CLEVELAND — A teenage girl who became romantically involved with her foster father pleaded guilty Thursday to killing her foster mother.
Sabrina Zunich, 19, pleaded guilty to aggravated murder in Lake County Common Pleas Court. Prosecutors want her to serve at least 30 years in prison. Zunich's attorney is asking for the minimum sentence of 20 years. Sentencing was scheduled for Sept. 29.
Zunich stabbed 41-year-old Lisa Knoefel 12 times and cut her more than 160 times with a kitchen knife in November 2012. Her stepfather Kevin Knoefel, 44, is serving 42 years to life in prison after a jury in June found him guilty conspiring with Zunich to kill his wife. His attorneys argued that Zunich was mentally ill and acted alone.
Her family life in ruins, sending Zunich, then 17, to live with the Knoefels at their suburban Cleveland home seemed to make sense, Zunich's attorney said. Lisa Knoefel was a social worker in Cuyahoga County and the couple had taken in other foster children.
But the couple's marriage wasn't what it seemed, and by late 2012, according to court testimony, Kevin Knoefel and Zunich were in a sexual relationship and he had convinced the teen he was in love with her. Prosecutors at his trial told jurors that Kevin Knoefel showed Zunich how to stab his wife and that he wanted her out of the picture but was afraid he'd lose custody of their 3-year-old daughter if they divorced.
The teen testified at his trial that the day before the stabbing Kevin Knoefel broke down in tears and said he would commit suicide if his wife wasn't killed. He and Zunich had previously discussed other ways that Lisa Zunich might be killed.
Zunich said Knoefel told her that day he didn't love his wife but didn't want a divorce because the couple, who married in 2006, had a 3-year-old daughter together. Zunich testified that he told her he would get the house and $750,000 from a life insurance policy if his wife died. Kevin Knoefel worked as a trucker and was on the road when Zunich attacked Lisa Knoefel in her bed. Lisa Knoefel's daughter, who was 13 at the time, tried to intervene and called 911. Police officers found Zunich with the bloody 10-inch serrated knife in her hand.
Charles Grieshammer, Zunich's attorney, said his client is remorseful. The teen needed a place to live after her parents could not care for her and a grandmother had Zunich declared unruly.
"They thought it was a good fit," Grieshammer said of her placement in the Knoefels' Willoughby Hills home. "But it was the absolute worst thing that could have been done."
Grieshammer said Zunich had fallen in love with Knoefel.
"There should be no doubt in anyone's mind that she wouldn't have done this without Mr. Knoefel's urging," Grieshammer said.