Situated on a one-acre lot between a quiet, dead-end gravel road and a peaceful bend of the shallow Chagrin River sits a charming three-bedroom home in the rural suburb of Willoughby Hills. A small trampoline and child's wooden playset with swings and a small slide sit on the edge of the huge front yard. Parked in the driveway, not far from a tiny white and purple bike affixed with training wheels, is a new blue Chevy Malibu.
If you happened to drive by—perhaps you missed your turn on the hilly Eagle Mills Road and decided to use Chagrin Drive to turn around—you'd likely think a happy young family lives there.
From the outside, you would never be able to tell what happened inside last fall: a brutal, bloody and calculated murder. Late one November night there, a mother was attacked by her high-school senior foster daughter while she was sleeping. She was stabbed to death in front of her two biological daughters who were awakened by the commotion. A three-year-old girl was cowering in her parents' bedroom closet while a panicked 13-year-old was on the phone with 911 begging for help, futilely pleading with her foster sister to stop plunging the knife into her mother.
Her stepfather—her mother's husband of six years, father of the three-year-old, and foster father to the attacker —was out working.
"Are you okay, Mom?" the eighth-grader asked while connected to the 911 dispatcher in the middle of the horrific call that lasted nearly four minutes. "Are you okay? What happened? STOP! PLEASE! OH MY GOD! MY MOM'S GOING TO DIE!"
A Willoughby police officer arrived shortly after the call was placed.
"I pulled in the driveway and I saw a young female exit the front door and tell me that I better hurry up, that her sister was stabbing her mother to death," he testified a few days later. He went down the hallway and ordered the attacker to come out with her hands raised. She did. She was bloody "from head to toe" and sobbing, holding the 12-inch knife she used to kill her foster mom. He "secured" her and went into the bedroom.
"The female was laying motionless; there was a really small minor child in the closet that was crying," he said. "There was nothing I could do—the female was deceased."
Lisa Knoefel, a 41-year-old child sex-crimes social worker for Cuyahoga County, was that woman.
Coroners counted 178 stab wounds on her 5-foot-8, 150-pound body. (She was still alive mid-way through the attack and 911 call.) She was stabbed 62 times in the head and neck—some as deep as an inch into her face and three inches into her neck. She was stabbed 27 times in her torso, some digging deeper than three inches into her chest and lungs. She was stabbed 89 times in her arms and legs and was still wearing her wedding ring ("double-banded white metal with clear stones") when her body arrived for the autopsy; her left pinky and right thumb had "near-complete amputation."
Sabrina Zunich has been in the Lake County jail since Nov. 16, 2012. The 18-year-old foster child and Willoughby South senior was the young woman found covered in blood.
Why, though? Why would Zunich kill the woman who took her in and gave her a good home?
266 days after the attack, another member of the family arrived in the same jail. Prosecutors finally believed they had concrete evidence of the horrifying answer to that question.
Very little is publicly known about Zunich's life prior to killing Lisa Knoefel three weeks after turning 18. Her juvenile records are sealed and employees who work for Lake County youth programs say they aren't even legally allowed to confirm or deny that somebody named Sabrina Zunich existed before she turned 18.
But Scene obtained records and talked to sources that piece together an outline of Sabrina's troubled life. She was a special education student, according to an administrator at Willoughby South High School and a close friend of hers at Wickliffe High School. (That claim is disputed by one of her attorneys, public defender Terry Hess. He said he wasn't aware of that and didn't think it was true).
Sabrina was born in 1994, the offspring of 35-year-old Wickliffe resident Mark Zunich and 40-year-old Susan Edwards of Cleveland. Mark and Susan weren't married, but they did have some things in common: drug abuse and legal troubles. In 1984, her mom pleaded guilty to grand theft for scamming the Cuyahoga County Welfare Department out of nearly $2,000 and was sentenced to six months of prison in Marysville and five years of probation. In 1990, Edwards "furnished" drugs to a group of 14- and 15-year-olds in Cleveland. Sentencing was delayed in that case because she was giving birth to Sabrina's half-sibling—and she was later charged with obstruction of justice. By Sabrina's birth, her father already had a handful of drug- or alcohol-related impaired driving and disorderly conduct arrests. When Sabrina was 16 months old, Mark was arrested for domestic violence.
Her parents didn't live together. Sabrina grew up with her father and grandmother in a small house on Regent Road in Wickliffe.
"The police were over here a lot," says a neighbor of Zunich's childhood home. "Mark was always drunk"
According to a 2006 police incident report, Mark Zunich was a paranoid schizophrenic and hadn't been taking his medication when he again got violent with Edwards, described in the report as "his girlfriend and mother of their 11-year-old daughter."
They had gotten into an argument over alcohol. Edwards was given money to buy some booze and Mark accused her of stealing it. "As Mark was yelling at Edwards, he grabbed her hair and pulled a large amount of hair out of her head."
When cops were there, he was yelling, "Leave my house and never come back," and, "You and your friends can suck my cock" and told police his girlfriend's friends were "murderers for hire." Edwards said he yelled like that even when sober, and his mother, Anna, said he "needed to see a doctor about his mental state."
Other recent incident reports from the Wickliffe police department include a 2007 arrest for shattering a glass door of Lino's Tavern and screaming at the responding officers. A 2010 drunk driving arrest had neighbors witnessing Zunich driving with two flat tires across three yards on one side of the street and another yard on the other. Zunich didn't remember driving or know why officers showed up. He has a number of arrests from the Willowick police department, including the time he was staggering drunk, angry and attempting to tear down street signs.
Mark Zunich died in 2012. His neighbor said it was a drug overdose. His daughter was out of the house by then.
"It's been a couple years since she's been gone," says the Regent Road neighbor about Sabrina—she lived in a county-run group home for some time before the Knoefels took her in. "I think she got to be too much for the grandma."
Some time when she was a student at Wickliffe High School, she was sent to Emma Caley Receiving Home in Painesville, Lake County's youth group home for "structured behavior modification." She was there "for a year or so," a former resident of the home said.
She had an anger problem and would get in fights, several of her friends from both in and out of school told Scene.
"I know she had a big anger issue and threatened to fight me a few times," one acquaintance says. "She did say she isn't someone to mess with, nor anyone in her life that she loves, because she'll make me or anyone pay."
Another friend from Wickliffe High School, who we'll call Sam to protect his identity, says he had to break up a few fights for her at school ("I had her back," he says). Sam also lived at Caley with Sabrina and got to know her well; he even hung out with her at the Knoefel house just weeks before the murder.
"She made them think she had a lot of problems because she wanted to not be there," Sam said about Sabrina being a pain to Caley staff so they would try to get rid of her sooner. "She portrayed herself as kind of a mean person to them."
The circumstances behind exactly when and how Sabrina ended up living with the Knoefels are still a little unclear, though her attorney said she had been living with them for about a year before the attack and had transferred to Willoughby South.
Until they got the call that one of their students was arrested for murder, Willoughby South administrators had no clue Sabrina had problems.
"She was never in trouble, not once," says assistant principal Dave Miller, clicking through old records on his office computer. "She was never even tardy. She had never missed a day or was even tardy up to that point, she had perfect attendance."
Unlike during her time at Wickliffe, she stayed out of trouble at school.
She just kind of blended in. "She'd sit down there in the cafeteria and sometimes be with people but all the time she would just be doing her schoolwork. She kind of kept to herself, but you'd never think there was any type of issue going on."
Her friend Sam says the Knoefel house was a good place, but he painted a bleaker picture of Sabrina's life after she left the Lake County group home. She got into hard drugs. She hung out with a guy who friends say was a bad influence. (Records for that guy show he was recently arrested several times for disorderly conduct, assault, burglary, and receiving stolen property)
When Sabrina ran low on drugs and didn't get enough money from Kevin, Sam claims, she turned to Craigslist to try and score funds. "I was talking to her about it one day, she was asking me if she could get in trouble for what she was doing."
"I thought it was the meth she was doing," he says about when he heard the news that Sabrina killed her foster mom. He didn't know it was much more complicated and sinister than that.
Lisa Knoefel was a longtime social worker for the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services. She worked in the sex abuse department.
"In that department they deal with a lot of incest cases," says co-worker Mike Bokmiller about Lisa's job. "They are continually working to make sure that kids who are involved with incest are always receiving the services and protection they need. She's worked with quite a few kids who were in custody because they were victims and quite a few who were in custody because they were offenders."
Bokmiller started working there nearly 13 years ago. Lisa had been there a couple years before him.
"She, specifically, was incredibly compassionate," he says. "I would say we all should be at our job, but the reality is not all of us are. You've got to be real quick on your toes, because you're not going to get a lot of truth or cooperation out of people who will not protect their kids or out of people who are abusing their kids."
Lisa's first child was born in 1999, around when she first started the job, during her first marriage to Nick Zanella, which ended in divorce in 2003. In 2006, she married Kevin Knoefel.
Kevin had been married between 1992 and 1997. His first child, born in 1993, lives with his mom in Mentor. According to records obtained from the attorney general, Knoefel made nearly $51,000 yearly driving a truck for Gordon Food Services based out of Cleveland and $19,000 working for National Express, a bus company.
The couple moved into the Chagrin Drive home around 2008. They had a daughter in 2009. Lisa's older daughter from her first marriage lived there too.
Things were going well for Sabrina at her new school and the Knoefel house was a good setting for her, but according to three separate friends, she was not getting along with Lisa.
"Before the incident, she told me that her stepmom (foster mom) made her life hell," says one friend who has known Sabrina since middle school and visited her at the Knoefel house. She didn't press Sabrina for details and doesn't know exactly why.
Another friend heard similar complaints from Sabrina about Lisa. She got along great with Kevin, though, he says.
"She always said her dad (Kevin) was the only one she got along with," he says. "He always stuck up for her."
Sam had been over to the house several times and noticed that close relationship between Sabrina and Kevin. A little too close, he says.
"I was over at that house and I just got this weird fucking feeling from this dude," says Sam. "It was a weird feeling, he was a touchy dude."
After Lisa's death hit the news, one of her good friends posted on Facebook that Sabrina told her she was going to do it weeks earlier. She didn't think she would seriously go through with it.
On August 8, 2013, nearly nine months after the death of Lisa Knoefel, a Lake County grand jury filed an eleven-count indictment against Lisa's widower and Sabrina's foster father, Kevin D. Knoefel. He's facing six counts of sexual battery, two counts of conspiracy to commit aggravated murder and three counts of complicity to aggravated murder.
Kevin began a sexual relationship with his foster daughter starting March 2012, when she was still 17, and planned with Sabrina to murder his wife to collect insurance money starting in August 2012, prosecutors allege. Before this, his criminal record was spotless.
According to the News-Herald, Kevin Knoefel returned to Willoughby Hills the day after the murder and was "assisting with the investigation." A source told Scene that Kevin also attended Lisa's funeral.
"I would advise the court that the defendant was entrusted with the care of a foster child and abused that trust by engaging in an illicit sexual relationship with that foster child," said Patrick Condon in an August 16 hearing, where Knoefel pleaded not guilty. "He conspired and acted complicity with that foster child to murder his wife."
According to the indictment, prosecutors allege Kevin Knoefel:
› "engaged in discussions" with Sabrina to murder Lisa while she was asleep in her bedroom,
› told Sabrina that Lisa "was worth more dead than alive" (i.e. life insurance payouts),
› agreed with Sabrina that Sabrina would stab Lisa to death and "directed" her "as to the specific knife to use", demonstrated how to twist the knife into Lisa's body,
› discussed with Sabrina how to either make Lisa's death look like a burglary by going through her jewelry or cut her own legs to make it look like she killed Lisa in self-defense,
› and discussed that if Sabrina were caught by police, she would say she didn't remember what happened or would claim insanity.
Prosecutors say in the months after Lisa's death he collected on her life insurance money to buy new cars, take flying lessons, and pay off the mortgage on their previously foreclosed-on Willoughby Hills house. He lived in the house where Lisa was killed with their three-year-old daughter and his elderly mother up until his arrest.
Prosecutors allege Knoefel said his wife Lisa was "worth more dead than alive." He cashed in on her life insurance policy — $785,000 according to the prosecutors and News-Herald — to pay off their previously foreclosed-on house, bought cars and took flying lessons, they say. He planned for Zunich to kill her and then financially benefitted from it all while his foster daughter took the fall.
Lake County prosecutor Charles Coulson refused to answer any questions about the case when Scene contacted him early last week. Assistant prosecutors Karen Kowall and Patrick Condon did not return multiple phone messages seeking comment.
At an August 28 bond hearing, Kevin's defense attorney said, of course, the state's evidence against his client is incredibly weak.
"At this stage of the proceedings, the only 'evidence' offered by the State of Ohio is that of Sabrina Zunich who violently murdered Mr. Knoefel's wife with a knife." said attorney Michael Connick. "This emotionally unstable and troubled young woman, through her purported cooperation, exchanged her cooperation for a life sentence without the possibility of parole after 30 years as opposed to a life sentence without the possibility of parole."
Connick tells Scene he has "no clue" why it took nine months for his client to be arrested.
Terry Hess tells Scene his client's case has been on hold. She hasn't been indicted and "we are waiting to see what the state is going to do. I know the other side has made allegations involving our client and I can't speak to those."
Hess declined to comment on Zunich's level of cooperation against her foster father; those answers can only be provided by the state's prosecutors, he says.
Documents show Sabrina became a major witness in the state's case against Kevin likely around the beginning of May.
In the exhibit list for the case against Kevin is a May 9 proffer (an interview with a cooperating witness) with Sabrina, the first recording on the list since Kevin was originally interviewed by police on Dec. 4. On May 21, cops interviewed the friend of Sabrina who had written on Facebook that Sabrina told her she was going to kill Lisa. Five additional interviews and a second recorded interrogation of Kevin round out the prosecutor's evidence.
What hasn't been mentioned yet, either by attorneys in the courtrooms or in the case file are several other money-related issues regarding Kevin Knoefel and the death of his wife.
They didn't elaborate on what Kevin did with the life insurance money. They did not mention anything about the $225,000 Summerfield, Fl., house that Scene found he purchased on March 25 with his mother.
Records also show in April, Kevin was awarded $47,210 from the Attorney General's Ohio Victims of Compensation Program on behalf of his young daughter, because he's the guardian of her estate.
They also never mentioned why Kevin applied to be the legal guardian of his dead wife's mentally challenged sister on May 13 in the Lake County Probate Court. When Lisa died, her sister, a 39-year-old Painesville resident with Turner Syndrome, had no more adult family left (and no next of kin). Kevin was granted legal guardianship of Laura (not her estate), on June 14. Several days after Kevin's August indictment, a new form was filed. Nick Zanella, Laura's former brother-in-law, has since applied to take over guardianship.
Kevin Knoefel, meanwhile, enjoyed months of deep-pocketed expenditures, from the house in Florida to flying lessons to new cars. A lawsuit filed by Zanella on Sept. 5 to recover life insurance money on behalf of his and Lisa's 13-year-old daughter alleges Knoefel also used the funds to buy a boat. It was the life he couldn't afford to lead before, not while his wife was alive.
The troubled life of Sabrina Zunich continues behind bars, though her future remains unclear. Just weeks after becoming an adult, the minor blips of her youth seemed more innocent still as she stood facing a cop, drenched in blood, having just stabbed her foster mother 178 times. This, despite her checkered past, was not where she was supposed to be.
"She was vulnerable," says one of the Wickliffe neighbors. "He took advantage of her."
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