Serial Killers' Daughters

Responses to parental offenders range from denial to forgiveness to reproof.

Posted Jun 02, 2020

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

Recent news reports feature daughters of two killers expressing alarm at the potential parole of parents they think are unfit for society. I’ve written about mothers of killers here, and how killers relate to their children here. This post is about daughters.

Michael Bear Carson, 69, left his family and married a woman named Suzan. During the early 1980s, they shared a paranoid mission to kill witches. They murdered their roommate, Keryn Barnes, in San Francisco. After writing their manifesto, Cry for War, they shot and burned two men to “extinguish the demon” inside them. One victim worked with them on a pot farm and the other offered them a ride. Despite their delusions, they were considered sane and criminally responsible. They pleaded guilty in 1983, receiving life sentences.

Carson fit the criteria for an elder prisoner parole program: over 60 and had spent at least 25 years in prison. His daughter from his first marriage, Jenn, vehemently protested his potential release. As a child, she and her mother had been so afraid of him they went into hiding. Years later, Jenn visited Carson in prison and found him unremorseful and manipulative. She thinks if he’s released, he’d be dangerous. “I do think he will kill again,” she told reporters. “My father … hunted humans, young beautiful innocent victims. He is a predator.” (Note: Carson was just denied parole.)

Other daughters of serial killers have gone public about their feelings. They’re victims, too, they say. They go on talk shows and podcasts, and some have written memoirs. Melissa Jesperson Moore, the daughter of “Happy Face Killer” Keith Jesperson, developed a TV series, Monster in My Family, in which she brought together relatives of serial killers with members of families whose loved ones were the killers’ victims. The goal was healing for both parties.

Kerri Rawson, the daughter of Dennis Rader, Wichita’s “BTK” serial killer, has come to terms with it so she can get on with her life. A decade after his arrest in 2005, she described her anguish and humiliation upon learning that the doting father she’d loved had murdered ten people. In A Serial Killer’s Daughter, she describes the difficult process of trying to understand. “It’s horrible to realize that as my dad was raising children, he chose to take another mother away from her own children. He was about to have a daughter, yet took two more daughters away from their families.” It took a while, but through her Christian faith, she says she has forgiven him. "I am trying to forgive what he's done to my family and the betrayal," she told a journalist, "because I had to let that go because it was rotting in me." Forgiveness, she says, does not mean accepting what he did.

As part of a TV broadcast, I once spoke to the daughter of a man who’d killed 13 prostitutes. She visited him in prison and believed he was sincerely remorseful (although he said a “disorder” prevented him from feeling it). Thus, she could feel close to him as a daughter and believe he was now a good man.

In contrast, the three daughters of Michelle “Shelly” Knotek actually turned her in. A woman whose beauty and sex deflected suspicion, Knotek subjected her children and tenants to torment. Using a caretaker’s persona to hide her sadistic cruelty, she manipulated her third husband, David, into covering up her crimes and killing for her. Knotek was charged with the deaths of Kathy Loreno and Ronald Woodworth, and her husband was charged with the fatal shooting of Shane Watson. Knotek received a sentence of 22 years. She’s scheduled for possible release in 2022, and her kids have delivered a desperate warning: be careful.

“When my mum comes out of prison,” said daughter Sami, “I don’t want her to be able to hide it. She’s the biggest manipulator of anyone I’ve ever met. I don’t think that she could ever outgrow that … I just wanted to save other people from her manipulation."

Likewise, April Balascio discovered that her father, Edward Wayne Edwards, was responsible for the 1980 “Sweetheart Murders” in Watertown, Wisconsin, after investigators revealed details in the cold case in the hope of developing new leads. Balascio recognized aspects of the incident and location. “I was shaking because immediately I knew who it was that had committed the murderers.” She told police, and her father was soon arrested. He confessed to the double homicide, as well as to three other murders.

Even when such parents are caught, convicted, and sentenced, the nightmares often continue for their offspring. Whether they forgive or reject, they’ve been emotionally damaged. Some find solace in religion, community, and family. Others hope the offender might change. A few just cut the offender out of their lives. Many are now parents themselves, wondering how it’s possible that a father or mother could so heinously betray their children.