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Behind Closed Doors: The Secret Life of the Knorr Family

“I grew up in an insane asylum basically, but what’s worse is we didn’t know it was an insane asylum.”

By Matthew Blackburn
Behind Closed Doors: The Secret Life of the Knorr Family

Thirty years ago on a summer day on the outskirts of Sacramento, the phrase “It’s so hot, I feel like I’m going to melt,” took on a whole new meaning when a burning body was found off a side road of the Interstate 80 highway.

The body was unrecognizable, but it became very clear that the person had been burned alive.

Many asked themselves, “Who would do such a thing?”

No one thought the answer could be the victim’s own mother.

Eight years later, one brave daughter of the Knorr family came forward with vital information about the shocking crime. She shared a story of verbal abuse and beatings, sexual assault and incest, one sister locked in a box and left to die, and—yes—another sister doused in gasoline and burned near the highway. Her narrative exposed the ugly depths of the Knorr family … and the woman who planned it all: Theresa Knorr.


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.”

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