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Sunday, August 17, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Something unspeakable now the talk of two towns

Seattle Times staff reporters

SOUTH BEND, Pacific County — One of the joys of living in a small town, says 29-year-old Amber Rye at the Boondocks Tavern, is knowing everything about your neighbors.

Which is exactly what makes the case of Raymond residents David and Michelle Knotek nearly incomprehensible.

"I mean, they kept it secret for like 10 years," said Rye, who'd been sipping a drink and distracting herself with a video poker machine. "How did they live with it for so long? And how come nobody knew about it?"

A week after authorities dug up a body in the Knoteks' back yard, the only certainty in this rough-hewn, timber-and-oyster community on the southwest coast of Washington is that talk of the Knoteks is inescapable.

Michelle Knotek, 49, pleaded not guilty last week to charges that she tortured and killed two people, Kathy Loreno and Ronald Woodworth, in the early 1990s. Authorities say she cremated one body and buried the other. Her husband, David, 50, asked for two more weeks before entering a plea to charges that he shot and cremated her nephew, Shane Watson.

Another investigation has been opened into the death of James McClintock, who was under Michelle Knotek's care when he died in February 2002.

As authorities continue to investigate, the neighboring towns of South Bend and Raymond — combined population 5,000 — are buzzing with rumors, theories, recollections, tasteless jokes and lamentations.

"This is the biggest thing to ever happen around here," says Rhys Davis, an Aberdeen-based morning-show radio host for 25 years and the program director for three local radio stations.

Last week, media swarms from Oregon and Washington invaded the local establishments. And the spotlight shined suddenly on David Burke, Pacific County's newly elected prosecutor, and county Sheriff John Didion, a soft-spoken man who once played football with the Washington Redskins and still has a crushing handshake.

Stacks of the town's weekly newspaper, the Willapa Harbor Herald, arrived Wednesday with the entire front page dedicated to the story, under a huge banner headline: "Murder and Torture."

Shaggy-haired teenage boys on summer break began hanging around the courthouse. On Thursday, many of them arrived early for the Knoteks' arraignment so they could stake out good seats.

All week, in the break room at the Weyerhaeuser sawmill, Raymond's largest employer, people hushed each other quiet whenever the radio crackled with news about the case.

"We knew these people," says Gerry Amacher, 56, a lifelong Raymond resident who worked with David Knotek at the sawmill in the 1970s. "A lot of people went to high school with David, knew the kids, knew (Michelle). Well, I guess we didn't know this."

Small towns with character

Over the years, northern Pacific County has managed to maintain much of its heritage despite economic troubles, not the least of which was the timber crisis of the 1990s.

In Raymond, 17 percent of families live below the federal poverty level, compared with 9 percent in all of Pacific County. Unemployment for the entire county, population 21,000, runs around 9 percent. About 8 percent of the population takes food stamps.

Even so, Raymond and South Bend have niched out their own unique flavor, different from larger and more tourist-oriented Pacific County towns like Long Beach. Raymond is known for its timber. South Bend proclaims itself the "Oyster Capitol of the World." The cannery is the biggest industry in town.

For much of its formative years, downtown Raymond, founded in 1907 and named after its first postmaster, was built on high stilts above the muddy tide flats of Willapa Bay. In 1913, when it rightly earned its reputation as a fisticuffs-and-caulk-boots logging outpost, 6,000 people lived inside the city limits.

Those days are mostly gone, and there are few reminders of what used to be long rows of brothels and taverns.

Over the last decade or so, Pacific County became something of a magnet for many Laotian and other Southeast Asian immigrants, and, for the most part, they have been welcomed into the community.

At the last census, there were roughly 300 Laotians in Pacific County, about 200 of them in Raymond. About eight years ago, two young Laotian girls drowned while playing in the Willapa River near downtown Raymond — the city's deteriorated public swimming pool had long been mothballed for lack of funds.

Their double funeral was packed with Raymond residents, many of whom had never met the girls personally.

In a town where nearly everyone knows everyone else, politics can get heated. Earlier this year, Raymond's mayor, Mike Runyon, a gravel-pit owner who prefers to be called "Hawk," handily survived a formal recall election sparked by opponents angry over Runyon's sudden firing of the longtime police chief, Bill Wilson, and the mayor's attempts to consolidate the police and fire departments under the control of the fire chief, Tom Betrozoff.

"Hawk," as the local newspaper simply referred to him, won more than 60 percent of the vote to stay in office.

"If people start working together, we can get some positive things happening," the mayor told The Daily World of Aberdeen after the vote. "Raymond is a great place, and there's nothing worse than when you have chaos here."

Trying to stay optimistic

Brent Dennis, 46, is a fourth-generation Raymond resident who, with his brother, runs one of the biggest buildings in town, the Dennis Company hardware and home center.

His family has owned the business since 1905, and they've expanded into four nearby cities. But the Raymond store is still home base.

He acknowledges the economic problems and the difficulties of keeping the younger people in town, but still holds out hope that his two oldest children, both in college, might one day return. He points to recent efforts to invigorate the community, including a one-of-a-kind horse carriage museum and a civic art project of steel statues.

"We've done so much to promote this place, we don't want (this incident) to pull down Raymond," Dennis said.

Pacific County can be a gloomy place. Annual rainfall in Raymond is about twice that of Seattle. Dennis was among the many locals who said, before the bad news, this had been one of the best summers in decades.

When most of the media left Thursday night and things quieted down a bit, you could finally understand what they meant.

The sun set over the oyster cannery, the dimming outlines of fishing boats swayed in the lonely harbor and a warm breeze blew in from the Willapa River, carrying the sharp scent of fresh-cut trees.

Michael Ko: 206-515-5653 or mko@seattletimes.com

Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or iith@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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