“I could barely even see flesh color, there was so much blood on her.”
-Willoughby Hills Police Officer Randy Mullenax told Dateline
It was the 16th of November 2012. A Friday. Thirteen year old Megan called 911 at 1.15am. Megan told the dispatcher that her sister, eighteen year old Sabrina Zunich, was stabbing her mother. When police arrived at the house in Willoughby Hills, Ohio, United States, they found Sabrina holding a 15 inch knife. Sabrina was covered in blood. Megan's mother, forty one year old Lisa Knoefel, was dead in the master bedroom. Police found Lisa's three year old daughter Hailey hiding in the bedroom closet.
Lisa's husband, forty two year old Kevin Knoefel, wasn't home and police notified him of Lisa's death. He was a truck driver and was on the road in Michigan at the time. Kevin called 911 to ask about the girls and they advised him that they could be picked up from the police department. Kevin collected them at 5am that morning.
Lisa and Kevin had a three year old daughter together called Hailey and Lisa had another daughter, Megan, from her fist marriage. Sabrina Zunich was a teenager that Lisa and Kevin had fostered. The five of them lived together.
Lisa was a social worker for the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services and worked in the sex abuse department. The Knoefel family seemed like the perfect fit for Sabrina. She had been described as unruly and needed some stability, something that the Knoefels seemed to be able to provide.
Sabrina's parents, Susan Edwards and Mark Zunich, struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and had been arrested multiple times. Sabrina was raised by her grandmother and was sent to the Emma Caley Receiving Home in Lake County, Ohio when she was fourteen. She spent the next while in and out of foster care until Lisa and Kevin fostered her when she was sixteen years old. She settled in well with the family. Sabrina got on well with the two girls and went to school. When she turned eighteen, she was told she could leave foster care but Sabrina asked if she could stay with Lisa and Kevin so that she could finish school. She was happy there.
What led to her stabbing her foster mother to death in front of her two young girls?
Sabrina was arrested at the scene and the murder weapon, a fifteen-inch (nine-inch blade) convex, serrated knife, without a hilt, was retrieved from the house. Sabrina never denied that she was the person who stabbed Lisa to death.
Despite that, something troubled police about the murder. Lisa was stabbed almost 200 times. It was a vicious, violent and brutal assault on a woman who had taken in a teenager to care for her. The police spent the next ten months trying to fit the pieces together.
The investigation revealed that while Sabrina was initially happy in the Knoefel home and they were all happy to have her there, things changed in December 2011. Sabrina and Lisa began fighting. Sabrina grew jealous of the two girls and argued with Lisa over her belief that she gave the two girls, Hailey and Megan, preferential treatment. Is that why she killed Lisa?
A few months after she was arrested, Sabrina told police that she was willing to talk in exchange for a sentence that allowed for the possibility of parole after 30 years instead of life in prison without the possibility of parole. According to Sabrina, she had a sexual relationship with her foster father Kevin. Sabrina told police it started in the Spring of 2012 and it was Kevin's idea to kill Lisa.
Police arrested Kevin. He was charged with conspiracy to commit aggravated murder and complicity to aggravated murder as well as six counts of sexual battery. Kevin pleaded not guilty.
As Sabrina was pleading guilty, the Trial heard before a Jury was in relation to Kevin's charges only. Sabrina agreed to testify on behalf of the Prosecution against Kevin.
At his Trial, it was the Prosecution's case that there was no dispute as to who actually stabbed Lisa to death. Sabrina did. But the Prosecution told the Jury that it was their case that Kevin knew what would happen that November 16th morning and had helped to plan the murder with Sabrina.
It was the Prosecution's case that Kevin wanted his relationship with Lisa to end and told several of his friends that they may be getting a divorce. It was their case that if Lisa died, Kevin would benefit financially due to the number of insurance policies available.
The Prosecution told the Court that Lisa had changed in the months leading up to her death. One of her coworkers, Erica Gaiter, testified that Lisa appeared distracted and it was as if she was "trying to stay focused". Erica told the Court that the day after Lisa was murdered, she dropped some food over to Kevin. She described his demeanor as normal. She noticed that he had a picture of Sabrina on the refrigerator. Erica later saw Kevin at Lisa's funeral and described him as "emotionless."
Another coworker, Gayleen Lessen, testified and told the Court that Lisa changed during the year in 2012. She would step away from her desk to take private calls and the calls seemed to upset her.
Gayleen spoke to Kevin the day after Lisa's murder and he told her that $50,000 ( which was Lisa's salary) would be "a lot to make up."
The Prosecution outlined Kevin's demeanor after he discovered Lisa was dead. To do so, they called a number of witnesses to testify. Police dealing with the case described his manner as being calm.
Patrolman Randolph Mullenax met Kevin a few hours after Lisa's death in the station lobby and described him as being "relatively calm".
Kevin told him that he had seen stuff like this numerous times. He wanted to know every detail of what happened. Detective Brian Jackson of the Willoughby Hills Police Department testified that he met Kevin at his house the day after Lisa was killed. Kevin wanted to enter the house and Detective Jackson urged him not to as the scene had not been cleaned. He testified that Kevin showed no emotion and said that he wanted to see it for himself.
The Prosecution called a number of people to testify in relation to the insurance money. The Court heard that Kevin collected insurance money after Lisa's death.
The Court heard that the very same morning that Lisa was murdered, Kevin called Lisa's workplace inquiring as to what paperwork was necessary to make a claim on Lisa's life insurance policy with the union.
Jill Reynolds, a benefits specialist with Gordon Food Services, where Kevin worked as a transit driver testified that on the 16th of November 2012, the day Lisa was killed, Kevin called to notify her that Lisa had died and that he wanted to file an insurance claim.
The Prosecution told the Court that there were a number of other insurance claims made by Kevin on the 16th of November. One was a $250,000 life policy insuring Lisa Knoefel. The policy was issued on the 16th of May 2012.
Christopher Eddy, a team leader for Guardian Life Insurance Company, testified that Guardian Life provides insurance for Cuyahoga Children and Family Services and they issued a check to Kevin for $249,542.34 in payment for Kevin's claim. Kevin was paid $150,286.50 on a term life insurance policy purchased in 2009 for Lisa from Farmers Insurance. The Court heard that after Lisa's death, Kevin changed the policy on the home at 2518 Chagrin Drive from renters to homeowners insurance and installed a swimming pool. Kevin took out automobile insurance on a 2013 Cruze, a 2011 Malibu, and two campers.
He used some of the money he collected not only to pay off his home but to buy new cars and a new house in Florida and he took flying lessons. All in all, Lisa had almost $800,000 in life insurance policies and Kevin collected it all.
The Prosecution called Sabrina to testify. Sabrina testified that the relationship between her and her foster father began in the Spring of 2012.
Sabrina told the Court that Kevin would usually drive her to school, she attended Willoughby South High School, and they would have sex then. She said that Kevin told her he couldn't divorce Lisa as he didn't want to share custody of Hailey.
She told the Court that the idea to kill Lisa began as a small one. Kevin would send her a text now and again stating that he hated Lisa. He told her that when Lisa was out of the way, they could buy their own house, live together, Sabrina could attend college and be a mother to the children.
The Court heard that Sabrina asked her friend Autumn Pavlik in early October if she knew anyone that would kill her foster mother for her. Autumn testified:
"She asked me if I was able to get her a hit man. She said that they were going to get a divorce, and she was worth more dead than alive."
But Sabrina decided to take matters into her own hands. Sabrina testified that on the 15th of November 2012, Kevin drove her to school but when he parked the car, he began crying. Sabrina testified that Kevin told her that he and Lisa had a terrible fight the night before and that he was going to commit suicide if Lisa wasn’t dead. Sabrina told the Court:
"I was scared for him because I had fallen in love with him."
Sabrina told Kevin she would kill Lisa and less than 24 hours later, Lisa was dead.
The Prosecution called Dr Joseph Andrew Felo, a forensic pathologist with the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office, to testify about the horrific injuries Lisa received. Dr Felo supervised Lisa's autopsy.
Dr Felo testified that there was a lethal injury on Lisa's mandible (jaw) area, which penetrated deep enough to sever the carotid artery leading to the brain. There was another lethal wound in her breast. That wound penetrated to and collapsed the lung underneath.
Dr Felo testified that a number of cuts on Lisa's body could be described as complex cuts and indicated that when the knife entered the body, it was either then twisted or the body was twisting. One of Lisa's fingers and one of her thumbs had almost been cut off completely. Dr Felo testified that there were a number of defensive wounds on Lisa's body. Dr Felo determined the cause of death as:
"multiple stab and incised wounds, at least 178 in total, of head and neck, torso and extremities with musculoskeletal, vascular and visceral injuries."
The assault had been so violent, that the knife had bent.
It was the Defense's case that Kevin was not guilty and Sabrina was the only one responsible for Lisa's death. They highlighted that nothing physical was found to prove Kevin and Sabrina had a sexual relationship. The only thing the Prosecution had was Sabrina's testimony and the Defense argued that that couldn't be trusted as she cut a deal to get a shorter sentence.
It was the Defense's case that Sabrina killed Lisa because two weeks before her death, Lisa told Sabrina that she wanted her to move out by the 1st of January 2013.
Kevin did not testify at the Trial.
The Court heard that officials were unable to retrieve any text messages or phone calls between Sabrina's phone and Kevin's phone but records showed there were 1491 texts or calls between the two cell phones between the 1st of November 2012 and the 16th of November 2012. There were 78 calls or texts from 7.12pm on the 15th of November to 12.48am on the 16th of November, just a half an hour before Lisa was killed.
The Jury deliberated for almost ten hours and found Kevin guilty on all 11 counts; six counts of sexual battery, three counts of complicity to commit aggravated murder and two counts of conspiracy to commit aggravated murder.
Kevin was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 30 years.
Sabrina pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 30 years.
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"When someone just disappears for no reason, it's shocking, it's devastating. I just feel like my life stopped that day and I've just been in a tailspin ever since."
- Adam Vaughan, Janine's brother
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