Authors: Wensley Clarkson
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for putting up with me, as usual
Notes of Gratitude
The idea of using a leaden, dispassionate word like “Acknowledgments” for this section cannot begin to express the depth of my feelings for the many individuals who have made this book possible. I owe them my deepest and most heartfelt gratitude.
First to my agent Peter Miller and my editor Charles Spicer. Without them this book would never have happened. Their support and guidance has been very much appreciated.
Then there is: Mark Sandelson, Bud Sullivan, Keith Bendixen, Hal and Fran Cheney, Detective David Lundberg, Pat and Vere Thatcher, Peter Rosen, Ann Cristoferson, Heidi Sorenson, Inspector Johnnie Smith, DeLois Knorr, Robert Knorr Sr., Mickey Sampson, John Trumbo, Sheriff Donald J. Nunes,
contributor James G. Wright, and Sean Martin.
But my biggest debt of gratitude must go to Sgt. John Fitzgerald—without his help this book would never have been possible.
The central figure in this story, Theresa Jimmie Knorr, changed her name frequently. In an effort to avoid confusion, throughout the book she is referred to by whichever name she was using at the time.
Quotations from written material appears, with few exceptions, without the editorial “[sic].” When it seems that a word was inadvertently missing, it has been added for the sake of clarity. Mistakes in punctuation, grammar, and spelling have been corrected in certain instances, but in others it was felt that retaining an error helped convey the flavor of a document and the style of the person being quoted.
As an author and former crime reporter, I have written about many of the most notorious criminals of modern times, from the appalling killings committed by Charles Manson and his flock of disciples to the ultimate crime of passion that made Betty Broderick one of the most infamous murderesses of modern times.
However, I will never forget my response as a parent when I first became aware of the murders allegedly committed by the mother and her two sons featured in this book. How could a mother kill her own flesh and blood? Even worse, how could a woman defy that special bond that is supposed to exist between mother and daughter?
But then mother love can take many forms: hatred, derision, sympathy, inspiration, devotion, self-sacrifice, companionship, destruction, jealousy, admiration, affection, desolation, and, it now seems, even murder.
Mother love is supposed to mean love of a mother for her children. It is a two-way process, which means that the child gradually rises until she is in the ascendent—the succorer, not the succored. Your mother is your mother for always. Your one and only mother. Your mother for all time. You cannot divorce your mother, and if you happen to be her daughter, you are the same sex as her, out of the same mold. It is like a series of those Russian wooden dolls, the sort that fit inside each other, painted with different floral dresses, but shaped the same and becoming smaller and smaller.
Men may rule the genealogical tree, but it is the female side of the family that has a truer inheritance. When a woman has a baby, it is her mother, not her father, she turns to, and if that baby is a girl, in due time she will turn to her mother. That is a real family tree. The family tree of women.
It may be significant that the mother described in this book lost her own mother at a young age. She had no one to turn to at the start of parenthood. No one to guide her. No one to tell her how to do it.
As I began to investigate the circumstances behind the alleged crimes featured in this book, I uncovered such a vast nest egg of hidden abuse that one cannot help asking the question over and over again: Why? The blatant violence committed in the name of the family cannot all have been a thoughtless act. What hidden factors contributed to this tragedy? Why did authorities ignore the pleas of help by one sister and force her back into that house of horrors, and in effect sentence her to death? Why did so many not believe the only surviving daughter when she told authorities what had happened inside that household?
I make no specific stance in presenting the facts in this book as they have been revealed to me through painstaking research and extraordinary access to tape-recorded statements made to investigators during the course of their inquiries, as well as dozens of interviews. I have simply recalled them as they have been recounted by everyone involved.
The actual date of the trial of Theresa Jimmie Knorr and her sons has yet to be confirmed. In the interests of justice, I have been careful not to veer away from the story as it unfolded, according to the many family members, friends, and officials involved.
But if ever a case deserved to be publicized, even in advance of a court case, then this is it. The very fabric of the American family unit is already under enough severe pressure. The story of the Knorrs is a warning of just how bad things can get and why all of us, as responsible adults, have a duty to our children to do something to arrest the decline before it is too late.
It is hardly as if the warnings have not been made in the past. So-called experts have been telling us for years of childhood abuse and its terrifying aftermath.
The battered child syndrome has been described as unrecognized trauma by radiologists, orthopedists, pediatricians, and social workers. It is a significant cause of childhood disability and death.
Unfortunately, it is frequently not recognized, or, if diagnosed, is inadequately handled by physicians because of hesitation to bring the case to the proper authorities.
Yet, incredibly, not so long ago in Western society, unbridled parental domination was an enduring tradition whose roots were seen in the Old Testament.
Later generations took this biblical command quite literally. Under the Old English common law, children were regarded as the property of their fathers. Parents could require their children to work for them, or place them in indentured servitude in return for payment. Absolute obedience was not an issue—for children who attempted to rebel were whipped and beaten or placed in workhouses.
The harsh treatment of children went hand in hand with prevailing moral and religious beliefs that “childhood was an inherently evil state.” This tradition carried over to our own shores where, in 1646 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, newly arrived citizens (ironically, escaping repression) enacted the Massachusetts Stubborn Child Law. Parents who claimed that their children were “stubborn and rebellious” and “disobedient of voice” could seek one of several “state reprimands,” including execution. Obviously, democracy and due process were not things the Pilgrims wanted in their homes.
Children universally attach themselves to their care givers. This is a survival mechanism necessary to provide the needs that a child is unable to satisfy alone. Certainty of the presence of a safe base allows for normal emotional and cognitive development.… In the absence of such a safe base, as in cases of child abuse and neglect, a child goes through a variety of psychological maneuvers to preserve maximum protection. Abused and neglected children often become fearfully and hungrily attached to their care givers, with timid obedience and an apparent preoccupation with the anticipation and prevention of abandonment.
In his book,
Albert Shengold went so far as to say that what he described as soul murder was “the deliberate attempt to eradicate or compromise the separate identity of another person. The victims of soul murder remain in large part possessed by another, their souls in bondage to someone else … Torture and deprivation under conditions of complete dependency have elicited a terrible and terrifying combination of helplessness and rage—unbearable feelings that must be suppressed for the victim to survive.”
When a child is punished severely and unfairly, it becomes a mind-splitting or mind-fragmenting operation because many children have to keep in some compartment of their minds the delusion of good parents and the delusive promise that all terror, pain, and hate will be transformed into love.
In October 1993 one of the most disturbing allegations of multiple child abuse ever seen was uncovered thanks to the dogged efforts of one detective and the young woman who claims she narrowly escaped with her life after witnessing a catalogue of terror inside her own family home.
It all began almost ten years earlier in a desolate area of forest near the High Sierra Mountains, in central California. It is a bleak expanse of rugged terrain—the perfect dumping ground for a thousand secrets. A place where a bear or a mountain lion is more likely to come across any human remains than a deputy sheriff or a forest ranger. Nobody knows how many bodies are out there. It is pure luck if anyone stumbles upon them.
And even when human remains are discovered, chances are that those murderers will never be arrested. Usually, the bodies are not even identified. The cops who patrol the area call them body dumps, and over the years they’ve included every type of death: decapitations, burned-out cars, strangulation, emasculation, impaling; a few had been injected with battery acid, and then there are the ones who’ve simply been tossed down ravines.
Even when these tragic victims are found, they all too often end up being buried in an unmarked grave with just the name “Jane Doe” on a tiny headstone. Unclaimed, unloved, a waste of a life …
* * *
Truck driver Robert Eden did not hesitate to stop when he was flagged down by housewife Maybel Harrison on the northbound section of Highway 89, just half a mile north of Squaw Valley Creek, on the edge of those same High Sierras, near Tahoe City, in Placer County, California. It was dawn on July 17, 1984.
“There’s a brushfire by the creek,” explained Maybel breathlessly.
Eden grabbed the chemical fire extinguisher from the cab of his truck and ran to the blaze just thirty yards from the side of the road. Minutes later he also doused the still burning fire with a three gallon can of water, just to be absolutely certain it was completely out. Then he found himself transfixed by what Maybel Harrison thought was a mannequin—the toes sticking out from under the cinders confirmed it.
“That’s a body.…”
The silver duct tape used to gag the victim and tie her wrists was still visible on the charred remains.
Just over an hour later, with emergency services surrounding the scene, Tahoe City Fire Department Captain Ron Collins—a member of the Arson Task Force—began examining the rubble with a hydrocarbon detector, which determines the presence of flammable liquids in fires. It took less than a minute to establish that the fire had been started deliberately.
Tahoe City Detective Russell Potts then carefully collected three soil samples starting at a point four feet north of the corpse. Then he crouched down to collect more soil just six inches from the charred remains before removing one last sample from a different angle to the body. They were all carefully packaged in contamination-free cans, sealed and put aside for eventual analysis by the Department of Justice.
detectives had already informed the Department of Justice that they were dealing with a homicide and requested that a photographer and criminologist get to the site immediately.
, Placer County Sheriff Donald J. Nunes arrived with a police photographer. Within the hour, criminologist Michael Saggs from the Department of Justice and four officials were snapping away furiously with their cameras at the grotesquely twisted body that consisted of a charred left arm propped up on her elbow, with the hand straight up in a curled position. The lower portion of the left leg was detached at the femur and was lying on the ground approximately three inches away from the end of the femur. The right arm was at the corpse’s side and the right leg extended straight from the body at a weird right angle.