By Brenda Wilhelmson
Miss Feeney was having a hard time managing her third grade class–and Barton Knuckles in particular. She looked up from the math tests she was grading and saw two boys arm wrestling, a girl making balls out of rubber cement, and Bart twirling his “magic scarf.” Miss Feeney smacked her red pen down as he ran behind a row of children and stopped. “Turn and look at me,” he commanded as he whapped the back of a girl’s head with his scarf. The girl’s hand flew back and she twisted in her seat to face him. “See, I’m magic!” he bellowed and raised his scarf to the heavens.
“That’s it!” Miss Feeney shouted. “Heads on your desks and sit on your hands!” Miss Feeney watched as the children pressed their cheeks to their desktops and wedged their hands under their fannies, then she turned toward her desk. As she sat down, a chair whizzed past her head and crashed into the blackboard behind her. Miss Feeney leapt to her feet. Bart was standing at his desk. His chair was missing.
Miss Feeney reached into the bottom drawer of her desk and pulled out a large wooden paddle. She marched toward Bart, grabbed him by the arm, and ushered him from the classroom. In the hallway, she made Bart bend over and whacked his bottom. He didn’t cry.
“Why do you do these things?” she asked.
Bart looked at his feet. “I try to be good,” he said. “But the devil sits on my shoulder and tells me to do bad things.”
Bart didn’t tell Miss Feeney that his mother, Nancy, was trying to beat the devil out of him. He didn’t tell her, or the other kids, a lot of things.
When Bart didn’t return to the North Shore Seventh Day Adventist school, at Foster and California, for fourth grade in 1973, many of his classmates were relieved. There was Lisa Spalita, who had received a sharp stick to the face from Bart. There was Teddy Banks, who had brawled with Bart on more than one occasion. And there was me. I was a magic scarf victim.
I didn’t give Bart much thought after his disappearance. But I was abruptly reminded of him many years later. I was 20, and I read in the paper that he’d been arrested for killing his mother.
It was November 30, 1984, and the front page of the Sun-Times read, “Suburb Woman Slain; 8 Charged. Body found in trunk in creek; son, daughter are suspects.” Below were the mug shots of 20-year-old Bart and his 17-year-old sister Pamela.
The story said the body of their 40-year-old mother, Nancy Knuckles, had been pulled from a creek near her Villa Park home. Bart, Pam, and their 15-year-old sister Debbie–as well as Bart’s girlfriend, Pam’s boyfriend, and three other youths–had been arrested. Bart, Pam, and Pam’s 18-year-old boyfriend, Dennis Morris, were charged with murder.
Nancy was leaving for work on the morning of November 28 when Pam crept up behind her and strangled her with a piece of rope. Morris grabbed the rope and finished her off. They both admitted this and pled guilty in court on June 3. The judge gave them 33 years apiece.
Bart, however, maintained his innocence. He waived his right to a jury, opting for a bench trial. Then Pam popped up as a witness for the prosecution, and her testimony nailed him to the wall. He got 33 years as well.
Five and a half years later, Pam walked out of prison. She was released on a technicality and for the last six years, while awaiting trial, has led a seemingly normal life. She has held many different jobs and she recently married. Now it appears a deal is in the works and she may not be retried.
Did Bart Knuckles deserve to go to jail? There is reason to believe he did not. And the evidence is provided by his sister, the woman who put him there.
Nancy D. Knuckles’ life had revolved around her religion, her work and the children accused of squeezing that life out of her. [The] divorcee was described by fellow Seventh-day Adventists and neighbors as “soft-spoken,” “pure,” “devout” and “reliable,” but not tough enough as a single parent.
“She worked three jobs to support a son and two daughters, but her efforts were not appreciated by them,” [Larry] Pahl [a friend and coworker of Nancy’s] said. . . . “She loved them and did all she could for them.”
–Villa Park Argus
It is a case that has to give parents pause: a middle-class suburban mother murdered by her children for no more cause, the children say, than that she had become a nuisance.
If the papers had dug deeper, they’d have found a different story.
Nancy hated Bart. She told her children that their father, Robert Knuckles, had gotten her pregnant. That’s why she married him, and that’s why Bart was born.
Nancy’s 79-year-old mother, Florence Luther, who has lived in the same dark, cramped apartment near Ohio and Racine for the last 22 years, says Nancy met Robert after she graduated from Tuley High, shortly before she moved out of the family’s apartment at Bell and Leavitt. The family didn’t like him, Luther says. “He moped around” in his leather jacket and greased-back hair.
“Nancy never loved Robert,” Luther says sadly. “She only started seeing him after another boy broke up with her. She shouldn’t have married him. She got married for the same reason I did.”
Luther says that after she lost her first husband in World War II, she was dating John Pajak, Nancy’s father, when he raped her and got her pregnant. Luther says she told her mother what had happened, but her mother advised her to marry him and give the baby a name. Nancy was born and her misery escalated.
Luther says Pajak, who is now dead, began accusing her of having affairs and plotting to kill him. He begged her to have a son and promised her that if she did, things would get better. They had John Jr. and things got worse.
“He strangled me and forced me to take him on and I got pregnant with the third one,” she says.
Pajak began living at the Elgin State Mental Hospital off and on, one of the visits occurring when Luther caught him cajoling Nancy into holding his penis. Eventually Pajak was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic, and after 12 years of marriage, Luther divorced him.
Two years later Luther married Ben Luther. And when Nancy married Robert four years after that, the newlyweds moved into an apartment near theirs at Webster and Seeley.
“There were times Ben and I both were sure Robert was hitting her, but when we’d ask, “What happened to your face?’ she’d say, “Oh, I fell’ or “We were playing too hard,”‘ Luther says. “She always made excuses. It was the same thing she expected of her children.
“She was just odd,” Luther says. “She seemed all right as a child and through high school. But I think the way she was forced on brought it to work on her.”
On January 8, 1964, Nancy had Bart. It was one day before her 20th birthday, and she wanted nothing to do with him.
“Nancy would have Bart in this pen and she didn’t want me to touch him or pick him up or anything,” Luther says. “I’d say, “I’m his grandmother,’ and I’d pick him up anyway. Then she’d get angry and say, “Now he’ll expect me to pick him up.”‘
About four years later Pam was born, and Debbie a year and a half after that. Robert was a heavy drinker who wasn’t around much. Nancy regularly abandoned the children and put Bart in charge. By the age of five Bart was responsible for his sisters. He had to keep them clean and see that they didn’t eat or touch certain things. If the place wasn’t just the way Nancy liked it when she got back, Bart got beat.
No one knew where Nancy went when she left the apartment. Sometimes she’d be gone whole days. But things got even worse when she stumbled into a church and left her Baptist faith to become a Seventh-day Adventist.
Nancy twisted her new fundamentalist beliefs into her own bizarre brand of fanaticism. She became obsessed with the devil. She petrified her children with stories of how Satan was trying to possess them. She attributed noises in their apartment to demons. She cried for the Lord to cast Satan from their home.
Nancy divorced Robert about a year after she converted, and the family went on public aid. Then the abuse really kicked in.
She bought a choke chain and leash for Bart and began taking him on humiliating walks through the park. He would beg her to release him before they passed by other kids, but she would ignore him or snap him back like a dog.
Then she started using laundry bags to punish her children. She put Bart, Pam, and Debbie in separate bags, tied the tops shut, and left them in a dark closet for hours. Pam and Debbie say they usually slept while they were confined, but Bart would escape, so Nancy began tying his hands and feet together before she bagged him. When he began chewing his way out, she took to gagging him.
Bart recounted Nancy’s sadistic child-rearing techniques–which his sisters have documented in affidavits–in a small visitors’ room at the Danville Correctional Center, where he was transferred in 1994. When he talked about his childhood, he lowered his head and stared at his tattooed hands. He was sitting across from me at a table, and once in a while he’d shake his head and laugh, but he seldom looked up.
“One time she put me in the bag and flipped me on top of a bunk bed,” he said. “I fell off the bed and smashed my head on the dresser before I hit the floor. Another time she put me in the bag and threw me down the stairs. I had dropped some laundry and she was showing me how the laundry felt.”
But what hurt Bart the most was when Nancy called him “devil spawn.”
“She used to scream for Satan to come out of me when she beat me,” he said with a disgusted laugh. “She called my father the devil and she’d say that I was the incarnate of him. She was on this beat-the-devil-out-of-me kick for a long, long time.”
Pam and Debbie say they got beatings too, but Bart got them worse. If the kids talked during dinner, peeked during prayer, ate between meals, opened the refrigerator without permission, or spilled, Nancy whipped them with a garden hose. But if the girls said, “Bart did it’ or “Bart made me do it,’ he got part of their punishment.
Bart began running away to his grandmother’s apartment when he was seven. But he couldn’t always escape. Nancy started tying him to his bed–sometimes for days.
“I’d just lay there and try to figure out what I did that was so terrible,” Bart says. “It just felt like my heart–just real honest pain.”
The “end of time” game appeared when Bart was seven as well. Nancy believed that Bart, Pam, and Debbie needed to practice hiding from Sunday worshipers who were going to persecute Seventh-day Adventists for going to church on Saturday. So she made them hide in a dark crawl space with only bread and water from sunrise to sundown. If they made noise, they got whipped.
Bart refused to play her game of tribulation once and she picked him up, slammed him to the floor, rolled him to the wall, and kicked the back of his head.
“My head went straight into the wall,” he says.
For a while Nancy moved the family to religious communes, in Wisconsin, then Michigan. Bart was about eight or nine when they returned to Chicago, and it was then that Luther saw Nancy beat Bart for the first time.
“Usually Nancy would just threaten her kids in front of me,” Luther says. “But one time–I don’t know what he did–she found a piece of wood and took him into my bedroom and laid him down and pulled his pants down and whacked him with that wood real hard. You could hear it just smack. He’d yell each time. Fifty times. The girls and I were sitting in my kitchen. After she finished, I told her, “Don’t you ever do that again in my house.’ And she didn’t.”
Nancy stayed around the Chicago area for two more years, then she and her kids moved to a trailer park in Sheridan, Illinois. Bart turned 12 there and Nancy almost killed him.
She tied him to his bed, shut the windows, turned on the stove, and blew out the pilot light. She pulled Pam and Debbie out of the trailer and told them she just wanted to see if Bart could free himself. Ten minutes later, she went back in and opened the windows.
Nancy tried it again another time, but this time Bart managed to untie himself and run out of the trailer. He came out coughing and gasping, Pam remembers, and kept asking Nancy, “Why?”
Bart took Nancy’s car after that and tried to run away–and Nancy seized the opportunity to get rid of him. She went to her church and convinced her fellow members that Bart was a bad seed. They sympathized with poor struggling Nancy and raised money to send Bart to a Seventh-day Adventist home for wayward boys in Nebraska. When Bart got there his head was shaved and he was put to work in an alfalfa field.
“I saw the guy who ran the place make a kid eat cow manure,” Bart says. “Fortunately, I never had to do that. But I ran away from the place twice and both times I got the shit kicked out of me.”
Bart lived there for six months. Then a Seventh-day Adventist couple looking for help on their feedlot took him in. They were nice, but they eventually canned Bart for doing un-Christian things like smoking. He was shipped back to Sheridan at the age of 14.
When he returned, Bart bought winter coats and hats for Debbie and Pam with the money he’d saved. But he also sat on their faces, gave them Charlie horses, and scared them by pretending he had knives and guns. He was a huge disruption in Nancy’s tiny trailer, and she got fed up.
One day she tied Bart up, blew out the pilot light, turned on the stove, and drove away. Sometime later, a neighbor named Jim Thompson dropped by and became suspicious when he heard noises inside but no one answered the door. In an affidavit Thompson said he broke in, smelled gas coming from the stove, and found Bart tied to his bed. Bart couldn’t walk, so Thompson carried him outside and later drove him to Chicago to Luther’s apartment.
Bart was back in Sheridan before long. Nancy threw him out, reported him as a runaway, and had him sent to the LaSalle County Detention Home in Ottawa for six months.
“I went to court and they didn’t know what to charge me with to keep me there,” Bart says. “So they continued my case for 30 days. I saw nothing good was going to come of it, so I broke out of the place.”
Forty minutes later Bart was caught, and three months later he was still at the home. He escaped again and was caught again. Then he was sent to the Illinois Youth Center in Saint Charles.
A psychiatrist there evaluated Bart and labeled him a victim of circumstances. A judge vacated his sentence three months later and sent him to a wilderness survival program for a month.
Bart excelled in the program. He says the shelter he built while roughing it in Big Bend National Park was filmed for the program’s promotional materials. But at the end of the month Bart, at 16, was sent back to Nancy.
Nancy and the girls had moved to a trailer in Marseilles, and no one was home when Bart arrived. He crawled through a window and waited inside. When Nancy got home, she accused him of breaking and entering and threatened to call the police. Bart told her a caseworker would be back to check on him and take him to a group home, and she eased up.
Two weeks later Bart was taken to the group home, but it was worse than the detention home.
“I told the caseworker, “You leave me here and I’ll be gone before the sun sets,”‘ he says.
Bart was driven back to Marseilles and left in a temporary foster home less than a mile from his mother’s trailer. The state reviewed his case, and because Nancy refused to raise him, declared her an unfit mother.
Luther became Bart’s legal guardian, and because she was on public aid she was given foster-parent status and a paycheck. Bart moved into her little apartment on Ohio.
“He was very respectful to me,” Luther says. “But he wasn’t to everyone.”
Once Bart was pulled out of Luther’s apartment by two guys who said he had stolen their mother’s money. When he returned, he was all beaten up. But other than that, the only trouble Bart got into while he was staying at Luther’s was stealing shaving cream on Halloween.
Nancy visited him there a couple of times, but Luther says Bart never talked about her when she wasn’t around.
“He was going by her rules,” she explains. “No talking about what happened between them. But I always felt he loved her.”
Bart left Luther’s a year later to stay with an uncle in Romeoville, but his uncle’s wife didn’t really want him there, so he began floating around. Periodically he showed up at his mother’s. Once she invited him to vacation with her and the girls in Colorado.
“It was his responsibility to get us there,” Debbie says. “My mom was seeing a guy named John who was working there.”
Nancy was supposed to get traveling money from John, but she didn’t want to wait for it, so they hit the road, taking very little money.
“Bart had to hustle us all the way out there,” Debbie says. “We pulled into a gas station with only ten dollars while we were still hundreds of miles away, and Bart told the attendant, like under his breath, “Put ten in.’ The guy said, “Fill her up?’ and Bart was like, “Mmm hmm,’ very softly. So the guy fills it up and Bart says, “I told you to put ten in.’ You know, he’s got to think of this crazy shit to get us there.”
Debbie, who is now 27, boasted about his resourcefulness as we drove from Chicago to Danville to see him.
“Bart was the man in charge on that trip,” she says. “But once we got there, my mom began making him feel like garbage again. He really made things unpleasant then. His whole demeanor changed and became threatening.”
Nancy and the girls left Colorado before Bart did. But when he made his way back to Illinois, he found a new place to stay. A boy in Romeoville named Tito Salgado invited him to move in with his family, and he stayed with them until he was 18.
“His mother was a really good lady,” Bart says. “She was the mother I wished I always had.”
In the meantime Nancy had finished nursing school. She accepted a hospital position in Texas and moved there with the girls. But they hadn’t been there long before she abandoned her daughters.
Nancy told them she was going back to Illinois to take care of some business. Pam went camping with her boyfriend and, as a mean trick, cut the electrical power and left Debbie without any lights. Debbie says she was becoming hysterical when Bart called. Bart immediately hitchhiked to Texas and took Debbie back to Romeoville with him. She stayed with Bart at the Salgados’ briefly, but when he took her to a Pentecostal church he’d been attending, she found a family she preferred to live with there.
Marie and Wyley Johnson began trying to find Nancy after Debbie moved in with them. They found her living in Hinsdale, and she gave them temporary custody.
“I could take my mother’s physical abuse–the beatings Pam and I got for each dish that wasn’t washed when the timer went off, for every minute we were late coming home–but the abandonments,” Debbie says. “You don’t want to know what it’s like to know your mother doesn’t want you. She acted happy to see me when she came out to the Johnsons’. But I just wanted to show her what a nice family I’d found. What a beautiful house I was living in.”
Bart’s welcome at the Salgados’, however, was wearing thin. Tito’s father, Angel, wasn’t crazy about him, and when the Salgados moved to Peoria in January of 1982, Bart wasn’t invited.
Bart stayed with friends in various towns, and in Peoria one night, he met Steve Wright.
Wright’s background was similar to Bart’s and the two became fast friends. They worked odd jobs together, traveled together, and watched each other’s backs. When they were in Peoria, they often stayed with Wright’s grandmother. In Chicago, they often stayed with Bart’s. And sometimes they even stayed at Nancy’s.
Nancy was renting a town house in Villa Park and her daughters were living with her again. She was working part-time as a home-care nurse and full-time as a cook at an Adventist vegetarian restaurant called the Health Oasis. Her friend Larry Pahl gave Bart and Wright work at his landscaping company when they stayed with her. And they often helped Nancy at the restaurant.
Nancy charged Bart rent, even though he slept on the couch and couldn’t eat her food, so often he and Wright would opt to stay with their friends Tim and Sharon Stokley when they were in Villa Park.
In the summer of 1984, Nancy bought half a duplex in another Villa Park subdivision. She told Bart he couldn’t stay there, but that didn’t stop her from asking him to help on moving day. And Bart jumped.
“He was at my house, and I was like, “What are you doing?”‘ Sharon Stokley says. “She won’t let you stay there but you’re going to help her move?”‘
“His friends couldn’t understand why he’d do anything for her,” Debbie says. “But he was defenseless against her.”
Nancy eventually relented and let Bart stay at her duplex from time to time.
“I just wanted to be with my family,” Bart says. “My whole life, all I wanted was a family. I always hoped my ma would change, and she was mellowing with age. She and I were actually getting along. We were trying to rebuild our relationship. But Pam always got in the way.”
Pam was Nancy’s favorite. That was never a secret. When Bart, Debbie, and Pam were little, Pam was the one who got mom’s lap. Pam was the one who got her hair played with. Pam was the one mom sang to. And Pam was the one who confessed the most. She’d tell Nancy when they’d disobeyed, and everyone would get a beating.
But as a teen, Pam was a tough little punk. She terrorized kids from the neighborhood. She fought girls and guys. When she slashed a neighbor’s screen door with a knife, she was given probation and a sundown curfew. While Nancy was at work Pam controlled the house. But when Bart showed up, he rattled her authority.
“I wouldn’t let her have parties in the house at all hours,” Bart says. “I was just blocking her fun. But when my mom would let me stay, I had to do it–not to mention if my ma came home while a party was going on, I’d be the one to blame.”
Pam was bothered by Bart’s relationship with Debbie as well. Pam was never close to Bart like Debbie was, and when he showed up, she felt left out.
“Pam would make threats like, if I wasn’t told to leave, she’d run away,” Bart says. “Or she’d say, “Mom, I don’t want him here. There’s just no room.”‘
But there were times Bart and Pam seemed to get along. They both lived to party and loved to fight, and they shared some friends. Pam even dated Wright for a while, but she dumped him when Dennis Morris came along.
Bart met Morris behind a laundromat three weeks before Nancy was murdered. A group of people were getting high, and Bart and Morris hit it off. They decided to drop acid together and went to Morris’s place. Morris had been breaking into and sleeping in an empty apartment–which didn’t bother Bart–and Bart slept there that night. For the moment Nancy had closed her doors to him, so in the morning he and Morris waited for her to leave and went to her place for breakfast. Bart and Morris hung together from that point on, and before long Pam and Morris were a couple.
A few days later, while Nancy was at work, Pam, Morris, Debbie, Bart, and Wright gathered at her kitchen table to play a drinking game. They downed shot after shot. Things got a little crazy, and when Wright jokingly called Pam a bitch, she flew out of her chair, knocked him to the floor, and slapped him. When they began to run out of liquor, Pam said she was getting more.
Bart told Pam to stay put and Pam told Bart to go to hell. She went upstairs to get her purse and when she emerged from her bedroom, Bart was at the bottom of the stairs blocking her way. Pam pulled a knife and lunged at him from the top of the stairs. And as Bart jumped back, her knife caught him and sliced him across the chest.
“She felt bad after that,” Bart says. “She ran upstairs and cut her wrists. Not very deep. They were attention cuts more than anything.”
“They both looked like they were bleeding to death,” Morris says. “I got both of them in the bathroom and they were both crying and telling each other how sorry they were. I cleaned her wrists and his stomach. His wound wasn’t deep, but she cut him all the way down. It was insane.”
Pam had no qualms about fighting anyone, it seemed. Another night she, Bart, Morris, and Wright got drunk and went out for Italian beef sandwiches. When they left the restaurant, some tough guys were in the parking lot. A fight broke out, and while Bart and Morris kicked the crap out of two of them, Pam whipped another across the face and head with a heavy chain-link belt. Wright had been punched out and was lying on the pavement.
“Pam was somebody I could go out with and know if something broke she had my back–and I could still go home and go to bed with her,” Dennis Morris says.
Morris, who is incarcerated at the Shawnee Correctional Center, in Vienna, at the southern tip of Illinois, remembers this fight fondly. He smiled as he recounted it–blow by blow.
“At that stage in my life, fighting was everything,” he says. “Winning the fight was everything. Sex was secondary. Both were enjoyable with Pam so I had everything I wanted, more or less.”
Bart, Morris, and Wright took off for Peoria in Bart’s beater Cadillac to avoid trouble over the fight. They checked into a motel, got a keg of beer, and threw a party. Bart met Cindy Caruso there, and after the police broke the party up, it moved to her apartment.
Bart, Morris, and Wright stayed with Caruso and her two-year-old son for a week. Then they decided to return to Villa Park to buy some pot–which they planned to sell back in Peoria. Bart invited Caruso, her son, and her 14-year-old friend Monica to come along. When his Cadillac wouldn’t start some acquaintances drove them there in a truck.
They planned to stay in a motel that Sunday night, but they spent too much money during a drinking detour and wound up at Nancy’s after midnight. Bart woke Nancy and asked if they could spend the night. She said yes, and they crashed in her living room.
In the morning Nancy left for work, and Monday was pretty uneventful. David Dukes, their 22-year-old pot connection, didn’t have their dope. Bart figured that he, Caruso, her son, and Wright could stay at the Stokleys’ that night, and that Monica, who had hit it off with Debbie, could stay at Nancy’s. Morris, he figured, could stay wherever he wanted. The Stokleys didn’t like him, but his mother lived around the corner from Nancy.
But things didn’t work out according to plan. The Stokleys had an ugly argument and Bart and his friends had no choice but to go back to Nancy’s. Tuesday is when “the nightmare started happening,” as Caruso puts it.
The following account of the events leading to Nancy’s murder comes from court documents, corroborated interviews, and statements made to police and attorneys.
While Nancy was at work Tuesday afternoon everyone hung out and got drunk–and their conversation evolved into a discussion of ways to kill Nancy. According to Pam’s testimony at Bart’s trial, Bart suggested blowing up her car, but there was the small problem of the bomb–they didn’t have one. Then he suggested asphyxiating her in an idling car, but they had no garage. Pam, on the other hand, suggested grinding up glass and giving it to Nancy in a milkshake. Then she suggested killing her in Joliet and making it look like a mugging. Everyone was wasted, and no one took what Pam said seriously–except Morris. “Anytime you talk about a murder it’s serious,” he says now.
The duplex was cleaned up by the time Nancy got home that night. Later, she and Pam got into an argument. They were in Pam’s room, on the level between the first and second floors. Bart went upstairs to try to cool things down, but as he approached the door their screaming stopped. He stood there for a moment before opening it, he says, and when he walked in, Nancy was sitting with her head in her hands and Pam was standing behind her clutching a heavy decorative teapot. Bart says he waved his arms and shook his head at Pam and a glint of sanity returned to her eyes. She put the teapot down and walked out.
Bart remained with Nancy and told her he had just saved her life. She was very blase about it, he says. She just said, “I know.” Bart says Nancy often remarked on how great it would be to die and escape her miserable life. He dropped the subject and asked if his friends could stay another night. She told him yes, but said that he and Caruso better not sleep together.
That night, Pam made another attempt on Nancy’s life. She told the court she cut four lengths of rope and twisted and knotted them together to form one thick strand. Around 4 AM she crept into Nancy’s room. Morris stood at the door with a cue stick. As Pam walked toward her mother’s bed she smacked into something and Nancy woke up. They began talking and Morris left figuring nothing else was going to happen.
Pam showed Nancy the rope and told her she had come to strangle her, but Nancy just looked at the clock, complained that she had to be up in two hours, and told Pam to go back to bed.
Wednesday morning Nancy was on the warpath. At seven o’clock she marched into the kitchen, grabbed a roasting pot, and began bashing it with a wooden spoon. She strode through the living room, where Bart, Debbie, Morris, and Wright were sleeping, and demanded that everyone leave the house and have $40 apiece if they wanted to return that night. The people crashed out in the living room hurried to tidy up a bit, then fled upstairs; they all wound up in Pam’s room. Caruso, her son, and Monica were sleeping there. According to Caruso’s statement to police and Pam’s testimony, some comments were made about offing Nancy. Caruso told the court that Bart told her not to worry–that Nancy wouldn’t kick her and her child out on such a cold morning.
Wright headed for the bathroom, which was next to Pam’s room, carrying a pair of jeans, and Bart says he pushed past Wright to get the first shower. When Nancy appeared on the landing, Pam grabbed the rope. She says she followed Nancy down the stairs, and when Nancy grabbed the front doorknob to leave for work, she threw the rope over her head and wrapped it snugly around her neck. Nancy turned and smirked at her, and Pam snapped the rope tight. Nancy crumpled to the floor without a struggle. Pam, tiring, noticed Morris nearby and handed the ends to him. Morris held the rope tight until Nancy stopped jerking.
Debbie came down the stairs and saw Pam squatting near the front door. “I didn’t see what was going on, but yet I knew,” she says. “My sister was kneeling down and she was like, “Debbie, you can’t see this. Go back upstairs. Don’t look down.’ She had already done what she could do. I ran into her room where the others were sleeping and I’m like, “I think she’s killing my mother!’ And they of course were like, “Nah.’ They thought I was nuts. Then my brother came out of the shower. He came out and asked me to blow dry his hair. And I told him I thought my mother had been killed.”
“The whole thing was over by the time Bart came down,” Morris says. “God, it seems like (the strangling) took forever. When I see it on TV it happens so fast and I’m like, “That’s bullshit.’ Seemed like it took a while–three, five minutes–before she finally stopped moving.”
Bart says his mother was lying motionless on the floor when he got downstairs. “I saw my mom laying there not looking like she was in any pain,” he says. “She didn’t look like she was dead or anything. She was just laying there. Pam was standing up. I think she and Denny were both standing over her just looking at her. My mom, at different times in our lives, had played dead on us. Scared the shit out of us.
“At first–I know this sounds weird–I almost thought it was funny because I thought she was pulling that same shit. If something wasn’t going her way, she’d try to make people feel all, “Oh, I gotta do whatever she says because something’s wrong.’ It was a routine with her.
“But Pam said something to the effect of “I couldn’t help myself,”‘ Bart says. “And I latched onto that from the night before.”
What happened next in that doorway is a matter of some dispute.
Someone got Nancy’s stethoscope from her nurse’s bag, and Bart put it to her chest. He says there was no heartbeat.
Pam testified that Bart then retrieved a plastic bag from the kitchen. She said she asked him what he intended to do with it and he pretend-pulled it over his head. She said she then went upstairs.
Caruso says that when she descended the stairs to see what was going on, Bart was standing near the bottom. She caught a glimpse of Nancy’s gray face before returning upstairs. And when her son began crying for food, she demanded that someone cover Nancy up.
Bart says he covered Nancy’s face at Caruso’s request. He says the blankets they’d used the night before had been folded up in the living room sofa bed, so he placed a bag over Nancy’s face and tucked the ends in under her head.
“I think Bart said there was a faint heartbeat, “Oh my God, she’s still alive,’ or something like that,” Morris told me. “That’s when he got the bag and put the bag on her.” But when Morris described the action he said Bart “put it around her head.”
In any case, Morris says he and Bart carried Nancy to the basement and covered her with blankets and cushions. They then went into the kitchen, where, Morris says, he apologized for killing Nancy and they both broke down and cried.
Pam, however, showed no signs of remorse, Morris says.
“I remember my sister hugging everybody,” Debbie says. “She came up to me and she hugged me and said, “I’m sorry Debbie, but it had to be done.”‘
“She was tough,” Morris says. “She had a presence about her. She was scary at times.
“For me, violence was my life,” he says. “And this was just the next step. Kind of like an unexpected step, but I guess you could say I knew somewhere down the line it was going to escalate to this.
“At the time I didn’t feel guilty or remorseful or anything,” he says. “When I cried, it wasn’t sadness over Nancy dying. It was more guilt for taking Bart’s mother away. At that point, I felt like an outsider.”
Morris says his own family was dysfunctional–almost all of his male relatives have been in prison at one time or another–and he says he was a picked-on nerd. With the Knuckleses, he says, he felt cool. He says he helped kill Nancy because he thought everyone in the house wanted her dead.
But Morris began to worry.
“I told Bart we needed to get some kind of agreement with everyone,” he says. “Make everybody who was in the house take an oath. Bart agreed. And that’s when we made everybody get downstairs in the living room. That’s when the oath took place.
“Basically, the oath was that nobody was to say anything to anybody–police or otherwise. And anybody who did, the first one who told, the rest of us would track them down and kill them.”
Bart says he wanted to protect Pam, but he didn’t want to get in trouble either, so he and Wright went to the Stokleys’ to ask their advice.
The Stokleys were trying to patch up their marital problems when they arrived and told them to go away.
“If only I’d let them in,” Sharon Stokley laments today. “We would have immediately told them to go to the police.”
When Bart and Wright got back to the town house the group rifled through Nancy’s belongings, throwing most things out. Scared, numb, freaked, or pumped, everyone participated–and the steamer trunk that was to become Nancy’s coffin was found in her closet.
It was decided that Nancy would be buried in a field nearby, and Bart and Wright were elected to dig the hole. They left the duplex with shovels but began to have misgivings. They reached the field and made a halfhearted attempt at digging, then went back and told everyone else the ground was too hard.
Around this time David Dukes and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Peggy Wolflick, showed up. Dukes still didn’t have the pot, but he and his pregnant girlfriend had just gotten engaged so he wanted to party. He walked in with a whole lot of booze and a plan to get drunk, but he wound up helping dump the body.
Morris and Dukes had been brawling buddies for years, and Dukes and Bart’s friendship was similar, but they hadn’t known each other long.
“Denny took me downstairs to the basement, Denny and Bart, to show me their mom,” Dukes says.
Dukes and I spoke at the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, where he has lived since a 1993 armed robbery conviction. He adjusted the cap on his shaved head and told me the Knuckles murder is what plunged his life down the toilet.
“She was laying on a rug. I didn’t really look hard at her. I saw her and I didn’t want to see no more, and I walked away. Denny was just joking and laughing, and Bart sat on the stairs real hard and he just busted down. He was crying. And he told me, “Dave, I don’t know what to do. It’s my sister. I don’t know what to do. I can’t turn my sister in.”‘
Dukes said he’d help, but it was agreed that Wolflick was to be kept in the dark. That evening Pam and Debbie kept her busy while the guys crammed Nancy into the trunk–with some difficulty, as rigor mortis had set in. They loaded it into the hatchback of Wolflick’s mother’s Dodge Colt and took off into the dark.
Morris didn’t trust Wright, so he made sure Wright came along. Morris, Wright, and Dukes drove to the Kentucky Fried Chicken at the intersection of Saint Charles Road and route 83, which backs up on a wooded area along Salt Creek. It was around closing time. They pulled into the parking lot, carried the trunk through the trees, and threw it into the water. But instead of sinking, it floated. Morris grew panicky and began ripping off his clothes. He was about to dive in and push it down when it gurgled and sunk from the surface.
Dukes, Morris, and Wright returned to the house and everyone began drinking heavily. Pam and Debbie grabbed their cameras and, while everyone got drunk and stupid, they snapped pictures. The group even formed a human pyramid and Pam clicked away. The mood was “Ding-dong, the witch is dead,” says Morris.
Debbie was the one who cracked. Before Wolflick and Dukes left that evening, Debbie yanked Wolflick aside and told her that Pam and Morris had killed her mother. At 10 AM on Thursday, Wolflick called the police.
The police began surveillance, then got a search warrant. That evening they arrested everyone in the house. Later, they nabbed Dukes too. They took everyone to the station separately. While Pam was in the squad car she told the police Bart and Morris had killed Nancy.
When she got to the station she put it in a written statement. “I knew what was happening was wrong,” she wrote. “At first I was “freaking out.’ Then I wanted to stop them but, being a nurse, my mom had once told me that a lack of oxygen to the brain would cause brain damage. She was down too long and I didn’t want her to have to live with brain damage.”
The officers scurried from room to room giving each other this information, and soon everyone was talking without a lawyer.
“She would always, always, always blame Bart,” Debbie told me. “When Pam would get caught doing something, the first thing she would say is, “Bart made me do it.”‘
Then Wright took the police to Salt Creek and showed them where Nancy had been dumped.
Wright pled guilty to concealment and was sentenced to two years. Debbie and Monica, both minors, got two years of probation for concealing the murder. Pam and Morris both pled guilty to murder and received 33 years. And Bart, Dukes, and Caruso pled not guilty, waived their right to a jury, and were tried together in Du Page County by Judge John J. Bowman.
The trial began June 3, 1985. Wright, Pam, and Morris entered their guilty pleas and were sentenced. Then prosecutors launched their case against Bart, Dukes, and Caruso. It was 21 days before the trial resumed. On June 24 Pam suddenly appeared as a witness for the prosecution.
On the stand Pam admitted she’d lied to the police. She said her first statement was an attempt to save herself, and she admitted her role in the slaying. But she added a new twist. She said that before she strangled her mother she passed Bart in the bathroom and he said “Now,” which was a command to kill their mother. It was the first time any such instruction had been mentioned, and it sealed his fate.
The coroner’s pathologist testified that Nancy had died from strangulation. Later, the judge ruled that the plastic bag Bart used played no role in her death.
Bart’s public defender, Thomas Laz, subpoenaed Wright to testify on Bart’s behalf. But on the day Wright was to appear in court, he was mysteriously transferred to the Joliet Correctional Center.
Laz had represented only one other murder defendant in his career: Rolando Cruz. Cruz was sentenced to death in the infamous Jeanine Nicarico case, but was released from prison after serving 11 years. The Du Page state’s attorney’s office is now under investigation for possible misconduct in that case. Bart’s trial began shortly after Cruz’s ended.
“While waiting in the bullpen of the Du Page County Jail to be taken to the courthouse, I was told by an officer on duty that I was being transferred to the Joliet state prison that morning,” Wright said in an affidavit filed in a later proceeding. “I told the officer that I was a subpoenaed witness in the trial of Bart Knuckles and that Bart said he needed my testimony. I even showed him my subpoena. The officer then told me that apparently someone did not want me to testify because I was going to Joliet whether I liked it or not. I was then taken to Joliet.”
Wright says he was shaving in the bathroom while Bart got ready for his shower and never heard him say “Now.” But Laz never got him back in court so he never had a chance to tell the judge.
Dukes was found guilty of concealment and sentenced to four years. Caruso was found guilty of concealment and sentenced to two years. And Bart was found guilty of conspiracy, concealment, and, under the “theory of accountability,” murder.
A local paper explained, “Barton Knuckles, 20, “aided, abetted and encouraged’ the murder of 40-year-old Nancy Knuckles, Judge John J. Bowman said at the conclusion of the bench trial. . . . He said Barton was accountable for the crime because of his actions in connection with the murder.
“Prosecutor Brian Telander, chief of the criminal division of the Du Page County State’s Attorney’s Office, said he will try at the sentencing hearing to show Knuckles as more culpable in the crime than his sister and Dennis Morris.
“He said, “He gave the go-ahead. With the testimony of Pamela, we’ve learned about the greater participation of Barton. But for Bart, the murder might not have happened.”‘
Bart was sentenced to 33 years.
Bart was shipped to the maximum security Menard Correctional Center, Morris was sent to Joliet, and on Telander’s recommendation Pam was sent to a medium-security cottage at the Dwight Correctional Center.
Laz attempted to get Bart a new trial and cited the prison officials’ failure to produce Wright as one of his reasons, but his motion was denied. In 1986 Bart got a new court-appointed attorney, Michael Harvey, and filed an appeal, but in March 1987 the appellate court upheld the circuit court’s decision and ordered that its ruling not be published, called a “rule 23.”
“Any reviewing court reading this decision now would kick it over,” Harvey says. “And this was a rule 23–they did not publish this. That, and with all the mistakes in law, this is a big problem to them now.
“Bart should have won this appeal,” Harvey says. “The night before the murder, he stopped his mother’s murder. Where was his change of heart?
“The sister’s testimony, “Now,’ that’s the only thing linking him to the murder,” he says. “He should never have been tried on murder or convicted of murder. It wasn’t warranted by the evidence or the trial. That was looking for a reason to find him guilty.”
Bart appealed to the Supreme Court of Illinois later that year, but it wouldn’t review his case.
Then, in 1988, the Chicago Tribune ran a three-part series about the murder, focusing on Pam and portraying her as a victim of abuse. In the course of researching the articles, the author, Dan Liberty, discovered that Pam’s public defender had not advised her properly. Robert Boyd had told Pam that she could face the death penalty if she pled not guilty, but as a minor she wouldn’t have been eligible for capital punishment. As a result, three attorneys from Jenner & Block took on Pam’s case pro bono. Judge Bowman vacated her sentence in 1989, and around Labor Day of 1990 she was released on $3,000 bond.
Bart, who’d been interviewed by Liberty, kept in touch with him, hoping Liberty would help him too. He filed a petition for postconviction relief after Pam’s release in 1990 and got another court-appointed attorney, Ronald Nosek. Every month or so, Bart would call Liberty, and during a phone conversation in 1991–three years after the articles ran–Bart says Liberty let it slip that Pam had told him that she’d lied about the “Now” order.
Bart contacted Nosek and Nosek called Liberty. But Liberty refused to come forward with the information because Pam had been speaking to him off the record.
I asked Liberty about this and he nervously told me it wasn’t true. Then he said he didn’t want to be interviewed and he ended our conversation. Interestingly, no mention of Bart’s “Now” order made it into his Tribune articles about the murder.
Nosek told Bart they should wait until Pam’s case was resolved to move forward, and he took little action on Bart’s case in the next four and a half years. In the meantime Bart appealed to Pam directly.
Pam had been writing Bart letters since their arrests. While they were in the Du Page County Jail–before anyone pled guilty or went to trial–Pam passed him a note that said, “I really hope you get out soon. I feel really lousy for causing you to be put in here. When you get out, and if I don’t make it, try and forget about me. But don’t stop loving me ’cause I’ll always love you, okay? Whatever you do, though, don’t put D.M. [Morris] or D.D. [Dukes] over me in the case. I beg you!”
And after her testimony got him convicted she began writing to him in prison.
“For the first couple of years I didn’t answer her letters,” Bart says. “I didn’t even read them at first–and when I did, they were like, “Hi bro! It’s me! Are you glad to hear from me?”‘
But Bart started writing her back at the end of 1987, mainly, he says, to get answers. But he didn’t get any.
“When I got an answer was after she was out,” Bart says. “She wrote me a letter with her phone number and I called her. That’s when she told me about the deal she made.
“She told me at first she refused to help [the prosecution],” Bart says. “But then they started telling her stories about what happens to girls. I guess they told her about broomsticks and stuff. And she told me that in exchange for her testimony, they promised her that she would go immediately to medium security.
“She told me that the day she was supposed to testify against me, she still wasn’t sure if she was going to,” he continues. “But she passed by me on her way to the elevator and I made a crack at her about “I guess you won’t be getting married to Denny,’ and she said that pissed her off. And after that, I said, “Well, my sister [Debbie] cleared me, and after I’m out, maybe I’ll come and see you.’ And she said that just made her snap.
“I said, “When are you going to tell them I didn’t say “Now”?’ And she told me her lawyers weren’t going to let her do anything until her case was over with.”
Pam’s trial was just around the corner, they figured, so she visited Bart.
“It was weird,” he says. “I was actually overjoyed–and I didn’t know how I was going to react. She was very awkward too. She thought I was going to hate her. But, really, I was just overjoyed to see her. I had a sister again. I guess time heals all things.”
However, after two years of no progress on the “Now” issue, Bart and Pam stopped speaking. Two years after that, in 1994, when Bart was transferred to the medium-security Danville Correctional Center, they resumed contact.
“We don’t really talk about anything now,” Bart says. “A lot of stuff is about when we were kids. We do a lot of laughing and patchwork, which, to me, is really important. For everyone to have any type of future we have to fix the past or at least reconcile with it. I’m trying to build a family now, so we don’t talk about the case. We talk about what she’s doing now.”
“It’s very difficult to look past what Pam did to me,” Bart says. “And I feel terrible that such an extreme action was taken with my mother. But at the same time, I feel that Pam kind of took the only way out that she could. A lot of people have asked me, “Why didn’t she just leave?’ Pam did a couple times. But to be in control, my mom had it set up where she couldn’t leave. See, the thing is, my mom would kick her out, just like she used to do to me, and call the police and say she ran away. And you got to remember, Pam was on that sundown probation. My mom would wave that over her head and say, “Look, you can’t go anywhere. If you do, you’re going to jail.”‘
Since her release Pam has held a slew of different jobs–everything from self-employed therapist (she holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology) to dating-service salesperson. She got married this year and lives with her husband and mother-in-law in a single-family home. And she suffers from intense headaches. Last winter she was hospitalized for excruciating pain. That incident coincided with the news that Bart was considering testifying against her.
Five years after Bart filed his petition for postconviction relief he was offered a sentence reduction. First the state’s attorney’s office agreed to a sentence reduction as long as they didn’t have to admit any wrongdoing. Then they came back with a new proposal: a sentence reduction in exchange for testimony against Pam, which Bart agreed to. Then they began attaching additional demands, and one was that Bart turn over any interview tapes he might have that were made by Dan Liberty. The judge presiding over Pam’s pretrial hearings had quashed the prosecution’s subpoena for those tapes, and this was a long-shot attempt to obtain them through the back door.
Because the rules of the game kept changing, Nosek filed a motion on April 30 to ask the judge to enforce the original agreement. On June 11 he told Judge Ann Jorgensen that he was willing to relinquish his role as Bart’s counsel and take the stand himself to testify as to what the prosecutors had originally promised. Jorgensen was outraged. She said she believed Bart’s constitutional rights had been violated and denied the state’s motion to suppress Nosek’s motion. Then she set a date for a hearing to see if special prosecution was needed since all the lawyers involved were potential witnesses.
On October 3 the state’s attorneys backed down. They offered Bart 28 years–if he dropped his petition for postconviction relief–and he accepted.
Bart’s new out date, with credit for good time, is in August 1998. His old one was May 2001. And he hopes to push his new date up further.
“I have less than two years to serve now, which should make me eligible for work release,” Bart says.
Actually work release is not an option for a Class X felon convicted of first-degree murder, but Bart is hoping he’ll be considered for it because of the circumstances surrounding his case. He works as a superintendent’s clerk at Danville’s industries department, which binds books, manufactures boxes, and embroiders police wear. His job is one of the most prestigious in the prison. If he had been convicted of a lesser crime, he’d be eligible for extra good time just for working there.
Bart’s boss, Janice Loftus, wrote a letter in support of his request for a sentence reduction. “His work ethic is admirable with exceptional time usage and punctuality,” she said. “Mr. Knuckles strives for, and most often achieves, a high level of productivity with emphasis on quality. . . . Upon his initiative, the scope of duties for the administrative clerk position have been greatly expanded.”
Senior Sergeant John Jennings at Danville wrote him a similarly ringing endorsement.
Bart’s out-of-prison plans include working for his father, who overhauls and sells used printing equipment, and living at the shop to save money for an apartment.
“My dad’s been sober for about six years,” Bart says. “He’s a good guy now. He’s trying to put the world together for me out there. I feel fortunate to have this to fall on because half these guys, when they get out, you know what they have to look forward to? Pulling an armed robbery so they can get money to rent a flop room for the night. I’m going to have a family when I get out.”
As for Pam, she may never go to trial. Her lawyers and the state’s attorney’s office are discussing other options that include home monitoring and probation.
Bart says that when they are both free he’ll keep his relationship with Pam in check.
“She sent me this little “Love Is . . . ‘ cartoon,” he says. “I’ve still got it. I put it in plastic. It says, “Love Is . . . Going downhill together.’ You know what the implications of that are. I just, I keep it as sort of a reminder.”
I asked Pam one afternoon if Bart really did tell her “Now.” She shook her head no. Then I asked if he had known she was going to kill their mother. She said, “No. He had no idea.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ Lloyd DeGrane.