The Chilling Story Of Shelly Knotek, The Serial Killer Mom Who Now Walks Free

Published September 29, 2023
Updated November 2, 2023

After abusive Washington mom Shelly Knotek was convicted of killing two of her boarders in 2004, she was sentenced to just 22 years in prison — then served just 18.

Michelle “Shelly” Knotek appeared to lead a charmed life. She had a caring husband by her side and was raising her three daughters in a home in rural Raymond, Washington. The couple were known for their selflessness and invited struggling friends and relatives to live with them. But then, those guests began to disappear.

Shelly Knotek

Thomas & Mercer PublishingSerial killer Shelly Knotek was caught after her daughters — Knotek sisters Nikki, Tori, and Sami — turned her in.

The first person to vanish while in Shelly Knotek’s care was her old friend, Kathy Loreno. They had lived together in Knotek’s home for five years before she disappeared in 1994. Knotek assured anyone who asked that Loreno had simply started a new life elsewhere. She said this when two other people vanished from her home as well.

Finally, Shelly Knotek’s three daughters bravely came forward with a harrowing tale. All three of them had been physically abused by their parents — and their houseguests had been killed. They said Knotek had starved, drugged, and tortured her victims, forced guests to jump off the roof, drenched their open wounds in bleach, and made them drink urine.

And while Shelly Knotek was soon caught and sent to prison in 2004, she served just 18 years before being released in November 2022 — leaving her daughters terrified about what could happen next.

Shelly Knotek’s Tortured Early Life

Born on April 15, 1964, Michelle “Shelly” Knotek never strayed too far from her hometown of Raymond, Washington. Not even her 18-year prison stint years later took her further than two hours north of where she was born.

According to The New York Times journalist Gregg Olsen, who published a tell-all on Shelly Knotek in 2019 titled If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood, the killer’s early life was riddled with trauma.

The oldest of three siblings, Knotek and her brothers lived with their mentally ill, alcoholic mother, Sharon, during their early years. Along with her propensity for alcohol, Sharon had gotten involved in a dangerous lifestyle, with some family members believing she may have been a prostitute.

In any case, the home was far from stable. Then, when Shelly was six, their mother seemingly abandoned them. Rather than caring for her younger brothers, however, she tormented them.

The children then went to live with their father, Les Watson, and his new wife, Laura Stallings. Olsen described Watson as a charismatic, successful business owner; Stallings as a stunning beauty representative of 1950s America.

Shelly did not care for Stallings, and frequently told her stepmother how much she hated her.

When Shelly was 13, Sharon Todd Watson died. As Les Watson described, Sharon was living with a man at the time. They were “homeless. Drunks. Living on skid row. She was beaten to death.”

“[Shelly] never once asked about her mother,” Stallings recalled.

Instead, she continued to torment her brothers, blaming them for missing homework or picking frequent fights. It didn’t help that her brother Paul couldn’t control his impulses and lacked social skills. Her other brother, Chuck, never spoke for himself — Shelly did all the talking.

But it went beyond mere childhood bickering, Stallings later said. “She used to chop up bits of glass and put them in the bottom of [the kids’] boots and shoes. What kind of person does something like that?”

Shelly Knotek Wasn’t A Victim — But She Played The Part

In March 1969, 14-year-old Shelly showed what she was truly capable of. She didn’t come home from school. Panicked, Stallings and Watson called the school and were told that Shelly was at a juvenile detention center. Their worst fears, however, didn’t come close to the reality.

Shelly Knotek And David Knotek

Gregg Olsen/Thomas & Mercer PublishingDavid and Michelle Knotek.

Shelly Knotek was not in trouble — she had accused her father of rape. Stallings later discovered a dog-eared copy of True Confessions in Shelly’s room with a bold headline on the front reading, “I WAS RAPED AT 15 BY MY DAD!”

A doctor’s examination later confirmed Stallings’ suspicion — Shelly lied about the rape.

She was taken to multiple sessions with a psychologist, both on her own and with her family, but they proved to be unsuccessful. Shelly refused to accept that she was anything but innocent.

Eventually, she went to live with Stallings’ parents, but, unfortunately, she continued to try and ruin the lives of those around her. Her tantrums continued; she offered to babysit the neighbors’ children only to barricade them in their rooms with heavy furniture. She even falsely accused her grandfather of abuse.

Her pattern of manipulation and abuse continued into adulthood, through two marriages, the birth of two daughters, Nikki and Sami, and all the way up to the spring of 1982, when she met a construction worker and Navy veteran named David Knotek. Five years later, in 1987, the couple married.

The next year, Shelly Knotek welcomed her first victim into their home.

Growing Up In The Knotek Household — And Suffering Frequent, Brutal Abuse

Shelly Knotek’s first victim moved into her home in 1988. He was her 13-year-old nephew, Shane Watson. Shane’s father, a member in a biker gang, was in jail; his mother was destitute, unable care for him.

Knotek took to torturing Watson almost immediately. She dubbed her style of reprimanding him as “wallowing,” which she employed for things as negligible as going to the bathroom without asking. Wallowing involved ordering the boy — and her daughters, for that matter — to stand outside naked in the cold while she dumped water on him.

Shelly Knotek's Family

Gregg Olsen/Thomas & Mercer PublishingKnotek sisters Tori, Nikki, and Sami, with their cousin, Shane Watson.

Shelly took additional pleasure in humiliating her eldest daughters, Nikki and Sami, by ordering them to give her handfuls of their pubic hair. Their “wallowing” also frequently included being caged in a dog kennel.

Once, Shelly shoved Nikki’s head through a glass door.

“Look what you made me do,” she said to her daughter.

The only person in the home that Shelly didn’t torture, at the time, was her infant daughter Tori. Unfortunately, that would later change.

Meanwhile, she forced her nephew and Nikki to dance nakedly together as she laughed. After torturing her children and nephew, she would drop “love bombs” of utter affection on them.

Kathy Loreno Missing Person Poster

Thomas and Mercer PublishingLoreno lost 100 pounds and most of her teeth over the course of her stay.

In December of 1988, only a few months after Shane moved into the home, Shelly opened her doors for another person in need: Kathy Loreno, an old friend who had lost her job. Shelly greeted her longtime friend as she greeted most people in life, warmly and positively. But Loreno would soon discover, as many others had before her, that Michelle Knotek’s mask was quick to come off.

Loreno quickly became another of Shelly’s victims, but with nowhere else to go, she acquiesced to performing forced labor in the nude, being fed nightly sedatives, and sleeping next to the basement boiler.

Then, in 1994, Shelly Knotek graduated to murder.

How Shelly Knotek Murdered Three People Who Were All Close To Her

By this time, Loreno had lost more than 100 pounds. Her body was covered in bruises, cuts, and sores. After one particularly brutal beating, she was left unconscious in the basement. Shelly had gone, but David heard guttural noises coming from the laundry room.

He found Kathy choking on her own vomit, her eyes rolled back in her head. David flipped her onto her side, started scooping the vomit out of her mouth with his fingers, but it was no use. After five minutes of CPR, there was no denying that Kathy Loreno was dead.

“I know I should have called 911,” David later recalled, “but with everything that had been going on I didn’t want the cops there. I didn’t want Shell in trouble. Or the kids to go through that trauma… I didn’t want this to ruin their lives or our family. I just freaked out. I really did. I didn’t know what to do.”

When Michelle learned of Loreno’s death, she convinced her spouse and kids that each of them would be incarcerated if they told outsiders. At his wife’s command, David Knotek burned Loreno’s corpse, and together he and Shelly scattered the ashes.

If anyone asked, Shelly Knotek simply explained Loreno had run off with her lover. Shane, however, recognized the true horrors in his environment, which is why, in February 1995, he made a plan to get out.

Shane had taken photos of Kathy while she was still alive, malnourished and beaten, living in a cold basement next to the radiator. He showed Nikki the photos and told her his plan: He was going to show the police.

But Nikki, terrified of what might happen, told her mother about the photos. In retaliation, Shelly commanded David to shoot Shane in the head. He obliged.

Like Loreno, the couple burned Shane’s body in their yard and scattered his ashes over the water.

“The reason why my mom was able to control Dave was because — while I love him — he’s just a very weak man,” Sami Knotek reported. “He has no backbone. He could have got happily married and been an amazing husband to somebody, because he really would’ve been, but instead, he just got his life ruined, too.”

Sami Knotek And Shane Watson

Gregg Olsen/Thomas & Mercer PublishingSami Knotek and Shane Watson.

Before justice found them, the Knoteks took one more victim: Shelly Knotek’s friend Ron Woodworth, who moved in in 1999. Like the others, it didn’t take long for the abuse to start.

Woodworth was a 57-year-old gay veteran with a drug problem, “an ugly lowlife,” Shelly would tell him, who could use a steady diet of pills and beatings to get his life together.

Shelly didn’t allow him to use the bathroom, so he was instead forced to go outside.

Then, in 2002, Shelly Knotek also took over the care of James McClintock, an 81-year-old retired merchant crewman who had reportedly willed Knotek his $140,000 estate once his black lab Sissy died.

Perhaps coincidently, perhaps not, McClintock died from a head wound he allegedly suffered after falling in his home.

Police, however, were never able to officially link Knotek to his death.

Back at her home, Knotek demanded that Woodworth cut ties with his family, forced him to drink his own urine, then ordered him to jump off the roof. He didn’t die from the two-storey fall, but it left him badly injured.

As a “treatment,” Knotek poured bleach over his wounds.

In August 2003, Woodworth succumbed to the torture, and died.

Shelly Knotek Home

Greg Olsen/Thomas & Mercer PublishingThe Knotek home in Raymond, Washington.

Shelly Knotek hid Woordworth’s corpse in the freezer, telling his friends that he had gotten a job in Tacoma. David Knotek eventually buried him in their yard, but it was Woodworth’s “disappearance” that led now-14-year-old Tori to realize what was really happening in her home.

Her older sisters had moved out by this time, but when Tori told them what she believed had happened, they urged her to gather Woodworth’s belongings so they could make their case to the authorities. She did.

The Knotek Sisters Turn In Their Mother

Police investigated the Knotek property in 2003 and found Woodworth’s buried body. David and Shelly Knotek were arrested on August 8 of that year.

Knotek Home

Thomas & Mercer PublishingSami Knotek revisiting the home in 2018.

While Tori Knotek was placed in her sister Sami’s custody, David Knotek confessed to shooting Watson and burying Woodworth five months later. He was charged with second-degree murder for shooting Watson. He served 13 years.

Michelle Knotek, meanwhile, was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter for the deaths of Loreno and Woodworth, respectively. She was sentenced to just 22 years.

It didn’t take long for her family to begin fearing what might happen upon her eventual release.

“If she ever turns up on my doorstep,” Sami said, “I can just see myself locking all my doors and barricading myself in the bathroom to call the police.”

Nikki and Sami are now in their mid-40s, living in Seattle. Tori, however, needed a change of scenery and moved to Colorado.

In 2018, David Knotek was paroled and reached out to his daughters to ask for forgiveness. Sami and Tori have gone on record saying that, despite everything, they do forgive their father, whom they consider to be just another of Michelle Knotek’s victims.

Nikki, however, did not accept her father’s apology. For her, the abuse was unforgettable — and unforgivable.

Then, finally, after serving only 18 years, Shelly Knotek was released from the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor on November 8, 2022 at the age of 68. Since then, Knotek has stayed under the radar, leaving the next chapter in her chilling story yet to be written.

After learning about the grisly murders of Shelly Knotek, read about how the Turpin children were trapped in a “house of horrors” made by their parents. Then, learn about prolific serial killers most people have never heard of.

Marco Margaritoff
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.