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Theresa Knorr: The Mother Who Burned Her Daughter Alive

In the 1980s, Theresa Knorr brutally murdered her two daughters—with the help of her sons.

When you think of a mother, you imagine someone who loves you unconditionally—a person to whom you give your absolute trust. But what happens when that trust is violated in the most heinous of ways? What if the woman who tucks you in at night is a mother, a murderer, and a monster? 

Such is the case of Theresa Knorr, a mother and serial child abuser who murdered two of her daughters—and forced her two sons to help. Seasoned true crime author Dennis McDougal examines the chilling case of Theresa Knorr, her six children, and the horrific abuse they suffered at the hands of their mother in Mother's Day

 Who Is Theresa Knorr? 

Theresa Knorr was born on March 14, 1946 to Jim and Swannie Gay Cross in Sacramento, California. Theresa was the younger of two daughters born to the couple; Swannie also had a son and daughter from a previous marriage. The Crosses lived a relatively happy life in the early 1950s. Jim was an assistant cheesemaker at Sacramento’s Golden State Dairy while Swannie worked at the Essex Lumber Company running a machine that made pencils. With money saved, the Cross family purchased a bigger home in nearby Rio Linda. 

But by the end of the 1950s, their budding domestic bliss came to a tragic end. Jim was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and following an unsuccessful brain surgery, was forced into unemployment. Swannie did her best to support the family—until she suffered a fatal heart attack on March 2, 1961. Theresa, days away from her 15th birthday, was with her mother on the day Swannie’s heart gave out; she held her mother in her arms as she died. 

Related: The True Story of Mary Thompson a.k.a. "Gang Mom" 

Marriage to Clifford Clyde Sanders 

The year after her mother’s death, at age 15, Teresa dropped out of high school and married her first husband, Clifford Clyde Sanders. The following summer, she gave birth to her first child, Howard Sanders. By all accounts, Theresa’s marriage to Clifford was a tumultuous one; the couple frequently clashed, and Theresa claimed that her husband was abusive and an alcoholic. On one memorable occasion, Theresa filed charges against her husband after being punched in the face, but the charges were later dropped. At the peak of their brawling, and less than a month later, on July 6, 1964, during a heated argument, Theresa shot Sanders with a rifle.  

Theresa was charged with murdering Clifford Sanders. She pleaded not guilty, claiming self-defense. At the trial, Clifford’s relatives testified that Theresa was capable of killing her husband. “I believe with all my heart that Theresa Sanders planned to kill my brother,” stated Clifford’s sister, Lydia. 

On September 22, 1964, Theresa was found not guilty in the murder of Clifford Clyde Sanders. The following spring, she gave birth to her second child, Sheila Gay. 

Marriage to Bob Knorr and Descent into Violence

theresa knorr
  • Theresa's sons: William and Robert Knorr.

  • Photo Credit: Murderpedia

On July 9, 1966, Theresa married U.S. marine Bob Knorr. The couple had four children together: Suesan in 1966, William in 1967, Robert in 1968, and Theresa "Terry" Marie in 1970. As with her first marriage, Theresa’s relationship with Bob was fraught with alcohol-fueled arguments and accusations of infidelity. The couple soon called it quits. 

Theresa Knorr married two more times after her divorce from Bob Knorr: first, to Ron Pulliam and then to Chet Harris. Her fourth and final marriage lasted only a little over two months in 1976. And it was upon the dissolution of this marriage that Theresa Knorr went over the edge. Her drinking increased. Her neuroses worsened. And, most tragically, her violent and vile outbursts against her children escalated to full-fledged murder.

Envious of her two older daughters, Theresa directed the brunt of her abuse at Sheila and Suesan. Both girls met gruesome ends at their mother's hands. In the summer of 1984, Theresa burned 17-year-old Suesan alive with the help of her sons, Robert and William. Several savage assaults on Suesan preceded the incident: a shot in the back, a stabbing, and a crude operation with an X-Acto knife. Theresa’s motivation? She believed Suesan had used magic to make her gain weight.

Related: Experts Reveal What Drives Mothers to Kill Their Kids 

The following summer, Theresa killed her 20-year-old daughter Sheila by beating and then locking her in a closet without food or water for three days. Again, Theresa made wild claims to justify her actions. And again, Robert and William served as her brainwashed accomplices.

In 1993, Terry—the youngest of the Knorr children—courageously stepped forward with an account of her mother’s crimes. It was not, in fact, the first time she had reached out for help; previous attempts were dismissed. This time, however, the monstrous truth was believed. An investigation led to the arrest and conviction of Theresa Knorr, who received two consecutive life sentences. At last, Theresa Knorr was brought to justice, but the scars she left would never fade.

Dennis McDougal examines Knorr’s depths of depravity and the case that made headlines across the nation in Mother’s Day. The excerpt below begins in the aftermath of Knorr’s divorce from Chet Harris, when the mother’s capacity for violence took on a terrible new dimension. 

Read on for an excerpt of Mother's Day and then buy the book.

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Mother's Day

By Dennis McDougal

Mother's Day

By Dennis McDougal

Back at the house on Bellingham Way, Theresa grew more reclusive, more unpredictable, and more violent, but nobody outside of her immediate family knew anything about it. Though she had always been hard on her children, it was her last husband who finally turned her into a monster.

“She really went over the edge with Chet Harris,” said Terry. “After Harris, she dated for a little while, but then she got to the point where she wouldn’t date or remarry or nothing.”

Terry’s older brothers William and Robert agreed, recalling that their mother’s gradual transformation from angry disciplinarian to raging eccentric took place in the late 1970s.

“Sometime around when I turned 10 or 11 or so, she started becoming abusive, real short-tempered,” William recalled. “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.”

“When 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 insane asylum,” he continued. “I never really admitted or even knew that I was being abused or that my family was being abused, because I thought it was normal.”

And yet as far as the neighbors knew, the Knorr family was no different from any other.

Related: 8 True Crime Books About Terrifying Mothers 

“Not that I want to say that they were private, but they stayed to themselves,” said Janet Garrett, who lived next door. “It was difficult to strike up a conversation with the mother. She just didn’t want to, it seemed like. You try a few times, and after two or three times you just say, ‘Okay.’ You just give up.”

Theresa’s changing behavior even went undetected by the neighborhood kids, who generally had a closer view of their friends’ private life than their parents.

“Not having a father figure around—that was the only thing about their family that seemed different,” said Janet’s son Chris Garrett.

He was the same age as Terry Knorr and went to her house to play from time to time. Once, he went to her birthday party—a party at which he noticed that he was the only non-family member.

“Terry’s mom wasn’t the silent type,” he recalled. “In fact, she was real talkative. Kept to herself, but talkative when you talked to her. Even so, I don’t remember her ever saying anything that you could call ‘off the wall.’”

But Terry’s mom was definitely different from the other moms in the neighborhood. “I will say this about her,” Garrett added. “Terry’s mom definitely had control of the kids. I didn’t see a lot of back talk or argument coming out of any of them. If they were told to be in by a certain time, they were in. If they were told to do something, they did it. They never asked questions. They never made a point to second-guess authority.”

Theresa’s children may have accepted this dictatorial isolation, but they didn’t understand it. They complained about not being able to have friends over, but if they whined too much about it, they were slapped into silence. They did not see the gradual evaporation of their contact with the outside world as the logical result of shutting themselves inside the house. Instead, Theresa’s children saw the neighbors’ distancing from their mother and themselves as indifference and an unwillingness to get involved.

“Our neighbors backed off,” said Terry. “They knew better than to screw with our family. Everybody shuts their eyes, nobody wants to get involved.”

The Knorr children’s blind obedience to their mother stemmed from a constant state of terror that remained invisible to the Garretts and every one else who lived along Bellingham Way. Even in the early stages, the terror was so bizarre and their mother so skilled at keeping it “in the family,” it would have taken more than simple curiosity on the part of the neighbors to uncover what was going on. Had the Garretts or any of the other neighbors known about it, Terry wonders even today if they would have done anything.

Related: Fatal Charm: 5 Deadly Women 

“When my mother got drunk, she used to lick the ends of steak knives,” Terry recalled. “Serrated-edged knives. And she threw them at us to see if her aim was good.”

Knives weren’t Theresa’s only deadly playthings when she’d had a little too much to drink.

Terry still blanches, remembering the chill in her mother’s voice one evening when she went in to say good night. Eyes half-closed, her mother sat in a deep chair in the living room and motioned for Terry to approach. In her drunken stupor, Theresa howled at her shivering but stoic young daughter, boasting of that defining moment nearly fifteen years earlier when she pointed a gun at Clifford Sanders and pulled the trigger.

“She owned two guns, a derringer and a revolver,” Terry recalled. “At one point, she took out the bone-handled old cowboy gun. It looked like a toy, but it was a real six-shooter. A .22 pistol.”

Aiming the pistol at her daughter, Theresa told Terry, “I shot once and I can do it again.”

Terry froze, standing terrified before her.

“And she told me to come to her. And I did,” Terry said with a shudder, remembering. “And she put the gun to my head, so hard that the next morning I woke up and I still had a knot from where the barrel had sunk into my temple.”  

theresa knorr
  • Theresa's daughters: Suesan and Terry Knorr.

  • Photo Credit: Murderpedia

On the evenings that followed, sobered and sentimental, Theresa would try to make amends by taking everyone out for a family ride, as if nothing had happened. She’d load them into the car and drive up Highway 50, past Placerville, into the High Sierras. 

“It was one of those see-how-nice-I-can-be type things,” Bill recalled. 

There was no point to it, other than to commune with nature. They never went to play in the snow or hike in the forest. It was just a tour through the mountains. Unlike six-lane Interstate 80, which cut through the relatively barren Donner Pass, the Placerville high- way had more vistas, more wildlife, and more trees, which appealed to Theresa’s aesthetic sense. But the family drives did little to make up for the savagery that went on back home. 

“It was beat us, lock us in our room for days, and then, she’d be all lovey-dovey,” said Terry. “My mom was so blatantly contradictory. She played the part of a mother, but she also played the part of a very torturous, sadistic human being. Oh yeah, she was schizo.” 

[…]

But the older her children got, the more difficult they were to control. They wanted to visit friends, not stay at home for readings from It or Ecclesiastes. William was among the first to begin plotting his escape. 

Related: 19+ True Crime Podcasts to Fuel Your Inner Sleuth 

“When we got to a certain age, we were no longer permitted to go outside,” Bill recalled. “We were always grounded. Friends that came over were told by my mom that we were grounded, or asleep, or not there. We had everything taken away from us.” 

Theresa timed her children’s visits to school, to the grocery store, to church—and administered the third degree if they were a few minutes late getting home. 

“She would never just go off and beat all the kids just to beat all the kids,” Bill explained. “It was, if you did something wrong, or that she saw wrong, like coming back late from the store, that was a beating right there. If I came home late from school, she knew I was out talking to somebody, so I was getting a beating.” 

But while William dreamed of his eventual getaway, his older sisters were made to understand that they were different. They were girls. For girls, there was no escape. 

When the family was out together, Theresa went so far as to make all of her daughters go to the bathroom with her so that she could keep an eye on them. When she warned them not to talk to strangers, there was a cold-steel edge to her voice that made each of the girls understand that she meant “don’t talk to anyone.” 

She was still bigger than most of her children, but wielding the Board of Education [a board about an inch thick and four feet long with a grip at one end that Theresa used for punishment] was no longer as effective as it had been when they were small. Howard became her new tool of discipline. During her fits of terror, Theresa solicited help from her oldest son. 

“Howard was the first one that was made to help hold us down,” said William. 

Want to keep reading? Download Mother's Day by Dennis McDougal today.

Mother's Day

By Dennis McDougal

This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for The Lineup to continue publishing the true crime and creepy stories you love.

Featured photo: Murderpedia 

Published on 09 May 2019

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