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Wednesday, August 13, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wife's role scrutinized in deaths; vulnerable people drawn to her

Seattle Times staff reporters

RAYMOND, Pacific County — As residents and authorities in this small timber town spent another day trying to make sense of allegations of abuse, torture and three deaths at the hands of a well-known local couple, the scrutiny yesterday increasingly turned to the role of the wife.

Michelle "Shelley" Knotek, 49, has been described by acquaintances, officials and her own mother-in-law as volatile and temperamental yet having a knack for attracting some of Raymond's most vulnerable residents.

Yesterday, police in neighboring South Bend said they are reopening an investigation into last year's death of an 81-year-old local man who died while in her care — and left her his entire estate.

"The police have known she was dead for years, and did nothing about it," said Jeff Loreno of Agoura Hills, Calif., whose sister, Kathy, disappeared in 1994 while staying at the Knoteks' rural home.

"I don't understand why the police wouldn't just look in the back yard. Those other guys might be alive today if (police) had just done something. It's just sad."

Michelle and David Knotek remained in Pacific County Jail yesterday, each in lieu of $2 million bail. Public defenders assigned to represent them have declined comment.

Friends and relatives of Ronald Woodworth say he probably met Michelle Knotek one day three or four years ago, while he was on one of his many walks down Raymond's main streets, and she stopped to talk.

Woodworth grew up in California, served in the Vietnam War, attended the University of California at Berkeley, and was an expert in Egyptology, said a longtime friend, Susan Eppenberger of South Bend. He quit a good civilian job with the Air Force in California to move to Willapa Harbor, and brought his parents after him.

"He was no dummy," Eppenberger said. "There was nothing stupid about that man."

But many who knew Woodworth said his behavior grew erratic over the years, and his hygiene faltered. Most people conclude he was mentally ill.

He couldn't keep a job, and he ran out of money. He got busted for trying to pass bad checks, court records say. In 1999 he was forcibly evicted from a mobile home in Raymond and moved in with his mother.

Four local residents sought an anti-harassment order against him in 2001, but the court records don't say why and the four people all have declined to discuss it. Police never could find him to serve him with the papers, incorrectly thinking he had moved to Thurston County, so the court gave up on the matter a few months later.

After he met Michelle Knotek, they began spending a lot of time together when David Knotek was away. He even helped her take care of elderly patients.

"Their friendship just blossomed," said his mother, Catherine, 81, who lives in Raymond. "They got along like brother and sister."

Woodworth moved in with the Knoteks in late 2002, and his mother had to get a restraining order against him because "he was stalking me, watching me, watching every move I made," she said yesterday. He seemed to be upset with her for not taking care of his two cats. He sent her angry, profane letters.

Still, Catherine Woodworth blamed Michelle Knotek for inspiring anger in her son, saying she had a hot temper.

Court documents allege that David Knotek, 50, shot Watson in a shed after a confrontation, perhaps because the young man was planning to go to authorities about Loreno's death. Authorities have said little about Watson, who was about 19 when he was allegedly shot dead in the Knoteks' shed. David Knotek's mother, Shirley Knotek, said Watson grew up in Tacoma, but when he was in high school, his parents divorced, he started getting in trouble, and his parents sent him to live with the Knoteks, figuring the fresh air would do him some good. After he died, friends said, the Knoteks claimed he went to Alaska to fish.

Prosecutors' contention

Prosecutors contend David Knotek burned the bodies of Loreno and Watson and scattered the remains at the beach. They say David Knotek has told police about what happened, while his wife stuck to prearranged stories explaining the disappearances.

Police this week said that while they had suspicions about the Knoteks over the years, it wasn't until several unidentified witnesses came forward about two weeks ago with evidence that police arrested the couple and searched their home and yard.

"It gets frustrating for police when they think something has happened to someone, but when you get into a court of law, you need evidence, and until now, we just didn't have it," Miller said.

In South Bend, the Pacific County seat, police Chief Dave Eastham said he didn't even think it was suspicious last fall when James McClintock, 81, fell, hit his head and died a day later. Yesterday Eastham said he would review the case.

McClintock, a retired merchant crewman and widower, had been in the care of Michelle Knotek, who had worked for years as a caregiver for local elderly people. In his will, McClintock left his house and $8,800 in cash to her.

Even so, police said they don't think they will find anything to prove the man's death was anything but accidental. McClintock, who used an electric wheelchair, had fallen before, Eastham said. And he lived long enough to talk to police who investigated the fall.

"If he was victimized, I doubt he would have kept it to himself," said the police chief, who added he has known McClintock for many years. "Normally if somebody made him mad, he talked about it." Police said they planned to search his home this week.

In April 2000, Michelle Knotek was hired by the Olympic Area Agency on Aging, an organization that provides home care and assistance for older and disabled adults. She worked in the Raymond office as a case aid, providing information to clients who called or came into the office, but never worked as a home care provider or case manager, according to the agency's executive director David Beatty.

Beatty says she was fired in June 2001, due to "consistently poor performance" and for being "unreliable and inconsistent."

The organization has offices in Pacific, Clallam, Jefferson, and Grays Harbor counties, and serves several thousand clients each year. Beatty said James McClintock, the 81-year-old man who died in Knotek's care in 2002, was one of the agency's clients. McClintock, Beatty said. But he added that Knotek knew McClintock before she began working at the center, and had told staff that he was a friend.

McClintock's certificate of death, dated Feb. 9, 2002, indicated that the widower died after a "blunt impact to the head," and said the circumstances of his death were undetermined. His will shows that he left his beloved black Labrador, Sissy, in the care of Michelle Knotek, who was to inherit his house once Sissy died.

Beatty said that he initiated Knotek's termination process, but had no idea that she might be involved in criminal activity.

"We had no indication, we still have no indication, that any people who came in contact with her here were in jeopardy," Beatty said.

The state Department of Social and Health Services said today that neither Michelle nor David Knotek were licensed by the agency to run an adult care center in their home. Nor was Michelle Knotek licensed through the state to provide elder care, said Steve Williams, a DSHS spokesman.

But that doesn't mean she was not supposed to be providing in-home care to older people in Pacific County, Williams said. Unless she was directly receiving DSHS money for care, no license through the agency would be needed. As an employee of the area agency on aging, her background checks and other employment details would be handled by that smaller agency. And if an older person hired her directly, and paid her out of pocket, no license would be required.

Still, if someone complained to DSHS that Knotek was abusing someone in her care, the agency would investigate regardless, Williams said.

He said privacy laws forbid the agency from saying whether it has ever investigated or censured Knotek, now or in the past. But he said "we anticipate the cops are going to come to us, so we're getting our paperwork together."

"We're looking at everything we have," he added. "We're not sure what we have, but we're certainly looking at everything."

In the house east of Raymond where she raised David Knotek, his 76-year-old mother, Shirley Knotek, spent the day with eyes glued to the television, watching the news about her son and his wife. And she accused her daughter-in-law of threatening and duping her son into participating in abuse, death and concealment at their home.

Her son grew up in Raymond like any other small-town boy, playing school sports and goofing around with buddies, she said. After high school, he traded a job at the local mill for a five-year tour in the Navy, where he learned heavy construction.

About 15 years ago in nearby Long Beach he met Michelle, a divorcée with two young daughters. She had divorced her first husband in 1977 in Pennsylvania. Shirley Knotek said another woman had dumped her son. "He was on the rebound, he was sad, and (Michelle) was friendly — you know how it goes," she said. The couple married and had a daughter, now 14 and in foster care.

Shirley Knotek contended her son was unhappy in his marriage to his increasingly moody wife and stayed away from the house for long periods.

He worked for a construction company in Oak Harbor and would often be gone all week on jobs.

"He stayed because of the girls," his mother said. "He's a loyal man."

Court papers say that loyalty appears to have led him to help his wife cover up the deaths of Loreno and Woodworth, and prosecutors suggest he may have slain Watson to keep him from talking.

Loreno likely befriended Michelle Knotek while David Knotek was away at a job, say acquaintances and relatives. They met at the South Bend hairdresser shop where Loreno worked.

Loreno grew up and went to high school in Simi Valley, Calif., her brother said yesterday. Their father, who worked in the movie business, had died in an accident on the set of a television show. Then their stepfather died in a car crash.

Loreno's mother, Kaye Thomas, moved with Loreno to South Bend, where the housing was cheaper, Jeff Loreno said.

Yesterday, Thomas declined comment. But Jeff Loreno said his sister never quite fit in on Willapa Harbor, where most people know everyone else. After a fight with her mother, Loreno moved in with the Knoteks.

Jeff Loreno said that after his sister disappeared he hired a private investigator, who concluded Kathy was probably dead at the hands of Michelle Knotek. But no witnesses would come forward to the police, and when confronted, the Knoteks always said Kathy had run away with a truck driver, or moved to Hawaii.

There have been times, Jeff Loreno said, when he wanted to drive to Raymond and take the law into his own hands. "She was the nicest person in the world, so sweet and darling," he said. "I can't believe anyone could have done this to her."

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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