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'I Was Not Mentally There,' Woman Who Murdered Foster Mom At Foster Dad's Request Says In Prison Interview
Sabrina Zunich's foster father, Kevin Knoefel, initiated a sexual relationship with her while she was a teen and convinced her to kill her foster mother.
When Lisa Knoefel welcomed 16-year-old Sabrina Zunich into her family, there’s no way she could have predicted the chaos that would soon follow. Zunich had an affair with her foster father, Kevin Knoefel, and the two of them conspired to murder Lisa.
Those who knew her say Lisa Knoefel was loving and compassionate. “Lisa loved children and she loved to help people,” her first husband, Nicholas Zanella, told Oxygen’s “Snapped: Behind Bars," which dives into Lisa's murder and features a prison interview with Zunich.
Nicholas and Lisa’s daughter, Megan, was born in 1999, but the couple divorced in 2003. In 2006, she married Kevin Knoefel, a truck driver. Their daughter, Hailey, was born in 2009.
Lisa worked as a social worker in the sex abuse department of the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services in Ohio. She would eventually open her home to children in need as a foster parent.
“When she had foster children, she treated them like her own. She made sure she went the extra mile to be a good parent,” friend Carol Beese told “Snapped: Behind Bars.”
Then, in July 2011, 16-year-old Sabrina Zunich was placed with the Knoefel family and moved into their home in Willoughby Hills, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland.
Zunich was born on October 27, 1994. Her parents were alcoholics and drug addicts and often in trouble with the law, according to a 2013 Cleveland Scene article.
“At one point when she was still being bottle fed, to get her to go to sleep, they put vodka in her bottle,” Zunich’s friend Bob Stokes told producers.
Growing up, Zunich struggled with mental health issues.
“I was diagnosed when I was 4 years old with ADHD and growing up, throughout my life I was diagnosed with ODD, ADHD, bipolar, anxiety, depression,” Zunich said.
Zunich grew up with her father and grandmother in Wickliffe, Ohio. She was eventually removed from the home due to her grandmother’s declining health and allegations that Sabrina stole from her, according to court documents.
“When I was 14 that’s when I got into the actual system and was placed into group homes. It was traumatic,” Zunich told producers.
Zunich spent the next two years being shuffled around the foster care system. Her father died in 2012, allegedly from a drug overdose, according to Cleveland Scene.
But after moving in with the Knoefels, Zunich seemed to thrive. She did well in school and got along with the family, including Lisa and Kevin’s daughters.
“We started off as friends and then we moved into sisters,” Zunich told “Snapped: Behind Bars.” “Me and Lisa’s relationship was good at first and me and Kevin had a very close relationship. I could be open with him.”
A change occurred after six months, though. Zunich thought Lisa gave her own daughters preferential treatment and the two began to butt heads.
“It wasn’t the dream family that I’ve always wanted. That mother-daughter relationship changed immensely,” Zunich told “Snapped: Behind Bars.”
As Zunich and Lisa drifted apart, she became closer to Kevin. “He was my friend and my father. Kevin was there to catch me because he never judged me and he always made me feel wanted,” said Zunich.
Kevin and Zunich’s relationship raised eyebrows, however.
“They were too friendly. They were too close. They would make sexual jokes towards each other,” Zunich’s friend Autumn Pavlik told producers.
On Oct. 27, 2012, Zunich turned 18 and was able to leave the foster care system. Instead, she petitioned to remain in the Knoefels' home and finish high school.
Three weeks later, on the night of Nov. 16, a call came into Willoughby Hills’ 911. It was 13-year-old Megan Zanella.
“She’s stabbing my mom with a knife and she’s beating her!” Megan can be heard crying on the 911 tapes, obtained by “Snapped: Behind Bars.” When asked who had a knife, Megan replies, “My sister! She’s trying to kill my mom!”
First responders arrived on the scene and found Zunich drenched in blood. Lisa was located in her bedroom, unresponsive and covered in stab wounds. She died at the scene. 3-year-old Hailey was found hiding in her mother’s closet.
Lisa had been stabbed 178 times with a 15-inch knife, according to court documents. Many of the wounds were defensive. The attack was so violent, the knife was bent.
Zunich was taken into custody but wouldn’t answer any questions. “I was not mentally there. I was in and out the whole time,” Zunich told “Snapped: Behind Bars.”
Kevin Knoefel was on the road in Michigan when his wife was murdered. Authorities notified him and said he was “relatively calm” upon returning home, according to court documents.
The following day, as friends and family converged on the Knoefel home, they were disturbed by Kevin’s behavior.
“I can’t say how a person should appear when their wife’s been brutally murdered but he just didn’t appear to be fazed by it,” Lisa’s friend Erika Gaiter told “Snapped: Behind Bars.”
Police had a killer but they didn’t have a motive. The more they looked at Zunich and Kevin’s relationship, the more suspicious they became.
Investigators learned that Zunich had told her social worker that Kevin took photographs of her and gave her money, Cleveland Fox-affiliate WJW reported in 2014. On another occasion, Kevin contacted the social worker to say that he and Lisa were considering divorce and that he wanted to retain custody of Zunich.
Autumn Pavlik told investigators that in early October 2012 Zunich had asked her to find a hitman, according to a 2014 Ohio News-Herald article.
“I knew Kevin was involved because when Sabrina would talk about needing help, she would refer to the both of them, you know, ‘Me and Kevin need to get rid of Lisa,’" Pavlik told “Snapped: Behind Bars.”
Zunich initially denied Kevin had any role in Lisa’s murder. While she sat in jail, he collected over $800,000 in life insurance, with which he bought cars and homes, and took flying lessons, according to Cleveland Scene.
After six months in jail, Zunich started to feel abandoned and started talking to police. She claimed that a year earlier her relationship with Kevin had gone from “father-daughter to significant others,” as she told producers.
“It started with massages. I want to be a massage therapist. I wanted to help people all my life and so he said, ‘You can practice on me.’ And it started on the legs because he was a truck driver and had cramps in his legs and it gradually went to more,” Zunich explained.
By the fall of 2012, Zunich and Kevin were having sex on a regular basis, according to court documents. Kevin said he didn’t love Lisa anymore and wanted her dead, the News-Herald reported.
“I said, ‘Why not just divorce her?’ And he said, ‘Because I can’t do it. The girls would end up going to her,'” Zunich told producers. “He said, ‘She’s worth more dead than alive,’ and he brought out two policies, one for $500,000, one for $250,000.”
Zunich claimed Kevin told her to make Lisa’s murder look like the result of a botched burglary. He taught her how to stab Lisa and twist the blade to inflict maximum damage and helped pick out the knife. If she got caught, he told her to claim insanity, according to a 2014 New York Daily News article.
On Aug. 9, 2013, Kevin Knoefel, 43, was taken into custody and charged with conspiracy to commit aggravated murder and complicity to aggravated murder as well as six counts of sexual battery, according to the Akron Beacon Journal newspaper.
Zunich testified against Kevin Knoefel at his murder trial in the spring of 2014. His defense team, however, claims she made it all up.
“There’s no evidence that Kevin had ever done anything inappropriate with Sabrina, no DNA, no videotapes, nothing,” defense attorney Gary Vick told “Snapped: Behind Bars.” “The only evidence they had was Sabrina. It was completely Sabrina’s story.”
Apparently, “Sabrina’s story” was enough for the jury. On June 11, 2014, they found Kevin Knoefel guilty on all counts, and in August he was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years. He will first be eligible for parole in 2043, at the age of 73.
Sabrina Zunich pleaded guilty to aggravated murder in Aug. 2014, and was subsequently sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years, the Associated Press reported at the time. Now 26, Zunich will first be eligible for parole in 2042, when she is 47.
For more on this case, watch "Snapped: Behind Bars," streaming on Oxygen.com.