappy in the marriage and had it not been for
Theresa's second pregnancy in the spring of 1964, he probably
would have left her. Their one bedroom apartment was too small for
another child and the growing family moved into a small white
house just outside of Sacramento.
While Theresa and
Clifford's marriage had its ups and downs, tempers came to a
boiling point on June 22, 1964. Rather than spend the day with her
and the baby, Clifford went out drinking with his friends. Later
that evening, he strolled in drunk and Theresa boiled over. She
berated him for neglecting his family and wasting their
much-needed money on booze. Clifford was in no mood to argue and
ended her tirade with a single punch to the face. Theresa went to
the police station and filed assault-and-battery charges against
him, but when it came time to arrest him, she refused to sign the
papers and the charges were dropped.
to the 1995 book Whatever Mother Says by Wensley Clarkson,
Clifford had a huge argument with Theresa on his birthday, July 5,
1964. Theresa accused him of infidelity and he decided he had had
enough. The following day, Clifford packed his bags and told
Theresa that he was leaving her. Unfortunately, he never made it
out the door. Theresa went into a rage, grabbed a rifle and shot
her husband. Clifford stumbled backwards and fell dead.
Galt Police Chief Walter Froehlich was one of the first officers
on the scene.
"I grabbed a gun to make him keep from hitting
me and it went off," Theresa said. Clifford's body was lying
facedown in the doorway of the kitchen and on the opposite end of
the room Froehlich found the rifle leaning against a wall.
Froehlich arrested Theresa and transported her to the Sacramento
County Jail. Baby Howard was then taken to stay with one of
The headline on the July 7,
1964, Sacramento Bee daily newspaper announced MURDER CHARGE IS
DUE IN GALT DEATH. The first paragraph read: "Deputy District
Attorney Donald Dorfman said he planned to file a murder charge
today against 18-year-old Mrs. Theresa Sanders of Galt in the deer
rifle slaying of her husband. Clifford Sanders, 23, was slain
yesterday morning in the couple's small Galt home. Investigators
reported the bullet apparently grazed off his left wrist and
lodged in his heart."
On August 4, 1964, Theresa
entered a plea of innocent by reason of self-defense in a
Sacramento courtroom. Her trial was scheduled to begin three weeks
later in Judge Charles W. Johnson's courtroom.
Attorney Donald Dorfman wanted a first-degree murder conviction
and on August 30, 1964, he began his opening statements to the
jury. Dorfman accused Theresa of murdering her husband in cold
blood and insisted she had concocted the allegations of
self-defense in order to spare herself a prison sentence. The
murder, in Dorfman's opinion, was committed because of Theresa's
suspicions that her husband was committing adultery. Afterwards,
Theresa's attorney, Robert Zarick, argued that Theresa acted out
of self-defense and was only protecting herself and her unborn
One of the first witnesses called to the
stand was Dr. Arthur Wallace, the man who performed Clifford
Sanders' autopsy. Wallace testified that there were no powder
burns on the body and blood tests revealed no presence of alcohol.
He described the injuries to Sanders body and testified that the
.30-30 caliber slug had passed through Sanders wrist before
embedding itself in his heart. "It was my assumption, and I
believe this is very correct, that the deceased apparently had his
hand in some position in front of his chest," Wallace said. "The
fact that it lodged within the soft tissues of the heart shows
that its momentum was considerably slowed when it struck the
chest." Following Wallace's testimony, a criminologist testified
that the .30-30 caliber rifle found at the scene was the murder
Police Chief Walter Froehlich described the
crime scene and events leading up to Theresa's arrest. Rapping up
the prosecution's side, Dorfman questioned several of Sanders'
relatives in an effort to show the victim was not a violent or
Surprisingly, Theresa briefly took the stand
and testified on her own behalf. She told the jury a tearful story
of physical abuse and claimed her husband was a violent alcoholic.
Mental health counselor Dr. Leroy Wolter described Theresa as
anxious, remorseful, and frightened. It was his opinion that she
acted in self-defense and was not capable of committing a
cold-blooded and calculated crime. Friends and relatives enforced
Wolter's testimony and described Theresa as a sweet young girl,
who did not know what she was getting into when she married
Closing arguments began on September
21, 1964. Dorfman repeated his opening statements and accused
Theresa of murdering her husband out of jealousy. "This is clearly
premeditated first-degree murder," he told the jury. "Not every
murderer can look like the witch in 'Snow White.' She is 18 and
pregnant, but that doesn't overcome the fact she maliciously shot
and killed her husband without provocation."
On September 22, after deliberating for one
hour and 45 minutes, the jury found Theresa Jimmie Francine
Sanders not guilty. Dorfman was dumbstruck by the verdict. Whether
he realized it at the time or not, the loss would eventually come
back to haunt him.
After earning her acquittal,
Theresa regained custody of her son Howard and moved in with
family friends. She was four months pregnant. Her marriage to
Clifford may not have been happy, but at least it provided her
with a sense of belonging. Now, at just 18, she was alone and
again desperately seeking stability. To cope, Theresa turned to
alcohol and began drowning her sorrows at a local American Legion
Hall. It was there that she met Estelle Lee Thornsberry, an Army
veteran who had suffered a debilitating blow two years earlier
when a swimming accident left him a quadriplegic. Nonetheless,
Thornsberry's disability didn't seem to bother Theresa and the two
On March 13, 1965, Theresa gave
birth to Sheila Gay Sanders. Even though the child was not his,
Thornsberry doted on her and treated her as his own. Deeply in
love with Theresa, he suggested they all move in together and live
as a family. Theresa agreed and a few weeks later they rented out
a small apartment. In the beginning, Thornsberry enjoyed the
living arraignments, but his feelings began to change when Theresa
started treating him as a babysitter, rather than a love interest.
With the relationship already rocky, things came to an end a few
months later when Thornsberry discovered Theresa was cheating on
him with his best friend. Following a heated argument, Theresa
packed her belongings, along with most of Thornsberry's, and moved
in with friends.
Shortly after her break up with
Estelle Thornsberry, Theresa set her sights on Robert Knorr, a
private in the Marine Corps. The two began dating and within a few
months Theresa was pregnant and they began discussing marriage. In
February 1966, Knorr was shipped off to Vietnam. Shortly after his
arrival, Knorr was on patrol when a stray bullet struck him in the
shoulder. The injury was not serious, but frightening just the
same. After a brief stay in a field hospital, he was back on his
feet and patrolling the jungle again. But, just weeks later, Knorr
was again shot. This time the bullet hit him in the side, but
barely penetrated the skin, earning him another brief stay in the
hospital. His luck was running out though. A few months later,
while walking across a bridge in the middle of nowhere, it
suddenly blew up. Shrapnel from the explosion ripped through his
arms and legs and the explosion threw him back to the ground.
Luckily for Knorr, there would be no more close calls. His latest
injuries earned him a trip stateside and he spent several months
recovering at Oakland Naval Hospital.
1966, Theresa was seven months pregnant and eager to settle down
with Knorr. On July 9, 1966, the young couple drove to Nevada and
exchanged vows in front of a local judge. It was Robert's first
marriage and Theresa's second. Both were eager to settle into
their new roles and rented a small apartment in Sacramento. Two
months later, on September 27, 1966, Theresa gave birth to her
third child, a girl. Theresa named the child Suesan Marline Knorr.
Less than three months later, Theresa was pregnant again and on
September 15, 1967, she bore Robert his first son, William Robert
Knorr. A second son, Theresa's fifth child, was born on December
31, 1968. Keeping her older half-brother in mind, Theresa named
the boy Robert Wallace Knorr.
Robert continued to serve in
the military, but his diminished abilities left him few options
and he was forced to work as a burial escort. The job wasn't
without its perks, but it often required Robert to leave his
family on a moment's notice and travel halfway around the country.
Theresa disliked Robert's new job and regularly voiced her
opposition. Just as she did with Clifford, she began accusing him
of infidelity. Tempers often flared and Theresa took her anger out
on the children. According to Dennis McDougal, author of the book
Mother's Day, Theresa would often punish them by forcing them to
sit on the floor without moving. If they budged an inch or moved
and eye, she would become angry and slap them. Whenever that
didn't work, she would lock them in a closet or force-feed them
until they were ready to collapse.
By June 1969, Robert could no longer take
Theresa's allegations and sudden outbursts. Leaving his children
behind, he packed up what few belongings he had and moved out.
Theresa retaliated by filing for divorce on grounds of extreme
cruelty, but a few weeks later they reconciled and she dismissed
her charges. Regardless, as much as Robert wanted to make the
marriage work, it was far too late. One year later Theresa again
filed for divorce. In an ironic twist, Judge Charles W. Johnson,
the same judge that presided over Theresa's murder trial, granted
the couple a divorce on June 3, 1970. Two months later, Theresa
gave birth to her sixth and final child and named the girl after
herself, Theresa Marie Knorr. Following the divorce, Robert tried
to visit his children, but Theresa did not want anything to do
with him and repeatedly denied him the right to see them. Robert
eventually gave up and remarried.
Theresa didn't stay single for long and soon
began dating a railway worker named Ronald Pulliam. In 1971 they
married and shortly after purchased a house in east Sacramento. To
outsiders they seemed like a perfect family, but before long
history began to repeat itself and Theresa began treating Ronald
as a possession rather than a partner. Just as she did with
Estelle Thornsberry, Theresa began leaving her children at home
with Ronald while she went out and partied. Eventually, she
stopped coming home all together. Ronald was convinced that she
was seeing another man and filed for divorce. On September 27,
1972, with Judge Charles W. Johnson again presiding, the divorce
With her newfound freedom, Theresa
spent the majority of her time drinking at the American Legion
Hall in Rio Linda. It was there that she met 59-year-old Chet
Harris, a copy desk editor at the Sacramento Union newspaper. The
two seemed to hit it off well and were married on August 23, 1976,
just three days after their first meeting. It was immediately
obvious to Theresa that she had made yet another bad mistake.
Shortly after moving in with her new husband, she discovered that
one of his favorite hobbies was taking photographs of nude women.
In fact, his bedroom walls were covered with them. He wanted
Theresa to pose for him, but she refused. While Theresa may have
hated her new husband, her daughter Suesan grew close to him and
the two would often spend hours together working on jigsaw puzzles
and discussing mythology. The relationship between her daughter
and Harris angered Theresa. While she wasn't particularly close to
any of her children, she didn't feel that anyone else should step
in and try to assume her role. On November 22, 1976, two months
after the marriage began, Theresa filed for divorce. With Judge
Charles Johnson once again presiding, the paperwork became final
on December 17, 1976. It was one of Johnson's last court
appearances and he retired two months later.
The Edge of Insanity
Following her latest
divorce, Theresa's children noticed a remarkable change in her
behavior. She started to drink even more and began putting on a
great deal of weight. Her attitude became worse with each day and
the abuse toward her children severely increased. "When we were
kids, my mom beat the shit out of us a lot," her daughter Terry
(Theresa) told Dennis McDougal years later. "If we hugged our mom
too much, it was like, who were we trying to convince? That we
loved her, or she loved us? On the other hand, if we didn't hug
and kiss and tell her we loved her, then we didn't love her, and
we were evil children. We were demon seeds that had been given to
her by Bob Knorr." Terry's older brothers William and Robert
agreed. "Sometime around when I turned 10 she started becoming
abusive, real short-tempered," William said. "She stopped going
out, seeing friends at all, on any level. She got rid of the
telephone because she didn't want any people calling. We weren't
allowed to have anybody inside the house."
I was growing up, I hated The Brady Bunch because I knew that
nobody lived like that," said Robert. "I knew that because I knew
what my family life was like. Nothing could be more different from
the truth than that bullshit TV show. I grew up in an insane
asylum basically, but what's worse is we didn't know it was an
The more Theresa drank, the
crueler she became. On one occasion she even threw steak knives at
her children. During another of her binges, she grabbed Terry by
the arm and held a .22-caliber pistol to the girl's head. For
months afterward her daughter suffered terrifying nightmares. As
if the mental torture was not enough, Theresa started beating the
children on a regular basis, forcing them to take turns holding
each other down while she administered the blows from above.
Theresa eventually got the idea in her head that Chester Harris
had turned her daughter Suesan into a witch. It's not known where
the wild idea first came from, but Suesan began taking advantage
of it and would use it against her mother. She would regularly say
that Harris was going to initiate her into his cult by deflowering
her in the name of Satan. The stories did not serve to spare
Suesan any abuse and she began suffering the worst of Theresa's
blows. Eventually Suesan ran away from home. Her freedom was
short-lived and she was eventually picked up by a truancy officer
and placed in Sutter Memorial Psychiatric Ward. During her stay at
the hospital Suesan told counselors about her family life and
regular beatings. When confronted with her daughter's allegations,
Theresa claimed her daughter was lying and suffered from mental
problems. No one questioned her answer and Suesan was turned over
to her mother.
Once back home, Suesan received
one of the most severe beatings of her life. Theresa donned a pair
of leather gloves and struck her daughter repeatedly. Afterwards,
she forced the other children to join in. "We had to pass gloves
from one to the other and hit Suesan in the stomach for what she
did to the family by running away and everything," Robert recalled
to Dennis McDougal years later. "And I had to hit her twice
because I didn't hit her hard enough the first time."
Theresa didn't want her daughter running away again, so at night
she would handcuff Suesan to the bed and force the other children
to take turns keeping watch over her. School was out of the
question and Theresa did not permit her daughter to attend.
Eventually, Theresa's torment broke Suesan's will and she was
allowed to sleep alone and unshackled. Apparently, the fear of
another serious beating kept her in line.
In 1982, Theresa got
the wild notion that Suesan was putting spells on her, forcing her
to gain weight. Suesan denied the allegations, but her protests
fell upon deaf ears and Theresa flew into a violent rage. Before
any of the other children knew what was happening, they heard a
single shot ring out. Suesan began gasping and fell to the floor.
Blood poured out of her chest and she was writhing in pain.
Theresa had shot her own daughter with the .22-caliber pistol she
had once used to threaten Terry.
After a brief
pause, Theresa ordered the other children to carry their injured
sister to the bathroom and place her in the tub. Theresa did not
want the police involved, so an ambulance was out of the question.
The bullet had not passed through Suesan's body, but it was too
deep to remove from the open wound. Theresa decided to leave it in
and patched her daughter up with gauze and bandages. For the next
month, Suesan's sisters looked after her. Terry and Sheila took
turns feeding and bathing her and eventually Suesan recovered
enough to rejoin the family.
In November 1983,
Theresa and her children moved into an apartment in north
Sacramento. Things were back to normal for a while, but then in
July 1984, Theresa got into a heated argument with Suesan and
stabbed her daughter in the back with a pair of scissors. The
injuries were not life threatening, but serious nonetheless.
Suesan was getting tired of the daily abuse and a few weeks later
she asked for permission to move out. Surprisingly, Theresa
agreed. But there was one stipulation: Theresa wanted to remove
the bullet that remained lodged in her daughter's back. Suesan
reluctantly agreed and a few days later the surgery began.
Theresa started the operation by giving her daughter a handful of
Mellaril capsules and a quart of hard liquor. The concoction
worked and before long Suesan was completely unconscious. Theresa
then retrieved an X-Acto knife from the medicine cabinet and
ordered 15-year-old Robert to cut into his sister's back and
retrieve the bullet. Theresa barked orders from overhead as he
made the incision. Before long, he had cut through several layers
of skin and muscle tissue. Using his fingers, Robert searched
around inside the wound until he finally located and removed the
The next day Suesan woke up in horrible
pain. Theresa gave her antibiotics and ibuprofen, but the
medicines didn't seem to have an effect and she kept getting
worse. After a few days, her eyes turned yellow and she could no
longer control her bowels. At one point, Terry noticed black marks
on Suesan's back, which she later concluded were from internal
bleeding, a result of Theresa's last beating.
July 16, 1984, Theresa duct taped Suesan's mouth shut and bound
her arms and legs. Afterwards she packed all of the girl's
belongings into trash bags and ordered Bill and Robert to put
Suesan in the car. They drove south on Highway 89, and eventually
pulled off the road by Square Creek Bridge. Bill and Robert were
then ordered to take Suesan out of the car and carry her down to
the creek bank. Theresa brought down the garbage bags herself and
then doused everything, including Suesan, in gasoline and struck a
match. Everyone made their way back to the car and no one looked
back. Things around the Knorr house remained quiet and sullen
during the weeks following Suesan's death, but eventually
everything went back to normal.
Jane Doe #6607-85
During late spring
1985, Theresa decided to supplement her small state-assisted
income by having 20-year-old daughter Sheila work the streets as a
prostitute. Sheila was horrified at her mothers plan, but she was
also not going to disobey. Before long, Sheila was bringing home
hundreds of dollars a day and Theresa seemed almost proud of her
daughter. She eased up on the daily beatings and Sheila was
allowed to come and go as she pleased. In a twisted sense,
becoming a prostitute had benefited Sheila.
May 1985, Sheila's freedom was brought to a sudden end. Theresa
suspected that her daughter was pregnant and also accused her of
having a venereal disease, which Theresa claimed to have gotten by
using a toilet. Sheila was beaten black and blue before being
hog-tied and locked in a tiny closet next to the bathroom. It was
excruciatingly hot within the closet, but Theresa left strict
orders for the other children: the door was to be kept closed at
all times and they were not permitted to give her any food or
"She wanted Sheila to confess," Terry
said years later. "That was mother's way. Beat them until they
confess." Sheila did eventually confess, but Theresa accused her
of lying and the punishment continued. On June 21, 1985, the third
day of Sheila's incarceration, the family heard a loud thump
coming from the closet. It was the last sound they heard from
Sheila. Three days later when they opened the door, they
discovered Sheila's decomposing body curled up in a fetal
position. Apparently, she had tried to climb up some small shelves
in the closet, but they would not hold her weight and she came
Theresa grabbed an old cardboard
box and filled it with blankets and pillows. She ordered her two
sons to place Sheila's remains inside and carry it out to the car.
Everyone did as they were told and eventually they were driving up
Interstate 80, toward the Truckee Airport. Along the way, Theresa
spotted a small field and decided to pull off the road. She
ordered the boys to unload their sister's cardboard casket and
toss it in the weeds.
A few hours after the box
was dropped off, Elmer Barber was making his usual rounds at the
Martis Creek Campground and stumbled upon the homemade casket. His
curiosity got the best of him and he lifted the flaps of the box
open. What he saw inside would prove to haunt him for the rest of
his life. Elmer quickly notified the Nevada County Sheriff's
Department and within hours the area was swarming with
investigators. Nonetheless, they were unable to make a positive
identification and there were very few clues to work with. The
victim was dubbed Jane Doe #6607-85 and her cause of death was
listed as undetermined.
Theresa was extremely
paranoid after Sheila 's death and became concerned that the
closet contained evidence, which might someday implicate her in
her daughter's death. So, on September 29, 1986, Theresa packed up
all of the family's belongings and ordered Terry to set the house
on fire. Using charcoal lighter fluid, Terry doused the floors and
struck a match before climbing out a side window. Regardless of
Theresa's intent, neighbors immediately noticed the fire and the
local fire department was dispatched to the scene. There was
little damage done to the home and investigators had no doubt that
the blaze had been started deliberately.
Theresa's children were all but
grown by the time she went into hiding. Howard, 26, wanted nothing
more to do with the family and his brother, 24-year-old William,
moved in with a girlfriend. Terry, Theresa's namesake, also left
her mother. She was only 16 at the time, but by using Sheila's
identification she was able to pass herself off as 21. Theresa's
only remaining child, 19-year-old Robert Wallace Knorr was the
only one who stayed by her side and eventually the two moved to
Things were going well in the
beginning, but on November 7, 1991, Robert made a dreadful
mistake. Desperate for money, he walked into Red's Place, a bar on
North Nellis Boulevard in Las Vegas, and pulled out a gun. The
details remain sketchy, but in the end the bartender, Robert Ward,
was left dead at the foot of the bar. Investigators arrested
Robert for the murder and he was later sentenced to 16 years in
jail. Theresa was nervous about all the attention, and a few weeks
later she moved to Salt Lake City, Utah.
1992, Terry, who had since married, was watching an episode of
America's Most Wanted. While none of the cases related to her or
her family, they inspired her to do the right thing and she
contacted Nevada authorities. Police sergeant Ron Perea of the
Nevada County, California, Sheriff's Office received the call.
Terry told him that years earlier, her mother and two brothers
killed her sister by dousing her with gasoline and setting her
afire. The next year, she told them, they killed her other sister
and dumped her body in the mountains. Perea was intrigued by the
young woman's unbelievable tale and decided to interview her in
person. The following day, Perea met with Terry and interviewed
her for several hours. He took his notes to the district
attorney's office and a task force was assembled to check out the
story. Investigators soon discovered the Jane Doe reports and
everything started to fall in place.
4, 1993, investigators filed felony complaints against Theresa and
two of her sons. William was found in a Sacramento suburb, where
he worked at a warehouse and lived in a peaceful neighborhood.
Investigators soon learned of Robert's previous arrest and found
him in a Nevada County jail. Neither of the boys was interested in
talking with investigators, but both eventually relented and
confessed to their involvement in both of their sister's deaths.
Five days later, California investigators received a call from
Salt Lake City authorities, telling them that Theresa had been
traced by a driver's license application. She had also been
arrested just five days earlier for drunk driving. Sergeant John
Fitzgerald of the Placer County Sheriff's Office flew to Salt Lake
and headed for the address listed on Theresa's license
application. Just before nightfall, he knocked on the door.
Surprisingly, Theresa answered without hesitation and was then
arrested. Investigators had acted not a moment too soon. Theresa
was aware of the investigation and was in the process of packing
her belongings. Back at the police station she refused to
cooperate and requested a lawyer.
Theresa was charged in the
torture slayings of her two daughters and arraigned in a Salt Lake
City courtroom on November 15, 1993. According to articles in the
Sacramento Bee, she was extradited to Placer County the following
month, arraigned before Superior Court Judge J. Richard Couzens
and charged with two counts of murder, two counts of conspiracy to
commit murder, and two special circumstances—multiple murder and
murder by torture—charges, which could result in a death sentence.
Theresa pleaded not guilty and was remanded to the Sacramento
County Jail. That same day, Judge Couzens ordered William Robert
Knorr prosecuted as an adult. Robert eventually struck a deal with
prosecutors and agreed to testify against Theresa in exchange for
a lighter sentence. One month later, all charges against him,
except a single count of conspiracy regarding Sheila's death, were
When Theresa learned of the deal Robert
made with the district attorney's office, she decided she did not
want to take her chances with a death sentence and offered to
plead guilty in exchange for her life. District Attorney John
O'Mara agreed and on October 17, 1995, Theresa changed her plea to
guilty. During sentencing, Judge William R. Ridgeway characterized
Theresa's crimes as "callousness beyond belief," and sentenced her
to two consecutive life sentences. Theresa will be eligible for
parole in 2027. If she lives to see it, she will be 80 years old.
Robert, who was still serving out his murder
charge in Nevada, was eventually sentenced to three years in state
prison. The court ordered the sentence run concurrently with his
1991 murder sentence. William was placed on probation for his role
in the murders and ordered to undergo therapy.
On April 9, 2003, The Plain Dealer, a Cleveland, Ohio, newspaper,
ran an article entitled: "Searching for answers on mothers who
kill." According to the story, an American mother kills her child
at the rate of once every three days. "These cases are patterned
and predictable," said Michelle Oberman, a legal scholar and
expert on women who kill their offspring. "They are not shocking;
they are mundane. We just don't want to know what we know."