Kathy Loreno: If You Tell’s Unfortunate Betrayal Story

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "If You Tell" by Gregg Olsen. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Who is Kathy Loreno? How was she betrayed by her best friend on her deathbed?

In If You Tell, Kathy Loreno is named as one of Shelly Knotek’s many victims. Unlike Shelly’s daughters, Kathy couldn’t escape the abuse and died in the home that belonged to her best friend.

Continue reading to learn more about Kathy’s last years of torture under Shelly’s roof.

The Abuse, Torture, and Murder of Kathy Loreno

Shortly after Shelly’s nephew Shane came to live with them, explains Olsen in If You Tell, Kathy Loreno 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 Nikki, Sami, and Tori—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.

(Shortform note: Kathy’s personality is reflective of people-pleasing tendencies and fits the “pleaser” personality archetype. Pleasers are particularly vulnerable to being taken advantage of by people with controlling or toxic personalities because of their willingness to appease others through any means necessary. This includes ignoring their own needs, allowing others to violate their boundaries, and losing their sense of self in relationships. Pleasers are not at fault for others’ decisions to mistreat them, but people with pleasing personalities can take steps to protect themselves. These include seeking care from trauma-informed therapists, staying on the lookout for red flags in relationships, and setting and maintaining healthy boundaries.)

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.

(Shortform note: Abusers will often drug their victims for various reasons. Drugging a victim can make it easier to control them, as they’ll be less aware of what’s happening to them. It can also make it harder for the victim to escape, as they may become ill or physically dependent on the drugs. Shelly’s drugging may have been part of the reason Kathy never left.)

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.

(Shortform note: There are many reasons why abuse victims stay in abusive situations. Abusers go to great lengths to make the victim feel like escape is not an option, and leaving can be extremely dangerous if the abuser is able to track them down—as Shelly had a knack for doing. It can also be difficult to leave if the victim has little or no financial or familial support system, which was Kathy’s case. Additionally, victims often hold out hope that the relationship will return to the way it was before the abuse began, and they may also feel guilty about leaving if the abuser is—or pretends to be—ill.)

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.

(Shortform note: Shelly’s tactic of pitting her victims against each other is an abuse tactic known as triangulation. This allows the abuser to take a two-against-one approach to inflicting harm on their victim, giving the abuser a greater sense of control and superiority, and making the victim feel isolated.)

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.

Physical Decline Caused by Trauma

Kathy’s physical deterioration may have resulted from a combination of malnourishment, stress, and physical injury from the abuse. Both stress and malnourishment affect the balance of bacteria and acid in your mouth, which can cause tooth decay.

Chronic stress can also cause your hair follicles to go into a resting state, which can cause it to fall out, and a deficiency of nutrients like protein can cause hair loss because it deprives your body of the necessary materials to produce hair.

The stress from trauma can also cause cognitive decline, and research suggests that such decline is more severe in individuals who experienced trauma as adults than as children. Additionally, Kathy’s continued empathy may have been the result of her personality, but it could also have been a response to childhood trauma.

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. 

(Shortform note: It’s typically not possible for someone to asphyxiate on their own vomit unless they’re inebriated or impaired in some way. Kathy’s physical weakness likely kept her from waking or being able to roll over when she vomited. If you’re ever in a situation with someone who is choking on their own vomit, you can use the Bacchus maneuver to place them into a position that should keep them from asphyxiating. You should then call 911.)

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.

(Shortform note: Lying is another common tactic that abusers use to control their victims’ perception of reality and avoid responsibility for their own harmful actions. It can manifest as small white lies, broken promises, feigned forgetfulness, or—as in this case—a complete falsehood. Lying is particularly common in psychopathic abuse.)

Kathy Loreno: If You Tell’s Unfortunate Betrayal Story

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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

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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