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The Foster Child: The Murder of Lisa Knoefel

On November 16th, 2012, a 911 call came into the dispatch center in Lake County, Ohio. On the other end of the line was a hysterical teenage girl. It was very difficult to understand her because she was so upset, but you can hear her tell the dispatcher that someone was killing her mom. Eventually, the dispatcher understood that the caller’s older sister was stabbing her mother. Police rushed to the home, where they first met the caller. The caller was hysterical, saying her older sister was killing her mother. Soon after they arrived, eighteen-year-old Sabrina Zunich walked out of the house with a knife in her hand, covered in blood. Police ordered her to drop the weapon, and she complied. Inside the house, a terrible scene awaited police.


Lisa Marie McIntosh was born May 20th, 1971, in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, to William and Rita McIntosh. Lisa had a daughter, but the relationship with the girl’s father didn’t work out. Around 2006, Lisa married Kevin Knoefel. Kevin also had a child from a previous relationship, a son. Together, the couple welcomed their daughter in 2009. Kevin worked as a truck driver while Lisa worked as a social worker with the Department of Children & Family services. She specialized in child abuse cases, often involving sexual abuse. Lisa had a passion for helping people.

Kevin and Lisa decided to become foster parents, further demonstrating Lisa’s compassion and commitment to helping children. According to a friend of Lisa’s, “When she had foster children, she treated them like her own. She made sure she went the extra mile to be a good parent” (Smith, 2021). During the summer of 2011, the couple welcomed sixteen-year-old Sabrina Zunich into their home.

Sabrina Zunich was born October 27th, 1994, near Cleveland, Ohio. Her parents both struggled with alcohol and substance abuse. The parents were often in trouble with the law, making Sabrina’s home environment very unstable. “At one point when she was still being bottle fed, to get her to go to sleep, they put vodka in her bottle” (Smith, 2021). As a result of her tumultuous childhood, Sabrina had significant behavioral and mental health issues as a child including ADHD, oppositional defiance disorder, bipolar, anxiety, and depression.

After being taken out of her parents’ custody, Sabrina went to live with her grandmother. However, her grandmother’s health declined just as Sabrina became a young teenager. Sabrina was rebellious, which proved to be too much for her grandmother to handle. At age fourteen, Sabrina entered the foster care system. She was bounced from foster homes to group homes, finally being placed in 2011 with Lisa and Kevin Knoefel.

Kevin and Lisa welcomed the teenager into their home, helping her get her life on track. Under their care, Sabrina started going to school regularly and earning good grades. She was doing well, expressing wishes to be a massage therapist. However, Lisa started butting heads a little with Sabrina. Sabrina seemed to be very close to her stepfather, Kevin Knoefel. Sabrina began to resent Lisa’s rules and restrictions, finding it easier to talk to Kevin. She felt that Lisa treated her biological children better, further adding tensions. Lisa told her friends that she planned to force Sabrina to leave the home in January of 2013, as she was now eighteen years old.

On November 16th, 2012, Kevin was working on the road as a truck driver and Lisa was at home with the kids. That evening, her teenaged and three-year-old daughter heard their mother screaming. They rushed to her room, to find Sabrina viciously stabbing Lisa over and over. The toddler ran into the closet to hide while Lisa’s teenage daughter begged Sabrina to stop and called 911. She was absolutely hysterical, as she told police that her sister was stabbing her mother to death.

At the scene, Lisa Knoefel was pronounced dead, and Sabrina was taken into custody. Lisa’s murder was particularly brutal, with one hundred and seventy-eight stab wounds. Multiple knives had been plunged into the woman, with Sabrina twisting the knives to the point of bending them. Her young daughter was found huddled in the closet, scared beyond measure. Both of Lisa’s biological daughters watched as Sabrina stabbed their mother over and over, forever traumatizing the girls.

Initially, the police believed that Sabrina was a troubled teenager who snapped, lashing out at her foster mother. However, friends and family members of Lisa Knoefel were immediately suspicious that there was more to this story. Lisa’s thirteen-year-old daughter found her stepfather’s behavior strange. He didn’t seem to be sad or grieving. Even upon notification, the man seemed overly calm.

While awaiting trial, Sabrina decided to come forward to investigators with the rest of this story. Sabrina told authorities what they had already suspected, she had been having a sexual relationship with her foster father. She stated that it started out as a massage, eventually leading to Sabrina providing oral sex to Kevin every morning while he drove her to school. According to Sabrina, they began having intercourse when she was seventeen years old. Despite age of consent laws, as a foster child in Ohio, this was still considered statutory rape.

Sabrina went on to explain that she and Kevin were in love. She said that Kevin had explained to her that he did not love Lisa and wanted a divorce. He eventually told her that Lisa was worth more dead than alive. He told her that he wanted to be with Sabrina and raise his young daughter with Lisa as their own child. As it turns out, Kevin had nearly $800,000 in life insurance benefits on his wife. In fact, he had called to collect the pay out just nine hours after his wife died.

Sabrina said that Kevin told her how to kill his wife, instructing her to stab her and twist the knife. He told her to make it look like a burglary. He allegedly told her that if she did get caught, she should claim insanity. When pulling phone records, detectives noticed that Kevin and Sabrina texted frequently, including communicating just before Lisa’s murder. Under interrogation, Kevin denied being a part of his wife’s murder and having any sexual relationship with Sabrina. He claimed that Sabrina was mentally unstable and fabricating the relationship.

Kevin was arrested and charged with complicity to commit aggravated murder and sexual battery. He pleaded not guilty. Sabrina pleaded guilty to aggravated murder in August 2014. She was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after thirty years. She will be eligible for parole in 2042, when she will be forty-seven years old.

At Kevin’s trial, the defense told the jury that there was no evidence against Kevin Knoefel outside Sabrina’s word. There were no witnesses other than Sabrina, no DNA, no video-tapped evidence, or anything else to conclusively prove that Kevin Knoefel was conspiring with Sabrina to kill Lisa. However, the State of Ohio did call Sabrina Zunich to the stand to testify. She explained the details of how Kevin groomed her, beginning a sexual affair with her when she was seventeen. She recalled Kevin telling her that they could be together if Lisa was dead, and she was worth more dead than alive. She said that Kevin told her how to kill Lisa and how to stage the scene.

Although the defense tried to imply that Sabrina, a convicted murderer, was not a credible witness. However, the jury found her credible and convicted Kevin Knoefel, now forty-three, of all charges in June of 2014. He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after forty years.


Some speculate that Kevin had planned for Sabrina to be caught or possibly killed by police, so that he would get away with his crime. The defense team, however, continues to say that Kevin Knoefel was innocent, and Sabrina Zunich was crazy and manipulative. Lisa’s loved ones believe Kevin is guilty and is justifiably spending his days in prison. It’s believed that Kevin wanted the life insurance pay out and to avoid a custody battle, so he groomed his teenage foster daughter. Not only did he sexually abuse her, but he also coerced her into murder.


References

Snapped: Season 17 Episode 1 “Sabrina Zunich”

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