Natasha Cornett, 24, is a
self-described Satan worshipper serving three life sentences for
the shooting deaths of a Knoxville couple and their 6-year-old
daughter. Cornett and many other Kentucky teen-agers encountered
the Lillelid family at a rest stop near Greeneville, Tenn., in
1997. The couple's 2-year-old son also was shot, but he lived.
Natasha Wallen Cornett
is currently serving a sentence of life without parole at the
Tennessee Prison For Women in Nashville. Cornett, then 19, was
convicted in March 1998 with five other youths in the notorious
The youths, aged 14 to 20, had
left Pikeville, Kentucky, headed to New Orleans. By chance, they
met the Lillelid family at an interstate highway rest area where
they carjacked the family for their van. The youths drove the
Lillelids to a remote side road where mother, father and daughter
were shot dead and the son was left wounded.
This crime took place on April 6, 1997 near
the town of Greeneville in the eastern part of Tennessee. Two days
after the shootings Cornett and the five others were taken into
custody by US Customs and Immigration officials in Arizona while
trying to cross into Mexico in the stolen van.
The conviction was the result of a plea bargain
where Cornett pled guilty to all charges against her to avoid a
possible death sentence. Although she took the plea bargain, court
testimony strongly established she did not participate in the
actual shooting of the four victims. During her own testimony
Cornett claimed she tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent the deaths.
Cornett was born on January 26, 1979 into
poverty in rural Eastern Kentucky. Cornett's mother Madonna Wallen
was not married to her biological father, a local police officer
named Roger Burgess with whom Madonna was having an affair. When
Natasha was young her mother left her husband, Ed Wallen and
Madonna raised Natasha alone as a single mom in a trailer located
in the outskirts of Pikeville, Kentucky. By junior high school
Cornett was alienated from her follow students due to her
unconventional behavior. She suffered from anorexia and was
diagnosed with bipolar disorder which went largely untreated due
to lack of health insurance. Sometime during her freshman year of
high school Cornett dropped out.
Married to a long time friend named Stephen
Cornett on her 17th birthday, Natasha told Women's Entertainment
Network interviewers in a 2009 documentary that when Stephen ended
the marriage after only a matter of months she was "devastated".
By the time the murders occurred, Cornett had
embraced the Goth subculture manner of black clothing and dark
"doom-ridden music". Also at this time Cornett was abusing drugs
and alcohol and practicing self-mutilation, activities she had
been involved with since her early teen years. Young people
similarly inclined were drawn to Cornett and she became the
informal leader the group. On April 6, 1997, per court testimony,
Cornett, looking to escape what was to her the boredom, poverty,
and general unhappiness of life in Pikeville took to the road with
the five others heading for a hoped for new life in New Orleans.
New Orleans was never reached as a chance encounter with the
Lillelid family at an interstate rest stop in Tennessee resulted
in murder and Cornett's current confinement to prison.
Since her arrival at the prison in Nashville,
Cornett has earned her GED and a certification in cosmetology. In
a 2007 article published in The Knoxville News Madonna Wallen
stated that her daughter serves as a mentor for some fellow
inmates as they work to earn their GEDs.
On August 24, 2001, death row inmate Christa
Pike with alleged assistance from Natasha Cornett attacked fellow
prisoner Patricia Jones and nearly strangled her to death with a
shoe string after Pike and Jones were placed in a holding cell
with Cornett during a fire alarm. Although the Department of
Corrections believed that Cornett was involved, investigators
found insufficient evidence to charge her with helping Pike, who
was subsequently found guilty of attempted murder.
The Lillelid murders refers to a
criminal case in Greeneville, Tennessee, United States in 1997. A
Norwegian-Honduran-American family of Jehovah's Witnesses were
carjacked and then shot; three of the four were killed. Six young
people were convicted and sentenced for the crime.
Norwegian Vidar Lillelid (age 34), his
American wife Delfina (28), their daughter Tabitha
(6) and son Peter (2) were shot on a deserted road in
Tennessee on 6 April 1997. Vidar and Delfina were found dead,
while Tabitha died after being transported to the hospital. Peter,
who was found lying in a ditch, was the only survivor. He had been
shot once in the torso and once through the eye. As a result of
the shooting, he was left blind in one eye and permanently
Vidar Lillelid grew up in Bergen, Norway. He
moved in 1985 to the USA, where he married Delfina Zelaya in 1989.
They met through their common involvement in Jehovah's Witnesses.
She was born in New Jersey, USA by parents from Honduras.
Details of the crime
Six young people—Natasha Wallen Cornett, 18;
Edward Dean Mullins, 19; Joseph Lance Risner, 20; Crystal R.
Sturgill, 18; Jason Blake Bryant, 14; and Karen R. Howell, 17—were
arrested two days after the killings. The six individuals were
taken into custody in Arizona after trying to cross the Mexican
border in the van which they had stolen from the Lillelid family.
All of the perpetrators had difficult childhoods and lived on the
edge of the law. In addition to that references were made by
prosecutors at trial to rumors that they were involved with
occultism and Satanism, however no evidence was presented and this
omission was cited in Ms. Cornett's unsuccessful 2002 appeal of
Witnesses observed the youths in conversation
with the Lillelid family at a rest area picnic spot. From there,
they forced the family to drive them away from the rest area and
to a more remote location. After the family had been shot and left
for dead, the six abandoned their original vehicle and left in the
Their trial was completed in March 1998. The
six youths were sentenced to prison for life with no chance for
parole. The judge applied the same aggravating circumstances for
all. However, it was not exactly decided which of them had the
main blame for the killings. Per court testimony it was
established that the youngest, Jason Bryant, had fired shots, but
the judge opined another undetermined member of the group might
also have done so.
Aftermath of the victim family
Soon after Peter Lillelid's medical condition
stabilized at the end of April 1997, a custody battle began
between his maternal grandmother Lydia Selaya of Miami, Florida,
USA and his father's sister Randi Heier of Sweden. Citing Randi's
pledge to raise Peter in the faith and teachings of the Jehovah's
Witnesses as the deciding factor, local Judge Fred McDonald
awarded her custody of Peter on July 1, 1997.
Peter has since been raised in Sweden by his
Aunt Randi Heier and her family.
As of 2007 at the age of about twelve years, he
still had trouble walking because of the injuries.
Natasha Cornett Tells Why She Is Seeking A 'Fair Trial'
August 3, 2009
MORRISTOWN - In an interview with The
Greeneville Sun and WCYB-TV (Channel 5) on Wednesday afternoon,
convicted murderer Natasha Wallen Cornett, 22, maintained that she
tried to prevent the April 1997 shootings of three members of the
Lillelid family near Baileyton.
Cornett and her court-appointed attorney,
Susanna Thomas - here for a hearing before Criminal Court Judge
James E. Beckner on a petition to overturn her 1998 guilty pleas
and resulting three consecutive life sentences - agreed to a brief
post-hearing interview at the Hamblen County Justice Center.
Nearly four years after she entered guilty
pleas, along with her five codefendants, on Feb. 20, 1998, to
three counts of felony murder, one count of attempted murder, plus
counts of aggravated kidnapping, especially aggravated kidnapping
and theft, Cornett said she wants those guilty pleas overturned
and wants a "fair trial."
Asked what she would like to see happen as a
result of the petition currently before Judge Beckner, Cornett
said, "Ideally, I would like to have a fair trial. Ideally, I
would like to get out of prison before I'm too old to really care.
To get out one day and have an opportunity to be a productive
Thomas, the Newport lawyer who currently
represents Cornett, said Cornett hopes that, during a new trial,
it can be shown "who was individually responsible for what
happened (during the Lillelid murders)."
"I think what she (Cornett) is hoping to
accomplish by getting a new trial would be to really clear up what
actually happened and what the individual levels of responsibility
were," Thomas said.
Cornett: 'I Didn't Know'
Asked what her involvement in the kidnapping
and shootings of the Lillelid family had been, Cornett said, "I
didn't know what was transpiring until it was too late. And when I
did figure out what was happening, I tried my best to prevent it."
The first indication of trouble she received
was a "gut feeling" that something was wrong at the Interstate 81
rest area near Baileyton, where the group of six young Kentuckians
encountered the Lillelid family on a Sunday afternoon in April
1997, she said.
"It was when Joe (codefendant Joseph Lance
Risner) said he wanted to converse with Vidar (Lillelid) about his
religious beliefs," she said. "That just brought up red flags,
because Joe was not a religious man. I tried to convince him
(Risner) that we should just leave and get on our way. Every step
that he took, I was there trying to prevent it."
Cornett claimed during the interview that
Risner initiated the kidnapping of the Lillelid family from the
I-81 rest area by pulling a gun on the family.
The Lillelid family was returning to their
Knoxville-area home from a Jehovah's Witnesses convention in
Johnson City when they encountered the six young Kentuckians who
had left their home state earlier that day and had stolen two
pistols along the way.
After Vidar and Delfina Lillelid and their
children - Tabitha, 6, and Peter, 2 - were kidnapped from the rest
area and driven in their own van to isolated Payne Hollow Lane off
Van Hill Road north of Baileyton, Cornett said, she tried to
intercede with Risner and Jason Blake Bryant, the then-14-year-old
she accuses of firing the fatal shots.
"I got in between Jason (Bryant) and the family
to where the gun was pointed at me and tried to convince him to
not do that," she said. "I begged and I pleaded for what seemed
like an eternity for him to stop. When I discovered that there was
no stopping him, I begged for at least the children to be saved.
He told me that if I didn't move, he would shoot me.
"I don't think I would have moved anyway until
he promised and swore to me that he would not harm the children.
That's when I moved. I didn't think that I could do anything to
prevent it if I was dead.
"I thought I had more of an opportunity to
convince him not to do anything if I got out of his way to where
he could calm down."
Bryant Said To Have Fired
During the March 1998 sentencing hearing for
all six of the young Kentuckians, Cornett and codefendants Risner
and Karen R. Howell testified that Bryant fired the shots that
killed Vidar, Delfina and Tabitha Lillelid and seriously wounded
2-year-old Peter Lillelid.
Bryant, however, testified that Risner and
Edward Dean Mullins fired the shots and later tried to force him
to take the blame as the six Kentuckians fled across the country
in the Lillelid family's van.
A car registered to Risner's mother was found
abandoned at the murder scene where the bullet-riddled bodies of
the Lillelid family lay in a roadside ditch.
Asked what she would like to do if released
from prison, Cornett said, "There are all kinds of things that I
would do. Grow a garden. Visit forests. Live somewhere like out in
the woods somewhere. But the first thing I would do would be to go
visit my mom."
Cornett noted that her mother had come to visit
her at the Greene County Detention Center last Friday after she
was returned there to await Wednesday's hearing before Judge
"I don't like her making the trip all the way
that far," Cornett said of her mother. "It makes me worry about
During the interview, which her attorney
requested not touch on the facts of the case, Cornet said life in
prison had not been what she had expected.
"I expected big women with shanks (home-made
knives) and stuff like that," she said. "You know, like the
typical prison scene that you would see in a movie. But it's not
Typical Day In Prison
However, Cornett noted that prison still isn't
fun for her. "It's hard to have a good time when you're locked
up," she noted.
Asked what a typical day is like for her,
Cornett said, "you just get up, go to meals, have an hour out for
recreational purposes and watch television and read." She said she
spends more time reading than watching television.
Asked if she worked in prison, Cornett said,
"Not for the time being, but I was a teacher's aide for about a
Cornett noted that she had been transferred
from the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville to the Mark
Luttrell Correctional Center near Memphis about two months ago.
Codefendant Karen R. Howell, 21, also is being held at the Memphis
prison, Cornett said, noting that she sees Howell "every once in a
Asked how Howell was faring in prison, Cornett
said, "She seems to be doing okay."
In response to a reporter's question about how
she faces the possibility that she might never be released from
prison, Cornett said, "It's tough. Beyond tough; it's
heart-breaking. There are a lot of people there who have to go
through it on a daily basis."
Asked if she felt her situation is fair,
Cornett said, "It's hard to put the word fair to anything that has
to do with this whole situation. I don't think anything that has
happened is fair to them (the victims), to us. I don't think the
word (fair) can be put in context, or in the same paragraph, with
Blames Her First Lawyer
In response to a reporter's question about why
she had been "dubbed the ring-leader of this group (the convicted
killers of the Lillelids)," Cornett said, "I'm assuming it has
something to do with Eric Conn, the first lawyer that I had.
Otherwise, I don't know why it was me that was picked out of
everyone else. I know he did a lot to damage to me and my case."
At that point in the interview, Thomas,
Cornett's current court-appointed attorney, interjected comments
about Conn, the Kentucky lawyer who represented Cornett shortly
after her arrest in Arizona in the wake of the Lillelid murders.
"He volunteered to represent her, then
immediately began negotiating movie rights," Thomas said.
Stacy Street and Robert E. Cupp, the lawyers
subsequently appointed to represent Cornett in Greene County, both
claimed Conn caused harm to Cornett's defense by granting early
media interviews and raising issues of alleged Satan worship by
On Wednesday, Cornett claimed she was unaware
of what Conn was saying about her early in the case. "I was
unaware of anything that was transpiring until after he had been
taken off my case," she said. "They would keep all the newspapers
away from me, and I couldn't watch the news (while still being
held in Arizona). To me, he was presenting himself as a good
lawyer and to everybody else, he basically used me as a crutch for
a movie deal."
Asked if she was concerned that she might be
opening herself up for possibly receiving the death penalty if she
wins a new trial, Cornett said, "It's a chance I'm willing to
take. I'm aware that it could be reinstated, but that's something
I'm willing to deal with."
Peter Lillelid Is 'A Happy Little Boy' 3
Years After Murders Of His Family
April 1, 2009
Peter Lillelid, who was 2 years old when he was
shot and left for dead three years ago beside a northern Greene
County roadway, turned five last month.
The attack, in which Peter's parents, Vidar and
Delfina Lillelid, and their 6-year-old daughter, Tabitha, were
murdered, left Peter with spinal cord damage and blinded him in
The Lillelids were kidnapped from an Interstate
81 rest area three years ago on the afternoon of Sunday, April 6,
1997, as they were returning to their Knoxville-area home from a
Jehovah's Witnesses convention in Johnson City.
Later that night, they were found shot on
isolated Payne Hollow Lane, located off Van Hill Road a short
drive north of Baileyton.
The family van was missing, and an old
Chevrolet sedan registered to a Kentucky woman was found at the
Six young Kentuckians were arrested a few days
later in Arizona while driving the Lillelid family van.
They pleaded guilty in Greene County Criminal
Court two years ago to murdering Vidar, a Norwegian immigrant, and
his wife, Delfina, and their daughter, Tabitha, and to wounding
All six now are serving life-without-parole
sentences in various state prisons.
Despite his wounds, Peter survived; but a legal
custody battle ensued between his paternal aunt, who lives in
Sweden, and members of his mother's family, who live in the U.S
after emigrating from Honduras.
The court decided in favor of his paternal
aunt, Randi Heier, sister of Vidar Lillelid, and the 2-year-old
went to Sweden in July 1997 to live with her and her family.
Protecting Boy's Privacy
On Thursday, the third anniversary of the
shootings, a Greeneville Sun reporter telephoned Randi Heier at
her home and learned that the family now is trying to maintain a
low profile and shelter Peter from news media coverage.
"We don't want to say anything about it
anymore," Heier said by telephone from her home in a suburb of
Stockholm, the Swedish capital. "He (Peter) needs to go on with
his life, and we want him to grow up as a normal child."
Heier said, however, that she had told Peter
about what happened to his family in the United States. "He knows
everything about what happened," she said. "But it's not fun for
him to read about it in the media."
Heier declined to answer other questions about
Jehovah's Witnesses friends of the Lillelid
family did, however, provide some new information about Peter.
'A Happy Little Boy'
Mattie Turner, a member of the West Knoxville
Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall formerly attended by the Lillelid
family, said Thursday afternoon that Peter and the Heiers had made
a low-profile visit to the Knoxville area last fall.
"They didn't announce that they were coming,"
Turner said. "There was nothing in the newspaper about it here
Last fall, Turner said, Peter was "a happy
little boy" who was able to "go everywhere" using a special
Turner also noted that she understood Randi
Heier had taken Peter to New York last fall to visit his maternal
grandmother and other maternal relatives.
"They (the Heiers) have been teaching him
Spanish so he can speak with his grandmother by telephone," Turner
'Bigger And Stronger'
Troy and Judy Love, who also are members of the
West Knoxville Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses and were
friends of Vidar and Delfina Lillelid, also spoke with a
Greeneville Sun reporter Thursday about Peter.
Troy Love said he saw Peter last November
during the boy's visit to Knoxville.
"He's much bigger and stronger now," Love said.
"He didn't seem to remember me at first, but I gave him a 'horsy
ride' like I used to do, and I could tell that he remembered me."
Peter, according to Troy Love, was speaking
only Swedish when he visited Knoxville. "I think they (the Heiers)
think English will confuse him," Love said.
Troy Love also noted that he understood Peter
had been attending the Swedish equivalent of preschool last year.
Judy Love said the Lillelids and their children
often had been guests in the Love home before the April 6, 1997,
"We were best friends with them," she said.
"Vidar liked for the children to come here to play because we had
dogs and ducks and other animals."
She also noted that the Loves hosted a baby
shower for Delfina before Peter's birth. "It was different because
Vidar wanted the men to come too," she said.
Judy noted that the Loves also stay in
telephone contact with Lydia Zelaya, Peter's maternal grandmother.
"She called me to let me know Peter was coming last fall," Judy
Although Zelaya speaks English haltingly, Judy
Love said, the two women have been able to communicate about
The Loves said they hope Peter will visit
Knoxville again, possibly as soon as later this year.
Mrs. Love said that while the Heiers and Peter
were in the U.S. last fall, they spent a week in the Knoxville
area and another week in New York.
"While they were here, they traveled to the
Smokies and Chattanooga," she noted.
Earlier this year, the Tennessee Court of
Criminal Appeals denied appeals of the life-without-parole
sentences now being served by the six young Kentuckians who
pleaded guilty in 1998 to the Lillelid murders.
Sentences of three consecutive terms each of
life without parole imposed on Jason Blake Bryant, Natasha Wallen
Cornett, Karen Howell, Edward Dean Mullins and Joseph Lance Risner
The appeals court changed Crystal Sturgill's
sentence to three concurrent terms of life without parole.
Since no one can serve more than one term of
life without parole, however, the change in Sturgill's sentence
has little practical effect.
The six are serving their sentences at various
Routine call, horrific crime
Responding officer, others remember Lillelid
By J.J. Stambaugh - KnoxNews.com
April 1, 2007
GREENEVILLE, Tenn. - A decade has passed since
Greene County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Frank Waddell was dispatched
to Payne Hollow Road to investigate what he thought would be a
routine disturbance call on a Sunday night.
Instead, he came across a pile of bodies by the
side of the road and a toddler lying in a ditch.
Although he didn't know it yet, Waddell had
found the grisly fruits of a chance encounter at a nearby rest
stop on Interstate 81 that left a little girl dying, her younger
brother crippled, and their parents dead.
Every day since then, Waddell says, he's
thought about pulling 2-year-old Peter Lillelid from the ditch. He
also remembers Peter's sister, 6-year-old Tabitha, whom he found
by the corpses of their parents, Vidar, 34, and Delfina, 28.
All had been shot. Both the adults were already
dead; Tabitha would die a short time later in a hospital. Peter
survived, although he never fully recovered physically - he was
shot in the right eye and torso, and the injuries left him
half-blind and disabled.
"The little girl had been shot point-blank in
the head," Waddell said as he pointed out the spot by the rural
road where the family had been left by six young people from
Kentucky. "The little boy was laying in the ditch, and I picked
him up. Thank God the ambulance was here in a hurry."
It took two days for authorities to track down
the people who had stolen the Lillelid family's van. Natasha
Wallen Cornett, 18; Edward Dean Mullins, 19; Joseph Lance Risner,
20; Crystal R. Sturgill, 18; Jason Blake Bryant, 14; and Karen R.
Howell, 17; were taken into custody in Arizona after trying to
cross the Mexican border in the stolen vehicle.
All six now are serving life sentences in the
state prison system, and Peter Lillelid lives with relatives in
his father's native Sweden. Lillelid's family declined a request
to be interviewed, and none of the defendants - all now in their
20s or 30s - could be reached for comment.
For a brief time, the six killers were the
center of a storm of publicity. Their faces filled the front pages
of supermarket tabloids along with tales of Satanism,
blood-drinking, and speculation about "Goth" culture.
Some tried to understand the case by delving
into their personal histories, trying to come up with a reason
that might explain why they took the lives of an innocent family
who had the misfortune of running into them while returning home
to Powell from a Jehovah's Witnesses conference in Johnson City.
People still ask why the tragedy occurred and
wonder what - if anything - could have prevented it. Others feel
that not all the defendants were equally responsible and question
the justice of the plea bargain, which took the death penalty off
the table in exchange for an "all-or-nothing" guilty plea that
triggered life sentences.
Many take satisfaction in knowing the rest of
the defendants' lives will be spent behind prison walls.
Waddell, for his part, is still haunted by the seemingly mundane
nature of the call, which was dispatched about 8:20 p.m. on April
6, 1997. Someone from a nearby house had reported hearing gunshots
and "people laughing and hollering, something like a party," he
As far as Waddell is concerned, life in prison
is a just outcome for all those involved.
"I know one thing, they're getting what they
deserve, every one of them, because anyone who would shoot a kid
point-blank " Waddell paused to shake his head. "They're getting
what they deserve."
The Greene County detective who led the
investigation, John Huffine, seems satisfied with the case's
disposition. He's also not overly interested in delving into the
whys of what motivated the killers - it's enough for him to know
he unearthed the facts that ultimately led to the case's
"I've seen people killed for $5," he said.
"There's never a good reason."
Huffine is cynical of the media's continued
interest in the case, as he says he's investigated many homicides
that were every bit as brutal but didn't garner much coverage.
"We've had school schootings, patricides - just about every kind
of case you see on the national news here," he said. "(These)
occur on a daily basis somewhere in the United States."
One reason for the notoriety, he said, is the
sensational nature of the young men and women, who seemed to
represent an inversion of just about everything that mainstream
culture deemed good. For instance, the killers embraced "the
antithesis of the normal religion" and their victims were
Jehovah's Witnesses, which led to a perception that the case was
about larger issues.
"Good and evil, some people wanted to apply God
and the Devil," Huffine said. "If that's the case, every case has
an element of that."
Huffine said it was never entirely clear
exactly who shot the Lillelids and "some might have been up the
road" when the killings happened. The evidence pointed to two
gunmen - Bryant and Risner - but was inconclusive as to whether
anyone else took place in the actual shootings.
Still, he said, all were ultimately responsible
for what took place. "When it was done, they got back in the van
and went to Mexico with them," he said.
Huffine also reflected on how easy it would
have been for the group to get away with the crime. If they'd not
ditched the car they'd driven from Kentucky at the scene, for
instance, police might not have been able to trace the killings
back to them, he said.
"But getting away wasn't what was uppermost in
their minds," Huffine said. "I think it was the notoriety."
Forensic psychologist Helen Smith of Knoxville
spent a lot of time looking at the case because of her interest in
learning "why kids kill." Her aim is to prevent troubled teens
from endangering the lives of innocent victims like the Lillelids.
She filmed a documentary called "Six" that focused on the group's
lives back in Kentucky with a particular focus on Cornett, who was
often portrayed as the group's ringleader.
Smith points out that many factors may have
contributed to the tragedy, including a mental health system that
largely ignored Cornett's psychological problems and what the
youths perceived as a hypocritical Christian morality at play in
Cornett, for instance, had been hospitalized
for 11 days due to mental problems but was kicked out of the
facility when her government health care benefits stopped, even
though she'd been classified as "a danger to herself and others,"
"She was already violent, but nobody gave a
damn," Smith said.
Also, some of the youths harbored a strong
grudge against many of their peers and adults at schools and
churches. "They were told how they were supposed to be tolerant to
everybody, but they were treated like dogs," Smith said.
None of these factors in any way excuses the
killers or seems to completely explain their actions, Smith adds,
but they might provide some guidance about how to prevent similar
crimes from occurring in the future.
"It symbolizes how hard it is to be a young
person in our society, and how many problems are swept under the
rug," she said. "We have dangerous people in our society, but we
don't do anything about them."
'The wrong people'
If any one of the defendants came to represent the group in the
public's eyes, it was Cornett. Shortly after her arrest, the young
woman gave interviews in which she claimed that Satan would help
her and urged other youths "to raise hell while they can" before
the world ended.
Cornett later said she made the statements at
the advice of her attorney, who was removed from the case.
Cornett and the others eventually launched
unsuccessful appeals challenging various elements of the case, and
Cornett now lives at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville.
Her mother, Madonna Wallen, said in a phone
interview that Cornett has earned a high school diploma and is
taking culinary arts classes. Wallen said she hopes her daughter
will be freed someday because she doesn't believe she had a
firsthand role in the killings.
"Every day I miss her more," Wallen said. "I
have a picture of her in the kitchen, of her face. It's just like
I've got her here, part of her anyway."
Wallen said she's never spoken with the family
of Peter Lillelid but would like to do so. She said she recently
watched a television report on the boy's life in Sweden and "it
broke my heart."
"Me and Natasha wish him the best," she said.
"(Natasha) has mentioned his name quite often, she asks if we've
heard anything or how he is. I would like to let (Peter's family)
know Natasha, and let them know she didn't shoot the gun. Sure,
she was there, but she was with the wrong people."
Wallen said lots of children have problems
similar to those her daughter had and could easily find themselves
in trouble if they start running around with the wrong crowd.
"You never know - you could be just out goofing
around, and the next you know somebody's robbing a bank and the
next thing you know, you're an accessory," she said.
Cornett, now 28, is focused today on helping
other young women in prison by teaching GED classes and attempting
to be a mentor to other inmates, her mother said.
"She is accomplishing something," Wallen said.
"If she can show that to somebody and it helps them, I think
that's what she's working for - to help somebody else not get in
the same predicament that she did."
A Blackened Rainbow
How do we make sense of the Lillelid
By Jesse Fox
APRIL 20, 1998:
Prologue: April 12,
People are out in the
streets of Pikeville, Ky., for Hillbilly Days, but the carnival's
a little strained. There's tension beneath the festiveness at the
fair, the biggest party of the year in this coal-mining region.
Everybody in town has heard the rumor—a bunch of vampire kids have
bought up all the razor blades at Wal-Mart and are going to run
through the crowds, cutting people. They're part of the same group
as those kids in jail, the ones from around here who killed that
family in Tennessee last week. There's going to be trouble.
The local police have stepped up their patrols.
As one walks through the crowd, he says into his walkie-talkie,
"Yeah, I've got my stake and my holy water." In the end, nothing
Natasha Wallen Cornett has her thumbs hooked
through holes in the sleeves of her white thermal shirt, which she
wears beneath the navy blue jumpsuit that marks her as a resident
of the Greene County Jail. It may be to keep her hands warm. It
may be just an affectation, a small act of rebellion, the only
kind left to her anymore. It may be so the sleeves don't roll back
to expose the scars on her arms. I don't think to ask.
It's hard, in fact, to know what to ask
her. She's flanked by Crystal Sturgill and Karen Howell, in
identical uniforms, all of them pallid under the fluorescent
hallway lights. Sturgill's somewhat frizzy hair and Howell's puffy
eyes suggest they haven't been up long this morning, an
observation Howell confirms. "They got us out of bed," she says,
her small voice registering not so much resentment as
So here they are. Three convicted murderers.
Three demonic killers, vampires, would-be anti-Christs, if you
believe everything said about them in court and in news reports
over the past 12 months. Three confused, angry, wounded children,
if you believe their lawyers, their families, and their
What they mostly seem like up close is three
teenage girls. Cornett and Sturgill are 19, Howell is 18, but they
could all be several years younger. They're guarded at first, but
they soon relax. This is their seventh or eighth interview since
they were sentenced to life in prison four days ago—on Friday the
13th—and they seem glad to talk. They make in-jokes with each
other, giggle at some embarrassing detail or other (like the
widespread innuendoes about Karen and Natasha's supposed
lesbianism—"I don't understand what the hell that had to do with
the case," Natasha says), and punch each other lightly on the
shoulders. But then one of them will say something—"Please print
that we're not satanists and we're not monsters"—that brings the
context crashing back.
The crime is familiar by now. East Tennessee
media covered it obsessively, and the state Associated Press named
it the number one story of 1997. On April 6 of last year, Cornett,
Howell, and Sturgill left their homes in Eastern Kentucky with
three friends—Joe Risner and Dean Mullins (Howell and Cornett's
boyfriends) and 14-year-old Jason Bryant. That evening, at an I-81
rest stop north of Greeneville, they kidnapped a family of Knox
County Jehovah's Witnesses who were on their way home from a
religious conference, drove them to a dead-end gravel road, shot
all four of them—mother, father, grade-school daughter, toddler
son—and took their van, leaving the adults dead and the little
girl to die the next day in a hospital. Only the 2-year-old boy
survived, his right eye destroyed. Two days later, the six were
arrested in Arizona after trying to cross into Mexico.
In the flood of news stories that followed, the
case took on near-mythic dimensions of good and evil. The
victims—Vidar and Delfina Lillelid and their children, Peter and
Tabitha—became an embodiment of innocence and hope, immigrants
from different continents who had started a life together
dedicated to their family and their faith. Their attackers assumed
an aura of darkness that went beyond the horror of their crime.
The first lurid physical descriptions of them, their "wild
haircuts" and face piercings, were quickly joined by tales of
occultism, witchcraft, and satanic rites. Most of the stories
revolved around Cornett—how she was married wearing a black dress
and red cape, how she cut herself and drank blood, how she signed
her name backwards, "Ah-Satan". She even gave jailhouse interviews
(which she now says were at the instruction of her first lawyer,
who was soon dismissed by the court) claiming she was Satan's
The obvious questions about the case have been
answered. Although the six have offered different versions of who
did the actual shooting, all of them pleaded guilty in February to
first-degree felony murder. Last month, Judge James E. Beckner
sentenced each of them to three consecutive terms of life without
parole, plus 25 years. Even as I talk with the three young women,
Risner and Mullins have already been moved from the county jail to
Brushy Mountain penitentiary.
So what do we make of them now? I've tried to
answer that question for myself, with uncertain results. A crime
so brutal and unmotivated, so emblematic of so many fears, has to
mean something. But the fascination with the case's bizarre
details tends to crowd out anything else, including history and
"In this business we're always looking for an
explanation, and I'm not sure there is one," says Allan S. Perry
III, the lean, bearded publisher of the bi-weekly Floyd County
Times, which is published in Prestonsburg, about 20 miles from
where Cornett lived. Perry, a forward-thinking pro-development
type, would much rather talk about prospects for new factories and
new jobs in the depressed coal-mining region than about the
murders that thrust the area into the international spotlight (the
crime was front-page news in Norway, Vidar Lillelid's homeland).
"I'm not sure you can explain why or how this happened."
I'm not sure either, but that dead-end shrug
doesn't seem like enough. If there is evil in the Lillelid
murders—and if evil means anything, there is—it's an evil with a
genealogy. I'm not pretending the final act of this tragedy is
something we can or should understand. We may even be leery of
trying, because we know how quickly understanding turns into
excusing in the age of Menendez. But there are things we can know
here, things we should know, about what makes evil possible. Where
did it come from? The literal answer—Kentucky—might not seem
helpful; but it's a start.
Before they left home,
they stopped at McDonald's for lunch. Karen paid, with some of the
$500 she had taken from her father's house. They were talking
about going somewhere far away—New Orleans, maybe, because Natasha
had been there before—and they knew Joe's Chevy Citation was too
small and too old to get all six of them there. They already had
the guns—one from Karen's father's cabinet and one from a friend.
"Joe said we could stick somebody up for their car in a mall
parking lot," Natasha said in court. "I said, what do you mean a
mall? Like a K-Mart? He said, no, a big mall like they have in
Lexington." They decided to look for a mall in Tennessee, since it
was on the way to New Orleans.
There's a violence about U.S. Route 23 where it
cuts through the hills of Pike and Floyd Counties. At 55 or 60
mph, the road feels like a brutal slash that leaves the cliffs cut
open and brown with exposed shale. The road is nothing but arcing
bends, and around every one is another wall of amputated rock.
They blur together until it's hard to be sure you're going
anywhere. Not far off the highway a parallel track carries brown
rail cars laden with coal.
Wide and fast—everybody I talk to just calls it
"the four-lane"—Route 23 is both a promise and a threat. It's the
only way in or out, running north all the way to Michigan and
south to Tennessee; an escape hatch for those who want to leave
and a landing strip for the in-bound jobs and tourists local
planners dream of. With an eye toward the latter, sections of the
highway are named after country music singers from these parts:
Dwight Yoakam, Patty Loveless, Loretta Lynn. Yoakam wrote a song
about the road, about people leaving the region to look for work
elsewhere. It was the highway Risner took, headed south.
"Have you ever been
Say south of Prestonsburg,
Have you ever been up in a holler,
Or have you ever heard
A mountain man cough his life away
From diggin' that black coal in those dark mines
If you had you might just understand
The reason that they left it all behind
'Cause they'd learned readin' rightin', Route 23
To the jobs that lay waiting in those cities' factories
They didn't know that old highway
Could lead them to a world of misery"
—Dwight Yoakam, "Readin' Rightin' Route 23"
It is late January, and it's not a good time to
be in Betsy Layne. The sky is gray, the ground is muddy, the hills
are brown with bare trees. In a few days, it will snow.
I'm sitting in the living room of Madonna
Wallen's small trailer on Floyd Pike Hollow, a narrow road that
turns off of Route 23 at the Betsy Layne fire station and winds
into the hills. Farther up the road is a small mining operation,
the Clark Coal Company. Natasha Cornett's mother is a woman in her
mid-50s with auburn hair going gray and large-frame glasses that
make her eyes look like they're peering out of oblong windows.
She's in an easy chair by the window; when she turns to the side,
light through the blinds shows the tired lines on her face. While
she talks, in quiet tones colored with hollow laughter, a
brown-black poodle snuffles around her feet and occasionally leaps
into her lap. Three cats patrol the room's perimeter, leaping onto
the back of the couch and keeping a watchful distance from the
poodle. A second dog, a black mutt, is tied up outside on a
clothesline lead. He barked when I parked across the road at the
local senior citizens' center, the pale creamy building where, two
years ago, Natasha Wallen married Steve Cornett.
Madonna named the oldest feline Mommy Cat, even
though she hasn't had kittens. Natasha named the rest. One cat is
called Panda, but that's a nickname, short for Pandemonium. The
third cat is Rage. The poodle is Malkavian, named after a family
of vampires in a role-playing game Natasha liked (she had a
Vampire: The Dark Ages score sheet in her wallet when she was
arrested). And the dog outside, a 1996 Christmas present from
Steve Cornett, is called Evil.
Tomorrow, Jan. 26, is Natasha's birthday.
"I blame myself for a lot of the things Natasha
got herself into, her mental condition, and the whole thing,"
Wallen says. "You have one of those cases where you wish you could
go back to the beginning and start all over again."
Greeneville, March 10-13
Nobody I talk to in the press corps at the
sentencing hearing has heard of the classic Japanese film
Rashomon. But I keep thinking about it. The movie recounts one
event—a rape and murder in a forest—as told by four people. Each
version is different from the others, and the movie suggests each
could be true. At the hearing in the packed Greene County
Courthouse, four defendants take the stand (only Mullins and
Sturgill decline to testify). Two central versions of the story
emerge: Jason Bryant's and everyone else's.
Bryant, the youngest and least articulate of
the group, says he never knew what was going on during the trip
and was stunned by the carjacking and the killings. He names
Risner and Mullins as the shooters but can't offer many details of
the crime (he says he went into shock). Cornett, Howell, and
Risner all say the opposite—that Bryant was the sole shooter,
emptying two handguns into the family while the others watched in
varying degrees of horror. They have divergences, though; Natasha
and Karen say Natasha tried to stop Jason, or at least tried to
save the children; Risner says nothing about that; Risner admits
he ran over the bodies as the six were fleeing in the Lillelids'
van, but insists it was an accident; Karen and Natasha (and, in
the jail interview, Crystal) say it was intentional and Risner was
laughing as he did it.
"All we've heard about
this case since it started is Natasha, Natasha, Natasha, Natasha."
—Stacy Street, attorney for Natasha Cornett, at the sentencing
The Wallen family history reads like a catalog
of domestic miseries.
Sexual abuse: Madonna Wallen was
molested when she was four or five by a local man, a pastor at a
nearby church; nobody talked about it—this was the 1940s—but her
mother took her to the doctor to deal with the resulting physical
trauma. Her first daughter, Velina, says she was molested for
years by Madonna's second husband, Ed Wallen.
Violence: At 17, Madonna married a Pepsi
Cola salesman, an abusive alcoholic named Don Adkins; Velina was
born in 1960; the couple divorced in 1966, after Madonna fired a
shotgun at Adkins while he advanced on the house, threatening to
kill her; his wounds weren't fatal and she wasn't charged, on
grounds of self-defense.
Adultery: Her second marriage ran into
problems too; eventually, Madonna started having an affair with
Roger Burgess, a Pikeville policeman; in 1978, she got pregnant;
she knew the baby wasn't Wallen's; Natasha was born in 1979; in
1985, Madonna was diagnosed with breast cancer; it was
successfully treated; around the same time, she was working for a
Pikeville lawyer; she says he demanded sex from her as a condition
of employment; after she quit, she sued him for sexual harassment,
but the case was dismissed (he said the affair was consensual).
"The first time I ever
remember trying to kill myself, I was in a crib and I tried to
suffocate myself with a blanket...I remember that my mom was like
yelling at me for something. She was just like, like I couldn't do
anything right to her, or for her, no matter how hard I tried.
It's like I couldn't make her love me. And one night it just kind
of all hit me."
"How old do you think you were?"
"Um, I'd say around three or four."
—Interview with Natasha Wallen Cornett, March 17, 1998
"I never hit her with my fists," Madonna Wallen
says quietly, sitting at her kitchen table. I'm back in Kentucky
two weeks after the sentencing. Madonna's responding to statements
Natasha made in court about her childhood. "I don't know, maybe
she thought I did, but I hit her always with my hand open." She
pauses. "I've hit her with a plastic ball bat, a hollow plastic
ball bat, maybe throwed a few books at her, let's see...I've
whipped her hard. I really have. I have whipped her too hard, I
know, at times. Because she'd lose it and I'd lose it too."
Crystal Sturgill says she remembers seeing Madonna hit Natasha
with a Bible.
One morning in fifth grade, Natasha woke up on
her own instead of at her mother's urging. The trailer was quiet.
Her first thought was that her mother, who had threatened to
abandon her before, was gone. She walked out of her room and down
the narrow hallway to her mother's bedroom door. When she opened
it, she saw Madonna Wallen naked on the bed, unconscious, with an
empty bottle of pills on the floor. Natasha called her mother's
former boyfriend, who came and took Madonna to the hospital.
Natasha went to school, where she burst into tears in front of an
uncomprehending teacher. When she got home, her mother was asleep.
Natasha spent the night curled on the floor outside her mother's
In seventh grade, she stopped eating—first
she'd skip meals for a day, then a week, then, she says, a whole
month. She lost 30 pounds. Madonna had her hospitalized in
Lexington. Doctors at Charter Ridge Behavioral Health System
evaluated her and said she was not only anorexic but severely
bipolar (or "manic depressive"). When they discharged her, they
told her mother the girl still needed a lot of help, but they
couldn't provide it any longer—the state's insurance would pay for
only 11 days of treatment.
Vidar Lillelid approached
the group outside the bathroom at the rest stop, carrying his
young son in his arms. The blond, smiling father asked the teens
if they believed in God. Natasha said no; He had never answered
her prayers when she was little. While they spoke, Delfina and
Tabitha Lillelid came up. Tabitha reached out her hand and offered
Karen and Natasha a Hershey's kiss.
along Route 23:
Church—Satan is alive in Betsy Layne
this Sunday morning. He hovers over the congregation at Betsy
Layne Baptist Church; they know he's there, looking for any sign
of weakness. The service is a series of testimonials and requests
for prayer for family members and co-workers who have fallen under
the temptor's sway. It's punctuated by karaoke-style performances
from three singers accompanied by pre-recorded music. One of them,
a blond-haired woman with a high, full voice, breaks down crying
during the second verse of her light-rock hymn but recovers in
time for the chorus. When she's done, she says apologetically, "I
don't do this professionally. Satan will get you anyway he can,
and I can't sing and cry at the same time. But I asked God for the
strength to let me finish, and He gave it."
Wal-Mart—Bob Collins and his friends are
sitting at small formica tables in the back corner of the Wal-Mart
Supercenter outside Pikeville. Mostly retired coal miners and
railroad men, they meet here daily to drink coffee and talk
politics (Collins offhandedly mentions he's running for sheriff).
They're friends of Roger Burgess, Natasha Cornett's father. He
comes in here some days, when he's not feeling too poorly. "Young
people around here don't have much chance," Collins says. "They
don't have anything to do." The others nod. They remember the coal
boom days of the '70s, when anyone could get a job and families
migrated from the north—mostly Ohio—in search of work. Now many of
them have moved back.
The only jobs available now, Collins observes
looking around the windowless cafeteria, are the diminishing ones
in the mines or behind the register of a place like this. And
Wal-Mart, he notes, doesn't hire full-time. "It's all big business
now," he says. Still, the men gather here because the places they
used to frequent have closed down, even as the superstores and
strip malls have sprung up along the four-lane. Wal-Mart is
inescapable in these parts. There's another one down the road
outside Prestonsburg and a third in Paintsville. The Supercenter
replaced the old Pikeville Wal-Mart, which now sits empty by the
highway. Cornett, Risner, et al., stopped there on their way out
of town to buy an atlas. The first clue detectives at the crime
scene had to the killers' point of origin was a Wal-Mart receipt
in Risner's abandoned car.
Shoney's—There's an air of defiance
about Tiffany Caudill as she walks into the restaurant, just off
the highway between Pikeville and Betsy Layne. She's wearing
jeans, workboots, and a black White Zombie T-shirt with "Say You
Love Satan" emblazoned on the back. I'm conscious of suspicious
stares from some of the families eating dinner around us. Tiffany
says the shirt got her beat up once in a local redneck bar, where
a few women told her they didn't want any "devil worshippers"
Caudill, 21, is a friend of Natasha's. She met
her on the younger girl's 15th birthday, which she recalls as the
first time Natasha ever smoked a joint. She isn't a devil
worshipper. (She rolls her eyes at people who don't get the joke
of White Zombie's mock-satanic posturing.) But she is intensely
cynical about the cultural norms of Eastern Kentucky. It's a
place, she says, where people go to church on Sundays to make
peace with the Lord, and then go home and make war on each other.
The men work hard or not at all, and either way they don't make
much. Money goes toward beer, and anger goes toward whoever's
around. "That's why half the women in this town get beaten," she
says, her eyebrows furrowing. "The men are taking it out on them."
And, she adds darkly, it's hard to find a woman in the region who
hasn't been sexually abused.
The hearing becomes a numbing litany of failed
families. Joe Risner never met his real father; Crystal Sturgill
doesn't even know who her father is. Jason Bryant's father is an
alcoholic; his mother abandoned the family when he was young.
After Karen Howell's parents divorced because of her father's
drinking, her mother had a nervous breakdown. Even Dean Mullins,
who is close to both of his parents and his sister, comes from a
divorced family. Howell says she was molested for five years by an
uncle and a cousin.
In December 1996, Sturgill filed charges
against her stepfather, Gene Blackburn, accusing him of rape. The
detective investigating the case says Blackburn admitted having
sex with Crystal "about 10 times." After she made the allegations,
Crystal was cut off by her family, who sided with Blackburn. She
ended up at Natasha Cornett's trailer for want of anywhere else to
stay. In a letter home to a friend from jail, she said the only
good thing about being arrested is that "my family all loves me
"You believe, do you
not, that you as a witch, you as a lover of Satan, get special
power from killing children?"
"No. And I'm not a witch."
—District Attorney General Berkeley Bell questioning Natasha
Berkeley Bell doesn't want to hear about
tormented childhoods, economic depression, borderline
personalities, or anything else that sounds like an excuse. The
ruddy-faced district attorney general believes all six of the
Lillelid defendants planned and participated in killing the
family. There's no question in his mind that the murder was a
satanic ritual carried to its logical terminus. He's sympathetic
to the six young people's families, but he wasn't moved by any of
the tears—Cornett's, Howell's, Risner's—shed at the sentencing
"They certainly didn't indicate to me at any
level that they were remorseful about what they had done," he
says, sitting in his fifth-floor office in the NationsBank
building adjacent to the Greene County Courthouse. "They were
remorseful that they were convicted of first-degree murder and
that they are going to die in the penitentiary. But that's about
the only level of remorse I have seen from these people."
Bell didn't set out looking for witches. But he
says the evidence quickly accumulated to such an extent that it
was impossible to ignore: from the upside-down cross spray-painted
in Natasha's bedroom to the one she carved into Jason Bryant's
left arm two nights before the killings, from her books on
witchcraft to the testimony of friends about Natasha and Karen's
blood rituals, everywhere Bell's investigators looked, they found
He doesn't pretend to understand the teens'
exact beliefs, which he characterizes as a mish-mash of ideas
cribbed from a wealth of sources. But he's sure they were the
reason for the killings. And in his 16 years as D.A., he's never
had a case convince him so thoroughly that there is
evil—"spiritual evil"—in the world.
"That's what we're taught in our religion," he
says. "But I don't know that it was ever quite driven home before
as emphatically as it has been in this case."
Bell has a 3-year-old son. Every day for 10
months when he went home from work, he looked at his son and
thought of Peter Lillelid.
On her 17th birthday,
Natasha married Steve Cornett, a friend who had become a best
friend and then a boyfriend. It lasted about six months. "I just
went crazy, period," she says. She wouldn't let her husband leave
home to go to work some mornings, threatening to kill herself if
he did. She had stopped drinking and using all drugs, because she
wanted to get pregnant. "I've always wanted a baby," she says. "I
don't know if this will make sense or not, but I thought that
having a baby and treating it good, doing it right, would heal my
"The more one knows, the less one
—Proverb in fortune cookie at Peking Chinese restaurant, Route 23
Richard Gray is a gregarious guy with round,
excitable eyes and a blond ponytail. I'm following him down a
steep bank of scrub grass on the outskirts of Pikeville one
Saturday afternoon to look at some graffiti. Gray, 32, is a
student at Pikeville College and a self-styled occult hobbyist;
he's not a practitioner, but he's interested in what goes on. He
provided investigators in the Lillelid case with some of their
information on occult activities in the area (he's still waiting
to get his copy of The Satanic Bible back from them).
At the foot of the bank are openings to two
parallel tunnels, wide cement box culverts as long as a football
field and eight or nine feet high. When it's not raining, they
stay fairly dry. They're covered, end to end, floor to ceiling,
with spray-painted slogans and symbols.
"I think it's in this one," Gray says, choosing
the left-hand tunnel. But as we walk it, scanning the walls in the
dim sunlight that filters in from both ends, he can't find what
he's looking for. "They may have painted over it," he says,
frowning. Coming out the other end, we make a U-turn into the
right-hand tunnel and head back. About two-thirds of the way
along, just as we get into about an inch of water, Gray stops and
gestures. It's still there, on the right. When Natasha Cornett was
13 or 14 years old, she came down here with a can of black spray
paint and in letters two feet high scrawled the name of a popular
Pat Benatar song: "Hell is for Children." It's signed, "by Natasha
During one break in the testimony, I watch the
defandants' families file out, red-eyed women and clench-jawed
men, a procession of fathers who weren't and mothers who should
have been. I can't help wondering if in some way they were the
ones their children saw at the end of their guns. Or, if it's true
that only Jason Bryant did the shooting, whether the others'
failure to stop him arose in some way from the certainty that it
didn't matter anyway, that this is what happens to all families in
the end: they get blown apart. Describing the shooting, Natasha
Cornett sobbed, "I didn't know how to stop it." For the ones who
watched, maybe it was a horror made no less tragic by its
inevitability, but no less inevitable by its tragedy.
In the Lillelids' van, Joe
Risner sat in the front seat holding the 9 mm gun. Jason Bryant,
Natasha Cornett, and Karen Howell were in the middle, next to
Peter Lillelid in his car seat. Jason was holding the .25 caliber.
Delfina and Tabitha were in back. Tabitha was crying. Delfina
started singing to her. Natasha says Jason told Delfina, "You'd
better shut her up!" The Lillelids tried to assure their
kidnappers they could let them go without fear of repercussions.
"[Delfina] said she wouldn't be able to identify any of our faces
because all teenagers dress alike these days," Karen says.
"Tara" dresses a lot like Natasha Cornett and
her friends. Today, she's wearing a black Nine Inch Nails T-shirt,
with an upright pentagram dangling from her thin necklace. She
doesn't want her real name used. Although she is "out of the broom
closet" to her friends and co-workers, the 20-year-old college
student is wary of letting too many people in Pike County know
she's a Wiccan, a witch.
Although she goes to church occasionally and
can quote Scripture, Tara's been a Wiccan for three years. She
knows most people around here won't see much difference between
her religion and satanism. But she says she adheres to
pre-Christian pagan beliefs that don't even acknowledge Satan,
much less worship him. She finds the religion liberating in all
the ways her hometown's brand of Christianity is stifling. Wicca
revolves around natural dichotomies: seasonal changes, light and
dark, earth and spirit. It has only one commandment, the Wiccan
Rede—"An ye harm none, do as ye will."
Tara estimates there are 200 or so Wiccans in
the immediate vicinity, most of them solitary practitioners.
Natasha Cornett, she says, wasn't one of them. She was something
"I think Natasha liked to find your weak points
and exploit them," she says. She met Cornett twice and was spooked
by her. "She liked to use intimidation."
The god Natasha says she believes in is a
yin-yang deity similar to the Wiccan goddess. But Tara thinks
Cornett lost sight of the good in pursuit of the evil.
"In the immortal words of Kurt Cobain," Tara
says, giving an ironic half-smile at the name of the dead singer,
"the darkness catches you. You can run from it, but it catches
you. If you completely embrace the dark side without the light,
then the dark will claim you."
After Steve Cornett left
her, Natasha and a friend took a road trip to try to find him in
Lexington. Failing that, they ended up in New Orleans, where they
lived for a month, hanging out with "gutter punks" and sleeping in
abandoned houses. They did drugs, including heroin. They went to a
tarot reader; the cards said Natasha was going to "do something
big" with her life.
Entry from Dean
Mullins' journal, six months before the murders (Mullins is
describing a vision of two different lands):
"Behind me to the south, an encouraged world, a
world of undisturbing peace. The happy place. The grass the
prettiest green. Everyone is the perfect skin color. All the Eves
had blonde [sic] hair and all the Adams had brown, the nicest
brown, the color of trees.
Finally the north. What all will be here Let's
see. ... [S]lowly my orbs adjust to the macabre. The scene of
sickening growth of incomprehensible corpses. The life blood dried
from their leathery skin covered skeletons. Nothing could prepare
my weak mind for this vision of horror...The bodies rest upon each
other, stacks and stacks of crimson colored and dirt. If all the
world saw this, what wouldn't they feel, think. I don't believe a
totally stable frame could inherit such wisdom...What is it, what
truth should I see in this, I must see truth to make a decision on
this crossroad. Why rule a kingdom, a world of my own if it is
destroyed and there is no life, no one to rule. But also, why
envelop a world where everything is bewilderment and a blackened
rainbow absorbs the obvious. But there still remains the orgy of
decomposed bodies. What shalt be my fate if I take forth there.
Will I join them, or rule them; but what is there to rule. What?
Fuck this! Fuck it! Why must I decide!? I can't! I have not the
power of such a choice. Fuck!"
The word "Gothic" is mostly a fashion statement
these days. It means dark clothing, black lipstick, chains on
jeans, and the doom-ridden music of bands like Marilyn Manson and
Tool. (One Knoxville club has a regular "Goth Night.") Tara offers
a definition: "The whole idea behind Goth, in my opinion, is
embracing your darker side and recognizing it."
She's not far off from the more subtle analysis
offered in a recent book, Nightmare on Main Street, by
University of Virginia literature professor Mark Edmundson.
Tracing Gothic thought to its roots in 18th and 19th century
literature (Edgar Allan Poe was kind of a high priest of Gothic),
Edmundson suggests its core ideas—that we are haunted by pasts we
can't escape, that there is no hope for redemption—have come to
define our culture. He sees the effects of Gothic thought in
everything from Freudian psychobabble to slasher films. (Vampires,
who are both haunter and haunted, are very Gothic.) Edmundson
isn't an alarmist, exactly; he notes violent crime, for example,
is actually down, even as obsession with it is up. But he wonders
about the cultural impact of so much determined, or
pre-determined, darkness: "[I]n a culture of Gothic...there is no
love to mitigate the drive to domination, not even a conception of
love that can adequately counter the Gothic myth that all is
haunted and that death inevitably wins out."
After the shootings,
Natasha says, Jason jumped into passenger seat of the Lillelids'
van. He and Risner were laughing. Karen says Jason fiddled with
the stereo. "He said, 'I've gotta hear some Marilyn Manson.'" The
stereo wouldn't work.
Jason Bryant is nervous. His fingers twitch,
and he looks around the small, empty jail conference room
worriedly, his large brown eyes never resting anywhere for more
than a few seconds. His face is pocked with acne. His left forearm
still shows the reddened scar of the inverted cross Cornett cut
The only thing everybody—everybody but
Bryant—agrees on about what happened at Payne Hollow Road is that
this muscular boy shot the Lillelids. (Bell, of course, thinks all
six pulled the triggers; Judge Beckner, in sentencing Bryant, also
opined there were other shooters, but Bryant was the only one he
said he was sure of.) By Howell's testimony, Jason's the one who
walked up to Tabitha Lillelid while the 6-year-old was screaming
over her mother's fallen body, put a gun to the girl's blond head,
and fired. Crystal Sturgill calls him "a monster."
In person, he's wary. He talks about another
reporter he spoke to who he thinks tried to "twist my words
around." In court, he was the only one to testify who didn't cry
on the stand, which he knows hurt him in public opinion. But
that's how he was brought up, he insists.
"We was basically raised up that you show
emotion, you're weak," he says. He repeats a line his lawyer used
repeatedly, about how he and his siblings had to "raise ourselves"
in a home with an alcoholic father and an absent mother. That this
is an inappropriate use of that cliché—which usually describes
people rising above adversity, not fostering it—obviously doesn't
occur to him.
I start to ask what it's like to wake up every
morning and realize he's in jail, but Bryant anticipates the
question and misunderstands it. "Every morning when I wake up, I
grab my right eye," he says, clamping his hand to his face to
demonstrate. He said the same thing in court, to illustrate his
trauma at seeing Vidar Lillelid shot in the head. The motion
looked oddly mechanical on the stand; it seems even moreso
The only times Bryant's eyes relax are when he
talks about playing football or fixing cars. He had fantasies of
playing for Notre Dame ("ever since I saw that movie Rudy!"),
although this 15-year-old with a third-grade reading level admits
it might have been a stretch.
He'll be in a juvenile center for the next
three years, and then he'll transfer to a regular prison. He says
he'll spend the time lifting weights, so he'll "be ready" when
that time comes.
At the end of the interview, Bryant says he has
one message he wants to convey to his peers; he wants "to get the
word out." Again, there's the sense of a rehearsed moment. "Stay
off of drugs, and watch your friends," he says solemnly. Then he
March 25, 1998:
The blue phone on the wall in Madonna Wallen's
kitchen rings. She answers it, listens for a moment, and presses a
button to accept a collect call. It's Natasha calling from the
Prison for Women in Nashville. She likes it there, Madonna says,
at least better than the Greeneville jail. She and Karen are
cellmates, and they can take classes and move around during the
day. But Natasha's not happy now. A money order her mother sent
her hasn't gotten there yet. Natasha thinks she did it wrong and
wants her to send another.
Madonna's voice stiffens, due either to the
presence of visitors or the tone of Natasha's voice or both. "I
know I'm not the one stuck in there with nothing, but I can only
do so much," she says into the phone, methodically turning a
purple cigarette lighter in her left hand. After about 15 strained
minutes, Natasha ends the call abruptly. Madonna hangs up and says
with a sigh, "You just heard me talking to manic-depressive
Natasha Cornett was born with a hole in her
heart. When she was 16 months old, she went back to the hospital
for surgery to heal the birth defect. She says her earliest memory
is of that hospital room, of being alone there, with the surgical
When she was five or so, her mother worked in
an Army surplus store. Madonna Wallen used to dress her daughter
up in camouflage outfits, complete with army boots. The little
girl loved it. She also loved knives—Swiss Army knives, hunting
knives. It was hard for her mother to keep them away from her.
When Natasha first started cutting herself, it
was on her ankles. Later, she moved to her arms. When she was
arrested, she had slash marks running from her wrists past her
elbows. There were razor blades in the Lillelids' van.
Madonna Wallen remembers buying a denim dress
for Natasha when she was young. The girl loved it and wore it to
school. But its low neck showed Natasha's surgery scar, and
another student made fun of her. She never wore it again. In
prison, Madonna says, she wears longsleeve shirts so no one will
ask her about the marks on her arms. I think of thumbs hooked
A week after my interview with Cornett, Howell,
and Sturgill, I'm back in Greene County to spend a day going
through the mountain of red folders that makes up the case file.
Leaving around 2:30 p.m. to head to another appointment, I start
the car and turn on the radio. The news comes on. The first story
is from Arkansas. The details are sketchy, but it appears two
boys, 11 and 13, have just opened fire on a field full of middle
school students. An undetermined number are dead.