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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 think of someone who loves you unconditionally. A person to whom you've given your absolute trust. But what happens when that trust is violated, again and again, in the most grievous ways? And what if the woman who tucks you in at night is a mother, a murderer, and a monster? Such was the case for the six children of Theresa Knorr, whose horrific childhoods are explored in Dennis McDougal's Mother's Day

Life in the Knorr house had never been stable. A raging alcoholic, a negligent wife, and an abusive mother, Theresa Knorr had burned her way through four marriages by the time she was 30-years-old. But it was her last divorce from Chet Harris—finalized the same year they wed—that sent her past the brink of madness. Suddenly, Theresa's drinking increased. Her neurosis worsened. Her violent behaviors escalated.

Envious of her two eldest daughters, Theresa directed the brunt of her abuse at Sheila and Suesan. Both girls met gruesome ends at their mother's hands: In 1984, Theresa burned Susean alive with the help of her teenage sons, Robert and William. Several unsuccessful murder attempts 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.

Sheila was killed only a year later, after being locked 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.

After years of silence, Terry—the youngest of the Knorr children—courageously brought her story to America's Most Wanted in 1993. An investigation was launched soon thereafter, in which her mother received two consecutive life sentences. At last, Theresa Knorr was brought to justice, but the scars she'd left behind would never fade.

Discover Terry's story with an excerpt from Mother's Day, a true crime book about Theresa Knorr.

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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 ten or eleven 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.

“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.

“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.”

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

Mother's Day

By Dennis McDougal

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Featured image: Murderpedia 



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