Theresa Knorr

This is one of those case that when you hear it, it sticks with you.  It is not your average, run of the mill true crime case.  And, yes, sadly, those of us who are very much into true crime do see what we consider to be just that, run of the mill.  Even in terms of parents who have murdered their children, this case stands out.

If you are a true crime buff, like myself, and you have heard of this case, you most likely first heard about it through the words of Theresa "Terry" Knorr.  She became a staple of telling this story when it came out.  Sadly, for years Terry told anyone who she thought would or should have listened the story of how her mother, Theresa, with the help of her brothers, William and Robert, murdered two of her sisters.  While the murders were the most vile thing that was done while growing up in the household, it was hardly the only thing that Terry, her sisters, or even the brothers who would later help their mother murder their sisters, would live with.

Theresa Jimmie Cross would marry several times, the first at the age of sixteen.  Her first husband, Clifford Sanders would die July 6, 1964 at the hands of Theresa.  Clifford and Theresa, at that time had a son, Howard, who was the only other witness, although too young to know it, to his fathers death.  Theresa would claim that she had show him in self defense and that Clifford was abusive.  Prosecutors did not buy her story and they charged her in the death of her husband.  By the time of her trial in September of 1964 Theresa was pregnant with her second child.  Sheila Sanders was born in March of 1965 and given the name Sanders, as well as apparently believed to be Clifford's daughter, although, aside from a premature birth, with I could find no record of I am unsure this was possible.  According to Clifford's family not only was he not a violent man but Theresa was a very controlling wife. Even Theresa's sister, Rosemary, would testify about her behavior at her trial.  Apparently Clifford and Theresa had been separated for a short period not long before Clifford's death but they had tried to reconcile and he had moved back home with Theresa.  By her own account Theresa admitted that Clifford had announced the marriage was over that day and was leaving.  Despite the fact that experts testified that Clifford was shot in the back with a rifle, as he was apparently leaving it seems the jury just could not see this young, attractive woman committing murder without warrant.  On September 22, 1964 she was acquitted. Investigators would later say one of the oddest things was that not long after her acquittal Theresa had gone to the police station and asked to have the rifle that she had shot her husband with returned to her. 

By July of 1966 Theresa began her second marriage and seven months pregnant.  Suesan Knorr would be born that following September.  She would be followed by William, also known as "Billy Bob," Robert Jr. and Theresa "Terry" Knorr.  This marriage also did not last long and by most accounts Robert Sr apparently was abusive, but in the same respect it sounds as if Theresa likely gave as much as she got and the entire relationship was toxic from the beginning.  By the time Theresa and Robert Sr. met Theresa had already made it a habit of drinking a lot.  Just as she had done with Clifford, at least by accounts of his family, she accused Robert Sr. of having multiple affairs during their marriage.  While it is uncertain that either of Theresa's husband's had affairs, it does seems that Theresa herself was not the most faithful person throughout the years to the men she was involved with.  Robert Sr. left Theresa, and essentially his children, in June of 1969.  Their divorce was finalized in 1970 and Robert Sr does admit to have been involved sexually with Theresa for some time until then he would claim to not know for certain if Terry was his child as she was not born until August of 1970.  This is now her second of two marriages in which her last child's paternity is in question and yet she was the one arguing for fidelity.  

In 1971 Theresa would marry for a third time to Ronald Pulliam.  They would divorce in 1972.  He would claim that while things seemed good in the beginning, once they were married Theresa would stay out all night, or even days drinking while he was left to care for her children.  In August of 1976 Theresa would marry for the fourth and last time to Chester Harris.  This marriage would last a mere three months.  Most people believe that this marriage failed because Suesan, who was about ten years old at the time was close to Chester and Theresa became jealous.  Theresa would say later, apparently through their divorce, that Chester had enjoyed taking pictures of naked women and this was pretty much a deal breaker for her, despite the fact that the women were consenting.  

This apparently would be her last attempt at marriage but things had become increasingly hard on her children, not just between her marriages but now permanently and as time would go on things would only become worse.  

On July 17, 1984 a passerby on a highway near Squaw Valley California saw a fire off the side of the road.  The woman stopped another vehicle who just happened to have an extinguisher and they would see among the ashes was a body.  Investigators would have no clue for the next eight years as to who the young girl was.  She was given the name Jane Doe #4873/84. All that they did know was that this young girl had been alive when she was doused with gasoline (although barely) and set on fire.  Sadly the area in which the body was found it was not unusual to find bodies as it was a desert like place and seemed almost to be a dumping ground of sorts.

Almost a year later another body would be found on June 24, 1985 near the Tuckee California Airport.  The body had been placed in a large popcorn up box and apparently simply left.  Once again the investigators were unable to identify the body. She would be given the name Jane Doe 6607/85.

No one would know that the two bodies were connected in any way.  In fact, it was believed that, although the name of the victim in 1985 was not identified, nor was there officially a conviction, that the person was a victim of a serial killer in the area and while officially the case was considered to be open, unofficially it was lost in the shuffle and all but considered solved.

For the next several years life went on in California in the Knorr household, very little of it good however.  By the time Terry Knorr was 16, around 1986, the family had begun to scatter.  The children had all seemed to go their separate ways except for Theresa and Robert for a short time.  They ended up in Las Vegas Nevada.  In November of 1991 Robert Jr. was arrested and later convicted for the murder of a bartender after he committed a robbery.  He would ultimately be sentenced to 16 years in prison.  In the meantime Theresa had packed up and moved to Salt Lake Utah and began a new life using her maiden name of Cross and becoming a home care giver of the elderly.  Over the next few years she would work in the home of two different women.  By most accounts the families of the women she lived and worked with really liked Theresa Cross although they knew there were a few strange things about her such as how she would seem resistant to talk of her life before Utah and the fact that in the case of the first woman she would apparently disappear for periods of time.  There were later allegations that Theresa may have been abusive to at least one of the women she was in charge of but nothing apparently seemed to come of those rumors.  

In the meantime Terry Knorr had married and she herself, without knowing her mother was nearby, also moved to the Salt Lake City, Utah area.  She had also began telling friends, psychologists and others things about her childhood.  At one point she spoke to a Utah police officer but nothing ever seemed followed through on.  Some suspect that some of the reasoning behind that was that Terry had some demons of her own. She was apparently well known by the local police due to some domestic issues in the home she shared with her husband and his parents. It just seemed that everyone she told her story to found it too outrageous to take seriously.  Then at the end of October in 1993 Terry tried one last time.  She contacted the police in Placer County California where an unidentified body was found in 1984.  Finally someone listened, checked out the things she said and believed her.

Although there was much to tell people about life with her mother, the most important stories revolved around the deaths of her sisters so she generally began there.  First there was Suesan.  After hearing what happened to her and what had gone on investigators would later learn that they could have likely saved Suesan before things got nearly as bad as they had.  At some point Suesan had ran away.  She was picked up by the local police and she begged not to be sent back home saying her mother was abusive.  Instead of taking her seriously they took her home where Theresa told the officers that Suesan was mental and that she was a liar.  No one ever looked into the claims that she made.  According to Terry, Suesan was beaten by Theresa and she had forced the other children to join in.  Terry said Theresa had told all of the other children that Suesan was a witch and had cast a spell on her, making her gain weight.  From an early age Theresa had been obsessed with her appearance and at one time had been considered very attractive.  However, as is often the case, as she aged and consumed massive amounts of alcohol, she had lost her figure and had gain a lot of weight, making her look nothing as she had when she was young.

In 1982 for reasons that only people can guess about Theresa had shot Suesan in the chest with a .22 caliber gun she had.  The bullet remained lodged in Suesan's back and she was placed in the bathroom tub.  Apparently when she did not readily die Theresa seemingly played the good parent and using her previous nursing skills nursed her daughter back to health.  Then in July of 1984, again for unknown reasons, Theresa had stabbed Suesan in the back with a pair of scissors.  Soon after Suesan begged her mother to let her move out of the house.  To everyone's surprise Theresa gave her consent on one condition.... that she remove the bullet still in Suesan's back.  Theresa had her son Robert Jr. help and the bullet was removed with an x-acto knife.  Seeing as proper medical care and sterilization did not happen Suesan developed an infection.  She soon became delirious and weak.  Theresa treated her with antibiotics that she had stolen from a nursing home years prior and ibuprofen.  By the fifteenth of July it was apparent that Suesan was not going to survive so Theresa went around the home gathering Suesan's belongings in trash bags and ordered her children, William, Robert and Sheila to help carry Suesan and her things to their car after her arms and legs were bound and duct tape was placed on her mouth.  According to Terry their first attempt to "dispose" of Suesan failed and they tried again the next night.

When the family returned Theresa and the boys were more than eager to tell Terry what had happened.  According to them they had gone out to Squaw Valley and placed Suesan and her things in a pile.  Gasoline was placed all over Suesan and her belongings and William lit the match and they returned home.  William would later claim that he was forced to light the match by his mother but in Terry's version he seemed to be not only more than willing but excited about what he had done.  Soon after the death of Suesan the family moved to another home and Suesan was never really discussed again. 

Things were never good in the Knorr home but after the issues with Suesan it is likely that Terry believed things could not get any worse and could only be better but that was not to be found.  Theresa's oldest son, Howard Sanders, had long moved out of the house before Suesan's death but he knew how his mother was and although he had not witnessed everything the other children had, he had witnessed, as well as exacted his own punishments just the same.  It would be said that Howard at some point molested at least Terry, if not also his other sisters and that Theresa would often call him to come over to discipline some of the other children, a form of discipline his mother had taught him through beatings.  However, it appears that the longer he was away from his mother's influence the more he knew the things that went on in that home were not right but it was said he did not imagine things would become as they did.  Howard was told that Suesan had simply ran away again and while he was suspicious, he did not investigate further.  

In May of 1985, at the age of 20, Sheila, who for whatever unknown reason was still living with her mother, was forced into prostitution by her mother.  All the children had been forced to quit school (although at least one went back and got a GED) at some point and ordered to work.  Just as she had done with all of her husbands, Theresa expected her children to hand over their paychecks.  Soon after Sheila was forced into her new job Theresa had something new to focus on.  According to Terry before long Theresa was accusing Sheila of being pregnant as well as having an STD.  Theresa would go on to claim that she had caught this STD from using the toilet seat after Sheila had used it.  By the following month things escalated.  As Sheila denied the accusations she was hog tied and beaten.  She was then locked in the bottom of a utility closet that had little to no ventilation.  The other children were ordered not to give her food or water.  At one point Sheila decided to do what all the children had learned years ago to do... just agree with their mother... tell her what she wanted to hear and things would likely get better.  Normally according to Terry this would have worked but this time Theresa decided that Sheila was lying and kept her in the closet. Terry would say that over time it became apparent that they had not heard a sound from the closet in three days.  The door was opened to find Sheila dead inside the closet and her body beginning to decompose. 

Once again Theresa ordered her sons to help her get rid of her daughter's body and ordered Terry to clean the closet.  Theresa and the boys would place Sheila's body in a popcorn cup box that brother William had obtained at the movie theater he worked at.  The box was dropped off near the airport in Truckee California.  She would later become Jane Doe 6607/85.  She would sometime later have a proper burial and her tombstone would say she was "murdered" on June 19, 1985.  A board was placed over the floor of the closet in which she had been kept but soon Theresa decided they needed to leave that home too. The description sounds as if it was a townhouse of sorts attached to an apartment building. Just after fleeing the home Theresa sent Terry back to the home with orders to douse the home with gasoline and set it on fire.  The plan was to destroy any evidence.

As I said earlier, Terry had other horror stories to tell.  They involved the force feeding of her sisters, being locked in a freezer, molestation charges, and severe beatings.  From Terry's perspective when the children were young they all suffered physical abuse but as the boys became older and stronger they received less abuse from Theresa and became more her companions in her crimes and her violence became concentrated on her daughters.  There are theories that she was more focused on her daughters because she was jealous that they were prettier than she was, which was true since she was no longer the beautiful woman she once was, but then again she was older now too.  Terry knew that if she did not get away she would be next.  

Investigators in Placer County looked into Terry's claims and were able to collaborate all of her claims.  They were able to connect her story to Jane Doe 4873/84 as being Suesan and despite believing that the case of Jane Doe 6607/85 in the connecting county had been a victim of a serial killer, they now knew she was Sheila Sanders.  They also looked into the claims about the home in which Sheila had died in.  They were able to discover that in fact it had been burnt in 1985 but had been repaired.  They found their way to the closet in which Terry claimed Sheila had been held and despite their reservation that anyone could have even fit in that area they lifted the board in the bottom of the closet and found the evidence that Terry assured them they would find.

Their next steps were to find Theresa and her sons.  The boys were rather easy to find. William still lived in the area.  He was married and although not necessarily successful, he seemed to be living a crime free, happy life.  He was soon arrested but proclaimed his innocence and refused to speak ill of his mother.  Robert was found serving his prison sentence in Nevada.  He too, dismissed the claims and refused to speak.  Even their father, Robert Sr. had suddenly come back into the picture and was claiming that Terry had to be lying and that his sons were innocent.  He would even go on to claim that he was not sure Terry was his child.  

The walls were closing in on Theresa even though investigators did not know where she was.  The story had made national news but Theresa was not using the name Knorr, or any of her other married names so investigators had a little trouble in finding her.  In early November 1993 she was traced to Salt Lake City.  With the help of the Utah authorities, Placer County detectives found Theresa Cross living with an elderly woman that she cared for and placed her into custody.  She was charged with two counts of murder, two counts of conspiracy to commit murder and two counts of special circumstances (multiple murder and murder by torture).  She fought extradition to California but her efforts ultimately failed.

Finally it seems that the boys, and/or their attorney's realized that this was not going to go away and the prosecutors were pressing the issues.  First they needed to determine if they were going to charge the boys, who were now men, as juveniles or adults considering their ages at the time of the murders.  In the end both of the boys made deals with the prosecutor that would give them little to no punishment but it required them to testify against their mother.  Apparently the boys had decided that Terry was not the liar that they, and their father, had said she was.  For his part William received a sentence of probation and required to enter therapy.  Robert Jr., who was already serving time in prison for his murder conviction received a three year sentence for accepting a plea for accessory after the fact in Sheila's death.  The three years meant nothing really considering he was already serving time and this was to be served at the same time as the other.  It seems that Theresa was finally backed into a corner and on October 17, 1995 she pleaded guilty to her charges and received two consecutive life terms for her sentence.  This allowed her to avoid the death penalty.  As of now (2016) Theresa is 70 years old sitting in her cell in the California prison system.  Robert seemingly has been released although I cannot say when that occurred.  

One interesting controversy involves Terry. If you watch any of many different true crime shows that talk about this case you are sure to see Terry.  One particular series (to be truthful I am unsure which one) aired in 2009 and at the end announced that Terry had died in 2003.  However it seems that is not true.  I sifted through the controversial comments about Terry's death, as well as websites, and I believe the actual date of her death was December 8, 2011.  This is the other date in which has been stated.  This is the date that is found not just through the website FindaGrave.com but also comparing it to a Facebook page for Terry Walker (her last married name).  This is something that I have never really come across before.  Terry was Theresa's only remaining daughter and yet she still died at a fairly early age (almost 42).  It seems that all of Theresa's other children remain living.  

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  1. Hey, just wanted to tell you that even though I don't comment, I DO read your blog every time you post something. Thank you for posting. <3

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