Theresa Jimmie Francine Knorr (née Cross; born March 14, 1946) is an American woman convicted of torturing and murdering two of her six children while using the others to facilitate and cover up her crimes. She is currently serving two consecutive life sentences at the California Institution for Women in Chino, California.
Theresa Jimmie Francine Cross
March 14, 1946
Clifford Clyde Sanders
(m. 1962; died 1964)
(m. 1966; div. 1970)
(m. 1971; div. 1972)
(m. 1976; div. 1976)
|Penalty||Two life sentences|
Span of crimes
|November 11, 1993|
|Imprisoned at||California Institution for Women|
Theresa Knorr was born in Sacramento, California, the younger of two daughters born to Swannie Gay (née Myers) and James "Jim" Cross. Theresa's mother had a son and a daughter from a previous marriage. Her father worked as an assistant cheese maker at a local dairy, eventually saving up enough money to buy a house in Rio Linda. In the late 1950s, Jim Cross was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which forced him to quit his job. He developed depression and reportedly took his frustrations and anger out on his family. Swannie Cross kept the family afloat financially.
On September 29, 1962, 16-year-old Theresa married Clifford Clyde Sanders, a man five years her senior whom she had met a few months prior. She immediately dropped out of high school and became pregnant, and on July 16, 1963, gave birth to her first child, Howard Clyde Sanders. The Sanders' marriage was rocky as Theresa was possessive and repeatedly accused Sanders of infidelity. The couple argued frequently and on June 22, 1964, Theresa claimed that Sanders had punched her in the face during one such argument. Theresa reported the incident to police but refused to press charges against Sanders. The assault charges were subsequently dropped.
On July 6, 1964, the day after Sanders' birthday, the couple were arguing because he had spent his birthday out with friends instead of at home. During the argument, Sanders informed Theresa that he was leaving her. Theresa became enraged and shot Sanders in the back with a rifle as he was walking out the door.
Theresa was arrested and charged with Sanders' murder, to which she pleaded not guilty claiming she was acting in self-defense. During her trial, Theresa, who was pregnant with her second child, claimed that she had shot Sanders because he was a violent alcoholic who had physically abused her. Several of Sanders' relatives testified that he was neither violent nor abusive, while the prosecution claimed that Theresa killed Sanders "maliciously" and "without provocation." Theresa's older sister testified against her, stating that Theresa was possessive and jealous and "would kill [Sanders] before any other woman could have him." Theresa was acquitted of Sanders' murder on September 22, 1964. She gave birth to her second child, Sheila Gay Sanders, on March 16, 1965.
After Sheila's birth, Theresa began drinking heavily. She regularly drank at the local American Legion hall where she met Estelle Lee Thornsberry, a disabled United States Army veteran. The two began a relationship and eventually moved in together. During the relationship, Theresa would routinely leave her children with Thornsberry while she went out drinking. Thornsberry began to question Theresa when she stayed out for days at a time and ended the relationship a few months later after he discovered that she was having an affair with his best friend. Shortly after the relationship with Thornsberry ended, Theresa met and began a relationship with a United States Marine Corps private named Robert Knorr. She soon became pregnant and the couple married on July 9, 1966.
Theresa's third child, Suesan Marline Knorr, was born on September 27, 1966. The couple had three more children: William Robert Knorr on September 15, 1967; Robert Wallace Knorr, Jr. on December 31, 1968; and Theresa "Terry" Marie Knorr on August 5, 1970. However, Theresa's marriage to Robert began to deteriorate after she began accusing her husband of having affairs. Both spouses were known to be volatile and would constantly beat each other and the kids. Fed up with his wife's constant accusations, Robert left her in December 1970 and was granted a divorce in 1971. After the divorce, Robert attempted to see his children but Theresa prevented him from doing so.
Theresa would marry twice more; in 1971, she married railroad worker Ronald Pulliam. That marriage began to fall apart when Theresa began leaving her children with Pulliam while she stayed out all night drinking and partying. He divorced her in 1972 after he became convinced that she was having an affair. Her final marriage was to Sacramento Union copy editor Chester "Chet" Harris, whom she married in August 1976. Theresa's daughter Suesan grew close to Harris, which made Theresa jealous. She filed for divorce from Harris in November 1976 after she reportedly found out that Harris enjoyed taking consensual nude photographs of women.
Theresa Knorr was physically, verbally, and psychologically abusive toward her children, behavior which escalated after her fourth divorce. She also gained a tremendous amount of weight, and became reclusive to the point of disconnecting the home phone and refusing to allow the children to have visitors. Knorr and her children lived in Orangevale, California, for many years before moving into a two-bedroom apartment in Sacramento; her eldest son Howard reportedly left home before the move to Sacramento. According to neighbors, the Sacramento apartment was filthy and smelled of urine. Neighbors also noticed that the children, whom Knorr never let go outside, seemed fearful, nervous and high-strung.
For years, Knorr abused and tortured her children in various ways, including beating them, force-feeding them, burning them with cigarettes, and throwing knives at them. She made her children hold each other down while she assaulted them. In one instance, Knorr held a pistol to her youngest daughter Terry's head and threatened to kill her. Knorr primarily focused her anger and abuse on Terry's older sisters, Suesan and Sheila. In an interview, Terry said her mother resented that Suesan and Sheila were maturing and blossoming into attractive young women while she faced the prospect of losing her looks as she aged.
Knorr also believed that her fourth husband, Chet Harris, had turned Suesan into a witch, so Suesan received the worst of Knorr's abuse. After one severe beating, Suesan ran away from home. She was picked up by police and placed in a psychiatric hospital where she told staff that her mother abused her. Knorr denied the abuse claims and told the hospital staff that Suesan had mental issues. Authorities did not investigate the matter further and released Suesan back into her mother's custody. Knorr immediately punished Suesan by beating her while wearing a pair of leather gloves, and forced Susesan's siblings to take turns in the assault. In the subsequent weeks, Knorr handcuffed Suesan to the kitchen table and ordered her other children to stand watch over her. She refused to let Suesan leave the house and forced her to drop out of school. Knorr also pulled her other children out of school, and most of them never advanced past the eighth grade.
In 1982, Knorr became convinced that Suesan was casting spells on her to cause her to gain weight. Suesan denied doing so, but Knorr became angry and decided to shoot Suesan from behind with a .44 caliber handgun she kept in a bedroom drawer. The bullet became lodged in Suesan's back, but Knorr refused to allow her to seek medical attention and left her for dead in the family bathtub. When Suesan survived, Knorr began to nurse her back to health and allowed her other daughters to aid her as well. Suesan eventually recovered without receiving professional medical treatment.
In July 1984, Knorr and Suesan got into another argument, during which Knorr stabbed her daughter in the back with a pair of scissors. Knorr again refused to allow Suesan medical treatment. A few weeks after the stabbing, Suesan, fed up with the abuse, decided to move to Alaska. Knorr agreed to let her go under the condition that Suesan allow her to remove the bullet from her back so it could not be used as evidence in the event that Suesan reported the abuse. Suesan reluctantly agreed. Knorr gave Suesan Mellaril capsules and liquor as an anesthetic in the operation, which caused Suesan to pass out. While she was unconscious, Knorr ordered her then-15-year-old son Robert to remove the bullet with an X-Acto knife. Suesan awoke the following day in immense pain. Over the following days, she developed sepsis and became delirious. Knorr attempted to treat her with ibuprofen and antibiotics, but the treatments were ineffective and Suesan's condition continued to decline.
On July 16, 1984, Knorr packed all of Suesan's belongings in trash bags and, after binding her arms and legs and placing duct tape over her mouth, ordered her sons Robert and William to put Suesan in their car. They drove her to Squaw Valley, where Robert and William placed her on the side of the road on top of the bags containing her belongings. Knorr then doused Suesan and the bags in gasoline and lit the girl on fire. Suesan's still smoldering body was found the following day. An autopsy determined that she was still alive when she was lit on fire. Due to the state of the remains, a positive identification was never made and Suesan was classified as Jane Doe #4873/84.
Following Suesan's death, Knorr began directing the majority of her anger and abuse towards her daughter Sheila, forcing the girl into prostitution in May 1985 to support the family. Knorr did not work and received unemployment benefits from the state of California. Knorr was initially pleased with this arrangement due to the large amounts of money Sheila was earning, and allowed Sheila to leave the house whenever she pleased.
However, after a few weeks, Knorr became angry and accused Sheila of being pregnant and contracting a sexually transmitted disease, which Knorr claimed she caught from Sheila via a toilet seat. When Sheila denied the accusations, Knorr beat her, hog tied her and locked her in a hot closet with no ventilation. Knorr forbade her other children from giving Sheila food or water or to open the door to the closet. Terry disobeyed her mother and gave Sheila a beer. Terry later said, "She [Theresa] wanted Sheila to confess. That was Mother's way: beat them until they confess." To end the punishment, Sheila confessed to being pregnant and having an STD, but Knorr claimed that she was lying and refused to let her out of the closet. Sheila died three days later, on June 21, 1985, of dehydration and starvation.
Knorr left Sheila's body in the closet for an additional three days before discovering that she was dead. Once again, Knorr ordered her sons William and Robert to dispose of Sheila's body, which had begun to decompose and was causing an odorous smell that filled the apartment. The boys placed Sheila's body in a cardboard box which they disposed of near Truckee-Tahoe Airport. Sheila's body was discovered a few hours after it had been disposed of but was never positively identified and was classified as Jane Doe #6607-85.
Even though Sheila's body had been removed from the closet, the smell of decomposition still lingered in the apartment. Knorr became concerned that the smell and physical evidence in the closet could implicate her in Sheila's death. On September 29, 1986, Knorr moved the family's belongings out of the home and ordered Terry to burn down the apartment in an effort to destroy any physical evidence. During the night, Terry dumped three containers of lighter fluid on the apartment floor and set it on fire. However, the fire did little damage as neighbors quickly reported the fire before it spread. The closet in which Sheila died was not damaged. After Knorr's arrest, investigators were able to remove the subfloor from the closet to test it for physical evidence.
After leaving the Sacramento apartment, Knorr went into hiding. Her surviving children, who were by then of legal age, severed their ties with their mother. Her youngest child, 16-year-old Terry, also escaped her mother's care and used Sheila's identification card to pass herself off as a legal adult. The only child to remain with Knorr was Robert, Jr. who was then 19 years old. Knorr and Robert, Jr. moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, and attempted to keep a low profile. In November 1991, Robert Knorr, Jr. was arrested after he fatally shot a bartender in a Las Vegas bar during an attempted robbery. He was sentenced to sixteen years in prison. Shortly after Robert, Jr.'s arrest, Knorr left Las Vegas and relocated to Salt Lake City, Utah.
Arrests and convictionsEdit
On October 28, 1993, Terry phoned the hotline for the Fox television program America's Most Wanted, and was told to contact detectives in Placer County, California, where Suesan's body had been found. Placer County detectives took her claims seriously and followed up with an investigation, soon linking the two Jane Does found in the area in 1984 and 1985 to Terry's detailed stories of her sisters' deaths. Knorr's son William was arrested on November 4, 1993, in Woodland, California, where he had been living and working. Robert Knorr, Jr. was charged with his sisters' murders while he was serving his sixteen-year sentence in an Ely, Nevada, prison. On November 10, 1993, Knorr herself was arrested at her home in Salt Lake City. At the time of her arrest, she was using her maiden name of "Cross" and was working as a caretaker for her landlord's 86-year-old mother.
On November 15, 1993, Knorr was charged with two counts of murder, two counts of conspiracy to commit murder, and two special circumstances charges: multiple murder and murder by torture. Knorr initially pleaded not guilty, but then made a deal with the prosecution after learning that her son Robert, Jr. agreed to testify against her in exchange for a reduced sentence. She pleaded guilty on the condition that she be spared the death penalty. On October 17, 1995, Knorr was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. She is incarcerated at California Institution for Women in Chino, California. She will be eligible for parole in 2027.
William Knorr was sentenced to probation and ordered to undergo therapy for participating in his sister Suesan's murder. In exchange for his testimony, the prosecution dropped all charges against Robert Knorr, Jr. save for one count of being an accessory-after-the-fact in relation to Sheila's murder. Robert, Jr. pleaded guilty to the charge and was sentenced to three years in prison, which was served concurrently with his sixteen-year sentence in Nevada.
Following Knorr's arrest, police decided to reopen the murder case of her sister, Rosemary Norris. Norris was found strangled at the end of a dead end road in Placer County in 1983 after she went grocery shopping in Sacramento. Police later determined that Knorr was not involved in Norris' death.
After running away from her mother's home, Terry Knorr married twice and eventually moved to Sandy, Utah, where she lived with her second husband. She worked as a grocery store cashier in the same neighborhood where her mother also lived and worked before her arrest. Theresa and Terry apparently did not know they lived in close proximity and had no contact. Terry Knorr died in 2011, aged 41, of heart failure.
In popular cultureEdit
The 2010 horror film The Afflicted (also titled Another American Crime) is loosely based on the Theresa Knorr case. The film follows the real-life events through a substantially-compressed timeline. Unlike the real case, the movie ends with the youngest daughter killing her mother and one of her brothers before committing suicide.
The murders were profiled on the A&E series Cold Case Files, featuring an exclusive interview with Terry Knorr Walker. The case was also profiled on the series Most Evil, Wicked Attraction, Evil Lives Here, and Deadly Women.
- Lohr, David. "Mother Knows Best: The Story of Theresa Jimmie Cross: Theresa". trutv.com. p. 2. Archived from the original on December 16, 2013.
- Stone, Michael H. The Anatomy of Evil. Prometheus Books. p. 248. ISBN 1-615-92205-9.
- Lohr, David. "Mother Knows Best: The Story of Theresa Jimmie Cross: Defending Dignity". trutv.com. p. 3.
- "10 Facts You Need To Know About Theresa Knorr and Her Life of Crimes". AnswersAfrica.
- Lohr, David. "Mother Knows Best: The Story of Theresa Jimmie Cross: Unexpected Outcome". trutv.com. p. 4.
- "Murder Suspect Killed Husband". Lodi News-Sentinel. November 8, 1993. p. 8.
- Lohr, David. "Mother Knows Best: The Story of Theresa Jimmie Cross: Moving On". p. 5.
- Lohr, David. "Mother Knows Best: The Story of Theresa Jimmie Cross: Desperate". trutv.com. p. 6.
- Lohr, David. "Mother Knows Best: The Story of Theresa Jimmie Cross: The Edge of Sanity". p. 7.
- Foster, David (November 15, 1993). "Girl begged police to believe her". Lakeland Ledger. p. 4A.
- Matthew Blackburn (August 12, 2015). "Behind Closed Doors: The Secret Life of the Knorr Family". The Line Up. Open Road Media. Retrieved November 10, 2017.
I grew up in an insane asylum basically, but what’s worse is we didn’t know it was an insane asylum.
- Lohr, David. "Mother Knows Best: The Story of Theresa Jimmie Cross: Bartering Freedoms". trutv.com. p. 8.
- Sam Warrington (August 16, 2016). "8 Female Serial Killers That Have Committed Despicable Crimes". Movie Pilot. Retrieved November 10, 2017.
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- Lohr, David. "Mother Knows Best: The Story of Theresa Jimmie Cross: Unforeseen Discovery". trutv.com. p. 1.
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- Lohr, David. "Mother Knows Best: The Story of Theresa Jimmie Cross: Last Stop". trutv.com. p. 10.
- Paddock, Richard C. (November 15, 1993). "Police finally believe tale of depravity and murder". The Los Angeles Times. AUBURN, Calif. Retrieved December 26, 2016.
- "Mom Who's Sought In Slayings of Daughters Is Arrested In S.L." deseretnews.com. November 11, 1993.
- Carter, Mike (November 12, 1993). "Woman accused of killing children arrest in Utah". Moscow-Pullman Daily News. p. 7A.
- Lohr, David. "Mother Knows Best: The Story of Theresa Jimmie Cross: Epilogue". trutv.com. p. 11.
- Gee, Jennifer (December 19, 2008). "'Wicked' local crime documented | Discovery Channel interviews defense attorney about 1994 case". auburnjournal.com. Gold Country Media. Retrieved December 26, 2016.
- Clarkson, Wensley (1995). Whatever Mother Says...: A True Story of a Mother, Madness and Murder. Macmillan. p. 142. ISBN 0-312-95542-1.
- Corey Danna (May 10, 2012). "Film Review: The Afflicted (2010) | HNN". horrornews.net. Retrieved November 10, 2017.
- "Watch Mommy's Rules Full Episode - Cold Case Files Classic | A&E". A&E. October 28, 2003. Retrieved November 10, 2017.
S2, E24 Mommy's Rules TV-14
A mother is suspected in the murders of two of her daughters, when her third daughter finally convinces police to reopen two cold cases.
Aired on: Oct 28, 2003, Duration: 42m 25s
- "Cold Case Files". TVGuide.com. Retrieved November 10, 2017.
- "Cold Case Files: Mommy Rules". TV.com. Retrieved November 10, 2017.
- "Murderous Women | Most Evil | Investigation Discovery GO". Investigation Discovery GO. March 7, 2007. Retrieved November 10, 2017.
Season 1 Episode 3 Over 90% of murders are committed by men. But what motivates the women who are driven to kill? Most women who do kill, murder those closest to them, Find the striking difference between men and women killers. 44 min. | TV-14 | Premiered 03/07/2007
- "Most Evil S01E03 - Murderous Women". Dailymotion. March 30, 2015. Retrieved November 10, 2017.
- Jenifer Gee (July 29, 2009). "Auburn attorney to appear on national TV". Auburn Journal. Gold Country Media. Retrieved November 10, 2017.
The show airs on channel 285 on DirecTV on the Investigation Discovery Channel. The episode is titled, “A mother’s love.”
- "The Sacred Bond | Deadly Women". www.investigationdiscovery.com. Retrieved November 10, 2017.
Season 4 • Episode 7 Women who kill husbands, lovers, rivals and parents will shock society. But a very special horror is reserved for the women who will kill their own, breaking the sacred bond between mother and child. 43 min | TV-14 | Premiered 09/23/2010
- "Deadly Women - The Sacred Bond". Dailymotion. December 4, 2015. Retrieved November 10, 2017.