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Littler Books cover of If You Tell Summary

If You Tell Book Summary, Notes, and Quotes

Gregg Olsen

3.8 minutes to read
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What it's about in a one sentence summary:

“A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood”

Bullet Point Summary, Notes, and Quotes

  1. Michelle "Shelly" Watson was born to Sharon and Les Watson in 1954, however, Sharon was an alcoholic and unable to raise Shelly, eventually cutting off contact. Shelly was raised primarily by her father Les and stepmother Lara after age six.
  2. Shelly's grandmother Anna, whom she often visited after school, was known for her cruelty and taking joy in abusing and belittling her employees.
    1. “Making people unhappy was her way of having fun.”
  3. Shelly exhibited troubling behaviors as a child, causing schools to turn her away.
    1. She put glass shards in people's shoes.
    2. She threw dishes into the garbage when asked to wash them.
    3. At age fifteen, she falsely accused her father of raping her.
  4. “Lara and Les came to know something that few understood in the late sixties and seventies: no one can help a troubled person who doesn't think they need it.”
  5. Shelly married her first husband, Randy, in 1973, just after high school, leading to the birth of their daughter, Nikki, two years later. Randy eventually left and filed for divorce because of Shelly's abusive behavior.
  6. Shelly's marriage to her second husband, Danny, in 1978 was also chaotic, ending with Danny running away and filing for divorce after the birth of their daughter Sami.
  7. Shelly's third husband, Dave Knotek, from a logging family in Raymond, Washington, endured Shelly for twenty years. They lived in an isolated house with a lot of privacy.
  8. Shelly's oldest daughter, Nikki, endured the worst abuse from Shelly, who would barge into Nikki's room at night and drag her out of bed, abusing her verbally and physically for no apparent reason.
    1. Shelly often used phone cords to hit Nikki.
    2. Shelly locked Nikki in a closet for weeks.
    3. Shelly frequently forced Nikki to crawl naked outside while her father Dave sprayed her with a hose, even in freezing winters. Shelly called this “wallowing.”
  9. Shelly's second daughter, Sami, was Shelly's favorite and faced less abuse.
  10. Occasionally, Shelly showed hints of kindness, though these were often brief and manipulative.
    1. Shelly once ran a bath for Nikki and took her to get her hair done and have dinner, however this came after Shelly pushed Nikki through a glass door, making her bleed.
    2. “My mother could show affection and say kind words when she wanted to... she would abuse me, then the very next day hug me or tell me how I was her baby and she loved me blah, blah. I think it worked like any abusive relationship... a person feels trapped, nowhere to go... they are abused and then the abuser reins them back in with kindness and the person being abused settles, not quite thinking about the next time they are beat etc. just relieved the abuse is over (for now).”
  11. “[Nikki] really did hate her mother. Part of her believed, however, that despite how Shelly treated them, she was better than having no mother at all.”
  12. The household dynamics changed in 1988 when Shane Watson, Shelly's nephew, came to live with them after his father spiraled into crime and substance abuse. Shane became like a brother to Nikki and Sami.
  13. Though initially welcomed, Shane soon became a new target for Shelly's abuse, enduring extreme punishments like being bound with duct tape and having Icy Hot applied to his genitals.
  14. In 1989, Shelly gave birth to her third daughter Tori, and her best friend Kathy Loreno also moved in. Shelly initially treated Kathy well, but Kathy gradually became the new focus of Shelly's humiliation and unpredictable violence.
  15. Kathy's physical and mental health deteriorated severely under Shelly's abuse. Kathy was locked outdoors, starved, and beaten.
  16. Eventually, Dave found Kathy dead on the bathroom floor, seemingly choked to death on her own vomit. He and Shelly burned her body in a fire pit and threw the remains in the ocean.
  17. Shelly fabricated a story that Kathy had eloped with a truck driver, though Shane and Nikki knew the truth that Kathy was dead.
  18. Paranoid about Shane, Shelly constantly pressured Dave to get rid of him. One day, Shane mysteriously disappeared, with Shelly claiming he went to Alaska for a fishing job.
  19. After graduating high school, Nikki started fighting back against her mother's abuse and escaped to live with relatives.
  20. Nikki told her grandmother, Lara, everything, though the police investigation was halted when they couldn't reach Sami, who was away at college, to corroborate the story.
  21. Shelly's next victim was Ron Woodworth, a gay veteran with a substance abuse problem. She took him in but soon isolated, abused, and degraded him until his health severely declined.
    1. “In his midfifties, it was late in the game for Ron's do-over. He had lost his home, his father, his partner. He was also estranged from his mother, with whom he had lived after the foreclosure of his trailer in 1999. Worst of all, he had lost his cats. Shelly told Tori that they were going to take Ron in, to help him get back on his feet. Tori didn't know that this was one of the same lines Shelly had once used to sell Dave on bringing Kathy Loreno into their lives.”
    2. Shelly forced Ron to drink his own urine.
    3. Shelly forced Ron to jump off the roof, permanently injuring him.
    4. Shelly addressed Ron's wounds by pouring bleach and boiling water over them.
  22. When Ron died during a heatwave, Shelly sent Tori to visit Sami and Nikki while Dave buried Ron in the backyard. They didn't burn the body as they did with previous victims, as starting a fire during forest fire season would risk gaining attention.
  23. The sisters confided their concerns about Ron's fate to Tori.
  24. Upon returning home, Tori realized her parents were attempting to conceal Ron's death, so she prepared evidence to incriminate them while Sami and Nikki contacted the authorities on her behalf.
  25. The next day, Tori was taken away by Child Protective Services, and shortly after, Shelly and Dave were arrested based on the evidence provided.
  26. Dave confessed to disposing of Kathy and Ron's bodies, and revealed that Shane had also been killed.
  27. In 2004, Dave pleaded guilty to second-degree murder of Shane Watson and received almost 15 years in prison.
  28. Shelly received over 22 years in prison, and was released in 2022 despite her daughters' belief she is still dangerous.
  29. Sami has been entrusted with guardianship of Tori, and the three sisters continue to maintain a strong bond.
  30. “From the inside, a violent home looks starkly different than it does to outsiders. Children who grow up with cold, narcissistic, or sadistic parents don't know that a caretaker with the potential for extreme cruelty is not the norm. Even when they see a contrast in the families of friends, they've already been robbed of the ability to challenge parental authority. Instead of seeking help, they hunker down and adapt.”

If You Tell: Resources