Woman enters Alford pleas in torture deaths

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SOUTH BEND, Pacific County — A woman accused of torturing and killing two people who once boarded at her home in rural Pacific County has entered modified guilty pleas.

While maintaining her innocence, Michelle Knotek's Alford pleas acknowledge that a jury would most likely have found her guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the deaths of Kathy Loreno, 36, and Ronald Woodworth, 57, if the case had gone to trial.

Knotek, 50, entered her pleas in Pacific County Superior Court on Friday.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors reached an agreement that would send Knotek to prison for nearly 17 years, but Judge Mark McCauley said he needed more time to consider it. He delayed sentencing for 40 days, noting that he could send Knotek to prison for 22 years without giving her the opportunity to appeal.

Knotek and her husband, David, were arrested in August 2003 after their daughters told police their parents had tortured and killed three people at their farmhouse in Raymond over a period of 15 years.

About five months later, David Knotek pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of his wife's teenage nephew, Shane Watson, in the early 1990s. He told prosecutors he shot and killed Watson and also buried Woodworth's body after Woodworth died.

Prosecutors allege Michelle Knotek repeatedly beat and abused Loreno, a former hair stylist who lived with the Knoteks in the early 1990s. Investigators believe she died soon after moving in with the Knoteks in 1990.

Knotek was charged with second-degree murder in Loreno's death and with manslaughter in the July 2003 death of Woodworth, whose body was found buried in the Knoteks' back yard after they were arrested.

In court documents, witnesses who said they had been abused by Michelle Knotek described having seen her force Woodworth to do chores outside in just his underwear, make him jump onto sharp gravel with bare feet and burn his injured feet with boiling water.

Prosecutors initially charged Knotek with two counts of first-degree murder, then reduced the charges, saying they did not have enough evidence to prevail in court.

Brian Moran, one of the prosecutors on the case, said all of the victims' reachable family members were notified of the plea agreement beforehand, and that for the most part, they were OK with it.

Kaye Thomas, Loreno's mother, was in the courtroom when Michelle Knotek entered her pleas.

"I suppose it's better than nothing," Thomas said after the hearing was over. "It's something, but nothing could ever be enough for a mother whose daughter is dead."