Tale of family murder shocks California

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IN HIS 33 years in the hills of northern California, Donald Nunes has doubtless seen his fair share of nastiness in his capacity as sheriff, coroner, and marshal of Placer County. But nothing to compare with the investigation into the alleged activities of Theresa Knorr and her unhappy family.

Mrs Knorr and her two sons are behind bars charged with murdering two of her three daughters. One was shot, burnt alive and dumped at a roadside near Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The other died, the sheriff and his colleagues believe, after being locked in a tiny broom cupboard and starved to death.

Such incidents are horrifying enough in themselves, but it is the detail that sets them apart from the rest of America's grisly day-to-day crime. 'I have never seen such a bizarre case,' Sheriff Nunes told the Los Angeles Times. 'It's pathetic, a situation beyond comprehension.'

Detectives believe that Mrs Knorr shot her 16-year-old daughter, Suesan, in the chest during a row 10 years ago. Although the girl received no medical treatment, she recovered and carried on living at home with the bullet lodged in her torso.

About a year later, she announced to her mother that she was planning to move to Alaska. Her mother agreed to allow her to go but - concerned that it could be used as evidence against her - she reportedly demanded that her daughter should leave the bullet behind.

This posed the problem of how to extract the slug. Mrs Knorr's alleged solution was to remove it from her daughter's back using a chef's knife, while the kitchen floor served as a makeshift operating table. When her daughter's wounds became infected soon afterwards, she is said to have ordered her two sons to take her to the mountains, where the young woman was doused with petrol and burnt alive.

The following year, the authorities believe Mrs Knorr had a violent argument with her 20-year-old daughter, Sheila. The conclusion to this fracas was that Sheila ended up in the broom cupboard, while the rest of the family were under orders not to feed her. After she eventually died of starvation, Sheila's body was allegedly bundled into a cardboard box by her two brothers and taken off to be dumped - again near Lake Tahoe.

The two sisters' bodies were found soon after their deaths, but were not identified until recently when Mrs Knorr's third daughter went to the authorities. Mrs Knorr, 47, was arrested in Salt Lake City. She has yet to be extradited from Utah to California to face trial.

Twenty-nine years ago Mrs Knorr was acquitted of murder after a jury concluded she acted in self-defence when she shot dead one of her five ex- husbands with a hunting rifle. The authorities have yet to solve the murder of her sister who was found strangled 10 years ago.