If You Tell - Critical summary review - Gregg Olsen

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If You Tell - critical summary review

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Biographies & Memoirs

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 154200523X

Publisher: Thomas & Mercer

Critical summary review

Even today, almost two decades after they made the tabloid headlines in 2003, half-sisters Nikki, Sami and Tori Knotek can’t hear the word “mom” without shuddering and a sense of piercing pain. They can’t shower with warm water, either. Most of all, they can’t forget. Get ready to discover exactly what, as we go over the main points of Gregg Olsen’s horrifying true crime novel, “If You Tell”! 

(Not) just another regular family

To an unassuming observer, they must have seemed like just another regular family, the Knoteks. The mother was a dashingly beautiful redhead named Michelle, known as Shelly to everybody in the neighborhood. The father was a good-natured navy veteran going by the name of Dave and working hard in construction to provide for Nikki, Sami and Tori, the three girls running around the couple’s little wood-frame house in the small town of Raymond, Washington. Despite the fact that the Knoteks were never a well-situated family, Shelly and Dave made sure that their girls would always have everything they might need. Photographs that can be dated back to the 1990s show the three of them dressed in nice and even expensive clothes, casually smiling, seemingly enjoying life.

Shelly was already a two-time divorcée when she married Dave in 1987. At the time, Nikki was already 12 years old and Sami had just turned 9. Neither of them had substantial contact with their fathers, knowing little more than the fact that they were different. In 1989, Nikki and Sami got another half-sister: Tori, Dave and Shelly’s only child together. In the meantime, they got a sort of a half-brother as well: in 1988, the Knoteks graciously welcomed to their house Shelly’s nephew Shane Watson, who was almost the same age as Nikki. Not long after, Shelly’s friend Kathy Loreno also came to live with the family. 

But six years later, over the course of a few months in the year of 1994, both Kathy and Shane vanished from the lives of the Knoteks. Shelly and Dave offered up some vague, seemingly believable, explanations for their disappearances, but Nikki, Sami and Tori knew the truth. They were, however, too afraid to share it with the authorities. A decade later, after another guest of the Knoteks disappeared for good, they couldn’t keep it to themselves any longer. In 2003, the three sisters risked everything to contact the local sheriff’s office and reveal to the world the horrifying story behind the “hospitality” of their parents, whom they accused of abuse, torture and triple murder. Not long after, Shelly and Dave Knotek pleaded guilty and received 22-year and 15-year prison sentences, respectively. After serving 13 years behind bars, Dave was paroled in 2016; Shelly is scheduled for early release in 2022. But neither one of her three daughters wants to ever see her get out of prison. “She is just too manipulative to be trusted,” they say.

Mothers and daughters

The story of the “Raymond torture killings” begins long before the victims were welcomed inside the house of the Knoteks. In fact, it begins long before Dave and Shelly even got married and long before Nikki and Sami were born. It is not an exaggeration to say that the story begins even before April 15, 1954, the day Shelly Watson, America’s “most evil mum,” first saw the light of the day. That’s because it actually begins with her mother.

Shelly’s birth mother, Sharon Todd Watson, was an unstable woman, a depressive and alcoholic. When her ex-husband Les – a former track and football star and then-owner of a 10-lane bowling alley – decided to remarry a blue-eyed beauty named Lara Stallings, Sharon requested only one thing: to take their three children with him. He promised her he would. However, he didn’t mention the promise to his new wife Lara until the day after the two were married in a civil ceremony in 1960. Just a day before, Lara had been a sprightly recent graduate from Fort Vancouver School, selling hamburgers to save money for college. And then suddenly, she became the stepmother of a 6-year-old girl named Shelly and a 3-year-old boy named Chuck. Paul, then still an infant, remained with Sharon for the time.

It didn’t take long for Lara to realize that Chuck and Shelly were as different as chalk and cheese. Chuck rarely ever spoke a word; Shelly, on the other hand, spoke all the time. And she wasn’t a nice little girl looking for attention; on the contrary. “She told me every single day that she hated me,” Lara recalls. “I’m not joking. It was honestly every day.” But then again, unlike her younger brother, Shelly had to endure many years of negligent parenting and even ill-treatment from her alcoholic birth mother. And some victims, unfortunately, become perpetrators themselves.

Three husbands and a wife

Regardless of the effort Les and Lara put into raising Shelly properly, there was something in her blood, something in her DNA maybe, that was just too wild to be tamed, too rotten to be fixed. When she was 15, she accused her father of raping her, mirroring an accusation she had read earlier that day on the cover of a True Confessions magazine. “Your daughter needs some serious counseling,” the juvenile hall superintendent told Les and Lara, after a doctor had examined Shelly to find that she had never even been touched. 

Unfortunately, rounds of private sessions with a psychologist didn’t amount to anything in the end. Shelly remained adamant throughout it all that she had done nothing wrong and that her story hadn’t been invented. In fact, she started telling her story to other people, blending it with yet another fabrication about the abuses she had suffered under the strict regime of her stepmother. This latter story reached the ears of Les’ sister Katie, who took pity on Shelly and asked the Watsons if she and her husband Frank could have “the poor girl” stay with them for some time. Les and Lara couldn’t believe their good luck; they didn’t even mind that Shelly had lied through her teeth to Katie to get to the East Coast.

It was there that Shelly met Randy, her soon-to-be first husband, whom she managed to sweet-talk into moving back to Washington with her. Not long after, when Shelly was 21 years old, she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl named Nikki. Lara’s hopes that Shelly’s behavior would improve once she becomes a mother proved futile. Instead, Shelly’s violent outbursts got worse and became more frequent, leading to an acrimonious divorce from Randy soon after Nikki’s birth. Fed up with her as well, Shelly left Nikki to live with Les and Lara for the first two years of her life. 

In the meantime, Shelly met Danny, her second husband, and gave birth to Nikki’s half-sister Sami. This second marriage didn’t last too long either, leaving Shelly with two kids, no job and no prospects at the age of 24. Les and Lara jumped in to help once again, getting Shelly a job at a family-owned nursing home facility. Shelly, however, proved to be an unreliable employee. As expected, Shelly’s father was more than just a little glad when she told him that she had decided to marry for a third time and move to Raymond, Washington to live with her new husband. The lucky guy was a mild-mannered ex-Vietnam veteran and construction worker named Dave Knotek. The year was 1987. 

Wallowing in the mire

When Dave first met Shelly one Saturday night near the end of April 1982, he thought she was the most beautiful girl he had ever laid eyes on – not to mention way out of his league. Yet, just a few years later, Nikki and Sami would be calling him “dad,” and Shelly would be pregnant with his child. Simultaneously too enamored and too submissive, Dave chose to ignore all the red flags in his relationship with Shelly. “She’d get violent,” he remembers. “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. She’d push. Shove. Scream. Really, really violent. I wasn’t used to that.”

He wasn’t used to raising children either, which is why he turned a blind eye to his wife’s questionable parenting methods. Truth be told, he was also absent most of the time – due to his job, he was away Monday to Friday – so he never really saw Shelly at her worst with her daughters. But, then again, even her best was unforgivably deplorable, as she seemed to enjoy humiliating the girls, particularly Nikki. One of her favorite punishments, even for their minor misconducts, was to force them to squat naked in the mud, in freezing temperatures and in the middle of the night, while the obedient Dave would spray them with a hose on the orders of Shelly. “Make them wallow!” she had a habit of telling her husband. “They are pigs, Dave! Teach them a lesson!” Dave was a soldier once. So, he did what soldiers do best: he duly obliged.

When Nikki and Sami reached adolescence, Shelly began examining their breasts and vaginas for no reason whatsoever, and once she forced Tori to cut off locks of her pubic hair just so that she could embarrass her. “I just wanted to see if I could make you do it,” Shelly said to her youngest daughter afterward, fiendishly laughing at her perverse triumph. Another time, she shoved Nikki headfirst through the plate glass of the kitchen door, only so she could blame her for the damage. “Look what you made me do!” she shouted in anger, while Nikki was left bleeding from the dozens of cuts on her face. Sami had to endure similar moments of anger and whim so often in her childhood years that she had to wear trousers in summer to conceal the bruises on her skin. The bruises on her soul were an entirely different matter, however. She could do nothing about those. 

A welcome guest in the house

A few months before Tori was born – sometime around Christmas 1988 – Kathy Loreno, an old friend of Shelly’s and a witness at her wedding to Dave, moved in with the Knoteks in Raymond. A 30-year-old, out-of-job hairdresser, Loreno had had an argument with her parents, so Shelly kindly offered to take her in until the dust settled. “Her family doesn’t want her,” Shelly told Dave. “She needs a place to live. Plus, she’s going to help me with the baby. Like a midwife.” As usual, Dave didn’t argue – though he wanted to very much.

At first, however, things didn’t seem that bad. To the kids, it appeared that Shelly was rescuing Kathy from a life she didn’t want. To Dave, it looked as if Kathy was not only appreciative, but also helpful around the house, even with Shelly’s unruly temper. To Kathy herself, this was an arrangement made in heaven: not only she was far from home, but she was living with her best friend. “Kathy worshipped Shelly,” informs us Olsen. “She hung on Shelly’s every word. Shelly stood upon a pedestal above all others, godlike. Kathy seemed to embrace that.”

In time, however, Kathy’s personality began dissolving right in front of the eyes of the Knoteks. She came in as a big, brassy, fun girl; but within a year, Shelly had turned her into a confused, lonely, cheerless woman. Nothing Kathy would ever do seemed enough for Shelly, and Shelly made sure to make her displeasure known in increasingly violent ways. In the beginning, she would just grab whatever was handy – “a kitchen utensil, an appliance cord, a book from the coffee table” – and strike Kathy hard. Really hard. Then she began forcing Kathy to work naked and made her ride in the trunk of the family Toyota. Then, she began beating her for pleasure. And then, well, then things veered out of control.

The death of Kathy Loreno

When Kathy moved in with the Knoteks, she was given a room between Sami’s and Nikki’s on the second floor of the house. Soon after Tori was born, however, Shelly decided to reclaim the space for the crib and the baby, so she forced Kathy to move into the old furnace room, located in the basement of the house, to the right of the staircase. The 5x8-foot space had concrete floors and was cold, even in the summer. It was also so tight it could barely accommodate a mattress.

Even so, Kathy didn’t complain. By this time, she had fallen completely under Shelly’s thumb and had forgotten how to stand her ground. Part of her behavior can be explained by the fact that she didn’t have any money or anyone else to help her. However, much of it should be ascribed to her unusual diet: Prozac, Lorazepam, Atenolol. As the girls discovered one day, their mother had been drugging her friend for most of her stay at the house. Kathy had been a normal person before moving in; now she was “anything but a punching bag just reeling from one blow to the next.” It couldn’t have been all Shelly’s doing. She must have had some help. The pills. It had to be the pills.

One day in July 1994, as he arrived home after a long drive, Dave was upset to hear a sound coming from the laundry room unlike anything he had ever heard in his life. “He knew it wasn’t an animal, but it didn’t sound entirely human either,” explains Olsen. “It was a soft moaning punctuated by a peculiar gurgling sound.” “What’s that noise?” he asked his wife. “It’s just Kathy,” Shelly replied. “She’s resting. She’s fine.” 

She was anything but, of course: having been brutally beaten by Shelly, Kathy was lying on her back in the laundry room, struggling to breathe, choking on her own vomit. By the time Dave arrived to perform CPR, it was already too late. Kathy was motionless. Her eyes were rolled back into their sockets. She was dead. She was only 36. 

Stories we tell

The children didn’t need to know the details, Shelly told Dave. All they needed to know was that Kathy was dead and that their parents were devastated by the loss. Well, that and the fact that if anyone found out about Kathy’s death, the whole family might end up in jail. “She committed suicide,” Shelly told her children initially. “We didn’t want her family to know.” Tori was too young to suspect anything; Sami too heartbroken to even dare question the story; Nikki, however, was just too old to believe it. It didn’t matter that Dave thought the story was incredible: he didn’t say anything. He didn’t even oppose Shelly when she asked him to get rid of Kathy’s body. He just burned it, using some accelerants and metal sheeting in the backyard of his own house. 

Inside his heart, however, Dave was riddled with guilt. He couldn’t stop thinking about Kathy’s mom, Kaye, and how he’d react the next time he’d see her in town. Shelly had an idea. A few days after Kathy’s cremation, she told Dave that because  there was no body, the suicide story would never hold up. “We’ll just tell everyone instead,” she said next, “that she ran off with Rocky. I introduced them and the two of them hit it off. She wanted to start over somewhere and, really, she didn’t have any boyfriends so Rocky would be really important to her.” 

With Dave nodding in agreement, Shelly gathered the kids in the living room and shared with them the new cover story. Tori didn’t really understand it, but Sami was pleased to hear it – it gave her hope that maybe Kathy was alive and well. Nikki knew full well that her mother was lying again. She didn’t say anything though. She thought it pointless. “It’s very important that we stick together on this, okay?” Shelly told her kids. “I need all of you to understand and know that Kathy went off with Rocky.” “But she didn’t,” rebelled Shane, a nephew of Shelly living with the Knoteks for a few years at the time. He was 19. He couldn’t have known then, but he would never get to celebrate his 20th birthday. 

Wild in the streets

A few months before Kathy moved in with the Knoteks, their house had become a home for Shane Watson, Shelly’s nephew by her brother Paul. A member of a biker gang, Paul had spent his life in and out of prison and by 1988 he was nowhere to be found. The same held true for Shane’s mother as well, a Native Alaskan: struggling with substance abuse throughout most of her life, she was never able to provide her son a stable home, let alone a consistent education. 

Shelly promised Shane just that, so in the middle of 1988, he arrived in Raymond, a 14-year-old boy with dark eyes, a goofy personality and an appreciation for heavy metal and Bon Jovi. He started calling Shelly and Dave “Mom and Dad” almost immediately. Nikki and Sami took to him even faster. He was never just another cousin to them; he was their brother.

Even though he had been raised on the streets in dreadful circumstances, Shane was a sweet boy, always willing to help and always smiling. He didn’t look like someone beaten down by life. At moments, it seemed almost as if he wasn’t even his parents’ child. “Shane was nothing like his family,” Nikki recalls. “He was never going to be in trouble with the police, addicted to drugs. None of that. I never ever worried that he’d fall into the same trap as his parents. Shane was good.” 

Shane was also scared of Shelly. Just like Nikki and Sami, he would do anything to not make his aunt mad. “If things weren’t done the way she wanted,” explains Olsen, “Shane paid the price. Items from his basement room started to disappear. His pillow. His blanket, then his bed. He was told to sleep on the floor. He complained about it, but he quickly learned objections only made punishments worse.” When Shane and Nikki grew up, Shelly would sometimes force the two to dance together naked. Just to humiliate them. 

The death of Shane Watson

Following the death of Kathy Loreno, unable to move her body from the basement to the porch all by himself, Dave asked Shane for some help. Shane was also there when Dave eventually started the pyre. He had seen the condition Kathy’s body was in at the moment of her death; he also saw the body disappearing into flames in the backyard. He did something else as well: he stole some photographs showing Kathy in her most dire moments. Unlike Dave, he was ready to do something about what was going on in the Knotek family. He was ready to tell the police.

He chose to tell Nikki first. Being just a few months older than him, Nikki was the one he felt closest to. She was always his confidant. She was not only able to understand what it was like to be an outsider – at school and at home – but she also knew what role her mother had played in all of that. “I’m going to show you something,” Shane told Nikki a few days after Kathy’s death. “But you need to keep it a secret.” Then, to Nikki’s dismay, he pulled three photographs from “a hole he’d cut in a small, plush teddy bear.” They were Polaroid images of Kathy, naked, black and blue, crawling on the floor. “They murdered Kathy,” Shane whispered, setting down the photos. “You know it. I know it. We need to tell the police.”

To this day, Nikki cannot understand what made her back off the initial plan and tell Shelly about the photographs the following morning. Perhaps she didn’t want to see her family torn apart. Perhaps she didn’t want Shane to get in trouble. Or, perhaps, she felt – like many abused children do – that things weren’t so terrible at that precise moment of time. Either way, the moment she told Shelly, she wished she hadn’t. She wished she could take her words back. But it was too late for that.

Six months after Kathy’s death, at the behest of Shelly, Dave retrieved his rifle from the cab of his truck and fired a bullet into the back of his nephew’s head. Then he burned his body, shoveled the ashes into a bag and dumped them into the Pacific Ocean, near Washaway Beach. This time, the cover story Shelly concocted – and the one that Dave told the sheriff – was that the boy had run away. “Came from a broken family,” he said, adding that he and his wife had looked everywhere.

The girls believed their parents. How couldn’t they have? For years, Shelly pretended to receive calls from Shane, even going so far to mark these days on the family calendar. Dave even missed work a few times to go on “fruitless searches” for Shane. Nikki, Sami and Tori thought their father was doing his best to find their cousin. They couldn’t have known that he was the reason they had lost Shane forever.

The death of Ronald Woodworth

As the years passed, life gradually got back to normal at the Knotek household. When Nikki and Sami left for college, they took the memories of Kathy and Shane with them; Tori was just too young to remember either of them. But then, one day at the beginning of the new millennium, Shelly appeared at the porch with a new guest. “This is my friend Ron,” she said to Dave, quickly adding, “He’s gay. He’s been evicted from his place and he’s going to work around here.” Dave couldn’t care less. By 2001, he had already grown quite fed up with Shelly. He wanted out of the marriage. He was just waiting for Tori to grow up so he could leave.

Ron Woodworth was 55 when he moved in with the Knoteks. A former copy editor at a local paper and a licensed caregiver, he kept his hair long in a ponytail and wore earrings and other types of jewelry. He was proud of his appearance, but quite depressed about everything else. A few years before, his life had taken a dire downturn: over the course of just a few months, his father died, he lost his job as a caretaker, and Gary Neilson, his partner of 23 years, left him. Not long after, despite spending a lot of money on lawyers and overdue rental fees, he ended up losing his mobile home as well. That’s when Shelly took him in.

What followed was a repeat of the stories of Kathy and Shane. First, Shelly enjoyed Ron’s company, but then she began to be irritated by his presence. Then she began hitting him, and then she forced him to move from his room into the basement. All the while, she was feeding him a handful of pills a day to supposedly “calm him down,” while withholding all kinds of important things from him, including clothes and food. Once, when Ron fell from the roof (where he’d been cleaning shingles), instead of helping him, Dave and Shelly ordered the man to climb back on the roof and jump off again, this time on purpose. Other times, Shelly would boil hot water on a stove, fill a tub with it, and force Ron to soak his feet in it.

On July 22, 2003, Shelly called Dave at his job and told him that something was wrong with Ron. When Dave got back at the end of the workweek, he found Ron’s body wrapped in sleeping bags and hidden inside the freezer. Shelly told him he had committed suicide. Dave didn’t even care what had really happened. He just wanted to get rid of the body. However, because Pacific County was in the midst of a burn ban due to the hot, dry summer weather, he couldn’t cremate Ron like he had Kathy and Shane. So, he buried him. When the police unearthed Ron a few weeks later, they discovered numerous wounds, cuts, burn marks and bruises across his macerated body. An autopsy proved that he had been murdered.

The unbreakable bonds of sisterhood

At the time of Ron’s death, Shelly was alone at the house. Tori, 14 years old at the time, was in Seattle, allowed for the first time to spend a few days with her sister, Sami. Over the course of these few days, Tori was shocked to learn two things. First of all, that her other sister Nikki – whom she hadn’t seen for seven years – wasn’t evil and selfish as her mother had told her repeatedly, but beautiful and full of love for her. Secondly, that it was her mother who was the wicked one. “Mom killed Kathy,” Sami told her one night. “They burned her in the yard.”

So, when Tori got back home and Shelly told her that Ron had vanished, she didn’t believe a word of her explanation. Instead, the following morning, with her mom tucked in front of the TV, she went to search for Ron in the basement – or at least his ashes. She didn’t find either, but she found something else: a pair of Ron’s underwear and some bloody bandages. Distressed – but acting as if nothing had happened – she immediately wrote to her sisters. On August 6, 2003, Nikki and Sami drove down to Pacific County to tell the sheriff what they knew to be true. That Ron Woodworth had been murdered by their parents. And that he wasn’t their first victim either.

The knock came the next morning. It was Deputy Jim Bergstrom. Shelly was scared, but Tori was expecting him. She left with him to the police station where she told the officers her story. She later said that she had only told the police “like ten percent of the bad stuff.” “Investigators, however,” writes Olsen, “understood that 10% of a nightmare is still a nightmare.”

Tori was immediately removed from her parents’ custody and placed in the care of Sami. After finding Ron’s body in the backyard, the police arrested Shelly and Dave for murder. Dave confessed of disposing two other bodies as well – those of Kathy and Shane. He was charged with first-degree murder for the death of his nephew. Shelly was charged with two counts of first-degree murder in connection with the deaths of Ron and Kathy. The media became obsessed with the story. The Raymond Torture Killings – as they dubbed Dave and Shelly’s crimes – quickly invaded the space around Nikki, Sami and Tori. They chose not to bother with it. Once, they felt that dying was their only way out. But they managed to find another exit. Together. And that was plenty. That was more than enough.

Final notes

Classic true crime in the tradition of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Ann Rule’s “The Stranger Beside Me,” “If You Tell” is (to quote bestselling author M. William Phelps) “a riveting, taut, real-life psychological suspense thrill ride.”

Indeed, it is. We won’t hesitate to describe Olsen’s masterwork as an instant true crime classic. It’s chilling. Unsettling. Un-put-downable. And unforgettable as well.

12min tip

Instead of a tip, two quick lessons by Olsen in the form of quotes. The first one is, “No one can help a troubled person who doesn’t think they need it.” The second, “10% of a nightmare is still a nightmare.” Make what you will of both.

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Who wrote the book?

Gregg Olsen is a bestselling American author of crime-related novels and, more famously, true crime nonfiction books. The three best known among the latter are “Bitter Almonds” (about product tampering killer Stella Nickell), “If... (Read more)

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