Mom's Beer Party
It was party time at Nancy Knuckles' house!
Her daughters and the other girls were going through Nancy's belongings in her upstairs bedroom and closets, selecting clothing and toiletries they wanted to keep for themselves.
Her only son, Barton, was racing down the stairs with a gleaming new microwave in his arms. A card was Scotch-taped to the top identifying it as a present for all the kids, and a bright red ribbon lovingly tied by Nancy still encircled it.
"Thanks, Ma, for the microwave!" Bart whooped.
But Bart was even more excited when he lifted a box from a closet and pulled out an insurance policy on his mother's life. "We're rich!" he yelled.
Bart, his seventeen-year-old sister Pamela, and his fifteen-year-old sister Deborah, celebrated with their friends by breaking out beer and whiskey, putting on some rock records, and digging into additional presents their mother had been putting aside in anticipation of the approaching Christmas holiday. Both her girls found new Polaroid cameras, which they quickly loaded with film and began to use to snap pictures.
One of their favorite photographs was a shot Debbie snapped of the rest of the gang forming a human pyramid in the front room. The boys were on the bottom,supporting the girls. There was Bart; Pamela's current boyfriend, Dennis Morris; and two of Bart's and Dennis's pals, Steven Wright and David Dukes. The wobbly second row was made up of Bart's girlfriend, nineteen-year-old Cindy Caruso; a fourteen-year-old girlfriend of Cindy's; and Pamela. Another fourteen-year-old girl and Cindy's two-year-old son, D.J., were at the very top.
Nancy Knuckles was religious and wouldn't have approved of the boisterous soiree, with all the earsplitting rock music, dancing, boozing, and smoking. But even though she was right there in the front room, she had nothing to say about it. Her petite body, already stiffened by rigor mortis, had been folded up and stuffed in a steamer trunk that the kids had pulled into the middle of the floor.
An ugly ligature of strong, braided white twine deeply embedded in her neck had left her face purple and the features frozen in agony, as if she were still gasping for breath.
Only a few hours earlier, Nancy Knuckles had one hand on the front doorknob and was holding a bag of aprons in her other hand, preparing to leave the house to begin her three-to-eleven P.M. shift at the Health Oasis, a vegetarian restaurant. Her daughter Pamela had looped an efficiently formed garrote over her mother's head from behind and pulled. As Nancy felt the rope loop around her neck, she lurched around in a half-turn, and for a brief second her startled eyes locked accusingly on those of her daughter. Her lips twisted in what appeared to be a smirk, as if she were daring her daughter to kill her. Pamela responded by jerking the garrote tighter.
"Die, bitch, die, bitch!" she screeched.
Nancy was a small woman, but killing by garrote is not easy, especially when victim and slayer are about the same size. As Nancy's body slumped to the floor, Pamela dropped to her knees beside her, continuing to pull on the braided twine digging into her mother'sneck. Nancy's body spasmed and bounced as she struggled for breath, and the teenager looked desperately to her boyfriend, who was standing a few feet away, watching the struggle.
Dennis knelt on the floor beside the struggling mother and daughter, and leaned forward to help. He took hold of one end of the garrote and pulled. Then he took the other end.
Debbie was upstairs in her room when she heard the commotion. Curious, she walked downstairs into the living room and saw her mother facedown on the floor near the piano, with the teenage sweethearts kneeling over the body with the garrote. Pamela turned as Debbie entered the room, and screamed for her to go back upstairs. Obediently, the younger girl complied.
Much later, Bart would recall that he was in his bedroom when Debbie walked in and calmly advised: "Pam and Dennis just killed the old lady."
Nancy's body was stretched out on the floor, the garrote still looped around her neck, when Bart walked downstairs. Pamela and Dennis were breathing in short, quick, excited gasps, and their faces were flushed as Bart kneeled and peered at his mother. He felt for a pulse and put his hand over her heart, but couldn't tell for certain if she was alive or not. He yelled at his sisters to bring him their mother's stethoscope from upstairs. After one of the girls clattered down the stairs with the stethoscope, he pressed it to his mother's chest and listened for a heartbeat. Then he straightened up.
"Well, she won't die," he said.
He stalked into the kitchen and returned with a white plastic garbage bag, which he pulled over her head and tied in the back. After a few moments he again leaned forward and pressed the stethoscope to his mother's chest. When he straightened up, he was grinning. She was dead at last.
Years later Pamela would recall how curious it seemed to her at the time that her mother was stillclutching the bag of aprons. Nancy had never loosened her grip on the bag, neither as her daughter looped the garrote around her neck, nor as she slumped to the floor, nor during her dying convulsions.
Nancy D. Knuckles, a registered nurse and single mother who worked two jobs to take care of herself and her family, was deliberately and ruthlessly executed in her home by her own children and one of their friends. She was forty years old.
It was a shocking and brutal crime, even for the Chicago area, which is known for such ruthless killers as prohibition-era mobster Al Capone, nurse-killer Richard Speck, and vicious homosexual serial slayer John Wayne Gacy. But this wasn't a gangster killing, and it wasn't a senseless sex-slaying of a stranger. The teenagers had brutally and remorselessly murdered their mother.
Matricide just wasn't the kind of thing that happened in the far-western Chicago suburb of Villa Park, where Nancy had settled with her rambunctious brood a few months earlier. Villa Park was a comfortable middleclass community, presumably far enough from Chicago to insulate the hardworking residents from the runaway crime and violence of the big city. Although she grew up in the city, as an adult Nancy had been drawn to the comfort and presumed safety of the suburbs and rural Illinois countryside.
Near the end of the summer of 1984, the hardworking nurse put a down payment on a comfortable three-bedroom, red brick duplex on East Vermont Street in Villa Park. The house was in a pleasant blue-collar neighborhood within short commuting distance of downtown Chicago, yet sufficiently isolated to make it an attractive environment for raising teenagers and younger children.
From outward appearances, there was nothing about Nancy Knuckles that fit the profile of a parent likely to be murdered by her own children. Mrs. Knuckles kept so busy with her two jobs as a restaurant cook and as avisiting nurse who helped convalescents in their homes, that neighbors didn't see much of her. On the infrequent occasions when they did run into her outside the house, she was courteous and pleasant. But she never seemed to have time to do more than pass the time of day with a simple, cheery "Good morning," or a few dry comments about the weather.
When Nancy wasn't working or taking care of her domestic duties, she was attending church or participating in church-oriented affairs with fellow members of the congregation.
But the lives of the hardworking registered nurse and her teenagers weren't as comfortably normal as they may have appeared to her neighbors, prior to the dreadful event of that crisply cold late November day.
The oldest of three children and the only girl, Nancy's childhood was polluted by violence and a relative's mental illness. There were terrible fights, and a family member would later talk of at least one incident when Nancy was still a toddler and was the victim of sexual abuse, or attempted abuse, that was interrupted only at the last moment by her mother as she walked into the bedroom and discovered what was going on. Nancy was still in school when her parents were divorced.
Nancy seemed to handle the domestic troubles well, however, and as she grew up, she developed into an apparently normal teenager. She was a willowy blond beauty. The teenager cheerfully assumed responsibility for her share of the housework, made good grades in school, and worked after classes in the business office of a local department store. Most of the money she earned was spent on clothes.
From early childhood, religion was an important part of Nancy's existence. At first her religious life centered around the Roman Catholicism she was born into. But when she was a teenager, she left the Catholic Church and became a Southern Baptist. In 1962, shortly after graduation from high school, she took another big steptoward establishing her independence and severing her strong familial ties, and moved out of her mother's house and into an apartment with a girlfriend.
Soon after leaving home, Nancy dropped her former boyfriend and began dating Robert Knuckles. Knuckles was a high school dropout who wore his slicked-back hair in an Elvis ducktail, played the guitar, and occasionally sang in country and western bars. They were married in a civil ceremony. Nancy didn't ask her mother or other family members to attend.
They didn't live happily ever after. Family members later recounted tales of Nancy showing up complaining of heavy boozing by her young husband. Somehow the couple limped through eight years of the troubled union and produced a son, Barton, and two daughters, Pamela and Deborah, before they gave up and called the marriage quits.
Nancy was hypersensitive and quick to fly off the handle, and she administered erratic punishment to her brood with screams, threats, and slaps. When Bart was about five, Nancy once flew into a rage, hurled him to the ground and kicked him. His offense? Venturing outside without a coat.
Years later, when her ex-husband was talking with a reporter about the breakup of his marriage, he didn't blame Nancy's rages. Instead, he blamed his drinking and Nancy's conversion to the Seventh Day Adventist Church for hammering the final nails into the coffin of their marriage.
As soon as Nancy was exposed to the Seventh Day Adventists, she fell in love with the Church. She became obsessed with the religious teachings, and, driven by a stubborn determination, began to rebuild her life according to her personally strict interpretation of the Scriptures and the activities of the congregation. When she began dating again, it was with a former heroin addict who was initiated into the Church at the same time she was. They dated and shared problems with eachother for almost three years before Nancy broke off the relationship. He wasn't religious enough for her.
Nancy had no time or tolerance for such ungodly trivialities or venal pleasures as television, movies, rock music, dancing or alcohol. Pastries, candy, and meat were also strictly off limits for Nancy or anyone moving in her spartan religious world of stern morality and self-righteous denial.
Despite her zealous devotion to her religious faith, or perhaps because of it, the Devil began to torment her. She complained of frightening visions, and reported that Satan once stretched her mouth horribly out of shape until, after a desperate struggle, she was able to croak out the name of "Jesus." As soon as she uttered the name of the Messiah, Satan was gone and her poor, tortured mouth relaxed back into a normal position.
She told confidants that Jesus came to her rescue another time when mysterious devilish forces began taunting her by making frightful noises inside her kitchen. When she went into the kitchen to investigate, the noises stopped, but they resumed as soon as she returned to the front room to sit down. Desperate to end the ordeal, she finally shouted: "In the name of Jesus, I command you to stop." The ungodly teasing ceased for good, as mysteriously as it had begun.
Growing up in a home where devilish attacks were accepted as such a tangible and graphic fact of life, the children also began to have troubles with frightening visions attributed to the evil doings of the Prince of Darkness. There were stories of phantom figures mysteriously turning from white to black, of mystical signs appearing suddenly on the palms of tiny hands, and of a disembodied head rolling under a bed. Their mother always confirmed that it was the Devil's work, and admonished that only a strict religious life and devotion to God could offer protection and salvation.
Nancy attempted to cleanse the souls of her children by beating the Devil out of them. In a sick parody of theself-inflicted abuse of the penitents of the Middle Ages, Nancy prepared for the daily beating of her children by reciting a prayer. Then she asked the children if they understood why they had a need for punishment.
Obediently, Pamela would reply that she understood. Then the frightened child would submit to a beating with a piece of garden hose. Afterward, Pamela would sit on her mother's lap and apologize for being a bad girl, earning hugs and crooning assurances that Nancy loved her.
Bart was more rebellious, and even though Nancy would patiently explain the need to beat him to rid him of the Devil and bring him closer to God, he would sometimes stubbornly insist that he didn't know why he had to be punished. His mother beat him anyway.
Bart also fought back as best he could when his mother made him climb into a laundry bag, then dragged the bag into a closet. He ripped his way out of the bag, screaming and crying and tearing at the material with his hands. After his mother began tying his hands behind him to prevent him from ripping apart the cloth bags, he chewed his way out.
When the girls were punished by being placed in the bags, usually for being noisy, they learned to simply curl up and go to sleep until their mother let them out. When a relative once suggested to Nancy that her methods of disciplining the children might be bad for them, she replied that God had told her how to bring them up.
One time when Debbie began to take a shower, Pamela saw that her little sister's body was covered with ugly bruises. Pamela was so horrified and frightened that she ran to a relative's house for help. The relative notified authorities with the Department of Children and Family Services, the DCFS. But when an investigator went to the Knuckles home to check out the report of suspected child abuse, Nancy flew into a rage, bombarding him with accusations of interference with her right to rear her children according to her religious beliefs.Chastened, and fearful of becoming entangled in a nasty dispute over religious beliefs, parental rights, and the state, the investigator retreated. Nancy beat Pamela after he left.
Almost anything could lead to a beating in the Knuckles home during those years. Pamela was in the fifth grade when she was caught kissing a boy during recess, and a teacher at the strict church school punished her with thirty whacks. At home Nancy administered ninety more. Any punishment meted out to the children at school was tripled when they returned home.
The children were beaten for opening the refrigerator door without permission, for talking at the table, for eating meat or anything with sugar in it, making unnecessary noise, leaving hair in the sink or tub, going to a movie, or watching television at a friend's house. In accordance with Nancy's strict religious prohibitions against frivolousness or undue pleasure, there was no television in their home.
Strict timetables were established for doing household chores, homework, play, and Bible study, and the penalty for failure to adhere to the schedules drawn up by Nancy was beatings. Nancy set a timer when the childdren washed the dishes, and if they weren't done when the timer went off, she counted up the unfinished dishes and pieces of cutlery. Each piece left over earned one whack with the garden hose. A similar rule applied when the children returned to the house after play. If they were one minute late, they got a swat with the garden hose. Two minutes earned two swats. Ten minutes, ten swats.
Mealtimes were miserable experiences for the youngsters. Nancy dished up the helpings for the children, and if she provided them with more than they could comfortably eat, they had to clean their plates anyway. Anything left on their plate went into a bag, which Nancy tied around their neck and made them carry aroundwith them until they gave up and finished the leftover food.
How did Nancy know if her children had disobeyed her and gone to a movie on a Saturday afternoon, watched TV at a friend's house, or accepted a fresh-baked brownie from a friend's mother? They confessed!
Nancy regularly confronted the children, and ordered them to confess transgressions. Usually they confessed if they had anything to tell, especially the girls. The guilt, and fear that their mother would somehow know that they had done wrong--perhaps through the help of God, who knew everything--was unbearable.
The punishment and violence that ruled the Knuckles home was especially bad while Nancy was enrolled in a college nursing program. She put in long, grueling hours in class and in home study, and exhaustion helped make her short-tempered. The children learned to be careful not to upset her, but invariably broke some of the rules. Nancy was so busy with her classes that she didn't have time to continue the daily beatings, so she used a notebook to keep track of the infractions and caught up with the punishment once a week.
But Nancy's overzealous efforts to raise her family with strong spiritual and moral guidelines weren't working out as she had hoped. The children disappointed her and were hard to control. Her rebellious son especially troubled her with misbehavior and deliberate flouting of her rules.
Desperate to regain control of her family, and to escape from pressing financial problems, Nancy gathered up her brood and moved them to a Church community in Wisconsin. After a few months they moved to a similar community in Michigan, then some weeks later returned to Chicago. Finally they trooped about sixty-five miles southwest of the Windy City to tiny Sheridan, Illinois.
The congregation of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in the quiet little farming community welcomedthe troubled, fatherless family with open arms. And when Nancy disclosed that she could no longer handle twelve-year-old Bart, who had stolen money from her and tried to drive off with her car, they agreed to bankroll his stay at a farm in Nebraska where delinquent youngsters were sent to live and work--and hopefully mend their wayward lifestyles. Bart's move to Nebraska and his care there cost the small congregation $300 per month.
Even with Bart out of the way, Nancy was troubled by the continuing responsibility of caring for her girls. She moved again, this time shifting the family only a few miles to Ottawa, Illinois, a larger town of about 15,000. But the move still didn't solve her problems. With so much to do, keeping up with her Bible studies, religious seminars, and regular church services, she simply didn't have enough time to spend with her daughters.
And when she was with them, her behavior was frustratingly inconsistent. According to her mood, she could be stern and distant, or warm and loving. If she was feeling good, she would sometimes make up religious lyrics and apply them to the tunes of popular songs, then sing them to the girls. But if the girls didn't respond the way she expected when she wanted them to do something, she would simply pull away, or stomp off and leave them to themselves to do whatever they wanted. More often than not, they were left to their own devices.
Debbie and Pam began staying weekends with the church pastor, his wife and baby daughter. Then they moved in for the summer. Even after Nancy packed up some months later and left Ottawa, the girls continued to spend summers with the preacher's family. The preacher also had rules he expected the sisters to observe while they were living at his home, but he and his wife were consistent about their expectations. Pam and Debbie thrived there.
It wasn't long before it became obvious to even themost generously tolerant members of the church that Nancy wasn't being a proper mother to her children. And there was no question that the girls were hurt and bitter about Nancy's priorities: church first; jobs second; and mothering only if there was time left over. Nor had Bart responded well to being shunted off to Nebraska. He soon left the farm and began an unhappy sojourn of finding temporary shelter with relatives, the families of friends--and in correctional institutions.
Nancy's control of the children lessened as they grew older. By the time Pamela was fourteen, she was big enough to face down her mother and firmly reject further beatings. She not only began going to movies and watching television whenever she felt like it, but she made no secret about the fact that she ate what she wanted, and she began smoking, drinking, dating, and ignoring curfews. She dyed her hair red, plastered her face with layers of cosmetics, wore jeans so tight they almost cut off her circulation, and wobbled uncertainly around the house in high heels in open defiance of her mother.
Church members had sympathized with the need and obvious desire of Nancy's children for parental attention and love. But when two women approached the church's pastor with a suggestion that they work together to have Nancy declared an unfit mother, he reportedly vetoed the plan. Breaking up families was not something to be taken lightly.
When Nancy was living in Sheridan, she met a man who was interested in her. They dated for a couple of years, but argued about her children. He couldn't accept the way she treated them, and eventually the couple broke off the relationship. Nancy moved again, this time to Texas.
She accepted a job with a hospital to be run by the Seventh Day Adventists in Santa Anna. But the administrators were waiting for the hospital to be accredited, and there would be no salary for Nancy until it wasopened for business. Consequently it was agreed that she could move into the hospital to live with her girls, and charge her grocery bills to the institution. A nineteen-year-old boyfriend of Pamela moved in with them.
Although Pamela depended on her boyfriend for emotional support, he was far from the ideal companion and protector. A friend of her brother's, he had only recently been released from a correctional institution after serving time for involuntary manslaughter for accidentally shooting his former girlfriend in the head and killing her.
The youth was extremely possessive and jealous, and he insisted on walking Pamela to her freshman classes at the Santa Anna High School every day. He strictly forbid her to talk to anyone except him and teachers who might call on her in class. There were to be no chats or sharing of confidences with classmates, not even so much as a casual hello to another girl while walking between classes.
Despite Pamela's meek acquiescence, after several weeks her boyfriend tired of the situtation in Texas and abruptly announced that he was returning to Illinois. Pamela panicked at the thought of being abandoned, and swallowed a jar of pills that belonged to her mother. She vomited up the pills. The clumsy suicide attempt didn't kill her, but it helped convince her boyfriend to stick around a while longer.
It was Nancy who left. One day when Pamela returned to the hospital from school, her mother was gone. And she didn't come back that night, or the next day. She had simply cleared out, without a word to either of her daughters about where she was going or how they were expected to take care of themselves.
Debbie moved in with a clergyman's family. Pamela and her boyfriend stayed at the hospital for a few weeks more, until the grocery store cut off the credit and their food supply vanished. Pamela and the boy hitchhiked back to Illinois.
Bart had also returned to Illinois by that time and was living near Chicago, with friends. When he learned that his baby sister had been left behind he headed for Texas to pick her up and they hitchhiked back to Illinois.
It was already December when they returned, and Chicago winters can be ferociously cold. The teenagers were chilled, hungry, and miserably alone. Bart took his sister to a church he was attending, and when a woman preacher took one peek at the bedraggled girl sitting in a back pew, dirty, shivering, and with a lost puppy-dog look after a week on the road, her heart melted. She and her husband invited Debbie to move in with them. The homeless girl stayed a year.
Pamela and her sweetheart had talked about getting married, but changed their minds and moved in with her grandmother. It was about a month before Pamela caught up with her mother again. Nancy was working as a nurse in the Chicago suburb of Hinsdale, and telephoned her mother to invite her to a Christian singles New Year's Eve party.
Pamela moved back in with her mother. But she was hurt and bitter and couldn't understand why her mother would so abruptly abandon her and her sister. It was no big deal to Nancy. She explained that she was fed up because she wasn't being paid by the hospital, and decided that it was time to enjoy life for a while, unfettered by children.
Debbie finally moved back home in 1983 when her mother rented an apartment in Villa Park. But Pamela moved out at about the same time to live with her boyfriend. It was a move from the frying pan into the fire.
Her boyfriend completely took over the fifteen-year-old girl's life, as her mother had when she was younger. He didn't allow her out of the apartment unless she was with him. He forbid her to use the telephone, to play his stereo while he was away, and refused to leave food in the house. It didn't matter if she was hungry. She had to wait until he returned home from work, and then havesex with him before he would take her out to eat. In an eerie replay of Nancy's earlier pretentions, he convinced Pamela, as well as her younger sister, that he could read their minds, close up or from miles away. The girls believed him. They were programmed during their early childhood to believe even the most outrageous assertions.
On Pamela's sixteenth birthday, a few months after she moved in with him, he brought Debbie to the apartment for a surprise celebration. Debbie succeeded in talking Pamela into leaving the domineering boyfriend and moving back in with their mother, who had bought a three-bedroom town house. Bart also moved home, and for the first time in years the family of four was back together under the same roof.
But Nancy could no longer control her children with fervent talk of God and the Devil, threats, fear or beatings. They were too old, too big, and the two older children had been too hardened by the years of abuse and their nomadic lifestyle to accept either their mother's emotional and physical bullying, her discipline, or her advice. They simply wanted food, shelter, and the comfort of the company of their siblings who had shared common difficulties.
So Nancy worked and paid the bills. And she ranted and raved to her teenagers about their bad habits, ungodliness, and sloth. She yelled at the girls to keep their rooms cleaned, quarreled with them about their makeup and the way they dressed, complained that they were missing church, and sternly forbade all three of her children--and their friends--to drink alcoholic beverages in the house. But the kids did what they wanted, and while she worked or attended church and church-related activities, they partied at the house with their friends. Neighbors became used to observing a steady stream of dirty, unkempt long-haired boys, and noisy young girls in skintight blue jeans, their faces garishlyplastered with gobs of makeup, trailing in and out of the house at all hours.
Bart had developed an interest in the occult, and also decided that he would like to become a rock music star. His pals were recruited from among young men like himself, rough, aimless youths with few goals or recklessly impossible dreams. It seemed to some that the kids were coming and going day and night. The rock music that blasted from the stereos was so loud that it could be heard outside, even with the windows closed. And the loud, raucous music didn't stop, even when Mrs. Knuckles returned home. Nancy began locking herself in her bedroom when she was home, to get away from the kids. And she often mentioned to relatives and friends that she thought it would be nice to die and go to Heaven. She moaned that she had a terrible life.
Neighbors clucked their tongues and murmured sympathetically about the poor, tiny woman who worked two jobs and carried bag after bag of groceries into the house to feed the shiftless, sometimes frightening band of teenagers.
Bart often slumped at a picnic table in the backyard for hours at a time. Neighbors could see the lanky youth with the long matted hair and drooping mustache sitting motionless, often throughout the afternoon and into the night. Sometimes Pamela sat with him in the beer-canlittered backyard, the brother and sister smoking silently and hardly moving.
At other times, neighbors complained, Pamela and her younger sister would stomp huffily out of the house screaming at local children and angrily kicking toys left on the sidewalk and in nearby yards.
Both Pamela and Bart had nasty tempers. Bart had barely moved in to join his mother and sisters before he tried one day to prevent Pamela from leaving the town house because she had been drinking too much, and she slashed him across the chest with a knife. Then she slashed her own wrist with a razor blade. Neither of thewounds were serious, but she had made her point: Don't cross Pamela!
Once when a bold twelve-year-old boy flirtatiously whistled at her, she rushed at him in a fury, screaming curses, and tried to break his wrist.
And one night when her brother, her boyfriend, and some of their pals tangled with some other youths in a parking lot brawl, Pamela snatched up a chain and viciously beat one of the strangers on the head. Eventually even Pamela began to worry about her sudden rages and uncontrollable temper. She was worried enough after cutting Bart, then her own wrist, to plead with her mother to send her to a psychiatrist for help. But Nancy told her, instead, to drop to her knees and pray to God for forgiveness.
Added to all the other resentment toward her mother, Pamela was furious because Nancy had lied to her a few weeks earlier about having cancer. After Nancy came home and announced that she was stricken with the frightening ailment, Pamela had been so overwhelmed with guilt that she quit running around for a while, prayed for her mother, and even accepted an offer to go to a Seventh Day Adventist center in rural Michigan where she could be helped to kick her tobacco habit. Nancy offered to pay her $100 to take the cure. Pamela stayed about two months before returning nicotine-free to Villa Park, and to a new loving relationship with her mother.
Then she learned that Nancy had lied. She didn't have cancer, and the story was merely a cruel ruse aimed at regaining some control over her and getting her to quit tobacco. Pamela reverted to her old ways with a vengeance, and their relationship became worse than ever. The mother and daughter fought almost constantly.
Nancy's busy schedule at work and at church continued to prevent her from visiting with neighbors. When she wasn't working or at church events, she was studyingto become an upholsterer. Even if she had wanted to, there was simply no time for casual chats or for sharing troubled confidences with neighbors.
She did talk with her friends at church about her troubles with her children, however. And on a crisply cold Sunday night in mid-November 1984, at a meeting of the Young Adults group at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Glen Ellyn, she asked her friends to pray for her, and for help dealing with her domestic problems. She didn't offer specific information about her troubles, and her fellow church members didn't ask--they just prayed, as she had requested. But to those who knew her best, it seemed obvious that the trouble revolved around her rebellious brood.
Approximately two weeks after the prayers were offered for Nancy, police in the nearby suburb of Elmhurst recorded an anonymous telephone call. The woman refused to give her name, but advised that Nancy Knuckles had been murdered by one or more of her children. The mysterious tipster added that the body had been disposed of by stuffing it into a trunk and dumping it into Salt Creek.
Authorities in Elmhurst passed the tip on to their fellow officers at the Villa Park Police Department. Villa Park police responded immediately. While preparations were made to apply to the courts for a search warrant, a two-man detective team drove to the Knuckleses' neighborhood to put the house and its occupants under surveillance. Another team began checking up on Nancy's whereabouts and recent activities.
Investigators quickly learned that Mrs. Knuckles hadn't shown up at either of her two jobs during the last couple of days. She hadn't telephoned her employers about her uncharacteristic absence, or made any prior arrangements for someone else to fill in for her.
Another employee with the health care service she worked for told police that before leaving work Wednesday afternoon, she had been given an assignment to callthe next day at the home of an elderly patient. She had agreed to accept the assignment, but never showed up.
Fellow church members who operated the Health Oasis had a similar story. She hadn't shown up for her job as a cook Wednesday night, nor did she telephone to report in sick. Nancy didn't have a telephone in her house, so the restaurant manager called church officials to ask if they had heard from her. She hadn't been in touch.
Villa Park police borrowed an unmarked car from a neighboring suburb and sent two more men to join those already watching the Knuckles residence. There was an outside chance that if the woman had indeed been murdered, that her killers, or their accomplices, might be surprised trying to sneak the body outside. But no one was observed exiting the house carrying anything large enough to hide a body.
Shortly after nine P.M., Thursday, a team of police officers from the Villa Park Police Department, DuPage County Sheriffs Department, and the Illinois Department of Law Enforcement, knocked at the door of the house and served the search warrant. Mrs. Knuckles's children and five other young people, teenagers and youths in their early twenties, were inside when officers walked into the littered living room. A vacuum cleaner was standing near the middle of the yellow carpet.
Police had barely entered the house and begun fanning out through the rooms before the younger children began to talk. Calmly and deliberately, almost as if they were repeating the plot of a murder mystery on television, they recounted the grisly story of Nancy Knuckles's death, and of how Pamela, Barton, and Dennis Morris had teamed up to kill her. And once the older youngsters were confronted with the information, they too began to talk. The complete story, eventually pieced together from their statements at the time, from court testimony, and from prison interviews and other printed news accounts, was an ugly one.
The night before Nancy's death, her children huddled together to talk about their problems. They were fed up with Nancy's constant complaints and tyrannical interference with their lives, and they wanted to take over and run the household themselves. They discussed various ways to kill her.
It wasn't the first time that the subject had come up. Both Pamela and Bart had made halfhearted efforts to do away with the contrary woman before. Pamela once put nearly fifty extra-strength aspirin tablets in Nancy's milk. But someone else saw what she was doing and poured the milk out. Years later Pamela told an interviewer that she hadn't really wanted to kill her mother with the aspirin-laced drink, just to make her sick enough to get her out of the house.
Pamela said that Bart told her he had once swung at his mother with a baseball bat, but missed and hit the door. And another time when he was even younger he slipped up behind his mother with an ice pick, but didn't have the heart to plunge it into her back.
This time as the kids gathered to talk about getting rid of the troublesome woman who was paying the bills, someone suggested grinding up glass and slipping it into one of her milk shakes. But that idea was rejected as being too messy. Another proposal to put her in the car and asphyxiate her by running the exhaust inside was turned down as stupidly impractical. The town house had no garage. There was talk of blowing her up, but they didn't have any dynamite, and none of them knew how to rig explosive devices. Another suggestion called for killing Nancy with a razor, but that scheme was also discarded as too messy. And someone proposed that she could be knocked out and killed with a pool cue.
Pamela suggested taking their mother to Joliet, a tough factory town and state prison city a few miles away, and either killing her there or leaving the body in the car after the slaying. The teenager reasoned that could deflect suspicion from the extended family, becausethere were frequent murders in Joliet. But they turned thumbs down on the idea because they were afraid they might be picked up by police while hitchhiking back to Villa Park.
But it was eventually decided that the cleanest and most efficient method of doing the job would be strangulation. Pamela slipped into the basement and collected four short lengths of strong twine, which she tied together to make a garrote. Then the youngsters waited for Nancy to come home.
She returned on schedule, at about eleven P.M., but no one made a move to put the murder plan into operation. When Pamela approached her mother, she made no effort to use the garrote, but instead pleaded once more for help in consulting a psychiatrist. The teenager told her mother that she was worried about serious emotional problems. But Nancy was tired and didn't want to talk about it. She shrugged off her daughter's last plea for help, and went to bed. Pamela stayed up and had a few beers, mulling over her problems. A jumble of thoughts about family, responsibility, and murder romped helter-skelter through her mind.
At about four A.M. she got up from a couch and padded stealthily into her mother's bedroom, carrying the length of twine. Nancy was stretched out under the covers, sleeping peacefully. Pamela looked at her mother's face. The taut lines around her mouth and eyes were softened in sleep, and she looked harmless and defenseless. Pamela just couldn't bring herself to drop the twine around her mother's neck, and she turned to slip out of the room. But in the darkness her foot bumped a dresser, and the noise woke Nancy up. Sleepily, she asked Pamela what she was doing in the bedroom. Pamela said she had come to kill her but couldn't bring herself to carry out the plan.
"Doesn't this prove that I need a psychiatrist?" she asked her mother. "I came up here to kill you."
Nancy stared through sleepy, half-closed eyes at herdaughter for a moment, then moved her arm and glanced at the watch on her wrist. "Pamela, it's four A.M.," she grumbled. "I have to get up for work at six."
The drowsy nurse was still in no mood to talk about Pamela's emotional problems, or about psychiatrists, so the fretful teenager turned and, with her head down, walked resignedly out of the bedroom.
It was shortly after seven A.M. when Pamela, her brother, sister, and four other teenagers staying at the house were roused from their sleep by a terrible clanging noise. Nancy was holding a metal roasting pan in one hand, banging it with a wooden spoon held in the other, and screaming that she wasn't running a whorehouse. She screeched that she was sick and tired of supporting bums and whoremongers, and everyone had to get out and find jobs to help pay their own way. It was difficult enough for the single mother to support her own three unruly children, but four of their friends had already been camping at the house for a week and had shown no indication that they were about to leave. Nancy admonished them that the free ride was over and that her boarders, relatives and nonrelatives, could no longer stay unless they helped with the house payments and food bills.
Pamela was still getting dressed when her brother locked his eyes on hers and muttered a single commanding word: "Now!"
Later the teenage girl described her response as almost dreamlike as she waited on the landing of the stairs with the garrote stuffed into the back of her jeans as her mother walked past her. Then she padded up behind her mother, who had just reached the door, and slipped the loop of twine over her neck. Pamela said she believed her mother must have wanted to die, because she hardly struggled.
The girl also remembered the relief she felt--and the momentary fear that her mother might not really be dead, that she might suddenly jump to her feet and startscreaming at them, or run to a neighbor's house to telephone police.
The youngsters in the house knew they would have to stick together to keep their guilty secret from outsiders, especially police. Holding their hands over their hearts, they solemnly pledged they would tell no one about the murder. They agreed that death would be the penalty for anyone who broke the oath.
The youngsters decided to temporarily get the body out of the way by carrying it into the basement. But they knew they couldn't leave it there long, and Bart wandered into the backyard after a while and halfheartedly scratched at the ground with a shovel. The ground was frozen, however, and far too hard to dig a grave in. The yard was also too visible to neighbors, who might see them dumping the body into a grave, then covering it up. So, late in the afternoon, they stuffed the stiffened corpse into a steamer trunk and weighted it with bricks and large rocks. When twenty-two-year-old Dukes stopped at the house, they showed him the body and swore him to secrecy. Then Morris and Wright loaded the trunk into Dukes's car and he drove to a darkened stretch of Salt Creek behind a fast food restaurant in Elmhurst, where his companions dumped it into about eight feet of water in the middle of the stream.
Armed with information from the houseful of young people, police enlisted the aid of firemen and drove to the creek to retrieve the body. Working with portable floodlights in the frigid darkness of the early morning of November 30, firemen in a boat dragged the muddy bottom of the creek. After several minutes they snagged onto a heavy object, and fished the trunk from the cold water. The fully clothed body of the petite nurse was bent double inside the trunk. She was pronounced dead at the scene by the DuPage County coroner a few minutes before two A.M. An autopsy later established that strangulation was the sole cause of death. The marks of the ligature around her neck were the only sign of violenceon the body, and there were no signs of broken bones or other injuries.
Neighbors and friends of the Knuckles family were stunned by news of her slaying, and by the arrest of her children and their friends. Nancy's friends from the church were aware that she was having trouble with her children, but most assumed that the conflicts were no more serious than most parents have with teenagers nearing the independence of adulthood. In fact, Nancy's boss at the restaurant recalled that the last time he saw her, she told him that she thought her relationship with her children was improving and that she believed her oldest daughter was about to give her life to God.
Law enforcement authorities were more impressed with the ruthless and cold disregard with which the execution had been carried out. A prosecutor told reporters that they acted as if they were unaware they had committed a crime other people would view as especially terrible. They seemed to regret only that they were caught, he said.
Pamela and her boyfriend, Dennis Morris, pleaded guilty to murder, and were each sentenced to thirty-three years in prison.
Barton pleaded innocent, but was convicted of murder and of concealing a homicide, by DuPage Circuit Court judge John J. Bowman in a trial without a jury. Debbie testified at her brother's bench trial that Nancy was murdered because the three children resented her ordering them to clean up the house, telling them what friends to associate with, and establishing other parental rules such as curfews.
Assistant State's Attorney Brian Telander asked for a stiff sentence, pointing out that Barton laughed and smirked throughout the trial and sentencing hearing. Judge Bowman ordered a thirty-three-year prison term on the homicide charge, the same penalty given to Pamela and her boyfriend. The judge added a four-yearterm for concealing a homicide, with the terms to be ordered served concurrently.
Barton's girlfriend, Cindy Caruso, the mother of the two-year-old who was in the house when Nancy was murdered, was also found guilty of concealment of a homicide, and sentenced to two years in prison. Judge Bowman chastised the sobbing young woman as having "no substance as a human being ... . You knew what you were doing," he said of her part in attempting to conceal the murder.
Dukes pleaded innocent at a bench trial before Judge Bowman to charges of concealing a homicide. Testifying in his own defense, he claimed that Morris had threatened to kill him or hurt his pregnant girlfriend if he informed police about the murder. But he was found guilty and ordered to serve four years in prison. Telander had argued against probation, pointing out that Dukes was previously sentenced to prison on a theft charge and had other misdemeanor convictions. Wright was given a two-year prison term for concealing a homicide.
Debbie and the fourteen-year-old girl who had stayed overnight at the house were each sentenced in Juvenile Court to two years probation on charges of concealment. The other fourteen-year-old girl who posed in the pyramid photo had arrived at the house after the slaying and did not know that Nancy had been killed. She was not charged in the case. Debbie served her probation under the guardianship of church friends of her mother in Michigan.
Pamela was sent to the Dwight Correctional Center, about forty miles southeast of Ottawa, where the troubled family had once lived, to serve her prison term. Almost immediately she enrolled in community college classes and began taking extension courses from Illinois State University. Less than four years after she helped choke the life out of her mother, Pamela--dressed in graduation cap and gown--was awarded an associate ofarts degree. Her father, sister, and grandmother attended the ceremony.
A few months after the graduation ceremonies, Judge Bowman vacated Pamela's conviction and permitted her to withdraw her guilty plea to her mother's murder. The judge based his 1989 ruling on grounds that her lawyer had mistakenly told her she would be eligible for the death penalty if she was convicted after a trial.
According to Illinois state criminal codes at the time, defendants in murder cases had to be at least eighteen years old at the time the crime was committed to be eligible for execution.
But Pamela was only seventeen when her mother was murdered, too young to have faced the grim possibility of receiving the death penalty. In Illinois, execution is carried out by lethal injection. Only one condemned prisoner has been executed there since 1962, and he asked for the death penalty to be carried out.
Pamela was released from prison on bail on August 31, 1990, pending a new trial. Her attorneys revealed shortly after the ruling that she would plead innocent by reason of insanity.
Efforts to schedule her new trial quickly bogged down, however, when State's Attorneys moved to obtain documents and testimony from a psychiatrist who interviewed her at the DuPage County Jail soon after her arrest.
Pamela's attorneys said that although they planned to use an insanity defense, they did not expect to call the psychiatrist, Dr. Lyle Rossiter, to testify at her new trial. Two other psychiatrists, two psychologists, and a social worker who examined Pamela after her guilty plea was vacated, were listed as possible defense witnesses, however.
Contending that when an insanity defense is used, they have a right to examine the entire psychiatric history of the defendant, the state called on Dr. Rossiter to produce all reports, notes, and memoranda stemmingfrom his December 1984 examination of Pamela. A few days later they also advised him that he would be called by the prosecution to testify at the new proceeding.
But Judge Bowman turned down the prosecution request, and the Illinois Appellate Court upheld his decision. In its ruling, the court pointed out that the examination by Dr. Rossiter was conducted at the request of Pamela's defense, and consequently the psychiatrist's knowledge of her mental condition was covered by rules governing attorney-client privilege. At the time of the ruling on March 31, 1992, Judge Bowman was a member of the Appellate Court, although he did not take part in the decision at that level.
Prosecutors responded to the ruling by appealing the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court. The court agreed to hear the appeal, and at this writing early in 1993, action was still pending. Pamela, meanwhile, remained free on bail.
Copyright © 1993 by Clifford L. Linedecker.