Sacramento has experienced more than its share of notorious murders and serial killers. This one often slips under the radar, but is one of the most brutal cases I’ve come across.
I’m always amazed by the media interviews after a murderer is discovered living next door. It’s always some form of, “He was such a nice man,” or “I never suspected a thing.” In the case we’re going to discuss today, when it all came out, a neighbor told reporters, “I knew they were a strange family, just not that strange.”
On the morning of July 17, 1984, a woman driving on a remote Northern California highway noticed a bright light in the woods. Fearing it was a fire in the wooded area she stopped to investigate. The overpowering smell stopped her before she reached the fire. Another motorist doused the flame with a fire extinguisher and when the smoke cleared, they discovered a charred human body.
Placer County authorities quickly determined that the body was of an 18 to 22 year old woman. The victim evidenced severe trauma from beating and stab wounds. The cause of death was smoke inhalation–the Jane Doe was burned alive.
In May 1985, the body of a young woman was found in a cardboard box, dumped in a campground along interstate 80 in Nevada County. Authorities listed her as a Jane Doe and her cause of death, at that time, was undetermined.
It wasn’t until 1992, when Terry Knorr watched an episode of America’s Most Wanted that she called the police. She reported that her mother Theresa Knorr and her brothers, William and Robert had killed her sister Suesan by burning her in July of 1984. She went on to state that her mother dumped the body of another sister, Sheila Sanders somewhere in the mountains. Sheila was the victim found in the cardboard box.
The investigators unraveled a bizarre and tragic tale of abuse and torture dating back to Theresa’s childhood. Leaving an abusive home at age 16, she married Clifford Sanders in July of 1962. In the midst of her second pregnancy in 1964, Theresa shot and killed Clifford, claiming that he was beating her. The jury in a Sacramento County trial found her not guilty, a verdict that would later haunt the prosecutor.
Theresa went though a series of short relationships and gave birth to five children, Sheila in March of 1965, Suesan in September 1966, Robert in September 1967, William in December of 1968, and Terry in August of 1970. Her behavior changed and she began drinking heavily along with physical and emotional abuse of the children. She held a .22 caliber gun to Terry’s head and threaten to kill her at one point. Terry ran away from home, sought help from authorities who placed the girl in a psychiatric facility. Her mother denied the allegations as fantasy and Terry was returned home where she received the beating of a lifetime–and all the other children were forced to take their turn, striking their youngest sibling.
In 1982 Theresa was convinced that Suesan was a witch and casting spells on her mother to make her gain weight. During a violent argument, Theresa shot Suesan in the stomach with the same .22 caliber gun she’d threatened Terry with. Theresa refused to get medical treatment for her daughter and, by some miracle Suesan slowly recovered, the bullet lodged near her back.
In July of 1984, Theresa stabbed Suesan in the back with a pair of scissors during an argument. The injury wasn’t serious, but Suesan asked her mother for permission to move out of the family’s Sacramento apartment. Surprisingly, Theresa agreed under one condition; that she let Theresa remove the bullet from her back to get rid of any evidence that she had shot her daughter.
Desperate for her freedom, Suesan agreed. Theresa ordered her son, 15 year old Robert to cut the bullet out with a box cutter. The ordeal did successfully recover the bullet, but left Suesan with a festering infection. The girl became delirious and became seriously ill.
On July 16, 1984, Theresa bound Suesan with duct tape, had her boys load the girl into the car. Theresa gathered up all of her belongings and they set off to a secluded location off of highway 89. The boys carried Suesan to a creek bed and Theresa doused her daughter and all of her belongings with gasoline. Theresa struck a match and ordered the rest of the family back to the car without looking back.
In the Spring of 1985, Theresa needed additional household income and ordered her daughter Sheila into prostitution. The 20 year old was bringing in hundreds of dollars a week and her mother’s approval came with fewer beatings. That was short-lived however, when in May of 1985, Theresa was convinced that she had contracted a sexually transmitted disease that Shiela had brought home. On June 19, 1985, Theresa beat Sheila until she was black and blue, bound her, and threw her into a small closet.
The children, Robert, William, and Terry were ordered to stay away from the closet until Sheila confessed. Three days, later on June 21, 1985, the smell of decomposing flesh revealed that Sheila had died in that small closet. Willam and Robert were told to toss their sister’s remains in a cardboard box. Theresa drove on Interstate 80, toward Truckee and Sheila’s body was dumped at a campground in Nevada county. Terry was ordered to douse the family’s apartment with gasoline and torch the place to eliminate any evidence of what happened to their sister.
That incident finally fractured the family. Terry, ran away using Sheila’s identification to pass as a 21 year old woman. William took up with a girlfriend in Sacramento, while Robert and mom, Theresa moved to Las Vegas.
Robert was convicted of murder in Nevada after he tried to rob a Las Vegas bar and shot an employee on November 7, 1991. Theresa left town trying to avoid attention and moved to Salt Lake City.
Terry’s phone call to the authorities after watching an unrelated America’s Most Wanted episode unlocked the case. Initially reluctant, William and Robert admitted their roles in the deaths and cooperated with authorities. Theresa was charged on November 14, 1991 and extradited to California. Robert made a deal to testify against his mother for a lesser sentence and when Theresa heard about the deal, she made her own bargain to avoid the death penalty.
Theresa Knorr was sentenced to two consecutive life terms on October 17, 1995. She appeared before the Board of Parole Hearings on July 3, 2019, because the state’s new “Elderly Parole Suitability” program found her eligible. The board declined to release her and set a new hearing date in five years, in July 2024.
The generational abuse in this case is staggering. What could we have done to stop this from happening?
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