Terry Knorr's story was too fantastic to believe. Her mother and two of her brothers, she said, had killed her sisters more than eight years ago and left their bodies in the mountains near Lake Tahoe.
At first, police officers, a lawyer and a therapist she told dismissed her tale as fiction, authorities said. But when she called the Placer County Sheriff's Department last month, her grisly account of burning flesh and starvation rang true.
Her detailed descriptions of her sisters--down to the chipped teeth from force-feedings--matched the bodies of two young women that were found in the Sierra Nevada in the mid-1980s and never identified. Soon, detectives began unraveling a tale of domestic violence so sordid and depraved that even they were shocked.
"I have been here 33 years and I have never seen such a bizarre case," said Placer County Sheriff Donald J. Nunes. "It's pathetic. It's a situation that's beyond comprehension."
Nunes said authorities now believe that the mother, Theresa Jimmie Knorr, shot and burned one daughter to death and killed another by starving her in a broom closet at their run-down apartment in Sacramento.
The mother allegedly enlisted two of her sons, William and Robert, to help torch one of their sisters along a road near Squaw Valley and, a year later, to dump the second sister's body near Truckee, the sheriff said.
Over the past 10 days, Placer County authorities have tracked down the mother and sons and charged each of them with two counts of murder.
Robert Knorr, 24, was discovered in a Nevada prison, where he recently began serving a 15-year sentence for an unrelated murder that occurred during a Las Vegas robbery. William Knorr, 26, was arrested Nov. 4 at a warehouse in Woodland, Calif., where he worked.
And Theresa Knorr, 47, was arrested Wednesday in Salt Lake City, where she was taking care of an 85-year-old woman and sharing her house. The 5-foot, 4-inch, 250-pound Knorr, who has been married five times, was using her maiden name, Theresa Cross.
The Knorrs have not publicly discussed the allegations since being charged, and Theresa Knorr is fighting extradition to California.
The revelations have prompted authorities to re-evaluate Knorr's acquittal 29 years ago on charges that she murdered her first husband. A jury found that she acted in self-defense when she shot her husband, Clifford Sanders, with a hunting rifle.
And the new allegations have led the Placer County Sheriff's Department to renew its investigation into the unsolved strangulation of Knorr's sister, Rosemary Norris, 39, whose body was dumped in Placer County in 1983.
Authorities investigating the Knorr case have pieced together a portrait of a woman who dominated her family by beating her children, manipulating their emotions and inspiring their fear.
Knorr was especially hard on her three daughters, they say. A woman with some nursing experience, she apparently did not want her daughters to be thin and allegedly force-fed them foods such as macaroni and cheese.
In Sacramento, the family lived in a small, cheap apartment near Auburn Boulevard in a neighborhood well known for its prostitutes.
On at least one occasion, Sacramento child welfare authorities were notified of abuse in the family but apparently took no action. County officials were unable to discuss the case, noting that records are destroyed after five years.
Nunes, who also serves as coroner and marshal of mountainous Placer County, gave this account of the deaths of the two young women, Suesan Knorr and Sheila Sanders:
During a heated argument in 1983, Theresa Knorr allegedly took out a small-caliber gun and shot her daughter, Suesan, in the chest. Suesan, then about 16, recovered from the shooting--even though she received no medical care and the bullet remained lodged in her body.
About a year later, Suesan announced that she wanted to move to Alaska and her mother agreed to let her go--as long as she left the bullet behind.
Concerned that the slug could be used as evidence of the shooting, Theresa Knorr allegedly used the kitchen floor as her operating table and extracted the slug from her daughter's back with a kitchen knife.
Infection set in and Suesan grew weaker, eventually becoming delirious. The mother decided she would have to get rid of her and recruited her brothers to take her to the mountains, the sheriff said.
On their way up Interstate 80, the car broke down, and they had to return to Sacramento. The next night, they made it to Squaw Valley, stopping about half a mile from the entrance to the ski resort.
On the side of the road by Squaw Creek, they placed Suesan, with her mouth taped shut, on a pile of clothes, poured gasoline on her and set her on fire, Nunes said. Her body was discovered still smoldering the next morning. A coroner's examination showed that she had stab wounds in her back but was alive when she was set on fire. The body could not be identified.
The next year, Knorr got into a violent argument with her eldest daughter, 20-year-old Sheila, and tied her up and locked her in a broom closet that was about two feet square, the sheriff said. She ordered no one in the family to feed her, although Terry Knorr, then about 13, brought her beer.
Sheila died in the closet within several days and the stench of her decomposing body filled the apartment.
Theresa Knorr again enlisted the brothers to help, Nunes said. The mother and sons put the body in a cardboard box, taped it shut and took it to the mountains, where they dumped it near the Truckee airport, he said.
On their return, they found that the smell did not go away and Theresa Knorr allegedly ordered Terry to set the apartment on fire. In the middle of the night, the teen-ager sprinkled barbecue lighter fluid around the apartment and lit it, the sheriff said.
The Fire Department, however, responded so quickly that the closet was not damaged. This month, detectives armed with a search warrant came to the apartment, now occupied by other residents, and removed the stained subfloor of the closet. Tests are being conducted to determine if the stains are from a human body.
After the fire, the family left Sacramento. Theresa Knorr and her daughter, Terry, ended up in the Salt Lake City area. In recent months, Terry had been employed as a clerk in a grocery store in the same neighborhood where her mother lived and worked. But it is unclear whether they knew of each other's whereabouts.
Terry, now 23, lives with her husband in the suburb of Sandy, near Salt Lake City. Sandy Detective David Lundberg said police have been called to their house at least a dozen times in the past three years to resolve complaints of domestic violence. Both have been arrested more than once for their mutual combat, said Lundberg, who was among the officers called to her house.
Terry apparently tried in 1989 to report the alleged murders of her sisters to police in Utah, but they did not believe her, Lundberg said. Even a therapist she consulted did not take her seriously, he said.
But while watching an episode of "America's Most Wanted" on television last month, she realized that charges could still be brought. Authorities said she called the Placer County sheriff instead of Utah authorities.
"She didn't want her mother to get away with any of this and she wanted to tell her story," Lundberg said.
Before her mother was arrested, Terry went to a Utah television station, KUTV, and told the story of abuse and murder. "What kind of mother would do that?" she said. "What kind of person am I going to be for the rest of my life because of this?"
It is uncertain whether Knorr saw the broadcast, but shortly before her arrest she withdrew $4,000 from her bank account and notified her employer she was leaving town, Lundberg said.
Placer County detectives tracked her down by checking various aliases with driver's license records across the country.
Bud Sullivan, who had hired Knorr to care for his ailing mother, was stunned by the arrest. "I can't say anything bad about her," he said. "She was there 24 hours a day for the last 15 months. We consider her a part of the family."
Sheriff Nunes said the case would have been solved much sooner if anyone had believed Terry when she tried to report the murders in the late 1980s. Her descriptions were so detailed, he said, that a computer check should have turned up a report of the unidentified bodies.
Utah authorities said they are trying to find any officers who might have received information about the alleged murders from Terry Knorr.
Times special correspondent James G. Wright in Salt Lake City contributed to this story.