What can you learn about the psychology of abuse in Gregg Olsen’s If You Tell? Why did Shelly Knotek abuse and kill three people?
Media are rife with haunting stories of true crime, but some accounts are more chilling than others. In If You Tell, Gregg Olsen recounts the story of the notorious abuser and murderer Shelly Knotek, who, along with her husband Dave, caused three deaths.
Read below for a brief overview of If You Tell.
If You Tell by Gregg Olsen
In If You Tell, Gregg Olsen describes how Shelly Knotek and her husband Dave, abused their three daughters, as well as how the couple abused, tortured, and murdered two friends and their nephew. Olsen examines how the three daughters survived and how their bond ultimately led to their mother’s arrest. The story was compiled through interviews, primarily from the daughters Nikki, Sami, and Tori, Shelly’s stepmother Lara (a pseudonym), and Dave Knotek. Nikki, Sami, and Tori asked Olsen to write this book as a warning to the world about their mother—they feared she’d kill again after her release from prison.
Shelly Knotek’s Childhood: Early Warning Signs
According to Olsen, Michelle (Shelly) Watson was born to Sharon and Les Watson in 1954. She was raised primarily by her father and her stepmother Lara after age six. Prior to that, she lived with her mother Sharon, whom Les described as an alcoholic who was unable to raise kids. Little is known about Sharon’s relationship with Shelly, but Sharon cut off contact after bringing Shelly to Les’s, and when Shelly was later informed of her mother’s death, she barely reacted.
Shelly’s grandma Anna, whom she often went to see after school, was known for being cruel and demanding. She had two employees of her nursing home staying with her, and she treated them like slaves and abused them when they didn’t work quickly enough. According to Lara, she took joy in others’ suffering. She wouldn’t allow her mild-mannered husband George to sleep in the house, forcing him to sleep in a shed outside instead. Shelly was Anna’s favorite grandchild, though once in a while Shelly became the victim of Anna’s anger. However, most of the time Shelly was by Anna’s side watching the way she treated people—and learning.
As a child, Shelly was impossible to please. She threw tantrums, lied, and started fights to get her way. She resented seeing other people receive attention and went to extreme measures to get attention for herself. These measures included lying, stealing, and even such behaviors as putting broken glass into people’s shoes. She also falsely accused her father of raping her at 15, which dealt a crushing blow to an astonished Les and greatly damaged his reputation. She never showed remorse for her actions.
Marriages and Children
Shelly was married three times and had a daughter with each husband:
- Nikki with her husband Randy Rivardo
- Sami with her husband Danny Long
- Tori with her husband Dave Knotek
As Olsen explains, Shelly began abusing her daughters at a young age. Nikki, the oldest, has a memory from when she was very young in which she woke suddenly to find a pillow pressed over her face, suffocating her. She screamed and her mother showed up instantly to comfort her. As she consoled her, Shelly insisted that Nikki’s perception of someone putting a pillow over her face had been a dream, observing Nikki’s reaction with interest. Nikki knew it wasn’t a dream but backed down in the face of her mother’s insistence. When her third and final husband, Dave, was around and not at work, he either watched passively or participated as Shelly ordered him to.
Shelly used extremely harsh punishments for even the slightest misbehaviors. She beat her children and husband with implements from around the house and took pleasure in their pain. She also locked them in closets or out of the house, forcing them to sleep outside. Frequently, the children didn’t know what they were being punished for, but she told them they were bad, ungrateful, and spoiled. However, she also showed great affection toward the children on some days. Nikki never knew what would set her mother off and bring on more abuse.
Nikki received the brunt of the abuse for most of her childhood. Shelly would punch her, throw her into walls, and beat her with a phone cord. Nikki hid the bruises on her legs under tights and never told anyone what was going on at home. She didn’t want the attention it would bring, and no one ever asked her about violence at home. As an adult, Nikki suggested that she was partly at fault for the violence she experienced because of her attempts to get away from her raging mother. Later, when Nikki moved out and the abuse fell on the younger two sisters, they, too, kept it a secret for fear of what would happen to their family if their mother got caught.
Shelly began restricting the children’s bathroom and shower use. The kids had to get her permission to use the restroom, and they were often not allowed to bathe for long periods of time, which caused embarrassment and alienation at school. Since Tori was so much younger, she was generally spared from the abuse until the older girls moved out.
Shane Watson’s Arrival: A New Target
According to Olsen, in 1988, Shelly’s nephew Shane came to live with them at age 13. His parents were unable to take care of him, and Shelly sent him loving letters saying she wanted to help him.
The girls loved Shane and viewed him as a brother. Shelly set him up with a bedroom in the basement, but not long after he arrived, she put him to work around the house and yard. She began subjecting him to abuse as well, first confiscating his things as punishment until he was forced to sleep pillowless on a mattress on the floor, then restricting his shower and bathroom access. When the family moved to a smaller house, he had no room at all and had to sleep in Nikki’s closet with nothing but a blanket.
Many of Shelly’s punishments were about power and humiliation rather than pain, and sometimes she forced Shane and Nikki to slow dance together nude in the living room. Another time, she forced them to strip naked in the freezing cold and sit back to back on a hilltop until it was dark out.
Shane came to hate Shelly, and he and Nikki confided in each other about their suffering. They fantasized about killing her by throwing a radio into her bath, but Nikki always held onto the hope that her mother might one day miraculously turn back into the loving parent she’d been in her early childhood before the abuse began. Despite his hatred of her, Shane also felt some attachment to her since he’d never had a mother figure before her.
The Abuse, Torture, and Murder of Kathy Loreno
Shortly after Shane came to live with them, explains Olsen, Shelly’s best friend Kathy moved in with them. She’d had a string of bad luck, had a strained relationship with her family, and was broke and needed a place to stay. She was described as a pleaser and a giver, kind and empathetic to everyone. Shelly offered to let Kathy stay with them in exchange for helping out with the kids—whom Kathy adored—and around the house. She also helped care for Shelly during her cancer “treatments,” unaware that she was faking them. Kathy needed help, but the most enticing thing Shelly offered her was the chance to be needed herself.
It was a slow transition, but eventually Shelly began abusing and degrading Kathy. She forced her to work around the house all day and beat her when she wasn’t satisfied with her work. Shelly always said Kathy was forcing her to do it by arguing and not doing what she was told. After instances of abuse, Shelly would behave lovingly and give Kathy pills to take. Olsen doesn’t note which drugs Shelly was giving Kathy, but based on what Nikki and Shane found in Shelly’s medicine cabinet—and their own experiences being drugged by Shelly—they may have included anything from beta-blockers to SSRIs to muscle relaxers to tranquilizers. She also gaslit Kathy to make her believe she was sleepwalking and misbehaving unknowingly.
As she’d done with Shane, Shelly began confiscating Kathy’s belongings as punishment, saying she wasn’t grateful enough for what Shelly did for her—ultimately taking away all her possessions including clothing. Kathy was forced to work naked around the house and had to get permission to use the bathroom or shower. Eventually, she wasn’t allowed to bathe in the house at all and instead was hosed down in the yard. Later, Shelly began pouring bleach on her as well, duct-taping her mouth so she wouldn’t scream and get the neighbors’ attention.
Shane, Nikki, and Sami pitied Kathy and felt she was foolish for staying, but they were also relieved to have someone else be the focus of Shelly’s rage. Kathy had a car and was an adult, so they didn’t understand why she didn’t just leave. The kids learned to turn a blind eye to Kathy’s abuse in order to keep themselves safe, but what they witnessed as a result permanently traumatized them.
Throughout the abuse, Shelly presented herself to Kathy as a loving protector who would keep others from hurting her, which was a similar tactic that she’d used with the children. Eventually Shelly began forcing the children to participate in Kathy’s abuse, especially Shane. He was forced to hit and kick her, and by making Kathy afraid of Shane, Shelly was able to reinforce the illusion that she was only trying to protect Kathy.
Kathy’s Decline and Death
Over the five years that she lived with the Knoteks, Kathy’s body deteriorated, Olsen explains. She lost 100 pounds, her teeth and hair fell out, and her body was bruised all over. Even throughout this, she wouldn’t let the children help her because she didn’t want them to be abused as well—and she also knew it wouldn’t do any good. There was no stopping Shelly. Nikki was struck by what a good person Kathy was to be able to empathize with them while undergoing such mistreatment.
Eventually, Kathy deteriorated so much that she could barely walk or stand. Her personality was gone, and she had experienced clear cognitive decline, unable to keep her balance or speak clearly. She had difficulty breathing all the time. Toward the end, she seemed only vaguely aware of her surroundings and was almost unresponsive. Shelly’s punishments by this point had expanded to include waterboarding—which was carried out by Dave—forcing her to drink smoothies made from rotten food and forcing her to eat a cup full of salt. The children watched in helpless horror as Kathy got worse, while Shelly insisted it was all for her own good.
One day, in July 1994, as Kathy was lying on her bed in the laundry room, Dave heard her making a strange gurgling sound. He went in to check on her and found her asphyxiating on her own vomit. He was unable to revive her, and she died. Despite the condition she’d been reduced to, Shelly seemed genuinely surprised that Kathy died and confused as to why. As Dave and Shelly were arguing in the yard, Shane and Nikki snuck down to Kathy’s room to find out what was going on and discovered that she was dead.
Shelly took the girls to stay at a motel. With Shane’s unwilling help, Dave burned Kathy’s body in the yard, and Shelly told the children that they had to keep what had happened a secret or they would all go to jail. She told them Kathy had run off with her boyfriend Rocky and drilled them on the story, making sure they knew what to say if anyone ever asked about Kathy.
The Murder of Shane Watson
According to Olsen, soon after Kathy’s death, Shelly decided that if any of the family told anyone what had happened, they would pin all the blame on Shane. Shelly felt convinced that Shane was going to tell someone, and she began relentlessly pestering Dave to kill him. Dave insisted Shane wouldn’t tell on them because he was family.
Shane desperately wanted to escape, and he planned to take Nikki with him. One day, he showed her some photos he had of Kathy shortly before she died and told Nikki they needed to show them to the police. Nikki agreed, but she was terrified of what would happen if they did. In a moment of weakness, she told her mother about the pictures Shane had. The guilt from this admission haunts her to this day.
Shelly flew into a panic and searched the house relentlessly for the pictures but never found them. She and Dave beat Shane badly to get him to confess that he was going to tell on them, but he insisted he wasn’t.
Then in February 1995, Dave killed Shane. Shane had been confined to one of the outbuildings when Dave entered and shot him in the head with a rifle. While all three girls went to stay overnight with friends—something they were rarely allowed to do—Dave burned Shane’s body in the yard as he’d done with Kathy. They told the kids that Shane went to Alaska to work on a fishing boat. Though they suspected this was a lie, the girls didn’t learn that Shane was dead until years later when their parents were caught and Dave confessed. And with Shane and Kathy gone, the brunt of Shelly’s abuse was again directed at Nikki.
Escape: How Nikki and Sami Got Away
Nikki graduated from high school in 1993, and she desperately wanted to go to college and move away, Olsen explains. She enrolled in community college, but her mother began sabotaging her, taking away her school clothes and refusing to give her money for the bus so she had no transportation. One day when Shelly was abusing her, Nikki resisted and knocked her mother to the ground, to Shelly’s astonishment. Having someone fight back for the first time ever made Shelly change tactics: She’d remove Nikki from her presence.
Shelly told Nikki, who was 20 at that point, that Sami didn’t want her living there anymore and that she needed to leave. She said she was sending Nikki to stay with her aunt and uncle for two weeks, but Nikki managed to keep from going back home except for visits. She lived in extreme poverty for a while but eventually got a job and put herself through college. Tori, who was only six and idolized Nikki, was hurt by her absence, and Shelly convinced her that Nikki didn’t love her and had abandoned them. Tori’s sadness at Nikki’s departure also led Shelly to beat Tori for the first time ever. Sami understood why Nikki had left and secretly stayed in contact with her.
Sami became the focus of Shelly’s abuse. As far as she could tell, Tori was largely immune from the mistreatment, so she felt like if she escaped Tori would still be OK. She planned an escape her senior year of high school, in 1997: She snuck away from the house and hid from her mother, first at her friend’s house, then at her boyfriend’s. Her boyfriend’s mother then drove her to stay with her grandmother Lara. Shelly and Dave made many attempts to get her to come back home. Eventually, she agreed to come back on the condition that they pay for her college. She made it clear to Shelly that she knew what had happened to Kathy and used that as leverage.
That fall, Sami went to college, living on campus but coming home for visits on weekends and holidays. While Sami was away at college, Shelly began abusing Tori as she’d done with the other two girls. Tori quickly learned to do whatever Shelly told her immediately and without protest to avoid worsening the situation. Whenever Sami asked Tori how she was, Tori said she was fine, so Sami believed she wasn’t being abused.
Ron Woodworth: Repeating History
According to Olsen, around 2001, another friend named Ron Woodworth moved in with the Knoteks. Like Kathy, he had run into financial problems and was broke, emotionally vulnerable, and estranged from his family. Shelly invited him to stay with them so he could get back on his feet.
Nikki no longer had contact with anyone in her family except Sami, and Tori was too young to remember what had happened with Kathy, but Ron’s arrival set off alarm bells in Sami’s head. Still, she forced herself to believe that what had happened with Kathy wouldn’t happen again and that Ron would be strong enough to withstand Shelly. She was wrong.
Again, the relationship between Ron and Shelly started out as a loving friendship, but soon Shelly began degrading him and chipping away at his self-worth. The slide into abuse happened much more rapidly than it had with Kathy, but the pattern was the same: physical abuse, restricting bathroom usage, drugging, and isolating him from family.
As punishments got worse, Shelly forced Ron to drink his own urine, punch himself in the face as hard as he could over and over, and repeatedly jump barefoot off their two-story house. His feet became covered in open wounds that wouldn’t heal.
Like Kathy’s, his body began to deteriorate. He lost weight, and his teeth fell out. When his condition started to mirror Kathy’s in her final months, Shelly seemed to grow worried and started trying to get him to move out. She said she was going to take him to a homeless shelter, but Ron refused to go and threatened to kill himself if they made him leave.
In July 2003, Ron died from his injuries. Due to a heat wave, there was a burning ban in place, so Dave buried Ron with the intention to dig him back up and burn him when the ban was lifted. Shelly insisted to Tori that he was fine and was at a friend’s house, resting. She told Tori not to tell anyone about what had been going on, and that if she did, she’d disown her. Then Shelly’s focus returned to Tori, and the abuse worsened.
Arrest and Conviction: The Lead-Up
According to Olsen, the first time anyone in the family went to the police about the Knoteks’ activities was in 2001, while Ron was still alive. Nikki, then 26, had gone to stay with her grandmother Lara, and the second day there, Nikki told her what happened to Kathy. Lara was shocked, but she knew Nikki was honest and believed her.
They reported the information to the police and faxed a detailed account of what happened to Deputy Jim Bergstrom of the Pacific County Sheriff’s Department. Nikki thought things would change, but after the police were unable to reach Sami—then 22 and still away at college—to verify Nikki’s story, they didn’t follow up on the case. When Lara followed up months later to ask about Kathy’s case, Deputy Bergstrom told her it had gone cold, that he was in the middle of a big trial and would get back to work on it when he could.
The weekend after Ron died, Shelly allowed Tori to go spend the weekend with Sami in Seattle. Together they met Nikki for lunch. It was the first time Nikki and Tori had seen each other in seven years. Tori was scared to see her sister again after everything Shelly had said about her, but it turned out to be a wonderful reunion, and Tori realized how badly she’d missed Nikki. She also realized how much her mother had manipulated her into hating her oldest sister.
Later during that weekend, Sami and Tori were folding laundry when Sami casually shared that their mother used to dump all her clothes out on the floor in the middle of the night and make her match everything up. After a pause, and to Sami’s dismay, Tori said their mother did that to her, too. They kept talking, and Sami realized Tori was being subjected to the same abuse she and Nikki experienced. Sami asked about Ron and realized Shelly had done the same thing to him that she’d done to Kathy. Tori then revealed that she suspected Ron was dead.
Sami told Nikki, and they decided they had to get Tori out of that home. In August of 2003, the two of them went to speak with Deputy Bergstrom again. Unlike last time, their concerns were taken seriously now—though it was too late to save Ron.
A few days later, Tori was removed from the home by Child Protective Services (CPS). Shelly was furious and panicked, and she sent Dave to go see Tori at CPS, but he couldn’t find her. He went to the police station instead. They asked him to consent to an interview, and Dave, still believing that neither he nor his wife had ever abused the girls, agreed. He didn’t expect them to ask about Ron and Kathy, but they did, and, eventually, he fell apart and confessed to the disposal of Ron and Kathy’s remains. As a result, though he’d refused to incriminate her, Shelly was finally arrested on August 8, 2003—Kathy Loreno’s birthday.
Dave Knotek pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder of Shane Watson, the unlawful disposal of human remains, and rendering criminal assistance. Shelly Knotek took an Alford plea, pleading guilty to second-degree murder and manslaughter while maintaining her innocence.
Dave was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was released in 2016. Sami and Tori have come to forgive him and have accepted him back into their lives, though Nikki can’t bring herself to do so. Shelly was sentenced to 22 years in prison, and at the time of the book’s publication, was set to be released in 2022 at age 68.
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Here's what you'll find in our full If You Tell summary:
- The true story about abusers and murderers Shelly and Dave Knotek
- The events leading up to Shelly and Dave's arrests and convictions
- A look into the psychology of abuse and psychopathy