book reviews, narcissists, true crime

A review of If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood, by Gregg Olsen…

I frequently binge watch television shows, especially when I’m bored. In Germany, where winter weather generally sucks most of the time, my TV binges are more intense than ever. I don’t remember exactly what I was doing in December 2019, besides getting ready for Christmas. Amazon.com tells me that December 17, 2019 was when I downloaded true crime author Gregg Olsen’s book, If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood. This book was published on December 1 of that same year. I probably downloaded Olsen’s book because I had seen its main subject, Michelle Knotek, covered on the Oxygen Network’s true crime television show, Snapped.

Snapped is a show that focuses on violent crimes committed by women. Most of the episodes involve murder. I have frequently written about the women I’ve seen profiled on Snapped, even though I usually find the cases very unnerving. At the same time, the stories are usually fascinating, which is what draws me in, in spite of the horrific natures of the crimes committed by most of the women who get featured on Snapped. I write “most” because I remember at least one episode had to do with a woman who killed because her husband was abusing her, and it was either his life or hers.

It’s been awhile since I last binged on Snapped. I think I got out of the habit during the height of the pandemic. I guess I “snapped” out of my obsession with the stories about crazy women, especially when the show was especially salacious. Although I downloaded Mr. Olsen’s excellent and well-researched book about Michelle Knotek, I only just got around to reading it, about three years after I bought it. And the reason I decided to finally read it, is because my old friend Mary Beth told me she’d just read it. She commented about Olsen’s book after she read my review of The Perfect Father, a book about Chris Watts, the Colorado father of two who brutally murdered his wife and two children.

I just finished reading If You Tell this morning. To be honest, I kind of rushed through the last chapters, mainly because the story is so horrifying and sad. I also found it unnerving because, like a lot of stories about sadistic, narcissistic, criminal women, I was reminded a lot of my husband’s ex wife’s behaviors. As far as I know, Ex has never murdered anyone. However, I have heard multiple stories about some of the other things she’s done that are much like the women featured on Snapped. It’s uncanny… like they have a play book. They get away with their criminal behavior because no one wants to say anything. Or, when they finally do speak up, the authorities don’t do anything. That’s pretty much what happened in Michelle “Shelly” Knotek’s case, until three people died and the cops finally had to sit up and take notice.

At this writing, Shelly Knotek is now out of prison. She was paroled on November 8, 2022, having done about 18 years of a 22 year sentence for second degree murder and manslaughter. Her three daughters, Nikki, Sami, and Tori– all by different fathers– warn that she could kill again. I read that Shelly’s daughters actually reached out to Gregg Olsen and asked him to write this book… to warn the world of what their mother is capable of doing.

If You Tell

Gregg Olsen is a masterful true crime author. Over the years, I’ve read and reviewed several of his books. I found Olsen’s story about Shelly Knotek equal parts fascinating and nightmare inducing. Again, what makes her story especially chilling to me is that, in many ways, she reminds me a lot of an extreme version of my husband’s ex wife. From the way she used and exploited people, then cruelly discarded them, to the way she seemingly became kind and charming, as a means of luring people into her trap, Shelly Knotek’s patterns of behavior are very familiar. In many ways, she is a more extreme version of Ex. The people who were trapped in her web invariably felt powerless to do anything to stop the horrific crimes that occurred on her watch.

Who is Shelly Knotek?

Born April 15, 1954 in Raymond, Washington, Shelly Knotek had a chaotic childhood. Shelly and her brother, Chuck, were sent to live with their father, Les Watson, and his wife, Lara. Another brother, Paul, was still an infant and stayed with their mother, Sharon. Shelly was a very pretty little girl, but she was clearly troubled. Shelly’s bio mom had a very traumatic upbringing, with a mother who was married and divorced multiple times. Sharon’s own approach to child rearing was equally dysfunctional. Once she’d sent Shelly and Chuck to Les’s house, she seemed to forget about them. And then, Sharon, whom some family members suspected might have been an alcoholic prostitute, was murdered. Youngest brother Paul then also went to live with Les and Lara.

Lara Watson tried to be a mother figure to her stepchildren, but even from a young age, Shelly’s behaviors were problematic. Every single day, Shelly told her stepmother that she hated her. She was overbearing, rebellious, and cruel. While Chuck and Paul had their difficult moments, Shelly’s conduct was by far the most disruptive. In some ways, it seemed like Shelly was destined to be difficult. Not only did she have an extremely dysfunctional mother, her paternal grandmother, Anna, was also quite defiant and awful. It was like she’d gotten a double genetic dosage of cruel genes.

When she was still a teenager, Shelly made up terrible lies about her family. She accused her father of raping her when she was 15 years old. A doctor later examined her and found no evidence that she had been raped. Lara later found a copy of True Confessions magazine in Shelly’s room. In it was an article about a 15 year old who had been raped by her father. Les and Lara had a terrible time finding schools that would deal with Shelly. Invariably, her behavior would be so bad that she’d get expelled.

As she got older, Shelly’s behaviors worsened. In 1971, when she was seventeen, Shelly was devastatingly beautiful, but she was also evil and manipulative. That year, she met the man who would be her first husband and the father of her eldest daughter, Randy Rivardo. Also they had broken up after a brief romance, Shelly called him again. Shelly asked him to come to their hometown and work for her dad, who owned nursing homes. Randy was lured back into Shelly’s trap. They got married and, in February 1975, had a baby girl named Nikki. The marriage was doomed, and after they broke up, Shelly met and married her second husband, Danny Long, father of Shelly’s second daughter, Sami.

Every time Shelly’s marriages failed, she kicked the fathers of her children out of their lives. She replaced her children’s surnames with the next guy, whom they were expected to call Dad. So it was with Danny Long, too, who had been “Dad” to Nikki and Sami. Once that marriage broke up, Danny was gone.

Knotek the keeper…

By 1983, Shelly had moved on to the man who would, four years later, become her third husband, Dave Knotek. At the time they met, Dave couldn’t believe his luck. Shelly was a knockout. And she had a good sob story… an abandoned mom with two little girls who was looking for a man. Dave was quickly hooked. She also lied and told him she had cancer, which seemed to seal the deal.

Unlike the two husbands before him, Dave was determined to stay in his marriage to Shelly. She didn’t make it easy for him. Shelly demanded that he give her all of his paycheck. He worked in construction, far away from home, leaving Shelly to spend his pay on anything she wanted. Shelly didn’t pay the bills and gave her creditors sob stories to keep them at bay. Meanwhile, Dave worked extremely hard to make money to support the family. It all went into the black hole of Shelly’s endless needs.

One of the witnesses at their wedding, Kathy Loreno, was a friend of Shelly’s and had been her hairdresser. Kathy fell on hard times, and in 1988, when Shelly was pregnant with her third daughter, Tori, Shelly convinced her friend to move in with her.

Kathy moves in…

Up until Kathy became Shelly’s boarder, only her children, her husband, Dave, and her nephew, Shane, who moved into the home in 1988, knew what life with Shelly was really like. Shelly had a habit of horrifically abusing people over whom she had power. She made her daughter, Nikki, and nephew, Shane, stay outside naked. She would spray them with the garden hose and force them to “wallow” in the dirt, like pigs. She would make them wear dirty clothes, refuse to allow them access to the bathroom, and beat them. They never said anything to anyone, because they knew what would happen if they told on their mother. Dave would do whatever Shelly demanded, even if it meant abusing the children. Whenever they tried to run away, Shelly would find them and force them to come home.

When Kathy moved in, Shelly’s focus turned to her. At first, she was warm and welcoming, but gradually, the abuse commenced and ratcheted up, until Kathy was a mere shell of the woman she’d once been. She lost everything… even the clothes on her back, her self-worth, and even her teeth. Shelly forced Kathy to stay in extremely uncomfortable accommodations. She made her do chores, while denying her proper food and shelter. Kathy worked naked, doing everything from cleaning the house to feeding the animals. Whenever they rode in the car, Kathy’s place was in the trunk. Every time she tried to escape, Shelly the predator would hunt her down and bring her back to her lair. She hurled all manner of abuse to the woman, calling her names, hitting her, and starving her.

Kathy’s health declined more and more until finally, one day in 1994, she died. Instead of calling the authorities, Shelly had Dave burn Kathy’s body in their backyard. Kathy’s family didn’t find out until much later what had happened to her.

Shane gets shot…

Shane couldn’t stand his Aunt Shelly, even though he was often coerced into abusing Kathy at his aunt’s bidding. Shelly was very paranoid, and determined that she couldn’t trust Shane to keep her secrets. She found out that Shane had photos documenting the abuse Shelly leveled at Kathy Loreno. In 1994, she directed Dave to shoot the 19 year old young man with a .22 caliber rifle, which he did. Then, Dave burned Shane’s body and scattered his and Kathy’s ashes at a nearby beach.

Another boarder…

While Dave sniffed ammonia ampules to stay awake at work, Shelly decided she needed a new slave. She sweet talked a gay man named Ron Woodworth to move into her house and help her. Gradually, Ron became the same type of servant his predecessor, Kathy, had been. Shelly called him vile names, took away his clothes, and made him call her “Shelly Dear”. She drove a wedge between Ron and his family, with whom he’d once been very close. Eventually, he met the same tragic fate Kathy did. At the time of Ron’s death, there was an ordinance against open fires in their hometown, so he couldn’t get the homemade cremation treatment that Kathy and Shane received. Ron’s body was, instead, disposed of in a shallow grave.

A devastating story…

Shelly Knotek’s story is both fascinating and horrific. It’s absolutely crazy to me that she was paroled. At this writing, Shelly is 68 years old, and though she’s said to be in poor health, I have no doubt that she is a dangerous woman. Gregg Olsen does a great job making this convoluted tale easy to follow, with short, vivid chapters that kept my attention and made it easy to take breaks. I was glad for the breaks, because there’s only so much of this horror one can take in a single sitting.

I kept wondering to myself how the people in that household could stand watching Shelly’s cruelty. But, logically, I understand that when you’re a child, you’re at your most vulnerable. Shelly’s behavior was probably pretty normal to her children, at least at first. It wasn’t until she started doing things like locking them in closets for weeks, forcing them to go to school wearing the same, filthy clothes for days on end, and not allowing them to use the bathroom at will, that they started to realize how different they were. I just wish someone in the kids’ schools had noticed and said something to the authorities about the obvious child abuse. Shelly abused her children physically. They had to learn how to hide the scars and bruises and act like everything was normal.

I also wondered how it was advantageous to Shelly that her “boarders” and sometimes her children were kept naked and weren’t allowed to bathe. I would think the smell would be terrible. But that’s probably why she forced them to sleep outside or in pump houses. She would occasionally “bathe” them by hosing them down or dumping bleach on them.

Some people who have reviewed this book on Amazon have said that, at first, they weren’t aware that they were reading a true story. They thought this book was “far fetched”. Sadly, this really is a true story of a morally bankrupt and depraved woman who got off on hurting people in all ways. And sadly, people like Shelly lurk all over the place. Maybe they aren’t as extreme as she is, but they have some elements of that vindictive, abusive, sadistic personality. And if you’ve ever been in the midst of one of those people, reading a book like If You Tell becomes even more triggering.

I would recommend If You Tell to those who are intrigued by true crime and can stomach descriptions of truly awesome abuse toward others. I would not recommend it to those who are overly troubled by stories of graphic abuse toward other human beings (evidently, Shelly treated her animals with more consideration). This is the kind of book that can give certain people nightmares. Shelly Knotek’s story is one of the most disturbing I’ve ever read. She is someone who deserves to rot in the lowest depths of Hell for what she did. She should certainly NOT be out of prison.

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11 thoughts on “A review of If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood, by Gregg Olsen…

  1. Geez. Three murders, and she only served 18 years of a 22-year sentence?

    I know that sometimes it’s best for state prosecutors to save time and money and go for a plea deal than go through the process of a jury trial, but if ever there was a case that merited a full-on jury trial, with a sentence of life in prison as the penalty, Shelly Knotek’s case is it.

    • I forgot to mention she used an Alford plea when she was tried. Basically, that means she claims innocence, but understands that a jury would likely find her guilty.

      Technically, there was one murder. Shane was murdered. Kathy and Ron were victims of manslaughter. She didn’t actively kill them; they basically died of neglect.

      • Horrific!

        Two cases of manslaughter, one murder, and so many wrecked lives. I fervently hope “Shelly” never kills again, although I fear that she will if given the opportunity.

        Fantastic review, my friend.

    • On my original blog, I got visits from both Burl Barer and Kathryn Casey! Both are great true crime writers. See? Sometimes critics are good. 😀

      • I exchanged a couple of tweets with Ms. Casey many, many moons ago (in the Aughts…or the Uh-Ohs) when I read one of her books…I can’t recall the name of it right now, but it was about a preacher in Texas who killed his wife or something along those lines. It’s one of those books that is in a box somewhere, so I’d have to Google it.

        In any case, Kathryn Casey is super-duper nice.

        Back in the day, when Epinions was still alive, I got a nice comment from the erotic comic book artist known as Rebecca when I reviewed one of her “Housewives at Play” collection of pinups.

        On my newish blog here, I have not heard from an author personally, but the Naval Institute Press (the publishing company that gave the world Tom Clancy’s “The Hunt for Red October”) has seen a few of my reviews and reached out, asking me if I”ll review some of their stuff via Advance Reviewer Copies of new or upcoming books.

        On my older blog, I did notice a “hit” (but no comment) from the late James D. Hornfischer, who’s one of my favorite naval historians.

        The tweet with your review on it has, so far, 45 views. They may not all generate traffic here, but I’m sure you’ll get some new reads just the same.

  2. An example of a really disturbed psychopath. I’ve noticed that people tend to assume that it can’t be a woman doing it because it is typically a man who does those things, so it is easier for women to get away with it.

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