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'BIGGEST MANIPULATOR'

America’s ‘most evil mum’ Shelly Knotek abused her daughters and tortured and killed her friends

FROM the outside, the Knoteks looked like a regular family. In the picturesque small town of Raymond, Washington, in America’s Pacific Northwest, pretty redhead Michelle (better known as Shelly) kept her three daughters in their best clothes, while her husband David was a mild-mannered navy veteran, who doted on the girls and worked hard in construction to provide for his family.

The pair had married in 1987, when Shelly was a two-time divorcée with young daughters Nikki, 12, and Sami, nine. Shelly and David went on to have their own daughter, Tori, in 1989.

 Shelly is scheduled for early release into the public in 2022 after serving 19 years in prison for second-degree murder and manslaughter
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Shelly is scheduled for early release into the public in 2022 after serving 19 years in prison for second-degree murder and manslaughterCredit: Daily World News/AP
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Credit: Gregg Olsen
 David would turn a blind eye to Shelly's violence
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David would turn a blind eye to Shelly's violenceCredit: Gregg Olsen

As the girls got older, the couple began opening their home to friends of the family who fell on hard times.

In 1988, they took in their 13-year-old nephew Shane Watson after his parents couldn’t look after him. Later that year, Shelly’s hairdresser friend Kathy Loreno also moved in with the Knoteks after losing her job, while US military veteran Ron Woodworth came to live with the family after he lost his own home in 1999.

Yet all was not what it seemed. One by one, the Knoteks’ house guests vanished in murky circumstances, with Shelly offering up vague reasons for their disappearances to any relatives and friends who enquired. They’d run away, she claimed, or moved to a different town for a new job.

But the truth was much more disturbing. Shane, Kathy and Ron had each been cut off from their friends and family and subjected to a campaign of terror and abuse – before being murdered.

All of the victims’ horrific fates lay undiscovered until 2003, when the Knotek girls bravely contacted the local sheriff’s office  and the horrors were finally revealed. Shelly, then 50, was jailed for 22 years, and is due for early release in 2022, while David, then 51, was sentenced to 15 years before being released early in 2016.

But it’s only now, upon publication of If You Tell by New York Times bestselling author Gregg Olsen and interviews with the Knotek girls, that the abhorrent truth about what happened in the family home has been detailed in full. 

'BIGGEST MANIPULATOR'

Speaking exclusively to Fabulous, Sami Knotek, now a 41-year-old teacher and mother of three, says: “I just wanted people to finally really know the truth. When my mum comes out from prison, I don’t want her to be able to hide it. She’s the biggest manipulator of anyone I’ve ever met. I don’t think that she could ever outgrow that. I don’t think that she could ever change – I just wanted to save other people from her manipulation.”

When David came into their lives, after meeting Shelly in a bar in April 1982, he considered her “the most beautiful girl” he’d ever seen, writes Gregg. But the relationship was unhealthy from the start. Shelly would verbally abuse and slap him, and while David knew the romance wasn’t normal, he was too submissive to stand up to her. Instead, he turned a blind eye to the violence.

Once her two eldest daughters – whose different fathers are believed to have been driven off by Shelly’s manipulative behaviour – reached adolescence, they too fell victim to Shelly’s sadistic ways. Shelly would force them and Shane – who moved in because his absentee father Paul, a member of a biker gang who was in and out of prison, and his mother who was struggling from substance abuse, were unable to provide a stable home – to stand outside in freezing temperatures in the middle of the night and doused them with ice-cold water while naked.

She called the punishment “wallowing” and it was inflicted for crimes such as visiting the bathroom without asking. 

 Sami back at the house of horrors in 2018
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Sami back at the house of horrors in 2018Credit: Gregg Olsen
 Shelly would invite people to stay at her house - before torturing and killing them
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Shelly would invite people to stay at her house - before torturing and killing themCredit: Gregg Olsen

Shelly bullied her older girls by doing everything from forcing them to cut off tufts of their pubic hair to embarrass them – and cruelly laughing when they acquiesced – to locking them in the kennel or chicken coop.

She attacked Sami so often that she wore trousers to conceal her bruises from school teachers, and during one school holiday she shoved Nikki head-first through a glass door, shouting: “Look what you made me do”, as her daughter’s face dripped with blood.

Shelly tended to her daughters’ wounds herself and usually made sure the injuries she inflicted were not easily visible. She’d also force her eldest daughter Nikki and cousin Shane – then young teens – to dance together naked to humiliate them.

Their adolescence was scarred by emotional and physical abuse, though charismatic Shelly would then sporadically shower the children with affection and she also had a knack for fooling outsiders. She made sure the girls always had the best clothes and possessions, and that they were attractive and popular at school. 

'PREDATOR'

“I’d never heard of a predator as dark as Shelly Knotek,” says author Gregg. “I kept thinking: ‘Why would somebody ever treat and punish another in this way?’ It was so heavy and shocking.”

Kathy Loreno, an old friend of Shelly’s who’d even been a witness at her wedding to David, moved in with the Knoteks around Christmas 1988, a few months after Shane. At first, Kathy, then 30, was warmly welcomed and helped Shelly around the house and with the children.

Quickly, however, her host started to berate, emotionally abuse and then beat her. 

The abuse progressively worsened until Kathy was forced to work naked, fed sedatives, made to sleep next to the boiler in the basement and even ride in the boot of the family car.

Thin and frail following six years of this torture, Kathy died in 1994 after a particularly brutal beating by Shelly, who then gathered her husband, nephew and daughters. “All of us will be in jail if anyone finds out what happened to Kathy,” she warned.

David later burned Kathy’s body using accelerants and metal sheeting. “I don’t think she meant to kill Kathy,” says Sami, who still lives in Raymond. “I think she meant to abuse Kathy, just like she abused us. She got off on it. She liked the power, she liked doing it, and it got worse and worse.”

To conceal the awful truth from Kathy’s family, Shelly claimed the hairdresser had run away with a boyfriend called Rocky. 

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Credit: AP

Following the murder, Shane showed Nikki photographs that he’d taken of Kathy in her most dire moments – Polaroid images showing her naked, black and blue, crawling on the floor, which he planned to take to the police.  

Nikki, in a move she still finds difficult to explain, told her mother that Shane was hiding the pictures in a teddy bear – but she had no way of knowing what lay ahead for her cousin. At the behest of Shelly, in February 1995, David fired a fatal shot into Shane’s head, the 19-year-old nephew who’d been like a son to him.

He then burned the body and scattered the ashes in the ocean. Shelly told the girls that Shane had moved to Alaska to work as a fisherman, for years manufacturing stories of contact from their cousin. David even missed work a few times to go on fruitless “searches” for Shane, while the girls believed that their father was doing the best he could to find their cousin.

Then in 1999, Ron Woodworth, a gay, witty veteran in his 50s with a pliable personality, who had been friends with the Knoteks for several years, moved in – and so Shelly’s cycle of abuse started again. 

Just like with Kathy, Shelly began verbally and emotionally abusing Ron, telling him he was a worthless, disgusting user, before moving on to beatings. She also drugged him with pills, and withheld everything from food to clothes and the use of the indoor bathroom.

At the same time, Shelly continued to estrange him from his friends and family. He died in August 2003, aged 57, after four years of suffering at the Knotek house.

While an autopsy could not confirm the exact cause of Ron’s death, his emaciated body, when it was eventually discovered, was covered in burns and bruises. Master manipulator Shelly lied to the few people in Ron’s life by saying he had moved away after getting a new job, and even applied for a change of address on one of his credit cards – writing that he had moved to Tacoma, Washington. 

“While I think [the murder of] Kathy was an accident, Ron was definitely on purpose,” says Sami. “It was done in the exact same way. She knew what the outcome would be.”

 Sami with one of Shelly's victims Shane
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Sami with one of Shelly's victims ShaneCredit: Gregg Olsen

By this time, 14-year-old Tori was the only sister still living at the family home and told Nikki and Sami – then in their 20s and living in different parts of Washington State – that Ron had vanished. Immediately convinced their mother was responsible, they asked Tori to look for evidence.

The young teen quickly discovered a heap of Ron’s possessions, including bloody bandages in an outhouse, and finally the sisters gathered the courage to go to the authorities. Following their brave call to the police and the discovery of Ron’s body buried on the Knotek property, Tori was removed from her parents’ custody and placed in the care of older sister Sami. 

Unlike Ron, Kathy’s body was never located, but David later confessed that he’d disposed of her remains.

Following his arrest, he also confessed to shooting Shane and incinerating his nephew’s corpse at home. Police charged Shelly with two counts of first-degree murder in connection with the deaths of Kathy and Ron.

David was charged with first-degree murder for the death of Shane. Both Knoteks accepted plea deals for lesser charges, including a rare Alford plea by Shelly, which allows a defendant to plead guilty while simultaneously asserting innocence – and prevented a revelatory trial, where the extent of the atrocities would be aired in public. 

David was released from prison in 2016 after serving 13 years for second-degree murder, unlawful disposal of human remains and rendering criminal assistance. Shelly is scheduled for early release into the public in 2022 after serving 19 years in prison for second-degree murder and manslaughter.

PSYCHOPATHIC BEHAVIOUR

There had been much earlier indications of psychopathic behaviour in Shelly.

She allegedly pretended to have cancer even when she first met David and convinced an elderly neighbour to sign over his assets to her before he mysteriously later died in February 2002.

After all three late victims tried to run away from the Knotek home, Shelly even managed to hunt them down, before mentally manipulating them into returning to the house of horrors. 

Despite the horrific history of abuse in their own childhood home, the Knotek girls have gone on to live full and successful lives. Nikki, the eldest at 45 and also married with three children, now lives near Seattle, where she works in her husband’s landscaping business, while Tori, the youngest at 31, lives in Colorado and works in social media.

They get together several times a year near Nikki’s home in Seattle, but none have contact with their mother. Each of them is terrified of what will happen upon her expected release from prison, whether she’ll try to contact them or turn her attention to other pliable victims. 

Although they were just children and vulnerable young women at the time of the killings, the sisters continue to deal with feelings of deep guilt, given that they witnessed Shelly’s persistent abuse but were unable to stop it happening. This is despite being victims of their mother’s torture themselves.

Shelly’s husband David also met with the book’s author Gregg Olsen. Gregg says David still feels remorse for his role in what happened and that he always will. While he remains in contact with his biological daughter Tori, his elder stepdaughter Nikki can neither forgive nor forget the role he played in what happened behind the closed doors of the Knotek home. Sami is in touch with her stepfather, but she feels very conflicted about their relationship.

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Credit: Gregg Olsen
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Credit: Gregg Olsen
 Shelly drugged Ron and withheld everything from food to clothes and the use of the indoor bathroom
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Shelly drugged Ron and withheld everything from food to clothes and the use of the indoor bathroomCredit: Gregg Olsen

“The reason why my mum was able to control Dave was because – while I love him – he’s just a very weak man. He has no backbone,” Sami explains. “He could have got happily married and been an amazing husband to somebody, because he really would’ve been, but instead, he just got his life ruined, too.” 

Her mother, however, is “not capable of guilt”, she adds. Sami said the full impact of her mother’s abuse didn’t hit her until she gave birth to her own daughter and felt an overwhelming sense of love and protection.

“I remember holding my baby and thinking: ‘I want to protect her in every way, shape or form.’ But then I realised my mum had once held me like that, and I just thought: ‘She’s evil’,” says Sami.

“She hurt me so badly. It wasn’t because she was having a bad day or she was on something. This was methodical,” she adds.

And Sami is particularly worried that Shelly “would do it again” given the opportunity – even claiming that her mother was allegedly found to be controlling and manipulating cellmates in prison, to the extent that she was no longer allowed to share a cell.

“If she ever turns up on my doorstep, I can just see myself locking allmy doors and barricading myself in the bathroom to call the police,” she says.

Along with wanting to warn others about their mother, Sami and her sisters hope people will take courage from their story of survival.

“So many things about this case were disgusting and shocking to me,” says Gregg. “But it was the idea that a mother could do this – even to her own children. Everyone’s an object to be played with, to be toyed with and to be manipulated. That’s what Shelly’s game was. 

“What’s frightening is that there will be more people like Shelly Knotek in the world and also people like David Knotek who do their bidding,” Gregg adds. 

“It’s out there and it’s happening. This case is an example of how you can never know what’s happening inside the ordinary house at the end of the lane – or even next door.”

 If You Tell: A True Story Of Murder, Family Secrets And The Unbreakable Bond Of Sisterhood by Gregg Olsen (£5.99, Thomas & Mercer) is out now
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If You Tell: A True Story Of Murder, Family Secrets And The Unbreakable Bond Of Sisterhood by Gregg Olsen (£5.99, Thomas & Mercer) is out now
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