The young woman's tale was unbelievably gruesome and bizarre - so much so, in fact, that she says police twice brushed her off.

She had to be making it up.In 1984, she says she told police in Utah six years ago, her mother and two brothers killed her sister by dousing her with gasoline and setting her afire. The next year, she told them, they killed her other sister, starving her to death in a closet and dumping her body in the mountains.

Horrible if true, but apparently no one thought it was - until last month. Detectives in Northern California's Placer County matched her unlikely story to two bodies whose identities had been a mystery for years.

Now, her mother and two brothers are charged with murder, and investigators are delving into a family that stretches the definition of the word, a household bound not by love but by fear and violence.

It was, said Sheriff Donald Nunes, "one of the most bizarre and unbelievably sad family situations anyone could ever imagine."

Theresa Jimmie Cross, 47, ruled her children by bullying and beating them into submission - and when that didn't work, by killing them, authorities said.

"I knew they were weird, but I didn't know they were that weird," said Susan Sullivan, a former neighbor.

From the start, this was no ordinary family.

* * *

Cross married young. In 1964, when she was 18 and pregnant with her second child, she shot and killed her first husband, Clifford Sanders. She claimed self-defense, saying she grabbed a gun to stop him from hitting her, and a jury acquitted her.

She was left with two children: Howard, born in 1963, and Sheila, born in 1965.

She remarried, and with Robert Knorr bore four more children in as many years: Suesan, William, Robert and, finally, Theresa, the girl who last month turned her relatives in.

Cross' second marriage was no better than the first. Knorr left in 1970, and his wife later reverted to her maiden name of Cross, even though she married again at least twice. "They weren't what you'd call long-term relationships," Sheriff's Inspector Johnnie Smith said.

Cross and the children lived for 13 years in Orangevale, a Sacramento suburb, then moved in 1983 to a rundown trailer park on Sacramento's Auburn Boulevard.

It is a poor neighborhood, a stretch of shabby motels, hookers and teenage drug dealers on bicycles, a place where residents have enough problems of their own without noticing those of others.

Even here, Cross and her children stood out.

Former neighbors say the family's little two-bedroom apartment was dirty and smelled of urine. The children seemed nervous and high-strung, and Cross was secretive, never using the front door, they said.

"I didn't like that woman," neighbor Marvin Hall said. "She had a high, tense voice, and she talked fast, without any commas or periods."

Most of the children never made it past eighth grade, said Sheriff's Lt. Chal DeCecco. When they were home, Cross seldom let them out of her sight.

A childhood friend of Suesan's told investigators the girl would get hysterical if her school bus ran late, knowing she'd be beaten for her tardiness when she got home.

Such were the outward signs of abuse. The family's darkest secrets remained hidden until last month, when detectives got a call from Theresa, now 22 and living in Utah.

According to Smith, this is what she told them:

Suesan was the first to die. During an argument, perhaps as early as 1982, Cross grabbed a handgun and shot Suesan in the chest, Theresa said. The bullet lodged in her back, but she recovered without medical help.

In 1984, at age 17, Suesan said she wanted to leave home. Cross agreed under one condition: Suesan must let her remove the bullet from her back, Theresa said. That way, if she ever were to report abuse, there would be no corroborating evidence.

The kitchen floor was the operating table; whiskey the anesthetic. Cross dug the bullet out of her daughter's back with a scalpel, Theresa said.

An infection set in, and Suesan grew delirious. Cross decided they had to get rid of her, so she enlisted the aid of William and Robert to dispose of their sister, Theresa said.

They drove Suesan 100 miles into the Sierra Nevada mountains, turning off the highway near the Squaw Valley ski area. There, they laid her down, doused her with gasoline and burned her alive, Theresa said.

Sheila was next. During an argument with her mother in 1985, Sheila was beaten, handcuffed and forced into a narrow closet, Theresa said.

Theresa, 13 at the time, recalls hearing her 20-year-old half-sister moaning and crying, "Help me, help me." But nobody opened the door, she said.

After a few days, the cries stopped, and after a week or so, the stench of rotting flesh filled the apartment.

Cross enlisted her sons for another trip to the mountains, where they left Sheila's body lying by the road in a cardboard box, Theresa said.

The odor of death hung in the apartment, she said, and the family soon moved out. Theresa said her mother then ordered her to set fire to the apartment; firefighters doused the blaze before it spread to the building's four other apartments.

The family, what was left of it, deteriorated further. Detectives believe Howard, the oldest son, never lived at the Auburn Boulevard apartment. Theresa said she stayed with her mother for three years before running away at 16. Robert told detectives he last saw his mother six years ago in Reno, Nev.

Inspector Smith said Theresa's story is supported by statements from her brothers and by physical evidence found with the bodies. There are no plans to charge her, he said. She's married now, and officials are not releasing their key informant's new last name.

Theresa said she tried to tell her story starting in 1987, contacting an attorney and two police departments in Utah. Smith would not say which agencies they were, and no Utah police departments have volunteered that they turned Theresa away.

"The only thing that we can surmise is that the people she reported it to thought her story was so bizarre it couldn't be truthful," Smith said.

Watching a true-crime show on television spurred Theresa to try again, he said. She called Placer County officials after consulting a map to see who had jurisdiction over the area where the bodies had been dumped.

Theresa's story revived the county's dead-ended investigation of the two slain girls, and tracking down the suspects was relatively easy.

William, 26, was found in North Highlands, a Sacramento suburb where he worked in a department-store warehouse and lived with his wife in a peaceful, tidy neighborhood. His neighbors regarded him as "a nice guy."

Robert, 24, is in a Nevada prison, serving a 15-year sentence for second-degree murder for his role in a 1992 robbery at a Las Vegas tavern.

Cross was arrested Wednesday in Salt Lake City, where she worked as a home health aide for an 86-year-old woman and, according to the woman's son, "did an absolute super job."

* * *

Theresa says she would like to rebury her sisters and put names on their headstones. While that might put them to rest, there will be no peace for her, she said.

"What kind of mother would do that?" she asked during an interview with KUTV in Salt Lake City. "What kind of person am I going to be for the rest my life because of this?"

Detectives wonder, too. Since Theresa came forward, they have immersed themselves in her family's sordid history. It has been a frustrating, depressing experience for even the thickest-skinned cops.

Lt. DeCecco said one officer asked him how such abuse could have continued for so long. Wouldn't a normal person have picked up the phone and called for help?

"I had to remind him," DeCecco said, "he wasn't dealing with normal people."

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Suspect will get public defender

Theresa Jimmie Cross appeared before a 3rd Circuit judge Monday and told him she had no means to hire her own attorney. Judge Michael Hutchings appointed a public defender to represent her on a charge of being a fugitive from justice.

Cross, also known as Theresa Knorr, was arraigned in court through a video monitor in the Salt Lake County Jail. She was ordered to return to court on Dec. 15, if she has not been extradited to California.

Placer County authorities are expected to pursue extradition through a California governor's warrant. Cross has indicated she plans to fight extradition.

Cross is being sought in connection with the deaths of two daughters, one burned to death in 1984 and one starved to death in a closet in 1985.