69 pages 2 hours read

Gregg Olsen

If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2019

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If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood by Gregg Olsen is narrative nonfiction true crime book published in 2019. It documents the story of Nikki, Sami, and Tori Knotek, sisters who survived living with their mother, Shelly Knotek, who would ultimately be responsible for the infamous Raymond torture killings in Washington State. Olsen specializes in writing crime-related narratives about people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Over the course of his prolific career, he has written numerous best-selling nonfiction true crime books detailing the sensational stories of Mary Kay Letourneau, Eli Stutzman, the disappearance of Susan Powell, and others, as well as many works of fiction. He has appeared as an expert on the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, as well as other television programs.

In the tradition of nonfiction true crime “novels” like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Olsen used intensive research and interviews to write If You Tell almost as if it were fiction. The book is structured around the profound relationship between the Knotek sisters, created by shared abuse and survival. It also follows the Shelly’s life from childhood to prison sentencing. The story begins primarily from the perspective of Shelly’s stepmother, Lara Watson, when she meets Shelly as a child in their small town in Washington State, detailing her propensity for shocking lies, cruelty, and anger. She has had a difficult childhood with her alcoholic mother, and her lies and instability lead Lara and Shelly’s father to send her to live with a relative on the East Coast, where she meets her soon-to-be first husband, coaxing him to move back to Washington with her.

Lara prays that Shelly will become more stable when she gives birth to her first daughter, Nikki, but her erratic behavior and violent outbursts continue, leading to a divorce, and Shelly drops off Nikki to live with Lara for the first year of her life. Shelly regains custody of Nikki before swiftly meeting her next husband. This marriage is also rocky and ends quickly but produces Sami. Shelly’s parents try to help her support herself by getting her jobs at a nursing home facility that the family owns, but she proves an unstable and unreliable employee.

Shelly soon meets Dave Knotek, a soft-spoken and seemingly kind man who falls under her spell. They marry, and Shelly becomes pregnant with Tori. Around this time, Shelly announces that a friend, Kathy Loreno, who is going through a difficult time and needs help, will live with them. They also take in Dave’s troubled but sweet teenage nephew, Shane Watson. Tori is born, and Kathy is soon subjected to brutal abuse. Shane, too, is tortured and punished. Nikki bears the brunt of Shelly’s fury. Kathy’s health begins to decline as Shelly’s abuse worsens and she dies in their house. The girls are sent to a motel while Shelly, Dave, and Shane cremate the body and destroy all evidence that Kathy lived there. Shelly concocts a story that Kathy ran away and forces everyone never to tell what really happened.

Soon after, Shane disappears under mysterious circumstances. Nikki fears the worst, and Shelly is convinced her daughter will rat her out. Nikki eventually escapes the house with the help of Lara and her Aunt Trish. She grows estranged from the family, and Shelly tries to poison a very young Tori against her by telling lies about her big sister. Sami uses Kathy’s death as leverage to make her mother agree to help fund her college education. Nikki and Sami secretly remain in contact. The Knoteks then take in a new friend: Ron Woodworth. Much like Kathy, he is down on his luck and in financial trouble. Sami visits home and is horrified to see the same patterns of behavior towards Ron that Shelly exhibited towards Kathy. Dave helps her to abuse Ron physically. Nikki and Lara go to the authorities, who initially do not investigate Shelly.

Ron eventually dies, and Shelly, rattled by the loss, drives Tori to stay with Sami in Seattle. She and Dave try to cover up the death. Sami re-introduces Tori to Nikki, and the sisters have a beautiful reunion. Nikki and Sami confide the truth about Kathy to Tori and their concerns about Ron. When Tori returns home, she realizes that their mother and father are trying to cover us Ron’s death. Sami and Nikki contact the authorities on her behalf, and Tori prepares evidence to help incriminate them. The next day, she is taken away by Child Protective Services, and her parents are quickly arrested not long after. Dave confesses to the murders and is sentenced to a shorter prison term than Shelly, who receives a 22-year prison sentence. Sami is granted guardianship of Tori, and all three sisters to this day share a close bond.