Main If You Tell

If You Tell

After more than a decade, when sisters Nikki, Sami, and Tori Knotek hear the word mom, it claws like an eagle’s talons, triggering memories that have been their secret since childhood. Until now.



For years, behind the closed doors of their farmhouse in Raymond, Washington, their sadistic mother, Shelly, subjected her girls to unimaginable abuse, degradation, torture, and psychic terrors. Through it all, Nikki, Sami, and Tori developed a defiant bond that made them far less vulnerable than Shelly imagined. Even as others were drawn into their mother’s dark and perverse web, the sisters found the strength and courage to escape an escalating nightmare that culminated in multiple murders.



Harrowing and heartrending, If You Tell is a survivor’s story of absolute evil—and the freedom and justice that Nikki, Sami, and Tori risked their lives to fight for. Sisters forever, victims no more, they found a light in the darkness that made them the resilient women they are today—loving, loved, and moving on.

Publisher:
THOMAS & MERCER
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english
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9781542005234
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PRAISE FOR IF YOU TELL

“There’s only one writer who can tell such an intensely horrifying, psychotic tale of unspeakable abuse, grotesque torture, and horrendous serial murder with grace, sensitivity, and class . . . a riveting, taut, real-life psychological suspense thrill ride . . . all at once compelling and original, Gregg Olsen’s If You Tell is an instant true crime classic.”

—New York Times bestselling author M. William Phelps

“We all start life with immense promise, but in our first minute, we cannot know who’ll ultimately have the greatest impact on our lives, for better or worse. Here, Gregg Olsen—the heir apparent to legendary crime writers Jack Olsen and Ann Rule—explores the dark side of that question in his usual chilling, heart-breaking prose. Superb and creepy storytelling from a true-crime master.”

—Ron Franscell, author of Alice & Gerald: A Homicidal Love Story

“Bristling with tension, gripping from the first pages, Gregg Olsen’s masterful portrait of children caught in the web of a coldly calculating killer fascinates. A read so compelling it kept me up late into the night, If You Tell exposes incredible evil that lived quietly in small-town America. That the book is fact not fiction terrifies.”

—Kathryn Casey, bestselling author of In Plain Sight

“A suspenseful, horrific, and yet fascinating character study of an incredibly dysfunctional and dangerous family by Gregg Olsen, one of today’s true crime masters.”

—New York Times bestselling author Caitlin Rother

“A master of true crime returns with a vengeance. After a decade detour into novels, Gregg Olsen is back with a dark tale of nonfiction from the Pacific Northwest that will keep you awake long after the lights have gone out. The monster at the heart of If You Tell is not your typical boogeyman, not some wandering drifter or man in a van. No. In fact, they called her . . . mother. And yet this story is about hope and renewal in the face of evil and how three sisters can find the goodness in the world after surviving the wo; rst it has to offer. Classic true crime in the tradition of In Cold Blood and The Stranger Beside Me.”

—James Renner

“This nightmare walked on two legs and some of her victims called her mom. In If You Tell, Gregg Olsen documents the horrific mental and physical torture Shelly Knotek inflicted on everyone in her household. A powerful story of cruelty that will haunt you for a long time.”

—Diane Fanning

“A true-crime tour de force.”

—Steve Jackson, New York Times bestselling author of No Stone Unturned

“Even the most devoted true-crime reader will be shocked by the maddening and mind-boggling acts of horror that Gregg Olsen chronicles in this book. Olsen has done it again, giving readers a glimpse into a murderous duo that’s so chilling, it will have your head spinning. I could not put this book down!”

—New York Times bestselling author Aphrodite Jones





ALSO BY GREGG OLSEN





Fiction

Lying Next to Me The Weight of Silence The Last Thing She Ever Did The Sound of Rain Just Try to Stop Me Now That She’s Gone The Girl in the Woods The Girl on the Run Shocking True Story Fear Collector Betrayal

The Bone Box

Envy

Closer Than Blood Victim Six

Heart of Ice

A Wicked Snow A Cold Dark Place Nonfiction A Killing in Amish Country: Sex, Betrayal, and a Cold-Blooded Murder A Twisted Faith: A Minister’s Obsession and the Murder That Destroyed a Church The Deep Dark: Disaster and Redemption in America’s Richest Silver Mine Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest Cruel Deception: The True Story of Multiple Murder and Two Devastated Families If Loving You Is Wrong: The Teacher and Student Sex Case that Shocked the World Abandoned Prayers: The Incredible True Story of Murder, Obsession, and Amish Secrets Bitter Almonds: The True Story of Mothers, Daughters, and the Seattle Cyanide Murders Bitch on Wheels: The True Story of Black Widow Killer Sharon Nelson If I Can’t Have You: Susan Powell, Her Mysterious Disappearance, and the Murder of Her Children





Text copyright © 2019 by Gregg Olsen All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle www.apub.com

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Thomas & Mercer are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781542005227 (hardcover) ISBN-10: 1542005221 (hardcover) ISBN-13: 9781542005234 (paperback) ISBN-10: 154200523X (paperback) Cover design by Rex Bonomelli First Edition





For Nikki, Sami, and Tori





CONTENTS


AUTHOR’S NOTE

PROLOGUE

PART ONE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

PART TWO

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

PART THREE

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

PART FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

CHAPTER FORTY

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR

CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE

CHAPTER FORTY-SIX

CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT

PART FIVE

CHAPTER FORTY-NINE

CHAPTER FIFTY

CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE

CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO

CHAPTER FIFTY-THREE

CHAPTER FIFTY-FOUR

CHAPTER FIFTY-FIVE

CHAPTER FIFTY-SIX

CHAPTER FIFTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER FIFTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER FIFTY-NINE

CHAPTER SIXTY

CHAPTER SIXTY-ONE

PART SIX

CHAPTER SIXTY-TWO

CHAPTER SIXTY-THREE

CHAPTER SIXTY-FOUR

CHAPTER SIXTY-FIVE

CHAPTER SIXTY-SIX

CHAPTER SIXTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER SIXTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER SIXTY-NINE

CHAPTER SEVENTY

CHAPTER SEVENTY-ONE

CHAPTER SEVENTY-TWO

CHAPTER SEVENTY-THREE

CHAPTER SEVENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER SEVENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER SEVENTY-SIX

CHAPTER SEVENTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER SEVENTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER SEVENTY-NINE

PART SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHTY

CHAPTER EIGHTY-ONE

CHAPTER EIGHTY-TWO

CHAPTER EIGHTY-THREE

CHAPTER EIGHTY-FOUR

CHAPTER EIGHTY-FIVE

EPILOGUE

AFTERWORD

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

ABOUT THE AUTHOR





AUTHOR’S NOTE

Shared memories are like jagged puzzle pieces. Sometimes they don’t exactly align with complete precision. I’ve done my best to put all of the pieces of this complex story in the most accurate sequence as possible. In instances where the narrative includes dialogue, I used investigative documents and recollections from interviews conducted over a two-year period. Finally, for reasons related to privacy, I elected to use a pseudonym for Lara Watson’s first name.





PROLOGUE

Three sisters.

Now grown women.

All live in the Pacific Northwest.

The eldest, Nikki, lives in the moneyed suburbs of Seattle, in a million-dollar home of gleaming wood and high-end furnishings. She’s in her early forties, married, with a houseful of beautiful children. A quick tour through a gallery of family photos in the living room touches on the good life she and her husband have made for themselves, with a successful business and a moral compass that has always kept them pointed in the right direction.

It takes only the mention of a single word to take her back to the unthinkable.

“Mom.”

Every now and then, she literally shudders when she hears it, a visceral reaction to a word that scrapes at her like the talons of an eagle, cutting and slicing her skin until blood runs out.

To look at her, no one would know what she’s lived through and survived. And outside her immediate family, no one really does. It isn’t a mask that she wears to cover the past but an invisible badge of courage. What happened to Nikki made her stronger. It made her the incredible woman that she is today.

The middle daughter, Sami, eventually returned to live in her hometown, the same small coastal Washington town where everything happened. She’s just turned forty and teaches at a local elementary school. She has corkscrew hair and an infectious sense of humor. Humor is her armor. It always has been. Like her older sister, Sami’s own children are what any mother dreams for their little ones. Smart. Adventurous. Loved.

When Sami runs the shower in the morning before getting the kids ready for school and heading off to the classroom, she doesn’t pause a single beat for the water to warm. She jumps right in, letting the icy water stab at her body. Like Nikki, Sami is tied to things in the past. Things she can’t shake.

Things she can’t forget.

The youngest, like her older sisters, is a beauty. Tori is barely in her thirties: blonde, irreverent, and brilliant. Her home is farther away, in Central Oregon, but she’s very connected to her sisters. Adversity and courage have forged a strong, impenetrable bond between them. This young woman has made an amazing life for herself developing social media for a major player in the hospitality industry. Her posts for work and for her personal life never fail to bring a smile or even a laugh out loud.

She did it on her own, of course, but says she couldn’t have managed it without her sisters.

Whenever she’s in the cleaning supply aisle of the local grocery store and her eyes land on the row of bleach, she turns away. Nearly a wince. She can’t look at it. She certainly can’t smell it. Like her sisters, it’s the little things—duct tape, pain relievers, the sound of a weed eater—that propel her back to a time and place where their mother did things they swore they’d hold secret forever.

Enduring their mother was what bound them together. And while they might have had three different dads, they were always 100 percent sisters. Never half sisters. Their sisterhood was the one thing the Knotek girls could depend upon, and really, the only thing their mother couldn’t take away.

It was what propelled them to survive.





PART ONE

MOTHER

SHELLY





CHAPTER ONE

Some small towns are built on bloody earth and betrayal. Battle Ground, Washington, twelve miles northeast of Vancouver, near the Oregon state line, is one such place. The town is named for an incident involving a standoff between the Klickitat nation and the US Army. The native people freed themselves from imprisonment in the barracks, but while a surrender was being negotiated, a single shot rang out, killing the Klickitat’s Chief Umtuch.

It’s fitting for Michelle “Shelly” Lynn Watson Rivardo Long Knotek’s hometown to be known for a major conflict and a false promise.

As it turned out, it was pretty much the way Shelly lived her life.

For those who lived there in the 1950s, Battle Ground was quintessential small-town America with good schools, neighbors who looked out for each other, and a bowling league that kept the pins falling every Friday and Saturday night. Dads worked hard to afford the new car and nice house. Most moms stayed home taking care of the children, maybe later returning to the workforce or taking classes at Clark College to continue dreams thwarted by conventions of the day and marriage.

If Battle Ground had a Mr. Big Shot of sorts, it was Shelly’s father.

At six feet, two inches tall, with broad shoulders, Les Watson, former Battle Ground High School track and football star, was a big deal around town. Everyone knew him. He was quick-witted and could pour on the charm, a smooth talker and a master of BS. Handsome too. All the girls in town thought he was a catch. Not only did he and his mother own and operate a pair of nursing homes, Les also owned the Tiger Bowl, a ten-lane bowling alley complete with a twelve-seat snack counter.

That was where Lara Stallings worked in 1958. She’d just graduated from Fort Vancouver High School and was selling hamburgers to save money for college. Lara’s curly hair was blonde, with a ponytail that swung back and forth as she took orders. With sparkling blue eyes, she was undeniably beautiful. She was also smart. Later, she’d lament that her brain wasn’t in full gear when she agreed to date, and then eventually marry, Les Watson.

Les was also ten years older, though he’d lied and told his teenage bride that he was only four years her senior.

“I got caught up in all he had going for him,” Lara said years later, bemoaning the choice she made. “I fell hook, line, and sinker. He just wasn’t a great guy.”

Lara’s jolt into reality came the day after she put her hair up in a French twist—like Tippi Hedren in the Hitchcock classic, The Birds—and married Les in a civil ceremony in 1960 in Vancouver, her hometown. Only Lara’s family was present, though her parents had been against the marriage. Les had had good reason not to invite his.

They knew what was coming.

When the phone rang early the next morning, Lara answered. It was Les’s first wife on the line, calling from California.

“When are you coming to get these damn kids?” Sharon Todd Watson spat into the phone.

Lara didn’t know what she was talking about. “What?”

Les had never mentioned to Lara that he’d promised to raise his children by Sharon: Shelly, Chuck, and Paul Watson. The omission of that little detail was typical of Les, though Lara knew that she’d never be able to fix that—and that her parents’ concerns had been justified.

After the early-morning call, Les told Lara that his ex-wife, Sharon, couldn’t raise the kids; she was a depressive and an alcoholic. Lara took a deep breath and agreed. And really, what could she do about it anyway? They were her husband’s children, and she knew she would need to buck up.

It turned out to be a very big request. Shelly was six and Chuck was just three when they moved in. Lara took on the role of stepmother—Sharon had kept the youngest son, Paul, still then an infant, with her. Shelly was a beautiful little girl, with wide eyes and thick, curly auburn hair. Lara noticed a strange dynamic, however, between Shelly and her brother. Chuck didn’t speak a word. It was Shelly who did all the talking. She seemed to control the boy.

And as Shelly grew more comfortable with her new environment, she often voiced complaints or unkind words.

“She told me every single day that she hated me,” Lara recalled. “I’m not joking. It was honestly every day.”



Sharon Watson returned home to Alameda, California, after dropping off her two oldest children with Lara and Les in the fall of 1960. Once Sharon was gone, it was like she’d never existed. She never called or sent birthday cards to either Shelly or Chuck. No Christmas wishes either. There were few excuses for this “out of sight, out of mind” approach to child-rearing, though Lara later wondered if the course had been set long before Shelly’s mother had married and divorced Les Watson.

“Sharon came from a very dysfunctional family,” Lara recounted, having heard about Les’s first wife. “Her mother was married five, six, seven times and she was an only child. I understood she had a twin that died at birth. I don’t know if that’s really true or not, but that’s one of the stories I’d been told.”

Regardless of what had led her to that point, it was understood that while Sharon had serious problems with alcohol, there was more pulling her down. She’d gotten caught up in a dangerous lifestyle. Family members speculated she might even be a prostitute.

Finally, in the spring of 1967, a call from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department came to the Watsons’ home in Battle Ground. A homicide detective said that Sharon had been murdered in a seedy motel room and the coroner needed someone to identify her body—and to pick up her little boy, Paul.

Les didn’t want to go get his son, whom he knew had exhibited myriad behavioral problems, but Lara insisted. It was the right thing to do. Reluctantly, they made the trip to California to get him and to identify Sharon’s body.

Les reported to Lara what he’d learned from the police and the coroner.

“She was living with a Native American, but they were homeless,” he told her. “Drunks. Living on Skid Row. She was beaten to death.”

Later, when Sharon’s cremains were sent to Washington, her mother refused to take them. Nor did anyone hold a memorial service for her. It was tragic but it fit her story. In images culled from a tattered old family album, there are only a handful of pictures of Sharon, almost never with a smile. Her perpetual despondency preserved forever in black and white.

When Shelly was told what had happened to her mother, the thirteen-year-old didn’t seem the least bit interested. She barely reacted. Lara thought it was strange. It was as if there had been no true connection between Shelly and Sharon.

“She never once asked about her mother,” Lara recalled.





CHAPTER TWO

The newest member of the Watson family brought a host of problems to Battle Ground. Paul possessed zero impulse control and positively no social skills. He didn’t even know how to sit at the table at dinnertime. His first or second day in the house, Lara caught the boy on the kitchen countertop stomping around looking for food, opening cupboards and tossing out whatever didn’t meet with his approval.

“Paul was wild,” she acknowledged. “He was like an animal. He even carried a switchblade. Really. Not kidding. He did.”

Lara did what she could, but she knew almost right away that she was in way over her head. Les was busy with his businesses, and Lara didn’t fault him too much for not having much time for his children, but she was doing all she could as a stepmother to three handfuls—willful Shelly, wild Paul, and silent Chuck. Chuck, who still didn’t speak unless Shelly put words in his mouth, was a loner. People who knew their birth mother suspected that his difficulties might have come from some kind of child abuse, though in the 1960s little of that was actually put into words.

“A neighbor told me one time that they’d seen Chuck in his room with the window open and he was just standing there crying,” Lara said. “It was something that he did all the time.”

As difficult as Paul and Chuck could be, the child who created the most difficulty for Lara was Shelly.

The Watsons put extra emphasis on getting the most out of their family time on the weekends, shutting out all other distractions and focusing on the kids, which by now also included a daughter and a son Lara and Les had had together. They made regular trips to the Oregon or Washington coasts for boating in the summer months, and in the winter, they skied the slopes of Mount Hood. It would have been a fine and happy life, if not for Shelly.

She pitched fits, started fights, and would flat out refuse to go. If something wasn’t Shelly’s idea, it was a nonstarter. Whenever she didn’t get her way, Shelly was crafty enough to find a suitable solution. Usually it involved a lie. Her excuses were vague and often ridiculous. She didn’t like doing her homework, for example. So she’d complain that her youngest siblings had destroyed all of her hard work. When that ruse didn’t work anymore, she’d simply refuse to go to school.

“I’d try to find ways to make [things] easier for her in the morning,” Lara recalled. “I would set her clothes out at night, so she wouldn’t have to worry at the last minute to decide. I would set cereal and fruit out on the dining table—all ready to go. Anything to make the mornings go a little more smoothly. But that didn’t matter. Shelly didn’t want to do what she didn’t want to do.”

Each morning, a sullen and frequently angry Shelly would head off to school and the morning battle would be over.

At least that’s what Lara believed at the time.

“I got a phone call one time from the Standard Oil service station down the street from the school. They said, ‘This is the craziest thing! We’ve been seeing this little girl come in and going in [to] use the bathroom, and she brings in a sack of clothes [and then] she goes out,’ and they say, ‘She’s got a pile of clothes here. But she leaves with another set of clothes, jeans.’”

Lara got in her car and drove to the Standard station. She was astounded by what she found.

Shelly had indeed left behind a stash of clothes. “Probably had four or five dresses and skirts of hers squirreled away there. Beautiful brand-new things that Shelly didn’t want to wear to school.”

The impasse on clothing was only a fraction of the discord between Shelly and Lara, though Lara kept trying to find a way to get her stepdaughter on the right path. When Shelly was a little older, Lara took her to dance lessons, but half the time the girl refused to go inside the studio. She’d skip the recitals too.

“Everything was a big drama with her. Every little thing. Shelly always looked distraught and upset, whatever we did, wherever we went. No matter what it was. Even doing something nice for her like getting her a gift brought anger. ‘What are you being mad about?’ I’d ask. No answer, but I knew from the way she acted that nothing was good enough. Nothing whatsoever. Nothing satisfied her.”

In time, Shelly’s behavior began to change from being merely disruptive and ungrateful to dark and vengeful. She especially resented her siblings. Every bit of attention to another person meant a deficit in what she felt was owed to her. Whenever the deficit wasn’t paid, Shelly sought revenge. Her tactics were brutal and, frequently, sadistic. There would be lies about family members, stolen money, and even suspicion of arson in the Watson house.

Years later, Lara took a deep breath, recalling, “She used to chop up bits of glass and put them in the bottom of [the kids’] boots and shoes,” she said. “What kind of person does something like that?”

Lara didn’t have to look far for an example.

Grandma Anna, Shelly’s paternal grandmother, was just that kind of person too.





CHAPTER THREE

For Lara, seeing her mother-in-law, Anna Watson, meant a tightening of the muscles along her spine, hoping that Les’s mother wouldn’t cast her sharklike eyes in her direction. If Anna passed by, it brought Lara a shudder of relief. Only then could Lara take a breath. A very deep one. At least that’s how Shelly’s stepmother felt whenever she faced the singular terror that was Anna Watson.

Born in Fargo, North Dakota, and transplanted to Clark County when she was a teen, Shelly Watson’s paternal grandmother was tall and large, with muscled, shot-put shoulders and the sinewy trace of tendons that ran from her neck into the collar of her plain blue blouse. Anna tipped the scales at more than 250 pounds, and her left foot dragged when she walked, emitting a scraping noise that let people know when she was coming or going. Like her physical size, Anna’s self-certainty was formidable. She was absolutely right about everything, so much so that no one ever dared challenge her. Not Les, and certainly not his young wife, Lara. Anna ran one of the Watsons’ nursing homes, and there was no mistaking that everything had to be done her way. “Iron fisted” often came to the lips of those recalling Anna Watson’s style.

Anna’s husband, George Watson, was the opposite of his wife. He was kind. Sweet. Endearing, even. He was smaller than Anna, standing four inches shorter, and did whatever his wife told him to do. For more than twenty years, Lara recalled, George slept in a small eight-by-eight-foot shed just outside the back door to the kitchen. He never slept in the house, because Anna insisted he stay in the shed.

Not long before Les and Lara married, two women from Western State Hospital, near Tacoma, came to work for Anna at one of the nursing homes the family owned in Battle Ground. While their names were Mary and Pearlie, Lara only ever heard Anna refer to them as her “retards.” She lorded over them as a cruel queen might order around less-favored house servants. There was no task too low for the women to attend to in a nursing facility where there were more than enough such tasks.

From Lara’s perspective, the women were nearly slaves to Anna. At home, Anna made them clean her house, do the dishes, wash the floors. She’d order them to stop whatever task they were engaged in to wash her feet, do her hair. If the women moved too slowly, Anna would punch them, kick them, or pull their hair.

One time when Lara went over to Anna’s to pick up Shelly, she noticed that Mary was upset about something. Pearlie’s hair was wet and wrapped in a towel. Lara asked Mary what was wrong, and she confided that Anna had stormed out of the house with Shelly. She had been so angry about something that she had held Pearlie’s head in the toilet bowl and repeatedly flushed.

Lara was stunned. She’d never heard of such a thing.

“Why would she do something like that?” she asked Mary.

“She does it all the time when she gets mad,” she said.

“They were always afraid of Anna,” Lara said later.

Everyone was.

Everyone, it seemed, but little Shelly.

Lara started working in the nursing home office shortly after Les’s children came to live in Battle Ground. She had wanted to go to college, but those plans had been waylaid by instant motherhood. Since Shelly’s school was next to the nursing home, Shelly would often go to Grandma Anna’s after school instead of taking the bus home. Lara would call to see if she was there, and Anna would seethe that her granddaughter was being neglected and needed to stay with her to have a “proper” meal or be bathed correctly.

“You don’t need to wash her hair, Anna.”

“You don’t do it right. It’s filthy.”

Anna knew what was best for Shelly.

Indeed, she knew what was best for everyone.

Lara held her tongue, a practice she’d come to master over time.

Another time, Lara came to pick Shelly up and found her beautiful red hair all cut off. Grandma Anna stood next to her granddaughter with a pair of scissors and a mean smile.

Lara was shocked. “What happened?”

Grandma Anna snapped at her. “You can’t keep her hair brushed properly, so I cut it!”

It was a cruel, frenzied hack job. It looked awful. Shelly looked demoralized.

“She has very thick hair,” Lara said, fully aware that Shelly was going to blame her for what her grandmother had done. “I brush it every day,” she insisted, glancing at Shelly, who would scream every time a brush came near her.

Grandma Anna made a dismissive face and turned away, sliding her bum leg over the polished wooden floor.

She’d done exactly what she’d wanted to do.

Making people unhappy was her way of having fun.

Lara could see it even then. Shelly and Grandma Anna were inseparable, constant companions. While occasionally her victim, Shelly mainly served the role of protégé in her grandmother’s life. Grandma Anna’s favorite, her shadow, her mimic, was paying close attention to everything she did.

In time, Shelly would reveal just how good a student she’d been.





CHAPTER FOUR

Shelly’s first real strike came when she was almost fifteen. It was a stealth attack, the kind of tactic a practitioner of discord learns is the most effective means to wreak the most damage.

She was a no-show after school in March 1969. While she’d been tardy before, this time felt a little different. She was later than normal. Lara stared at the clock in her spotless kitchen. She drummed her fingertips on the surface of the table.

Where are you, Shelly?

What are you up to?

Who are you with?

Growing anxious, Shelly’s stepmother finally phoned the principal’s office, and what she learned took the air from her lungs. Shelly hadn’t come home because she’d been taken to the juvenile hall detention center in Vancouver. Shelly, a month shy of her fifteenth birthday, had told a counselor that something was going on at home and she couldn’t handle it anymore.

“What are you talking about?” Lara pressed the school employee for additional details. “You need to tell me what’s going on here.”

“I really can’t say anything more,” the woman on the other end of the line said. Her tone was cool. That alarmed Lara even more.

She hung up and immediately phoned her husband, Les, at the nursing home and told him to get home. She was sharp and direct. “Right now,” she said. “Something’s happening with Shelly.”

After another frantic call to juvenile hall, the Watsons were on their way to find out just what had happened at school that afternoon.

“No one was telling us anything,” Lara said later, looking down at photos of Shelly as a child, then a teenager. There was no denying Shelly’s beauty. Red hair framed a face with a freckled nose, and her blue eyes had thick lashes like the undulating fringe of a sea anemone. But to Lara, the kind of beauty Shelly possessed was like that of nightshade berries. They appear to be delicious but are actually dangerous.

Innocent. Sweet. A mask.

Lara was frantic.

“I even called the principal at home, but he wouldn’t say anything either. I’m thinking Shelly just stole something because she used to steal my things and take money out of my purse. I thought that maybe Shelly stole some kid’s purse or something like that. I had no idea what she’d done this time.”

It was frustrating. Painful. It had to be something very, very bad.

When the Watsons arrived at the juvenile detention center in Vancouver, they asked to see their daughter right away but were denied the request by the superintendent of the facility.

“Under investigation now,” he said.

“What investigation?” Les asked.

“Shelly has accused you of raping her,” said the grim-faced man.

Les’s eyes nearly popped from their sockets, and his face went completely red with anger. He immediately pushed back.

“Oh Jesus!” he exclaimed. “What in the world is Shelly saying that for?”

Lara stood there feeling sick. The accusation was the most disgusting thing she’d ever heard in her entire life. Shelly was a known liar, but this was too, too much. Even for her. As Shelly’s stepmother saw it, there were a lot of things people could call her husband, but “rapist” wasn’t on the list.

“She doesn’t probably know what it means,” Lara finally said, reaching over to calm her husband.

“We need to see her now,” Les insisted.

“Absolutely not,” the superintendent snapped. “You can’t. We’re investigating a crime here.”

Les threw his hands upward. “Fine. We’re calling our doctor. We’re going to demand he examine her. Now.”

Family doctor Paul Turner ordered Shelly to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Vancouver, and the Watsons returned to Battle Ground.

That night, Lara went into her stepdaughter’s bedroom. She really didn’t know what she was looking for. An answer, maybe? The truth. Something. As usual, Shelly’s room was a mess, with clothes and dirty dishes everywhere. Papers too. Scribblings in notebooks. Shelly fancied herself a poet and was always writing something, but nothing Lara saw as she picked through the mess provided a clue. After a while, she found herself poking around the bed to see what she could unearth there. Bending down, she reached between the mattress and the box springs. Her fingertips grazed the edges of a magazine and she pulled it out.

The air leaked from her lungs.

It was a dog-eared copy of a True Confessions magazine.

The cover screamed in bold type: “I WAS RAPED AT 15 BY MY DAD!”

Lara felt her blood pressure rise. It was unfathomable that Shelly could’ve made such an accusation, one that mirrored exactly the cover of a magazine.

“Look here,” she said, showing Les her discovery.

Les shook his head in disgust and disbelief. He’d been crushed by the accusation, but he was more troubled by his daughter’s behavior.

“What’s wrong with her?” he asked.

Lara didn’t know. She’d never heard of anyone making up such a destructive story. It didn’t make sense.

The next morning, when Dr. Turner arrived at the hospital to conduct the exam, Lara brandished the magazine.

“She’s made it up,” Lara said.

In the Watsons’ view, the magazine was proof nothing had actually happened, that the lurid story had merely been Shelly’s inspiration. But this was more than just another beat in a drama that Shelly created with her destructive and outrageous behavior. Les and Lara had had it with her. They had their other kids to consider. Les’s career too. He was the president of the chamber of commerce. If even a whisper of Shelly’s lie got out, the scandal would ruin him.

“This is really bad, Lara,” Les said as they waited outside Shelly’s hospital room.

Lara let out a sigh. “It’s Shelly,” she said. “It’s what she does.”

A little while later, Dr. Turner emerged with the results of his exam.

“This girl’s completely intact,” he said. “No bruising. Nothing. She’s never even been touched.”

Shelly was released on one condition later that night.

“Your daughter needs serious counseling,” Lara said the juvenile hall superintendent told them. “She needs a psychologist.”



Unfortunately, rounds of family therapy and private sessions with a psychologist proved less than successful. Shelly wouldn’t entertain the idea that she might have problems that needed fixing. Even though she’d been confronted with the truth, Shelly remained adamant that nothing was her fault. Nothing had ever been. Lara and Les came to know something that few understood in the late sixties and seventies: no one can help a troubled person who doesn’t think they need it. Indeed, Shelly never even admitted to fabricating the story of her rape. She didn’t even seem to grasp the magnitude of what she’d done to her father.

Instead, she seemed happy to have tossed a grenade into the circle of her family, and to have received the attention she craved because of it.

Shelly wanted to return to Battle Ground High School, but administrators declined to take her back.

“You burned that bridge,” the principal said. Shelly sat blank eyed in his office while Les and Lara looked on. “We don’t want you in class here. We just don’t want any more trouble.”

Hearing that, the Watsons were beside themselves. Shelly was only fifteen. She had to go to school. Lara immediately tried to get her enrolled in Annie Wright, a prestigious and expensive boarding school in Tacoma, but that was a no-go too.

“They researched her,” Lara recalled later. “They turned her down flat.”

While the Watsons made a good income, the truth was they’d have paid just about anything to get Shelly out of Battle Ground and into a classroom somewhere. Anywhere. Eventually, they found a spot for Shelly in Hoodsport, Washington, living with Lara’s parents, who quickly learned to walk on eggshells around the teenager. No one wanted to set Shelly off. There simply was no telling what she would do next. She was volatile, unpredictable. She had a mean streak that was sometimes hidden by a pretense of caring about someone or something. For instance, she’d volunteer to help Lara’s mother with the dishes, but would end up throwing the unwashed utensils, plates, and even pots and pans into the garbage. When she was in a more productive mood, she would wipe the plates “clean” with a cloth instead of washing them.

Shelly said she loved kids and wanted to babysit for the neighbors. Even better, she loved babysitting so much, she said, she even volunteered to watch them for free. She seemed to enjoy being seen as a benevolent, caring girl. It was an affectation that didn’t last long. When the parents came home from a night out, they found their children in bed with clothes still on and tales of how Shelly had barricaded them in their rooms with heavy furniture.

Shelly also turned on her grandparents after only a few weeks under their roof.

“With all their grandchildren, my mom and dad never had a problem,” Lara said, looking back many years after Shelly returned to Battle Ground. “I found out later that my parents were so glad when school finally finished and they could send Shelly home.” Shelly had apparently also accused Lara’s father of abuse. “I learned that Shelly actually told the neighbors that her grandpa was messing with her. And they contacted my mother immediately.” It was baffling to Lara. “I don’t understand Shelly’s constant need to try to ruin people’s lives.”





CHAPTER FIVE

Lara Watson would sometimes brace herself at the sound of the phone’s grating ring, dreading another call about something Shelly had done, something new to test Lara’s resolve to make things work. Lara was capable. She was good with people. She had a bright spirit. But even without Shelly at home, the Watsons’ marriage was under unbearable strain. Certainly family businesses required constant attention, and Les was up for the challenge. It was probably what he was best at doing. Lara, for her part, was mired in the quicksand of raising five children, two of her own with Les and the three from his ex-wife, Sharon. The older children continued to wreak havoc on the household, though none to the degree that Shelly did. Chuck was mostly quiet—timid, even. Lara would have him sit on her lap while she read to him and listened to him pretend to read to her. Whenever he tried to speak, Shelly was right there answering for him. School was difficult for him too. For his part, Paul was a habitual liar, like his older sister. While Shelly controlled Paul, Paul, in turn, mimicked his sister and tried to control Chuck. It was as if all of the kids had coalesced into a mob, with Shelly as their ultimate leader.

The queen bee.

The one who always knew what was best.

Just like Grandma Anna.

Shelly was always a master of disruption and chaos. It was a foregone conclusion that adding her back in the mix after her exile from Battle Ground was not going to work out for anyone. Lara spent half of that summer on the phone trying to find a school that would enroll Shelly that fall. Every place she called turned her down. Lara was nearly at her wit’s end when she finally got a yes from St. Mary of the Valley in Beaverton, Oregon, about forty minutes south of Battle Ground. It might not have been as far away as Lara hoped, but it was the best of a very short list of options.

She would later admit that she did hold back some about the challenges that would follow Shelly to boarding school, because she was so desperate. She also figured that a bunch of no-nonsense nuns would see right through Shelly’s most obvious manipulations and put a stop to them.

After a few weeks, the sisters started calling to ask the Watsons if they could come and get Shelly for the weekend.

“Friday nights we’d pick her up and take her with us and we go up to our mountain cabin and go skiing. I always tried to do it on weekends, though honestly it was hard. Every weekend I would just grit my teeth. It was so peaceful without her. Even the boys, who had big problems, were doing better.”

It seemed like the more anyone did for Shelly, the more she’d take. If she didn’t get what she wanted, she’d pitch a fit.

“The sisters didn’t want her back the next year,” Lara said. “They told me she had behavior problems.”

The problems were familiar.

According to the sisters, Shelly would often wake up in the middle of the night screaming. She stole another girl’s homework and destroyed it. She was caught stealing things from other girls. Shelly even resurrected an old favorite guerilla tactic: she put broken glass in a classmate’s shoe.

Near the end of the school year, the sister administrator at St. Mary of the Valley told Les and Lara that they would not accept Shelly as a returning student.

“We were willing to pay anything to keep her there,” Lara said. “No dice. The sisters stayed firm.”

The summer, Shelly took a scorched earth approach to her life in Battle Ground. She spent her days telling Lara how much she hated her and how she wished Lara would curl up and die. Lara, weary of holding back, let Shelly know more than a few times that she was no prize either.

“What’s the matter with you?” she asked. “You are never happy or appreciative about anything.”

That was true. Lara didn’t need to look any further than her husband to see why. He gave Shelly everything she ever wanted. Despite all she’d done to him, literally smearing his name, Les treated Shelly like a little princess.

Princess Shelly couldn’t stay in Battle Ground.



Les Watson’s sister, Katie, was the next unwitting but well-meaning person to hurl a lifeline in the direction of the Watsons. Shelly had a way about her that could get people to take pity on her and side with her against the rest of the world. Her mother was murdered. Her dad was abusive. Her stepmom was mean to her. Katie offered to have Shelly stay with her for the summer after Shelly complained to her about how rotten her folks—especially Lara—were to her.

Lara overheard some of the conversations. Shelly was never one to hide her feelings. She spoke loudly and in a manner that made certain everyone heard.

“She was on the phone telling Katie how bad and how mean and how abusive I was,” Lara recalled. “How I wouldn’t let her have anything and that I didn’t buy her anything. [That] I called her bad names.”

Shelly’s pity party was a complete success.

The Watsons had a pickup and a camper, and they made plans to go to Disneyland that summer. The entire family packed up, put Shelly on a plane, and had a wonderful time without her.

A few weeks later, Katie phoned and said Shelly had told her everything. She and her husband, Frank, had decided to have “the poor girl” stay with them for the school year in their home on the East Coast where Frank was a mining engineer and the president of a coal company.

Lara couldn’t believe her good fortune. She knew Shelly had lied through her teeth about how things were in Battle Ground. That was fine with her.

Oh Lord! she thought at the time. God is so good at answering my prayers!

As it turned out, the East Coast was Shelly’s last stop on the high school education tour that had had her moving from school to school, family member to family member.

“It was awful,” Lara said of the two years Shelly strained her relatives. In Lara’s opinion, “The problems that [Shelly] caused between Katie and Frank were so bad they ended up getting a divorce.”

Shelly didn’t seem to mind any of that drama at all. She was moving on. She was not yet eighteen and she’d already met her future husband.





CHAPTER SIX

Every guy knows the moment when he meets the girl. The One. The one who spins him around like a top that turns so quickly it digs deep. Randy Rivardo first laid eyes on Shelly Watson in the summer of 1971, when she was seventeen. There was no denying she was a knockout, this new girl. Shelly caught the attention of a lot of local boys when she was staying with her aunt and uncle in Murrysville, Pennsylvania, and attending high school at Franklin Regional High. She and Randy started dating, and they went steady Shelly’s senior year. The two made a striking couple: Shelly with her red hair and flawless skin, and Randy with the dark eyes and hair of his Italian heritage. But it was a teenage romance, destined to be only a passing fancy and a happy memory. They went their separate ways after graduation in 1972, with Randy staying in Pennsylvania to earn money for college tuition, and Shelly eventually returning to Washington, where she took a job as a nurse’s aide at her father’s nursing home.

Later that summer, however, Randy’s old flame called. Shelly not only missed him, but she also knew of an opportunity. Her father had a job offer for Randy.

“Do you want to come out to Battle Ground?” she asked. “My dad will hire you as a maintenance man.”

Randy wasn’t sure. It was a good offer, but it was completely out of the blue.

Shelly sweetened the deal.

“My dad will put you up in a rent-free apartment,” she said. “You can save up for school faster.”

The idea intrigued him. The job only paid five dollars an hour, but after researching the cost of tuition at Clark College in Vancouver, Randy made up his mind. He drove out to Battle Ground and right into Shelly’s open arms.

Open like a Venus flytrap, that is.

Not long after he arrived, it grew clear that the Watson family had more in mind for Randy than being just a maintenance man. They wanted a husband for Shelly. Truth be told, by the time he’d pulled his car into Battle Ground, wedding plans were likely already in the works. It didn’t take long for the hook to be reeled in. Shelly told everyone how much she loved Randy. Les treated Randy like a long-lost son. Anything he needed, Les was right there to offer it, going above and beyond.

However, Randy had an inkling that something else was afoot. Shelly’s father appeared too eager to pass his daughter off to another man.

“They rushed this thing so much that Les picked out my best man because I didn’t have any friends or family in the area,” Randy recounted. “It was that quick.” Randy wasn’t a passive guy, but he kept his mouth shut. “I sat back and let it all happen.”

None of Randy’s relatives or friends made it to the wedding.

Later, a family member discovered the reason: Shelly never mailed them the invitations.



Shelly and Randy, both nineteen, were married in February 1973 at the Methodist church in Vancouver. Shelly wore a long white dress with a high collar, deliberately echoing what actress Olivia Hussey wore in the 1968 film Romeo and Juliet. The groom wore a pink tuxedo that Shelly had selected for the occasion. A reception followed at the historic Summit Grove Lodge in nearby Ridgefield. Everyone agreed it was a lovely ceremony, a lifelong dream for Shelly. The couple was young but very much in love. At least Randy thought so.

The couple honeymooned at the Watson cabin at Government Camp, Oregon—a place Shelly had loathed as a teenager—and afterward, they lived rent free in a forty-foot trailer owned by the Watsons. Shelly complained about its shabbiness, but Lara pointed out that it was only a starting point for her life with Randy. They really didn’t have the income for a house anyway.

“But I don’t want to live in this trailer!” Shelly repeated over and over.

Shortly after the wedding, Shelly started to complain of severe menstrual cramping and began to miss work at the nursing home. Her “troubles,” as she called them, came in a tsunami that lasted from the beginning to the end of the month. She’d go to work, leave, and then do it all over again. Finally, in what must have been a difficult decision for Les Watson, he fired his daughter.

“Hard work and dependability were never two of her strong points,” Randy said later of his young bride.

After that, Shelly went to work at another relative’s nursing home. But the pattern of serial absenteeism repeated there too, and she was terminated.

“She would then revert back to her dad’s nursing home,” Randy said. “Like a ping-pong ball.”

Eventually fired for good, a stay-at-home Shelly brought no benefits to the new household whatsoever. She didn’t cook. She didn’t clean. All she seemed to like to do was lie around and tell everyone in earshot what they should be doing, though she was never shy about telling others what she deserved, and how they should help her get whatever she wanted.

She was a lot like Grandma Anna that way.



Shelly had designs on a new car, so she did what she always did—she made a beeline for her daddy. It didn’t matter that she’d nearly cost him his reputation, or worse, by claiming to authorities that he had raped her. That appeared to be water long under the bridge. In reality, the Watsons were afraid of Shelly and what she might do. It was easier to give her everything she wanted, just to keep her happy and at bay. If Shelly wanted to go to the movies, or to a concert, or to an event somewhere out of town, they’d immediately fork over the cash.

Of course, even the Watsons had their limits. As successful as Les’s businesses had been, he wasn’t made of money.

With the demand for a new car, Shelly showed her dad and stepmom once more how far she’d go to get what she wanted.

Shelly insisted on a VW Beetle.

“Daddy, that’s the car I want! The car I have to have!”

Les agreed and went to Vancouver to see what he could find. However, he didn’t come home with a VW. Instead, he returned to Battle Ground with what he thought was even better—a nearly brand-new pale-pink Buick convertible.

Shelly’s eyes narrowed, and her face went ten shades darker than the new car. She stomped her feet. She pitched a fit so loud that the windows of the house rattled. She screamed at her father that he’d bought her a “horrible old maid’s car.”

Les took a step back. Though he should have known better, he just didn’t expect that.

Randy thought the car was nice, but he was unable to calm his wife down. Shelly couldn’t be consoled.

What happened next sent everyone into a tailspin.

That night, Shelly collapsed in a stupor, apparently having overdosed on sleeping pills and booze. When Randy couldn’t revive her, he called the Watsons in a panic and they immediately rushed her to Vancouver Memorial Hospital. Everyone was worried that she might not make it. The ER doctor on duty pumped her stomach and reported his findings to the family.

“We found out she’d taken aspirin of all things,” Lara recalled many years later. “And only a small amount. There had been no sleeping pills.”



One day after Randy returned from classes at Clark College, he found their trailer in complete shambles and his wife with a bloody face.

He ran to her. “What happened?”

“A man came in,” Shelly sobbed. “He came in [and] attacked me. Raped me.” She indicated some scratches on her face. “He took your rifle and ran outside.”

Randy called the Clark County sheriff as well as his father-in-law. Both arrived within minutes of each other. Randy and Les stayed outside while the sheriff questioned Shelly in the trailer.

A bit later, the sheriff emerged and with a grim expression said that Shelly’s wounds had been self-inflicted. There had been no intruder. He gave Les and Randy a look before telling them he wouldn’t file charges against Shelly.

When the sheriff left, Shelly changed her story again.

“She reverted back to claiming she was raped,” Randy said later. “She said she only gave up the story because the sheriff forced her to. She said she watched as the attacker buried the rifle not far from the house.”

To prove her story, Shelly led her husband and father to the rifle.

“Right here,” she told them. “That’s where he hid it.”

Randy knew better than to believe this story. He suspected his father-in-law did too. Shelly’s stepmother did for sure.

Shelly simply didn’t want to live in that trailer anymore. It wasn’t good enough. She was Les Watson’s daughter, for God’s sake. She deserved better.

“She said it was too dangerous for her to live there,” Lara said, rolling her eyes years later. “Instead, she wanted to live in a cute little house in town.”



Whatever Shelly wanted, she got. Shelly acted like she owned Battle Ground. She left unpaid bills at the gas station and the grocer. She bounced check after check. She grew such a tab over time that some business owners thought it necessary to strong-arm Randy into paying. He’d tell them never to let Shelly charge a penny again, and they’d agree. And then they’d always give in.

Now Randy knew why Les had been so quick to welcome him into the family. It was more than handing off a daughter to be married; he’d been passing along a very big problem.

When Shelly announced she was pregnant in the summer of 1974, everyone took a gulp of air.

Maybe this would help?



Randy’s parents announced they wanted to make the trip from Pennsylvania to Washington, bringing along baby gifts and the excitement that comes with the anticipation of a new addition to the family.

Shelly, however, told Randy that she didn’t want his family to come. He brushed her off. They were coming and that was that. When the Rivardos finally arrived, she sequestered herself in her bedroom. She never once came out during the time they were there. It was embarrassing, but Randy put on a brave face and he and his family had a great time without her.

That, in turn, made her even angrier.

The fallout came later. Books brought as gifts from Randy’s little brother to the new baby went missing. Randy couldn’t find them anywhere. Shelly said she didn’t have a clue what happened to them either. After looking all over the place, they gave up.

After the family left, Randy sampled homemade candy his grandfather had sent as a gift. His grandfather had made it a hundred times. Randy took a bite and had to spit it out. It tasted of nothing but salt. He called his grandfather to tell him of the mistake with the latest batch. The old man couldn’t understand what had gone wrong—none of the other family members tasted anything but marshmallow.

The only bad batch was the box delivered to Battle Ground.

When it was discovered that Randy’s sister left some new clothing behind, Shelly offered to mail the articles back.

The package arrived in perfect condition. Its contents, not so much. Someone had taken a pair of scissors and shredded the garments.

Shelly told Randy she had no idea how that could have happened.

“Someone at the post office must have done it,” she said.





PART TWO

SISTERS

NIKKI AND SAMI





CHAPTER SEVEN

“Love Will Keep Us Together” by the Captain & Tennille and the Bee Gees’s “Jive Talkin’” played on repeat on Shelly Rivardo’s cassette player when her daughter Nikki came into the world in February 1975. It wasn’t a moment too soon either. Shelly had complained for weeks about her pregnancy, and how she was sure it was going to ruin her figure.

With both her mother’s coloring and features, Nikki could not have been a more beautiful baby. Everybody said so, even Shelly, who saw her daughter as the perfect extension of herself. She told everyone how excited she was to be a mother. How she had big dreams for her little girl. Those who knew Shelly were skeptical, but hopeful that having a baby would refocus her attention away from herself.

Instead of taking her newborn back to Battle Ground, Shelly decided that it would be best if Nikki was cared for at her parents’ rambling Tudor home in Vancouver. Lara couldn’t tell if Shelly was indifferent or worried about caring for a baby. With the exception of the disastrous stretch of babysitting for her grandparents’ neighbors in Hoodsport, Shelly had zero experience caring for a child.

“I don’t think she’d ever held a baby in her life,” Lara said later.

Lara was the opposite. She was born to be a mom, delighted to be a grandmother. When she’d first felt Nikki’s kick inside of Shelly, Lara had dubbed the baby Thumper after the rabbit from Bambi, and she had loved that baby from that little kick.

What Lara thought was going to be a few days’ stay, however, turned into three months before Randy finally put his foot down and the three of them returned to Battle Ground.

Lara drove up to see the baby every day.

“I just didn’t trust her,” Lara admitted of Shelly.

Randy didn’t either. Trouble in the Rivardo marriage escalated. His wife locked him out of the house at night. Whatever money he brought in, Shelly would spend without any regard for what the family needed.

He told Lara something that stuck with her for decades.

“Shelly is only nice to me when there are other people around.”

Randy started sleeping in his car, something that became a nightly occurrence. Shelly wanted only his paycheck, which she insisted he hand over on Fridays. The checks weren’t a magnificent sum. Far from it. Even with a decent job and no rent payments, things were tight. Shelly was used to getting more of everything. She complained to her father, so Les Watson interfered and made it so Randy’s check got delivered straight into Shelly’s hands.

“So I was sure to go home,” Randy said later.

It didn’t take too much longer for Randy to decide that he couldn’t take it anymore—no matter how much he loved Nikki, he couldn’t ignore that his marriage, which had started on tenuous grounds, was now falling apart.

Lara didn’t blame Randy for leaving his family, for leaving Shelly. No one did. Except Shelly.

He got airfare from his parents and left Washington—and Shelly—as fast as he could. “I needed a fresh start,” he said. Yet when Shelly called him at his parents’ house two weeks later and professed a genuine desire to repair their marriage, Randy agreed to let her and Nikki come stay with him and his family, albeit reluctantly. He missed his daughter, and cared more for her than whatever he felt for Shelly.

The reunion was short-lived, lasting just two weeks.

“Even my grandparents were disgusted by her behavior. She created such a furor there that I had no recourse but to file for divorce.”

Shelly retaliated immediately by buying everything in sight and sticking Randy with a growing bill. This put her ex further and further into debt. Shelly didn’t care. Randy sent her an income tax refund check that needed to be countersigned. Randy told Shelly that the money would get him caught up with the collectors who had been hounding him.

No such luck. Shelly double-crossed Randy and had another man forge his signature.

She cashed the government check and kept the money for herself.

And then suddenly Shelly simply dropped out of sight. Lara tried every number she had—friends, relatives. Anyone. She was worried about the baby.

“I kept calling Shelly,” Lara said. “She wouldn’t answer. And I was frantically trying to get ahold of her. Trying to see her and she wasn’t home or wouldn’t answer the phone. She just stopped being a mother. Shelly got a job as a waitress in a bar on Main Street in Vancouver and that seemed to be enough for her.”

This went on for some time. At one point, a relative in Battle Ground told Lara that she’d better come and get Nikki, for whom the relative was caring.

“Shelly’s gone.”

“Where?” Lara asked.

“I don’t know.”

“When is she coming back?”

“Don’t know that either.”



Shelly stayed gone. What she was doing and who she was with was a bit of a mystery, though frankly, Shelly being gone was a very good thing. Less drama. Less worrying. Less of everything that tied the stomachs of those around her into knots.

It would be almost a year before Shelly would return to collect her daughter from Lara. Shelly’s absence wasn’t even explained. She just popped back in and took Nikki. Lara’s love for Nikki was deep. She’d wanted to keep her—to have her declared abandoned by Shelly, to adopt her and raise her as her own.

Lara vowed she’d do whatever she could to stay close to her granddaughter.

In 1978, when Nikki was just three, her mother lovingly wrote about her feelings for her firstborn.

Shelly dotted her i’s and underscored exclamation points with hearts to emphasize her unbridled devotion. She wrote in verse how seeing Nikki’s face brightened up the drudgery of a long day.

“A face as darling as can be, her laughter . . . a bubbling brook . . . while her smile dimples her sweet little chin . . . All framed by her hair of gold . . . and those eyes—big and brown . . . sparkling with laughter.”

She tempered her love letter with a splash of cheerful reality too.

“. . . she’s in my jewelry box! My purse! My lipstick! Or pulling off some mischievous trick!”

Shelly concluded with a telling rhyme:

“Oh Nikki, though our tempers increase our love for her will not ever cease!”

For a time, Shelly perpetuated a kind of “you and me against the world” story line. She told Nikki that her daddy had abandoned them, that her paternal grandparents didn’t love her. She said all of that to her daughter with sad eyes and her arms wrapped around her, but added that it was fine because she loved Nikki so, so much.

Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be carefully curated fiction. Many years later, Nikki found a cache of letters from her dad and his side of the family, and discovered that her father’s family had sent birthday and Christmas gifts as she was growing up. Her mother had cut off the tags and put her own name on them.



Lara and Les were concerned that Shelly was leaving Nikki alone while she went out, so they went over to her apartment in Vancouver to check up on her. There they met Danny Long, who was living across the hall from Shelly. Lara knew Danny’s mother because she’d bowled at Tiger Lanes. Danny was thin, with longish dark hair and a pleasant smile. He said he had keys to his neighbor’s apartment.

“You must know my daughter pretty well if you have her keys,” Les said.

Danny mumbled something and let them in.

Shelly and Nikki weren’t there, but the Watsons did find a box full of things stolen from the cabin on Mount Hood, plus a full set of keys to their home, their cars, and, of course, the cabin. The keys had been missing from Lara’s purse for several weeks.

Not long after, Shelly and Danny moved into the house in Battle Ground that Grandma Anna had always promised would be her favorite grandchild’s. Soon Shelly had a second baby on the way. The couple married in a small wedding chapel near the courthouse in Vancouver on June 2, 1978. Shelly was on her second marriage by twenty-four. A couple of months later, in August 1978, Samantha was born. She was a beautiful baby—blonde, with big, expressive eyes.

Danny was good to the girls but pushed back on Shelly more than she’d been used to experiencing. The two of them fought constantly, hard and physically. Dishes shattering. Yelling. Running out the door. All that kind of drama. One time when Lara visited—on a rare occasion when she was allowed to—she noticed holes punched into the drywall. The smart money might’ve been on Danny, though in truth Lara couldn’t be sure which of the adults had slammed a fist into the wall.

Indeed, Shelly’s marriage to Danny was very tempestuous, as had been the case with her marriage to Randy, and ended just the same. When a spat ended and Danny left to cool off or get away, Shelly would pack the girls in the car and start looking for him.

Shelly, her family would later say, always liked to hunt.

Whenever there was a new boyfriend, Shelly had a singular instruction for Nikki.

“You need to call him Dad,” she said.

So Nikki did. When she went to school, her mom would simply enroll her under her new man’s surname. No legal formalities at all, just Shelly’s insistence and good word that she’d created a new family.

Just like that.

Five years into her marriage to Danny, Shelly phoned her father and said she needed money for a divorce. She complained that Danny had betrayed her.

As usual, Les didn’t question any of it.

Anything for Shelly.

It was 1983 and, at twenty-nine, Shelly had a new guy on the string.

“I thought of Danny as my dad,” Nikki recalled, many years later. But once Danny was out of the picture, Shelly set her sights on mild-mannered Dave Knotek. “I remember Mom bringing Dave around at our place in Battle Ground and telling me that he was our new dad. I hated him because I loved Danny. And not too much later, we were packed up for Raymond.”



Even now, Nikki holds on to a memory that comes to her occasionally, visiting her like a ghost.

It was just before the move to Raymond. She was asleep in her bed in the house behind the nursing home in Battle Ground. All of a sudden, she woke up, unable to breathe through a pillow pressed over her face. Nikki started screaming for her mother, and suddenly—as in that very instant—Shelly appeared.

“What is it?” she asked. “Baby, what’s wrong?”

Nikki, crying, said someone had put a pillow over her face.

“It was a bad dream,” Shelly said.

Even then, Nikki knew better.

“It wasn’t a dream, Mommy.”

Shelly fixed her eyes on her little girl and insisted she was wrong. She wouldn’t back down. She didn’t have to. She was, as always, right about everything.

The encounter stayed with Nikki. The speed with which her mother responded. The peculiar look on her face—more interested than concerned.

Later, she would wonder if that was the first time her mother had messed with her mentally, and if she’d done the same thing to others in her life.





CHAPTER EIGHT

Timber. Oysters. And decades later, marijuana.

Soggy and exceedingly gray, Pacific County, Washington, has always relied heavily on nature. It’s been on a boom-or-bust trajectory since the first white settlers came to the rainy, windy spot in the state’s southwest corner in the 1850s. It seems almost dismissive to call the people who live there a hardy lot, but there’s really no denying it. The place where the Pacific Ocean meets the Willapa River and various tributaries is the kind of place in which abundance wasn’t given, it was earned. Its triad of towns—county seat South Bend, Raymond, and Old Willapa—are the county’s backbone. Huge Craftsman homes run along the hills above the bay that empties into the ocean. They speak of a time before the economy ebbed, as it always does in places that depend on natural resources. Only the courthouse, with its Beaux Arts design and magnificent art glass rotunda, still does a booming business. Its annex is where the welfare office is located.

Soggy as it is, the region along the Willapa River to the bay has made its mark in popular culture. Maybe more of a smudge than a mark. Nirvana, originally from Aberdeen, one county away, played its very first gig in Raymond, a town of less than three thousand. Lyricist Robert Wells, who wrote “The Christmas Song” with Mel Tormé and the theme from TV’s Patty Duke Show, grew up there. Author Tom Robbins wrote his first novel, Another Roadside Attraction, in South Bend.

And yet most of those who live there—especially those who have grown up with sawdust and oyster shells—are not famous. Not by a long shot. They fit mostly in that tight space between salt of the earth and hardscrabble.

Dave Knotek was a local Pacific County boy through and through, having lived his first four years in nearby Lebam, before his parents, Al and Shirley, moved along Elk Creek into a little wood-frame house in Raymond. Al was a timber faller, but work in the woods could be spotty. That the Knoteks never had a lot of money was an understatement. Dave and his brother and sister made their own toys—bows and arrows out of sticks and chicken feathers. Country kids like the Knoteks could often be spotted in a Raymond classroom. Their clothing was older, not always in the best shape.

“A few times I started the school year with the same clothes I wore the year before,” he recalled. “No disrespect to my parents. They worked very hard. We just didn’t have the money.”

The daughter of a sawmill worker, Shirley picked up the slack by working in an oyster cannery for quite some time, and then later at J. C. Penney.

Of the three kids, Dave was the hellion of Al and Shirley’s brood—messing around, stealing his dad’s smokes, even a half-hearted attempt at running away with a buddy in the fourth grade. And because of that, he was disciplined in the way his father had been. Al had a razor strap and wasn’t averse to using it on the kids if needed. Dave felt its sting more than a time or two, but never thought he didn’t deserve it. It was the way it was.

At the time, Raymond was bustling. The mills were running three shifts, and the endless supply of timber kept logging trucks on the roads all day long. The river was nearly clogged with log rafts.

In 1971, Dave graduated from Raymond High School—home of the Seagulls—with the idea that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and be a logger, though his dad did his best to convince him otherwise.

“Dad didn’t want me to do any of that. Too hard. But that’s what I ended up doing.” He worked in logging for a year before enlisting in the navy.

“I wasn’t going to be a timber faller like my dad, but I enlisted in the navy like my dad had and learned to run heavy equipment. And that’s what I did for twenty-two years—running a dozer in the woods.”

The military gave Dave a much-needed boost of self-confidence. When he came home to Raymond after serving in Hawaii and Alaska, Dave Knotek was suddenly viewed as a very eligible bachelor. He was a nice-looking, athletic guy, having learned to surf in Hawaii. He had a kind, gentle personality, though he could also party. Best of all, he had a good job at timber giant Weyerhaeuser. Upon his return, he became a member of fraternal orders like the Elks and the Eagles, and his popularity surged. He got serious with a couple of local girls, but those relationships didn’t pan out.

“The girls chased me a little,” he said later with a smile.

At the time, he didn’t know that the wrong one would end up catching him.



There was no particular reason why Dave Knotek drove down to Long Beach, Washington, on a Saturday near the end of April 1982. It wasn’t beach weather—that doesn’t hit the Washington coast until the end of August. Dave, recently dumped by a girl, was in search of a beer and a little distraction. In fact, when he left his place in Raymond and drove his orange VW surf buggy toward the highway, he didn’t know if he should turn right to Westport or left to Long Beach. Long Beach won. When he arrived at a tavern called The Sore Thumb, it was packed with young men not doing much of anything.

Shooting the breeze.

Shooting pool.

Talking about shooting.

Yet amid all the guys was the most beautiful girl Dave had ever laid eyes on.

Though there were hiccups in Shelly’s life when it came to choosing men, there was no denying she was very good-looking, with light eyes, red hair that she wore big and long, and the kind of figure that little girls hope for when they are growing up. Curves in all the right places. Shelly understood that men liked a girl who flaunted what she had, and in her early years, she was more than happy to work it.

By Dave Knotek’s estimation, Shelly Watson Rivardo Long was way out of his league. He just knew it. He watched her from the sidelines. She was all auburn hair and had a killer body. Dave had been a late bloomer. No girlfriend to speak of in high school. He was shy back then. Even after the navy, he was still shy. He sipped his beer, and tried to get up the nerve to ask the pretty redhead to dance.

“She really looked like a movie star in some of them old films. A wow. Other guys were hitting on her right and left and I just looked at her. Pretty soon, she came over to my table just as I was ready to ask her to dance.”

Shelly told Dave she had two little girls and was living down south in Clark County, in a nice little house that her Grandma Anna had left her when she passed.

“Can I get your phone number?” he asked Shelly after they’d danced for a few songs.

“Okay,” she said, playing it cool.

They parted ways later that evening. Dave never expected to see her again, but he couldn’t stop thinking about her. He certainly wouldn’t see her there at the bar. The Sore Thumb burned to the ground the night after they met.

He finally sucked up the courage and dialed Shelly’s number and asked if he could come down to see her in Vancouver. She said yes. In time, he made it a weekly trip. Dave fell hard for Shelly and her little girls.

“They were nice kids. Really good kids. They needed a dad. I could see that. Anyone could.”

About that time, Shelly needed a savior—someone she could use. Danny was long gone. So was Randy. She was in trouble with the house that Grandma Anna had left her. It had gone into receivership when she couldn’t come up with the money for the taxes or the loan. She quitclaimed it over to Dave Knotek.

“Dave wants to try to save it for me,” she wrote the judge, “but it needs much needed repairs. I can barely afford to care for my children. I think I’ll have to let Dave have claim to it.”

Shelly lamented the legacy of the house adjacent to the nursing home. It had been in her family for three generations.

“My grandmother lived there. My natural mother before her death. And I was raised there for the first twelve years of my life. It has been common knowledge between my family and my relatives that the house would go to me at the right time. That came in 1981. It wasn’t before that because I had a very bad marriage and my parents didn’t want me to lose it in a divorce settlement. In 1979 I separated from my husband and moved in. I know this for sure because my daughter started kindergarten in the fall . . . Save my home for my children. I would like to work with U.S. Creditcorp to see what I can do. I haven’t hurt anyone. I just want to make a future for myself.”

Later, Dave made a promise that he’d give the house back to Shelly, but in time, the house was lost to foreclosure.



As the new couple grew a little closer, Shelly tearfully confided after a doctor’s appointment that she had a bigger problem than merely trying to make ends meet for herself and her girls.

“I have cancer,” she said. “I probably won’t live to thirty.”

Dave was stunned. Shelly looked completely fine. Besides, by then he was in love with her. And now, he was held completely captive by her disclosure.

“I thought to myself,” he said many years later, “that she was going to probably die. And if she died, who was going to take care of Nikki and Sami? They really didn’t have anyone. The whole time we were together she played the cancer card. I should have known better, but I didn’t.”

After about a month in Dave’s studio apartment, the four of them moved into a red house on Fowler Street in Raymond’s Riverview neighborhood.

“I didn’t marry Shell because her kids needed me,” Dave said, “but I have to admit that was a pretty big reason behind my wanting to marry her.”

Indeed, they finally made it official in Raymond on December 28, 1987. One of the witnesses to the wedding was a young woman named Kathy Loreno, Shelly’s hairdresser and best friend. No one knew at the time that Kathy would eventually play a far bigger role in the Knotek marriage than anyone could have imagined.



Les Watson was only too glad to have his daughter get married for a third time. Indeed, he couldn’t have been more relieved. It meant that she’d probably not come around anymore for money. He’d never truly forgiven her for the rape story, though he’d learned to play nice. While her accusations hadn’t ruined him, they’d left a scar.

Shelly continued to bad-mouth her dad behind his back, though to his face she tried to worm her way back in with indirect apologies and promises to be a better person. She claimed she had cancer and she thought he’d want to know directly from her, not Lara, with whom she’d started a war over seeing the girls more frequently. When Les didn’t take her calls, Shelly wrote to him:

“I’ll always be so proud to have you as a Dad. The older I get the more I’ve realized how much I appreciate you. Dad, I’m so full of pain I just want out. You’ve known so little of my life for such a long time. Maybe the next time around . . . I won’t make the same mistakes. I’m not strong enough to go through the months ahead. But I love you, Dad, and I’ve missed you. Love, Shell.”





CHAPTER NINE

From Nikki’s perspective, it was like her mother and stepfather had started their life together with a poisoned kiss and a declaration of war. It was apparent to many, including Nikki, that Dave Knotek had been made less of a man by marrying Shelly. It was clear that her stepfather could barely function in his marriage to her mom.

Nikki recalled an incident she’d watched with the gaping eyes of a child—unblinking but petrified at the same time. Dave, thin with longish hair and tattoos that portrayed his love of the sea from his stint in the navy, was on the front porch of the Fowler house with a shotgun in suicide position. He was shaking and crying. It was after another row with her mother, another heavy spate of hatred and disgust directed at him because he didn’t make enough money or care enough about the kids.

Her mom hurled nasty invectives at him, one after another.

“You are a worthless excuse for a husband!” Shelly yelled before slamming the door with one last parting shot. “You don’t even love me or the girls! If you did, you’d work harder!”

Dave sat still and composed himself. He got in his truck and drove off like he always did after a big fight.

He was like that. Compliant. Passive. Submissive.

“I never once saw him strike her,” Nikki remembered later. “I mean rarely would he even use a cuss word toward her.”

The same couldn’t be said of Shelly.

“She’d get violent. Really violent. She’d slapped me around a few times and I didn’t hit her back because that’s not what a man does,” Dave recalled. “She’d push. Shove. Scream. Really violent. I wasn’t used to that.”

“We need to talk things out,” Shelly said more than one time, trying to keep him where she wanted him.

“I can’t be around you like this,” he said.

Shelly snuggled up to him. “This is normal. This is the way people work things out.”

“Not normal to me,” he told her.

The first time things got really bad was when Dave had a few too many drinks at a Christmas party at the Weyerhaeuser sorting yard. His coworkers brought him home to find Shelly at the door, angry as all get-out. Bugged eyes and red-faced. She pushed him and screamed so much that he ended up going to his folks and spending the night there. That, in turn, made Shelly even angrier. Shelly wanted her husband home to face the music for which she was the conductor. He had no place of refuge. After that, she did everything she could to separate Dave—and later the girls—from his family. She insisted on total control all the time, everywhere they went. If an argument ensued while they were in the car, Shelly would make Dave get out.

“Right now! Out!”

In time, Dave couldn’t function normally. It crept up on him. He didn’t know what was happening or why. He couldn’t sleep. He was always wondering when the other shoe would drop and Shelly would go into attack mode.

I need a break. Some rest. I need time away from her.

Sometimes he’d get in his truck and head up to the hills above Raymond to camp. On other occasions he’d stay with friends. He knew that life with Shelly was not like anyone else’s marriage. He didn’t miss work or climb into the depths of a whiskey bottle. He dealt with her by being away.

To survive Shelly meant avoiding her whenever possible. Even early in their marriage, Dave would retreat from her constant barrage of angry demands. Yes, she could be sweet. Yes, she could be fun. But as time went on, those attributes took a back seat to her uncontrolled anger, a temper that scared him. He knew that something wasn’t right with her. She was off. The screaming. The violent temper. The slamming of the doors until the hinges broke from the wooden frame. All of that. Dave would sit in his truck with a sleeping bag and pillow and ask God what to do.

“Lord, this isn’t right,” he’d say. “This isn’t normal. This isn’t how a family operates. I know it. Help me.”

“When somebody pushes, pushes, and pushes you into a corner, pretty soon you’re not going to want to be in that corner anymore. People would ask me later why I just didn’t leave. Take the kids and go. You just didn’t do that with Shelly. You can’t. She wouldn’t allow it. She’d hunt you down.”

Often when he’d return home after considerable introspection, Shelly would flip the switch and be sweet, soft voiced, and affectionate. That might last a few weeks, days, or merely a few hours.

And then the cycle would spin out of control again.





CHAPTER TEN

Years later, the house on Fowler Street in Raymond burned to the ground, leaving a big, gaping scar in the landscape—in its own way, a metaphor for the beginning of the Knotek marriage. When they passed by the spot, Nikki would frequently recall her mother’s tirades against her stepdad and herself. She’d fight to hold on to the good memories, scant as they were. Her mom loved her. That had to be true. Her mom loved Sami. That was obvious.

Painfully so.

Sometimes hitting the pause button on a life beginning to spiral out of control by moving to a new house can actually reset the situation and make things better.

Nikki hoped that would be the case.

It had to be.

Dave and Shelly Knotek moved their family into a big Craftsman rental home in Old Willapa, which they always referred to as the Louderback House, so named for its original owners, a family associated with the region’s historic maritime industry. The residence was at the end of a long private drive that snaked past farmland. The road turned sharply up a hill, where the house was tucked into the fringe of the forest. Painted dark evergreen with contrasting trim, it boasted a wide porch that swept around the corner, connecting the entry into the living room to a side door accessing the kitchen. Inside, the ceilings were at least twelve feet high; the floors, battered but beautiful hardwood; a large masonry fireplace filled a front room paneled with wide planks. Across from the living room, adjacent to the staircase, was a large bathroom with a big tub. Off to the right of the front door was the master bedroom with a window facing the front yard.

Nikki’s and Sami’s bedrooms were up a flight of improbably steep wooden stairs. Each girl had her own room, separated by an open space that they would use for a playroom. Nikki’s overlooked the grassy and wooded hillside above the kitchen. Sami’s windows took in a view of the side yard with its mature rhododendrons and the garden spigot. Two flights down, the basement was large and musty, with a furnace that burned diesel oil and smelled every bit of it—no matter the season. Shelly loved the house. She thought it was perfect and she wanted to buy, instead of rent, but that kind of expense wasn’t in the cards. Dave was working in the woods then, pulling extra hours and doing everything he could. Shelly said she might look for a job, though she never seemed to get around to it.

It was a great house, charming and comfortable.

It was also the place where everything bad started.



Anything could be a weapon. The kids knew it. Dave too. A spatula from a kitchen drawer, a fishing pole, an electric cord. Shelly Knotek would employ all of those—and anything else within her grasp—to beat her girls if she perceived they’d done something wrong. No matter how big. Or how small. When she found a punishment that worked, she looked for ways to make it even more effective, more brutal. The act of beating her children seemed to fuel her and excite her. She seemed to savor the rush of adrenaline that came with being on the attack.

“Discipline” came mostly at night, the girls later recounted.

Nikki and Sami would be asleep upstairs, unaware that their mother had been seething on the couch, making sure that their punishment would be both severe and a surprise. Shelly was a stealth attacker. Her daughters learned to wear extra clothes to bed in the event that their mom would drag them out into the yard in the middle of winter.

“Sometimes there were reasons, I guess,” Nikki said later. “Maybe we used her makeup or lost a hairbrush. Things like that. A lot of times we really didn’t know for sure what we’d done.”

Beatings like that nearly always ended in blood. On one occasion, Shelly pushed Nikki into a walk-in closet. Hard. Shelly was screaming at the top of her lungs.

“You fucking little bitch!”

Shelly jumped on Nikki and started punching and hitting while the girl cried out and begged her to stop.

“I’m sorry, Mom! I won’t do it again!”

The truth was, Nikki had no idea what had set her mother off.

Something she said? Something missing? Something else?

Nikki got up and tried to make a run for the door, but her mom grabbed her, swung her around, and shoved her up against the wall, where she hit a protruding nail.

It was only then, with Nikki’s head literally nailed to the wall, that Shelly backed off.

When she played volleyball at Raymond Elementary, Nikki wore opaque ballet tights under her shorts to conceal the bruises and bloody cuts on her legs from a phone cord—another of her mother’s favorite implements of rage.

Later, she’d accept some of the blame for her abuse because her mom “had gotten carried away during the beatings because I was trying to get away.”

While she had many opportunities to tell someone what was happening to her, Nikki didn’t. She stayed private and guarded. She didn’t want anyone to know that anything bad was happening to her or that her family was engaged in any kind of violence.

“I never even thought to tell,” she said later. “I didn’t want the attention. I didn’t want people to think I was weird. And no one ever asked. Not even once.”

Not all of the abuse was physical. Shelly employed a series of mind games on her daughters as well.

During the week before one Christmas, Shelly locked Nikki in her room. She’d told her that she was worthless and would never amount to anything.

“You fucking loser! You make me sick!”

And when Christmas Day came, Shelly acted like everything was perfect. She showered the girls with presents, served wonderful holiday treats, and for that one day, they were the happiest family in the world.

Then it was over.

Some things their mother did were routine. All of the presents were taken back from the kids within days. Shelly would tell them they were bad, or ungrateful, and that they didn’t deserve anything she’d given them.

One year Nikki got a Cabbage Patch doll. She could not have been more excited. But Shelly took it away right after she’d given it to her, and put it in a closet. The girls knew that their mother set traps for them to see if they’d gotten into anything when she was away. She’d arrange things just so or would put tiny pieces of tape on the edge of the door to see if the trigger was tripped. Nikki learned to be as careful as she could. Especially with that Cabbage Patch doll.

“I’d wait for my mom to leave and then, very carefully, I’d get the doll out of Mom’s closet, so I could hold it for a while,” she said later. “Sometimes she’d catch me. Sometimes not.”

Another Christmas, Shelly gave Nikki and Sami teddy-bear pins in their stockings. As the mountain of wrapping paper started to grow as present after present was opened, the little pins somehow went missing. Shelly became unhinged and beat both girls with an electric cord.

“You girls are the most selfish, ungrateful kids!”

With Dave’s backing, Shelly kept them up all night looking for the pins. When they finally found them—tucked inside another Christmas gift—they instantly knew who had hidden them there.

A holiday drama culminating in a beating, it seemed, had been just what Shelly had wanted for Christmas.



As the kids got older, Shelly spent considerable effort concocting new techniques to make them suffer.

“The well’s about to run dry,” she announced out of the blue, referring to the water source at the new house. “No showers. Also, check with me before you try to use the bathroom.”

It was a lie she’d use over and over—even when on city water at the house on Fowler.

Whenever Shelly left her daughters alone, they’d hurry into the bathroom and shower as quickly as they could. Sami would dry the floor, the shower walls, and the faucet. She’d hide the damp towels. There could be no hint left behind that they’d done what their mother had forbidden. After cleaning up, Sami would try to make herself look as if she hadn’t had a shower at all.

“It was embarrassing going to school without a shower,” she recalled. “You want to look clean and smell good. My mom wanted to control everything. She wanted to decide when we could bathe, even when we could use the bathroom. We had to have permission. Everything as simple as a shower was considered a privilege that only she could give us.”



Sometimes after the beatings, Sami snuck into her sister’s bedroom and crawled into bed with her. She and Nikki would lie there for hours talking about how much their butts hurt and thinking of what they could do to their mother to stop her from hurting them.

“I wish we could shrink her,” Sami suggested. “Make her supersmall and put her in a cage.”

Nikki liked the idea but saw a pitfall.

“She’d get out and bite our ankles!”

They laughed about it.

“Can you imagine our mother stabbing us with little sticks and stuff?” Nikki asked.

They could.

No, shrinking Mom wouldn’t help. Not even a little.





CHAPTER ELEVEN

Though no one came over to visit, appearances were important in the Knotek household. Dave saw it. Nikki did. Even Sami would later say she understood the significance of making things look “nice” no matter how far the world was tilting toward crazy. It was makeup on a bruise. A fake rose in a garden of straw and twigs. It was as if making things appear pretty just inside the front door meant that whatever was going on in the bathroom, the back bedroom, the basement, the backyard couldn’t be so bad.

Could it?

Indeed, wherever she lived, Shelly decorated with a homey country motif, decidedly more Holly Hobbie than Martha Stewart. Her favorite color was blue, so the dark oak furnishings in their new home were either upholstered in a faded denim blue or draped with blankets appliquéd with hearts and flowers. Some pink. Some blue. Baskets and doilies were everywhere. She had a penchant for knickknacks; Precious Moments, with their wide-eyed figurines, were a favorite. She could scarcely resist a teapot with flowers or butterflies. It seemed that if there was a space available for something cheerful—and country—Shelly would find something at the mall or through a mail-order company to occupy the space. She’d take great joy in setting it out, admiring it for a beat, before moving on to whatever she had her eye on next. Shelly also decorated nearly every room with an astonishing array of family photos. There was no surface left without pictures of her girls or, later, their cousin Shane, peering from the walls. Dozens of portraits hung around the redbrick fireplace.

“Yeah,” Sami recounted many years later, “Mom had a thing for putting up pictures of us. It was weird to see Nikki’s smiling face on the wall. It broke my heart. Seeing those pictures and knowing how she’d been punished, how she’d been abused. It hurts and makes me sick to even think about it.”

Hundreds, if not thousands, of photos of the sisters exist. Each with a smile that was not only hopeful but often genuine. Years later, it would be hard for others to look at the images and wonder how a beautiful young girl like Nikki could manage a smile in front of the camera.

The girls watched their mother put up heart-themed wallpaper borders and dusty-rose wainscoting in the dining room. They gave their two cents as she tried out a lighthouse figurine on the mantel or a collection of scented candles on a side table. Those times were fun, and while later it would be easy to roll their eyes at their mother’s design aesthetic, the girls knew that there was something within their mother that craved the kind of warmth and charm this style evoked. Yet it was, they also knew, completely at odds with the way she lived her life—and raised her daughters.

The truth was never far, of course. It was always easier to do what their mother asked than to fight it. Each day, each time, there was always the hope that the craziness would be over. That Shelly Knotek would just, inexplicably and without any fanfare, be the mom they dreamed she’d be.

That was a childhood fantasy that was beat into submission by a new punishment.

Shelly called it “wallowing.”

It was her way of proving she was the supreme being over the entire family. Like all her best inventions, wallowing was a mix of humiliation and physical pain. It was also the kind of punishment that she could direct from the sidelines.

Wallowing was a nighttime activity, and an all-seasons endeavor.

Nikki was almost always the primary focus.

It started with Shelly flipping on the bedroom lights.

“Get up! Clothes off! Get the fuck downstairs. You are a worthless piece of shit!”

Tears came instantly as Nikki complied. There was something about her mother’s voice, the force of it. It was loud, guttural. It scared her. Behind her words was the kind of rage that made Nikki think that anything could happen and that, whatever form that took, she’d be on the losing end of things.

“I’m sorry!”

“Shut the fuck up!”

Nikki would squat naked in the mud as her father sprayed her with the hose. Dave was mostly mute as he went about what he’d been told to do. Nikki cried and begged for a second chance.

Her mother watched from a few yards away, telling her husband what to do.

“Make her wallow! She’s a pig, Dave! Teach her a lesson!”

More water tumbled over her shivering body.

“Wallow, Nikki!” Dave said.

“I’m sorry, Dad.”

“Wallow!”

On one occasion, as she tried to lift herself, Nikki’s fingertips felt frozen shards of ice. It was the depth of winter. The mud puddle of the wallowing hole was frozen at its edges. She was all but sure she’d get pneumonia and die.

Dying, she thought, is the only way out of what is happening to me.

From her window on the second floor, Sami watched the scene below. She wished she were there too—not to rescue her sister, exactly, but to be punished in the same way. Sami was keenly aware that, for some reason, Nikki’s punishments were so much worse than the ones Shelly meted out to her. It wasn’t fair that Nikki had to endure that kind of trauma for the same kinds of transgressions that would merit Sami the ripping sting of a belt or a hard slap from the back of a hand.

“I remember thinking that it was unfair that I didn’t get the same kind of treatment,” Sami said years later. “I knew that whatever she’d done didn’t deserve the wallowing but that’s what happened to her. That’s what my parents did to her.”

After what seemed like a very long time, Shelly dragged Nikki up to the bathroom, berating her the entire time. She switched on the hot-water faucet and filled the tub. No cold water. Just hot. Nikki was tough, but she cried the whole time.

“You are a pig,” her mother said. “Clean up. Go to bed.”

It was hard for Nikki to recall how long it went on. Or how many times she was made to wallow. Dozens? More? Some stretches were longer than others. It could have been twenty minutes. It could have been two hours. She’d crawl around in the mud in the dark, feeling the roots of the bushes, the spray of the hose, and the sting of her mother’s cruel remarks.

Her sister watched it all, tears streaming down her face.



Without quite knowing why, Nikki could see that her position in the family had plunged downward. In her mother’s eyes, she’d been diminished to almost nothing. A zero. Her little sister had somehow, she supposed, managed to find a way to work their mother to her advantage. It was true that Sami was abused too, yet she seemed to compartmentalize what happened better. She took the abuse and then found ways to sweet-talk her attacker with words of love. That singular ability worked in Sami’s favor.

“She was good at buttering up Mom,” Nikki recalled. “Sami always got her way by being her own advocate. It saved her. My mom didn’t focus on Sami so much because Sami had friends and maybe it crossed through her head that Sami would tell on her one day. I didn’t have what Sami had—the ability to butter her up or a social network. I also didn’t think there was anyone that gave a shit.”

Sami learned to be accommodating and not push too hard to wriggle out of a punishment that was going to happen no matter what she said. Nikki didn’t quite get that. Or she refused to. Nikki continued to fight. She continued to resist.

Sami recalled one time when Nikki was lashed with a whip. The beating escalated because she didn’t just take the punishment. She fought it.

“Nikki ran and Mom caught her,” Sami recalled. “She just beat her and beat her until she couldn’t walk. Her butt was all bloody.”

Sami, though four years younger, figured out that if she aligned herself with her mother, she’d be able to bypass some of the violence. She didn’t do it often, because she loved her big sister, but she did tell on her from time to time. Nikki, for her part, didn’t trust Sami completely, yet she never wished for her to receive the same kind of treatment she had.

Indeed, Shelly loved to play favorites. Most of the time, that was Sami.

Shelly changed Sami’s name to Sami Jo after the Heather Locklear character in Dynasty. Later, Sami would wonder if her mother had actually done it to hide her from Danny Long, her biological father, who she learned had been looking for his daughter at that time, but she couldn’t be sure.

“You were born Sami Jo,” Shelly insisted out of the blue one afternoon. “We just didn’t call you that until now. Now we’re going by your name as it was always supposed to be.”

While Nikki seldom received her mother’s affection, Sami—and her stuffed raccoon, Racoony—frequently did. Shelly used to create lavish parties—cakes, presents, decorations—for the plush animal that Dave had bought Sami when he was new in their lives. For years, Shelly even drove to Baskin-Robbins in Aberdeen for an ice-cream cake and went as far as setting up little scenes by restuffing the plush toy with her husband’s athletic socks and old pantyhose and leaving out a half-eaten cake to show Sami what the little creature had done during the night.

“My mom could be sweet when she wanted to be,” Sami said.





CHAPTER TWELVE

Nikki couldn’t quite be sure how long her mother kept her locked in her upstairs bedroom in the Louderback House. Nor could she recall why her mother had dished out that particular punishment. There were no locks on the doorknobs, so Shelly employed a butcher knife lodged into the doorframe to keep her daughter inside. It was a technique she’d use whenever she wanted any of the kids to stay put.

Shelly told Nikki she was ugly and worthless, and she needed time to think about why she was such a rotten girl. She was told that she’d be there awhile.

“As long as it takes,” Shelly said.

Nikki later recalled it might have been for the entire summer.

“I stopped counting the days,” she said.

In reality, Nikki almost didn’t mind the banishment, first to the bedroom, then the closet. The closet space was small, airless, and windowless. After a while, though, she even welcomed the imprisonment. It meant that she was away from her parents.

She’d hear the knife move. The door would be flung open. She’d snap to attention, never cowering. Just facing her mom with resolve.

“Use this,” Shelly barked, handing Nikki a plastic bucket from the Aberdeen Home Depot.

She didn’t have to ask what for.

Over the next few weeks, Shelly only let Nikki out to empty the bucket. She was not permitted to have any contact with Sami.

Shelly told Sami the reason behind the exile and the importance of her no-contact order.

“Your sister is bad,” she said. “Do you understand?”

“Yes, Mom,” she lied.

Sami was worried about Nikki. She’d been locked in her room too, but only for a day or two.

A few times, Sami was allowed to go into the room to retrieve Nikki’s toilet bucket. She’d empty it in the bathroom downstairs and then hurry back up while her mom stood guard at the door. She also tried to stay in touch by tossing small pine cones up at her sister’s window when their mother was sleeping during the day.

Nikki knew she was in prison. But prison, she decided, had its perks. She was away from her mother’s nasty tirades. She didn’t have to walk on eggshells only to find out she’d nevertheless done something wrong. In a way, she was free. The best part was the massive collection of books her mother stored in the walk-in closet in Nikki’s bedroom.

“That summer I found out how much I loved to read. I read all of the Nancy Drew books that I had, then moved on to my mom’s John Saul and Dean Koontz. She loved horror. She had boxes of paperbacks and I read every one of them.”

When the family dog Freckles had her puppies, Sami alerted Nikki with a pine cone tossed against the bedroom window.

“There’s eight of them!” she whisper-yelled.

“I want to see them,” Nikki said, then touched her finger to her lips to remind her sister to be quiet.

Sami nodded.

Freckles and her puppies were the source of a happy time.

Nikki sent the bucket down on two bathrobe ties she’d fashioned together in a move that she’d seen on a prison-escape film. Sami gave the bucket a good scrubbing, and when she was sure their mother wouldn’t see, she sent two puppies up, terrified they’d be caught.

Nikki cuddled the puppies for as long as she dared, then lowered them back to her sister.



Nikki was eventually let out, though it wasn’t long before their mother started up again. Shelly was like that. Dormant. Then suddenly alive and in a flash in search of a target. The target was almost always Nikki.

From the covered porch, Sami watched as her mother chased Nikki through the house and then into the kitchen. Shelly was screaming and telling Nikki to stop so she could punish her.

“I’m going to beat the shit out of you!”

Shelly shoved Nikki through the plate glass of the kitchen door. Shards flew everywhere, and Nikki let out a yelp that sounded like a wounded animal’s. Shelly dropped the belt she was carrying and hurried to help her daughter, who was bleeding from dozens of cuts. Spikes of glass clung to her bloody shirt and shorts. Nikki started to cry, yet she didn’t say anything. She’d immediately gone into shock. Sami, also crying, went to help.

Sami’s eyes met her mother’s. At that moment, she allowed herself to believe that her mother hadn’t meant for any of that to happen. But Shelly’s first response was always a denial couched in blame.

“Look what you made me do,” Shelly said.

A beat later, as the blood dripped from her daughter’s body, Shelly suddenly changed her tone.

Strange words came out of her mouth, like some foreign language.

“I’m sorry.”

In its own way, the apology was as shocking as the blood that dripped from the kitchen floor to the bathroom.

Sami and their mother led Nikki into the bathroom where Shelly ran a hot bath. Not a scalding one. Just a nice warm bath. She gently removed Nikki’s blood-soaked clothing and helped h