Tim WhytePauline HartePatti RasmussenRichard RiouxLeon Worden

Black N Whyte

Michael Tonnessen thinks he's the devil

Tim Whyte · June 29, 1997

Michael Tonnessen thinks he's the devil.

At least, that's the impression sheriff's deputies have been left with, after hearing the matricide suspect's mumblings in the past week. Based on eyewitness accounts and sheriff's deputies' own observations, they've pieced together the following account of the events that preceded Tonnessen's overheard jail cell ramblings:

* * *

Michael liked to drink -- a lot. Neighbors said the 24-year-old seemed like a nice enough guy, but he had his quirks and the drinking seemed to be a problem. Sometimes he would listen to music and drink beer while sitting in his truck, parked in the driveway of the Stevenson Ranch home where he lived with his mother and father.

He wasn't allowed in the Coleridge Place house when his parents knew he'd been drinking.

His mother, Theresa Ann, 51, and father, Kurt, 53, argued with him often about his alcohol consumption. One neighbor heard loud exchanges between father and son, but Michael would not stop.

Late last Saturday night, he ran out of booze. He wanted more.

Just after midnight, Michael demanded the keys to the family car so he could make a liquor run. They refused. It would be their last argument about alcohol.

"You guys are going to meet your maker," Michael told his parents, then went downstairs to the kitchen in search of a weapon. He made his way back upstairs, and Theresa called to Kurt that their son had a knife.

Kurt ran to call the police.

Michael was stabbing his mother when his father returned, and the two Tonnessen men struggled. Kurt and Theresa managed to break free, each of them suffering stab wounds. They ran from the house, to a neighbor's driveway.

Their son followed them.

Kurt tried to protect his wife from their 6-foot, 6-inch son, but could not fend him off. Michael stabbed his mother again and again, and as horrified neighbors poured from their homes, Theresa Ann Tonnessen's screams turned to moans. Her son left her in a pool of blood and walked back into the house.

She died a half-hour later at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital. Her husband survived, and now will likely face the unbelievable task of testifying against his son in the murder of his wife.

Michael barricaded himself inside the family home and would not be seen again until four hours later, when SWAT deputies forced him out by firing tear gas into the house.

He was arrested at 4:40 a.m., and told deputies he had gone to sleep and couldn't remember what had happened. He mugged for a television news camera, feigned a thick Irish accent, laughed like "Moe" of the Three Stooges and sang off-color Christmas carols.

He seemed to be having a good time and was "almost upbeat about being arrested," a deputy recalled.

Once in jail, deputies placed Michael on suicide watch and used a listening device to monitor him in his cell. He seemed much less jovial, and they heard him talk about being the devil. Then reality seemed to hit him.

"Oh, my God!" he said. "What have I done? I've killed my mother."

And he wept.

* * *

What is the devil?

I know what it means in the literal, religious sense. But what is the devil personified? Is there more than one?

On the surface, it appears as if Michael Tonnessen's demons came in 12-ounce bottles. Mustn't the story be more complicated than that? The booze, after all, didn't pick up a knife and kill Theresa Tonnessen. And if the end result is the murder of one's mother, does the "cause" really matter all that much?

Once in a while, one of these stories comes up, even in the relatively tranquil and safe Santa Clarita Valley. They leave you shaking your head, trying to understand what in hell makes someone do such a thing. These cases, even more than your typical crime of violence, greed or gangland idiocy, are unfathomable.

What drove that man to set his house on fire with his own children inside? What drove that teen-ager to have her baby, then throw it in a trash can? Why did that boy kill his own mother?

I don't know. And I don't understand, not one little bit. I won't even pretend to. I cherish my family more than anything, and I cannot even begin to comprehend what makes such criminals tick. Are they "the devil?"

Michael Tonnessen has been talking to himself about being the devil. And if he really did what the police say he did, maybe he is.

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