Tommy Lynn Sells
is an American serial killer. He was born on June 28, 1964 in Oakland,
California, but lived mostly in Frisbee, Missouri.
Sells and his
twin sister, Tammy Jean, contracted meningitis when they were 18 months
old. While Sells suffered a high fever, he survived. His sister,
however, died from the inflammation. Shortly thereafter, Sells was sent
to live with his aunt Bonnie Woodall in Holcomb, Missouri. He lived with
Woodall until he was five.
When Sells was
eight he began spending time with a man named Willis Clark from a
neighboring city who would later be identified as a child molester.
traveling in order to find work. Because he was indigent at the time, he
hitched rides, hopped trains and at one point stole a vehicle. He held
several different jobs, often doing menial labor. His limited education
rendered him under-qualified for many higher paying jobs.
Sells has claimed he committed his first murder at
In July 1985, when he was 21 years old, Sells was
working at a carnival in Forsyth, Missouri. There he met Ena Cordt, 35,
who had brought her 4-year old son to the carnival as a treat. Cordt
found Sells attractive and invited him back to her home that same
evening. According to Sells, he had sex with Cordt, but awoke during the
night to find her stealing from his backpack. Seizing her son's baseball
bat, he beat her to death. He also murdered her son in case he could be
used as a witness. The two badly bludgeoned bodies were found three days
later, by which time Tommy Lynn Sells had moved on.
In 1997, 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick, son of Julie
Rea Harper, was murdered. His mother was convicted, but the conviction
was overturned. Her family told police Sells had invaded their home and
killed Kirkpatrick because the mother was rude to Sells earlier that
night at a nearby convenience store. Then, in 2002, author Diane Fanning
corresponded with Sells. In a letter to Fanning, Sells confessed to
murdering Kirkpatrick. Fanning's testimony before the prisoner review
board, according to the Innocence Project, helped land Harper a new
trial and, ultimately, an acquittal. Fanning's resulting book,
Through the Window, details Sells' cross-country crime spree.
Sells is also suspected to be the perpetrator in the
The murder of Suzanne Korcz in New York during May
The November 1987 murder of the Dardeen family in
Killing a co-worker in Texas during April 1998.
The murder of Katy Harris in Texas in 1999.
The sexual assault and murder of a child, Hailey
McComb in Lexington, KY
Arrests and confessions
recently claimed to have killed upwards of 70 people, according to an
interview with Columbia University forensic psychiatrist and personality
expert Dr. Michael H. Stone in Discovery Channel's Most Evil.
On December 31,
1999 in the Guajia Bay subdivision, west of Del Rio, Texas, Sells
fatally stabbed 13-year-old Katy Harris 16 times and slit the throat of
10-year-old Krystal Surles. Surles survived and received help from her
neighbors. Ultimately, Sells was apprehended using a sketch from the
Tommy Lynn Sells, Texas Department of Criminal
Justice (TDCJ) # 999367 is currently on death row in the Allan B.
Polunsky Unit near Livingston, Texas. The TDCJ received him on November
Tommy Lee Sells was arrested
2, 2000, after he slashed to death 13-year-old Kaylene Harris on
New Year's Day.
During the same assault Sells, 35, slashed
thethroat of 10-year-old Kristal Surles, but the girl survived. Kristal,
who is from Kansas, was visiting her friend Kaylene in Guajia Bay, about
14 miles north of Del Rio on US Highway 90 in Texas, when Sells came
In custody Sells, a drug-addict and
drifter, admitted to the Rangers that he had killed between 20 and 50
people in several states over the last two decades.
To date Sells has
been charged with one homicide in Texas and one in Kentucky. However, he
is considered a strong suspect in eleven more deaths in half-dozen
Not unlike serial confessor Henry Lee
Lucas, Sells has traveled to Idaho, Nevada and Arkansas to try to
confirm slayings that he has confessed he committed. One of the alleged
victims in Central Arkansas was found alive and well. "We went to
Little Rock, Arkansas, and he was able to take us to a house where a
burglary and shooting had occurred," said Texas Ranger John Allen
said. "For 18 years he was sure he had hit the guy, but it turns
out the guy just fell to the ground and lay there like he was hit."
In March Tommy Lee Sells guided
detectives around Pulaski County in Central Arkansas looking for
evidence of two murders he said he commited there in early 1982. Sells
eventually guided the detectives to a "blue hole" in southern
Pulaski County and told a story of the rape and murder of a woman whose
body was thrown into the deep water of a bauxite pit. Sheriff's deputies
have not yet sent divers into the pit to find the body, saying they
won't until they can confirm other parts of Sells' tale. "It's hard
to justify spending money on divers until we can get some sort of
corroborating evidence that there is a missing person," Pulaski
County sheriff's office spokesman John Rehrauer said. "We have not
been able to establish a connection to what Sells thought happened and
anything in our records. Until we do, we're not going to go to the
expense of diving."
Several weeks after the Little Rock
trip, Texas authorities took Sells to southern Idaho on a similar
mission, because he had confessed to three area murders.
believe that two of those murders occurred in the fall of 1988 at a
bridge overlook just outside of Twin Falls. The third murder occurred
the following year in neighboring Gooding County. "He said he was
driving a stolen black Dodge van in Salt Lake City and brought the woman
-- who he had been seeing for a couple of weeks -- and her son to spend
the night on the Snake River," a Twin Falls County sheriff's
spokesman said. "He said he killed them and dumped them in the
river." As of now police have no missing persons report to match
the alleged killing. In the third murder, Sells confessed to abducting a
woman who was hitchhiking from Canada to Salt Lake City.
Tommy Lynn Sells
A particularly cruel sociopath, Tommy
Lynn Sells has confessed to over a dozen homicides, many of the children.
Drifting throughout the country, only interrupted by the occasional jail
term, Sells seemed to target small children and particularly enjoyed
Sells has already been convicted of a
murder in Del Rio, Texas. The killer entered the Harris family home on
December 31, 1999, and murdered 13-year-old Kaylene, sexually assaulting
her before cutting her throat and attempting to do the same to friend
Krystal Surles, 10. He was sentenced to death for the Harris murder on
September 20, 2000.
Among the other murders Sells is credited with are
the killings of a nine-year-old child in Texas, the slaying of a mother
and her five-year-old child in Forsyth, Missouri, the killings of
another mother and child in West Virginia, and yet another similar crime
Perhaps Sells most heinous crime, and
that's saying a lot, was the quadruple murder of the Dardeen family in
Ida, Illinois, on November 18, 1987. Befriended by the family and
invited for a meal at their mibile home, Sells shot Russell Dardeen in
the head in a nearby field and beat his wife and three-year-old son to
death with a baseball bat. During the brutal attack Mrs. Dardeen gave
birth to a girl, two months premature. Faced with the unique situation
Sells simply turned the bat on the newborn and beat her to death also.
Sells currently faces charges in the
Kentucky rape-murder of a thirteen-year-old girl and in Illinois for the
Darden family slayings. More charges, and possibly many more confesions,
are sure to come.
Since his conviction in September of 2000, Sells has
since admitted to killing fellow carnival worker Thomas Brose, who was
found shot to death in a motor home in San Antonio, Texas on April 15,
1998. Local authorities are looking into his claims. Sells is also under
investigation in San Antonio for the murder of Marie Bea Perez, 9, who
he has confessed to slaying after Perez was abducted from a market on
April 18, 1998, just three days before Brose was killed. She was found
dead one week later.
Serial killer stayed in
February 21, 2006
It's not known how
serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells, 41, now on death row in Texas, got to
Charleston in the spring of 1992.
The inveterate drifter
may have hitchhiked, hopped a freight train or stolen a car. That's how
he'd been wandering the country since the age of 14.
By the time he arrived
here, Sells is believed to have murdered 15 people, including five
A 19-year-old woman on
the West Side narrowly missed becoming No. 16 in a bloody melee inside a
Grove Avenue apartment.
Her name is Fabienne
She is now a 33-year-old
nurse and mother of three small children in Danville, Ill.
Nobody knows what
attracted Sells to West Virginia. Diane Fanning, whose book "Through the
Window" chronicles his gruesome crimes, said he liked mountains.
Witherspoon came here a
few months before Sells in 1992. She was with her fiance, an Army man
she'd met while living on an Air Force base with her parents in Tacoma,
Her fiance's parents
lived in the Charleston area.
Born in 1972 in
Lakinheath, England, Witherspoon grew up on Air Force bases around the
world. She graduated from high school in Bremerhaven, Germany.
Witherspoon said she and
her fiance planned eventually to settle down in the Charleston area.
When he left for
training in Alabama, Witherspoon stayed behind with his family members.
Her fiance's mother, who
worked for the state, suggested one day that Witherspoon might get a
little privacy if she watched her boss's cat at a Grove Avenue
Witherspoon took her up
on the offer.
She'd been staying at
the Grove Avenue apartment for only a day on May 13, 1992, when she saw
Sells panhandling in the Pennsylvania Avenue-Washington Street area.
Witherspoon had walked
to a job interview with Clinique cosmetics that day and was excited
about the prospect of working at Town Center.
"I WILL WORK FOR FOOD"
She also thought she
might have been pregnant and had a test done at the health department on
Lee Street. It turned out negative.
She was on the way back
to Grove Avenue when she saw the killer with a crudely lettered sign. He
had played on people's sympathies in the past. The sign was his way of
getting close to potential victims.
"I will work for food,"
"I saw him under the
underpass," Witherspoon said. "Of course, me being an Air Force brat,
I'd never seen a homeless person. He didn't look scary. He looked
approachable, like I felt sorry for him."
She asked him if he was
hungry and if he had a family.
Sells whipped out a
picture of three children and said he, the kids and his wife were all
homeless and living under a bridge.
Witherspoon said the
woman she was cat-sitting for had bought some junk food for her that she
didn't want, so she figured she might as well give it to Sells.
The two of them started
walking to Grove Avenue.
On the way, they stopped
at a Go Mart. Witherspoon said she bought Sells a newspaper so he could
scan the help-wanted ads.
"I'd always lived sort
of a sheltered life," Witherspoon said. "I never thought anything bad
At the apartment,
Witherspoon told Sells to wait outside while she went in and packed up
the food. He asked if there was anyone else in the apartment.
Witherspoon said no.
She figured he was
thirsty, and took him a Coke. By the time she brought it to him, Sells
was inside the front door.
"That made me nervous,"
she said. "I thought I just need to quickly get him on his way."
She asked Sells if he needed anything else. He said his wife needed
underwear, which Witherspoon thought was strange, but she wanted him out
of the apartment.
She walked to a bedroom
and started taking underwear out of her suitcase.
Meantime, Sells locked
the doors, got a steak knife, came into the bedroom, and told her to do
what he said and she wouldn't get hurt.
He repeatedly raped her,
and then took her into the shower to rape her again.
In the bathroom, she
said, she surprised him by grabbing a ceramic duck about the size of a
football and clubbing him on the head. By the time she was done swinging
away, all that was left in her hand was a beak.
"And he was still
standing," she said. "I thought, ‘He's a little bit confused ... I just
have to fight.'''
She took the knife from
her dazed assailant and began stabbing him over and over.
Witherspoon then raced
frantically for the front door, but Sells caught her and threw her into
a room off the hallway. She landed on the bed face down, cutting her
hand open with the knife.
Sells took back the
knife, tied Witherspoon's hands to her feet with tape, and held the
knife to her throat.
Witherspoon said that if
Sells would just leave, she wouldn't tell anybody. She also said she'd
just found out she was pregnant and that her husband was going to be
home very soon.
Witherspoon told police
that Sells threatened to cut her voice box out so she couldn't talk.
Sells covered her head
with a quilt and made what Witherspoon called a "wimpy" attempt at
smothering her. Then he whacked her over the head with a piano stool and
As he was leaving, she
remembers him saying, "I can't believe I am still alive."
"I thought, ‘Him? What
about me?'" Witherspoon said.
The next thing she
remembers is waking up on the front steps of the apartment. She was
naked, bloody and screaming.
The police came. An ambulance took her to the hospital, where she had
plastic surgery on her hand and stitches in her head. A rape counselor
met with her later.
Sells, who had 18 stab
wounds, spent seven days in the hospital.
Witherspoon recovered at
her fiance's mother's house. She sat alone in a bedroom most of the
"RELIVING THE ATTACK IN
"I felt really stupid,"
she said. "Very embarrassed. I just wanted to hide."
Like many rape victims,
she wound up feeling as if it was all her fault. She kept reliving the
attack in her mind, thinking of things she should have done differently.
After a while, she went
to live with her fiance Alabama and the two married. Witherspoon said
they probably jumped into the marriage too quickly, believing perhaps it
would help her overcome her problems.
Witherspoon said she
felt no other man would want her.
The marriage fell apart
after a little over a year.
After Sells' week in the
hospital, he was taken to the county jail on Virginia Street.
In September 1992, a
Kanawha grand jury indicted him on five counts of rape and felony
Three days into the
trial, on June 25, 1993, Sells pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of
malicious wounding. The prosecution said it had become aware of
inconsistencies in Witherspoon's testimony.
"It was his word against
mine," Witherspoon said. "He said I attacked him. He tried to turn
around and make it sound like I just started beating on him."
"They didn't give me a
choice," she said of the prosecution's deal with Sells. "They just told
me, ‘We're going to have to do this.'"
Former Prosecutor Bill
Forbes said at the time, "While we believe her and her story, serious
questions arose sufficient to warrant a plea."
Witherspoon said it was humiliating.
"I just felt like I was
on display," she said. "Like people were just doubting the hell out of
After the trial,
Witherspoon said she tried to block the attack out of her mind.
Eventually, she found some success. After a while, she'd forgotten
"I didn't even think
about it anymore," she said. "It was the weirdest thing."
Ten years after the
attack, however, a TV program triggered a flood of horrible memories.
At the time Witherspoon
was living in Oregon with her third husband and children.
Witherspoon said she was
in the kitchen one night when she overheard the CBS newsmagazine "48
Hours" in the other room. The segment dealt with Sells, his brutal
murder of a 13-year-old Texas girl, and his confessions to authorities
about murders all over the country.
"I just had a
breakdown," she said. "I just started crying. I wondered, ‘Why did I
live when all these other people died?' "
Others who encountered
Sells during his six weeks of freedom in the Kanawha Valley doubtless
have reason to wonder as well.
After being released
from a Wyoming prison in January 1991, Sells made his way to Colorado,
Florida and Charleston, S.C., before arriving here sometime after April
Records from his trial
provide a glimpse of his stay here.
In early April, Sells
met a 26-year-old woman at the Grand Palace, a gay bar on Brooks Street.
The woman brought Sells
home with her to the Bigley Avenue apartment she shared with her
46-year-old mother and her mother's 42-year-old boyfriend.
Sells spent the night
and left the next day.
About a week later, he
returned when the mother's boyfriend was alone. He let Sells in and the
two had a beer. They polished off what the man had and Sells went out
and bought a 12-pack. The two drank all of that
Sells wound up staying
at the Bigley Avenue apartment for the next three-and-a-half weeks,
spending his days panhandling on the streets and his nights carousing.
A local contractor who
asked that his name not be used saw Sells standing on Clendenin Street
with his sign: "I will work for food."
The contractor drove
past him, all the way onto the interstate. Then his conscience took
over. He pulled off at the next exit, drove back to Clendenin Street and
gave Sells a break.
"I've never pulled a
stunt like that," he said.
The man described Sells
as polite and hard-working.
He took Sells to his
home, where the killer spent four hours raking leaves, burning brush and
The man made Sells a
sandwich for lunch.
"It's a worrisome
thing," the man said. "I'm not easily fooled. I read people pretty well.
But looking back on it ...
"I can't give you a good
reason why I picked him up to begin with, other than I needed some yard
work done and I thought the man could use a job."
The man's wife was at
work and his two young children were at school while Sells worked in the
yard. Sells told the man he was from Missouri.
"He was not in my house,
not for 30 seconds," the man said.
The man gave Sells some
clothes and money and drove him back downtown. He thanked Sells and went
on his way. The man figures the Lord was watching over him that day.
About a week later,
Sells phoned the man, said he was in jail and needed some clothes. The
man took some clothes to the county jail on Virginia Street.
He said he accepted two
more collect phone calls from Sells and then stopped, although Sells
kept trying to contact him.
He still has a 6-inch stack of letters that Sells sent from jail. In
several of the letters, Sells described being "saved." Sells also sent
the man a signed copy of the Bible.
By early May, Sells had
worn out his welcome at the Bigley Avenue apartment. The mother of the
26-year-old woman he'd met at the Grand Palace grew annoyed because of
the strangers Sell brought home every night. She told him to leave.
Sells promptly moved in
with the woman's 25-year-old daughter, who lived with her two small
children in an apartment in Pinch.
That's where he was
arrested after the attack on Witherspoon.
Melissa Robinson, a
Charleston lawyer, defended Sells in 1992.
"I never felt threatened
or like he was a dangerous person," Robinson said. "Tommy likes to talk.
He would probably sit and talk to anybody who listens to him. He was
always very friendly to me. Then again, I was also part of the team that
was defending him."
Judge Tod Kaufman
sentenced Sells to between two and 10 years in prison. He was given
credit for 13 months served in jail.
He served part of his
sentence at the Huttonsville Correctional Center and the rest at the
Mount Olive Correctional Complex, which opened in 1994.
For a few months in
1995, both he and Dana December Smith, now 42, served time together.
Smith, of Logan, had
been convicted of killing Margaret McClain, 63, and her daughter Pamela
Castoneda, 36, at their Leewood home in 1991.
Sells and Smith could have discussed the murders, but Smith insists he
never met Sells in prison.
In 2000, Sells told
Texas Rangers that he -- not Smith -- killed the West Virginia women.
That prompted Smith's lawyers to seek a new trial for him in Kanawha
Last week, however, in
an interview with a reporter from the Del Rio (Tex.) News-Herald, Sells
recanted his confession.
While imprisoned in West
Virginia, Sells got engaged to a Rand woman who had three children. She
broke up with him, and he later married another woman.
In May 1997, he was
released. Sells and his bride left West Virginia for Tennessee.
Sells has said that in November of that year, he killed 13-year-old
Stephanie Mahaney of Springfield, Mo. Authorities found her body in a
Sells was selling used
cars in Del Rio when he committed the crime that put him on Death Row.
On New Year's Eve, 1999,
he crept into 13-year-old Kaylene Harris' bedroom, sexually assaulted
her, slit her throat, and slashed the throat of a 10-year-old friend of
Kaylene's who was spending the night. Kaylene died.
Sells also has confessed
to killing an Illinois family on Nov. 18, 1987. It was an especially
Sells said he met Keith
Dardeen in a truck stop in Ina, Ill. Dardeen felt sorry for Sells and
took him home. Sells said he shot and killed Dardeen and raped his
pregnant wife, Ruby Elaine. He said he then beat the woman and her
3-year-old son to death with a baseball bat.
Born in Oakland, Calif.,
Sells reportedly began drinking his grandfather's liquor at the age of
7. He was molested when he was 8, and started smoking marijuana when he
He claims that at 13, he
tried to rape his mother and that his family moved out of their mobile
home without telling him.
At 14, he hit the road,
and says he killed for the first time in Mississippi in 1979 when he was
Death row inmate Sells
discusses crimes in exclusive interview
February 11, 2006
Earlier this week, convicted killer Tommy Lynn Sells was given his
execution date by a judge in Del Rio, the same place where a jury found
him guilty of killing a young girl.
KENS 5 traveled to the Val Verde County Jail and sat down with Sells, in
what might be his last interview before he's put to death in May.
"I killed someone, they're killing me," Sells said.
It was New Year's Eve 1999 when an intruder climbed through a window and
into a mobile home on Lake Amistad, just outside of Del Rio, where 10-year-old
Krystal Surles and 13-year-old Kaylene "Katy" Harris were sleeping.
The throats of both Krystal and Katy were slashed, and Katy died.
"Two young girls, we'd never had a crime of this brutality occurring
anywhere in this county," Val Verde County Sheriff D'Wayne Jernigan said.
Krystal pretended she was dead, and later helped investigators identify
"What happened to this little girl changed next year and the year after,"
Sells said. "I ain't gonna be out there hurting no one."
When asked if he was talking about Katy, Sells said, "Yes ma'am. Because
of her death, there won't be no more."
Before Katy was killed, there were many other victims.
In April 1999, San Antonio's Fiesta was in full swing when little Mary
Bea Perez was snatched from her grandmother's grasp. Days later, Mary's
body was found along a nearby railroad trestle. Sells is willing to
confess to her murder, but not willing to talk about why he did it.
"You know what, I'm not going to drag that little girl over the coals no
more," he said. "I took a life sentence. I stepped up and said I done
that. Closure's been done on that."
Now set to die May 17, Sells said the drug-induced fog that filled his
mind before he was caught has cleared, and his conscience could help
other families find closure as well.
When asked if there were families with unsolved murders that Sells may
know something about, he said there were. And investigators have all
"Most everything that can be gleaned from him as an individual —
fingerprint, DNA," Jernigan said. "He can be gone and we can still solve
There's something else Sells can provide before he dies — insight into
what turns a man into a serial killer. Sells called himself Coast-to-Coast,
referring to the locations where his murders were committed. More than
15 murder cases have enough evidence against Sells to go to trial, but
he's suspected in as many as 70 deaths.
Sells said his life started to unravel at age 7, when he was sexually
abused by a relative. The abuse continued until he was 14 years old,
when he tried to reach out to a school counselor.
"That counselor wrote plain as day, 'If you don't help this kid, we're
gonna lose him,'" Sells said.
On death row, Sells has found God, his mother, a girlfriend who visits
him regularly, and the need to write poetry, with the final chapter of
his life now being written.
When asked where he's headed when he dies, Sells said, "Where am I going?
I'm going to heaven. Society gave me their judgment. I've got no choice
but to accept it. Now it's between me and my maker."
The interview lasted about two hours, during which Sells refused to say
he was sorry. He said if he did apologize and show remorse, people would
Sells said he won't fight his execution, and will go to his death on May
17 without a last statement.
Serial killer casts new
light on death of boy
October 17, 2005
LAWRENCEVILLE, ILL. -- "I followed the woman from
the convenience store, to a driveway she pulled into. And I hung around
several hours, till it come wee hours of the morning. Then I went into
this house . . . I go to the first bedroom I see . . . I don't know
whose room it is and, and, and, and I start stabbing."
So begins an 86-page transcript of serial killer and former St. Louis
resident Tommy Lynn Sells, as interviewed two years ago in a Texas
prison by an Illinois prosecutor. He was there to investigate Sells'
claim to the stabbing death in 1997 of Joel Kirkpatrick, 10, in
Joel's mother, Julie Rea Harper,
had been convicted of the killing - despite her story, from the
beginning, that a masked intruder stabbed her son in his bed, struggled
with her and disappeared.
Harper's conviction was
overturned last year on a technicality. Her new trial is set for July,
freshly opening an old wound in Lawrenceville, a small downstate town
near the Indiana border. A judge has moved the trial to Carlyle, in
Clinton County, to avoid local publicity.
of wrangling this year between the prosecution and defense, the
transcripts of Sells' jailhouse statements will be allowed in as
evidence for the defense.
That may turn out to be a
mixed victory for Harper.
A Post-Dispatch review of
the transcripts and other documents found clear similarities between
Harper's initial story from 1997 and Sells' statements in 2003. They
include a generally consistent account from Sells about the mother's and
son's movements the night of the killing; a similar sequence of events
in describing a stabbing in the dark bedroom and a struggle with a woman;
and even an accurate description of the socioeconomic look of the
neighborhood where Harper lived.
But the Sells
transcripts also are inconsistent with Harper's story. Most notable is
Sells' insistence that he wasn't wearing a mask, a key element of
Harper's story. There is also Sells' matter-of-fact admission that part
of the reason he agreed to talk to Illinois officials is to get out of
the clutches of what he calls a "15th-century" Texas legal system.
Complicating matters is that, at times in the interview, Sells himself -
who has claimed to have killed as many as 70 people over the past 20
years - admits he is unsure whether Joel was among them:
Uh, you all haven't asked this, but I will go ahead and tell you this.
Do I think I'm the one that killed this kid? Yes . . . Uh, if it wasn't
this kid I killed, then there's a murder out there that, that we still
ain't undug yet."
Sells, 41, lived in St. Louis in
the 1990s. He is on death row in Texas for the fatal stabbing of a 13-year-old
girl in 1999. He has confessed to numerous other murders, including the
slaying in 1987 of a family of four in Ina, Ill., about 75 miles
southeast of Lawrenceville. A grand jury in Springfield, Mo., indicted
him two years ago in the slaying in 1997 of 13-year-old Stephanie
Mahaney - a stabbing that took place two days after Joel was fatally
stabbed in Illinois.
Children have been Sells' primary
targets. He ended up on death row in Texas because yet another child, a
10-year-old girl, survived a slashed throat to testify against him.
Sells' suspected murders also have had a common thread of being
committed with weapons he found in the homes of his victims - knives,
and a baseball bat in one case - and of having no apparent motive.
Sells himself, in the transcripts, appears to ponder the senselessness
of his crimes:
"My life don't make a lot of sense .
. . . It don't make sense that I go around the country killing people.
Period. It don't make sense doing that."
That senselessness fits the story
Harper has been telling since the night Joel was murdered, her
supporters claim. They note that the most damning argument in her first
trial - that it's unlikely a man would break into a house and murder a
child for no reason - is exactly what Sells is known to have done or is
suspected to have done in other cases.
convicted on the strength of a single question: Who comes into a home,
takes a knife from the home, stabs a child, and leaves an adult alive?"
Harper defense attorney Ronald Safer argued in a written motion this
In the transcripts, Sells - who admits he was on
drugs and has jumbled memories - says he had a minor altercation with a
woman and her son at a convenience store that day. In anger, he says, he
followed them home, and waited until after dark:
went in and, and, and I don't know if it was her room, don't know if it
was his room, I don't, I just knew I wanted to go in there and, and hurt
Prosecutors are still convinced that
Harper, now 36, killed her son in the wake of a bitter custody dispute
with her ex-husband. They fought to prevent a jury from seeing Sells'
disjointed, sometimes chilling transcripts, arguing it's a false
confession designed to delay his execution in Texas. The prosecution
notes that Sells states several times that he's unsure he committed the
Sells' "ramblings" aren't "a valid confession"
and "are inconsistent with the known, provable facts of the crime scene,"
special prosecutor Ed Parkinson of the Illinois Appellate Prosecutor's
Office wrote in a motion this year.
Circuit Judge Barry Vaughan ruled in March that he would admit the
transcripts, despite reservations. Vaughan notes that Sells has claimed
to have killed 40 to 70 people, and "it is difficult to determine
whether he is recalling this crime or some of the other 40 to 70."
That possibility arises in unsettling ways in Sells' interview with
Illinois officials. At one point, he is discussing whether the house he
entered had columns outside the door:
seeing columns . . . at the front. Not one-hundred-percent sure, though
. . . I know at some point I killed someone with columns on the front of
Though hesitant to allow what might be
"a false confession," Vaughan said he would leave it to a jury to decide
how much weight to give the transcripts.
That could be
challenging. Sells' account contains many statements that could be
interpreted as either major factual inconsistencies or minor memory
For example, Harper told authorities she'd
been out with her son at a McDonald's that evening, not at a convenience
store, as Sells states. Sells also claims to have gotten from St. Louis
to Lawrenceville by traveling Interstate 55, which is impossible. He
describes a house in the middle of the block; Harper's was on a corner.
Harper, who was a 28-year-old Indiana University graduate student in
education psychology at the time of her son's killing, was initially
convicted in 2002. She was sentenced to 65 years in prison, but the 5th
District Court of Appeals ordered a new trial last year, based on a
dispute over the role of the special prosecutor in the first trial.
Harper could not be reached for comment and has previously declined
interviews on the advice of her attorneys. She remains free on a
$750,000 bond pending her second trial, scheduled to start July 10. She
is living in DeKalb, Ill., with her current husband, Mark Harper, a
Northern Illinois University law stud.
Drifter says he killed Illinois family in 1987
March 3, 2000
So far, man has confessed to 13 slayings
A rail-riding drifter jailed in Del Rio has confessed
to the 1987 killing of an Illinois family, including an infant girl born
during the attack, officials confirmed Friday.
"It's shocking, but at least this guy is behind
bars," said Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Texas Department of
Tommy Lynn Sells, a 35-year-old carnival worker,
confessed Thursday to Illinois State Police and Jefferson County, Ill.,
sheriff's detectives about the slaying of an Illinois man, his wife,
their 3-year-old son, and newborn daughter, Vinger said.
So far, Sells has confessed to 13 killings in seven
states and has been charged with murder in two separate attacks on young
girls in Del Rio and Kentucky. Investigators from across the nation have
interviewed him in the Val Verde County Jail, where he is awaiting trial
for the New Year's Eve killing of Kaylene Harris, 13.
Sells is accused of slipping through a window and
slashing the throats of Harris and 10-year-old Krystal Surles as the
girls slept in a mobile home outside Del Rio. Surles survived the attack
and her description of Sells led to his arrest.
In Kentucky, Sells is charged with slashing the throat
of a 13-year-old girl and leaving her body near railroad tracks. Sells
also has confessed to and is a suspect in killings in California,
Arkansas, Arizona and Missouri.
As Sell's jailhouse confessions have tumbled out, high-ranking
Texas law officials have cautioned Texas Rangers investigating the case
to be wary of another public relations fiasco such as the one caused by
Henry Lee Lucas, a drifter who in 1983 falsely confessed to hundreds of
murders around the country.
During an exchange at a January meeting of the Public
Safety Commission, Chairman James B. Francis Jr. warned Senior Ranger
Capt. Bruce Casteel to avoid another "Lucas deal."
"Well, Bruce, let's be very careful. Let's pin
him down specifically. Let's don't get carried away and tag him with
every murder and unsolved mystery," Francis said.
"We're establishing a time line," Casteel
"You know what I'm talking about. We're not going
through a Lucas deal again," Francis said.
Later, Frances added, "It's up to you not to let
In the next two weeks, Sells will be transported to
Arkansas for interviews about two separate killings there in 1981,
Because of the specific details Sells has provided,
Texas Rangers are convinced the drifter has told the truth so far,
"He knows things, little details about the crime
scene, that only the killer would know," said Vinger.
Sells is a California native who has been on the
streets since age 13. He has been described by Texas Rangers as an ex-convict
with drinking and drug problems who is prone to extremely violent
outbursts. He came to Del Rio about two years ago with a carnival and
married a woman there. He took a job selling used cars, authorities have
A spiritual awakening prompted Sells to confess to his
crimes, Vinger said.
"This guy claims he found religion, and the
reason why he started confessing is ... so he can provide closure for as
many family members of the victims as he can," said Vinger. "That's
what he claims, but who knows what's going on in this guy's head."
Police in Illinois were baffled by the Nov. 1987
slaying of Russell Keith Dardeen, a 29-year-old water treatment worker,
his wife Ruby Elaine Dardeen, 31, and their 3-year-old son Peter. After
following more than 1,000 leads, they had no strong motive for the
Elaine Dardeen was seven months pregnant at the time.
She was found in the couple's mobile home in Ina, Ill., which is 90
miles east of St. Louis, bound, gagged and savagely beaten with a
baseball bat. The couple's son also was severely beaten as was the
infant daughter born during the attack, police said.
Keith Dardeen's body was found the next night by
hunters in a farm field. He had been shot in the head three times and
his body had been mutilated with a knife.
"It was a very horrendous crime of a nature that
has never been seen in this area before," said Jefferson County
Sheriff's Detective John Kemp.
Joeann Dardeen, Keith Dardeen's 62-year-old mother who
lives in Mount Carmel, Ill., said Sell's confession may bring an end to
the tormenting and fearful years she and her daughter have spent since
"We've always had a fear because the police
thought it was somebody Keith knew and maybe I knew him. So there was
that fear we could be entertaining this person and not know it,"
she said. "All these years, we know they have questioned many, many
suspects but they never came up with anything that looked good."
Joeann Dardeen has kept in contact with the police all
this time expressing hope that the mystery would someday be solved.
"It's something you can't describe," she
said. "People have said you need to get on with your life and
forget it but you can't forget about your only son."
Drifter Eyed in Coast-to-Coast Killings
Police: He Claims Credit for Eight Deaths
Jan. 7, 2000
DEL RIO, Texas (APBnews.com) -- A 35-year-old drifter
charged with the murder of two teenage girls told investigators he
assaulted and killed six other people in four states during a crime
spree lasting a quarter-century, authorities said today.
While being interviewed by detectives about the death
of 13-year-old Kaylene Harris here on New Year's Eve, Tommy Lynn Sells
recounted a 22-year criminal history that started with petty theft as a
young teenager and escalated very quickly to murder,
Sells provided investigators with so much information
about a 1999 Kentucky murder that Lexington police went to Texas last
weekend to charge him with the abduction, rape and murder of 13-year-old
Haley McHone. He is being held in Del Rio on $800,000 bail pending a
February arraignment on capital murder and attempted-murder charges,
Death toll expected to rise
Investigators said they would not be surprised if the
number of deaths attributed to Sells rises. "There was a gob of
stuff he was not able to recall," said Sgt. John Allen, a homicide
detective with the Texas Department of Public Safety. "He's
legitimate. He's honest. He wanted to set things straight. He may recall
more as time goes on."
Sells does not yet have a court-appointed attorney and
has told authorities repeatedly he does not want one, said Tom Lee,
district attorney for the 63rd Judicial District.
Allen, a lead investigator in the Del Rio case, told
APBnews.com that Sells provided such graphic details about the cases in
which he was charged that there was no reason not to believe he
committed the other crimes he told them about.
"Lexington police told me, 'He knows too much
about the murder not to have committed it,'" said Allen.
Killed at random
The range of Sells' alleged crimes defies simple
analysis, investigators said. His victims spanned generational, gender
and geographic lines; his weapons were guns, knives or his hands. He
attacked young girls whom he did not know as they slept in their beds
and threw a fellow drifter off a train during an argument over money,
"There's no clear pattern," said Allen.
"It's not the same gender or age. Some were young girls and others
men -- transients with whom he would take an altercation to its fullest."
Sells allegedly broke into the home of Harris' family
Dec. 31 and attacked the 13-year-old girl and her friend, 10-year-old
Krystal Surles, in their beds. Surles was stabbed, but survived and was
able to help investigators with a description of her attacker, police
'Where did I go wrong?'
After his arrest Sunday, Sells confessed to slayings
in Los Angeles and San Bernadino, Calif., and two in Arkansas, Allen
said, as well as a string of assaults and aggravated robberies in North
Carolina and Florida.
Asked how many people Sells may have assaulted, Allen
said, "We're trying to verify the homicides. We're not even looking
at the assaults yet. Who knows? A lot."
It is unclear what prompted Sells' jail-house
confession. "Maybe he was tired with living with it. He knew he
would keep on killing unless he was stopped," said Allen. "At
one point he asked me, 'Where do you think I went wrong?' I wanted to
say, 'The day you were born,' but I didn't."
Eerie resemblance to another drifter
Sells bears a chilling resemblance to another rail-riding
murder suspect, Angel Maturino Resendiz, the Mexican drifter linked to
nine killings in three states, who surrendered to authorities last July
at the Texas border.
Like Resendiz, Sells roamed the country aboard freight
trains apparently choosing many victims at random -- one of them, McHone,
was found near a rail line in Lexington about 200 yards from where
Christopher Maier, one of Resendiz's alleged victims, was beaten to
death in 1997.
Allen said Sells was born in Oakland, Calif., but his
family moved to St. Louis when he was a young boy. After running away
from home at 13, he lived on the streets, supporting himself with odd
jobs and carnival work.
"It was the carnival that brought him to this
area," said Allen. "He met a girl and married her 14 months
No prior murder convictions
Sells has no prior murder convictions, but has served
time in West Virginia and Wyoming for various crimes including auto
theft, drug possession and assault, authorities said.
A spokeswoman for the North Carolina Attorney
General's Office was not aware of Sells or any particular cases in that
state that he may have been involved in, but said that many cases would
be referred to the local jurisdictions where the crimes took place and
would not necessarily be pursued by state police.
A Los Angeles police spokesman said he had not heard
of Sells either. "We've had no notification yet. It's too early,"
said Officer Jason Lee.
Drifter Accused of Killing Girls in Two States
Rail-Riding Transient Allegedly Slashed Third Victim
Jan. 4, 2000
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- A rail-riding transient has
been charged with murdering teenage girls in two states and wounding a
third, authorities said.
Tommy Lynn Sells, 35, of Del Rio, Texas, was arrested
Sunday in the stabbing death of Kaylene Harris, 13, and slashing of 10-year-old
Both girls were sleeping at the home of Kaylene's
mother near Del Rio on Friday when Sells allegedly broke in and attacked
them with a knife.
Krystal, who was in stable condition after her vocal
cords were severed in the attack, helped Val Verde County authorities
track down Sells by writing down a description of the attacker,
Allegedly confessed to a third attack
Following Sells' arrest, authorities said, he
confessed to the May slaying of Haley McHone, 13, of Lexington. He was
charged Monday with murder, rape and kidnapping in her death.
The girl's decomposed body was found in bushes by
railroad tracks near her house in May. Authorities have not said how she
The site was just a couple of hundred yards from where
University of Kentucky student Christopher Maier was beaten to death in
August 1997. Authorities in June linked Maier's killing to Angel
Maturino Resendiz, a rail-riding drifter whom authorities believe is to
blame for a string of murders near railroad tracks in several states,
Following Resendiz's arrest, police said that they did
not believe he was responsible for Haley McHone's death.
Trial in two states likely
Lexington police Sgt. Mark Barnard described Sells as
a transient who rode the rails and passed through Kentucky in May.
Police said he has held several odd jobs, including a stint in a circus.
The Lexington Herald-Leader reported Tuesday that law-enforcement
officials are investigating whether Sells may be responsible for other
crimes in Kentucky and at least five other states.
He would face trial in Texas on the capital murder and
attempted murder charges before being tried in Kentucky. No hearing had
Date of Birth
|Tommy Lynn Sells
Date of Offense
(at the Offense)
|5 ft 9 in
Prior Prison Record
Department of Corrections on a 2 year sentence for felony theft.
Confined 8 months and released on parole on 12/18/1985.
Returned as a parole violator with a new conviction of driving
under the influence. Confined 16 months and discharged.
Wyoming Department of Corrections on a 2 year sentence for
vehicle theft. Confined 16 months and discharged. Wyoming
Department of Corrections on a 2-10 years sentence for malicious
wounding. Released on parole.
Summary of incident
12/31/1999, Sells entered a Del Rio residence occupied by a 13
year old white female and a 10 year old white female.
entered the residence with intent to sexually assault the 13
Sells slashed her throat and stabbed her multiple
times, resulting in her death.
Sells then slashed the throat of
the 10 year old. The 10 year old survived the attack.
Race and Gender of Victim
Tommy Lynn Sells
By David Krajicek
The last murder
At 4 a.m. on December 31, 1999, 20
hours before the turn of the millennium, a car rolled to a muted stop in
the Guajia Bay subdivision, west of Del Rio, Texas.
A bearded man with a mullet
haircut got out and padded quietly toward a double-wide trailer, home of
Terry and Crystal Harris and their kids. He whispered reassurance to a
caged pet Rottweiler in the backyard and approached the pen to allow the
animal a whiff of his scent.
The man used the blade he was
carrying, a 12-inch boning knife, to try to trip the lock on the back
door. That failed, and so did an attempt to enter the home through a
rear window that held an air conditioner.
He walked around to an open window
on the front of the house. He tipped over a metal tub to use as a step,
removed a screen and hoisted himself up and in.
The man found himself in the
bedroom of Justin Harris, 14, who was blind. The boy was roused awake,
but he thought the noise was his siblings horsing around.
Justin called out, "Will y'all
stop coming into my room!"
The man moved out of Justin's room
to the next bedroom. He opened the door and flicked a flame to his
cigarette lighter. There slept a Harris family friend, Marque Surles, 7.
In the master bedroom, he flicked his lighter again and found Crystal
Harris asleep with her daughter Lori, 12.
Finally, in the fourth bedroom he
found what he was looking for.
In the bottom rack of a bunk bed
lay Kaylene "Katy" Harris, 13.
The man lay down beside the girl
and nudged her awake.
She looked at him sleepily and
said, "What are you doing here?"
The man held a hand over her mouth
and menaced Katy with the knife.
He drew the blade down her body
and deftly sliced off her shorts, panties and bra, as if he'd done that
sort of thing before.
When the man began fondling her,
Katy wiggled free, stood up and screamed, "Go get mama!"
Only then did the intruder realize
that a second girl, Krystal Surles, 10 years old and 80 pounds, was
asleep on the top bunk.
The man poked his knife at Katy
and turned on the bedroom light. Seeing blood, the girl said, "You cut
The intruder moved in behind Katy.
"He had his hand over her mouth,"
Krystal Surles would later say. "She was struggling. She told me with
her eyes to stay there and not move, and so I didn't."
As Krystal watched, the man
dragged the blade of his knife across Katy's throat once, and then
repeated the motion a second time.
"She just fell," said Krystal.
"And then she started making really bad noises, like she was gagging for
air but couldn't get any because of the blood."
The man continued his knife work
after Katy collapsed. A coroner would catalogue 16 stab wounds, three of
which went all the way through her body, in addition to the two gashes
to the throat.
The intruder moved toward Krystal
"I told him, 'I'll be quiet. I
promise. I won't say anything. It's Katy making the noise,'" she would
But the intruder showed no mercy.
"He reached over and cut my
throat," she said. "I just lay there and pretended I was dead. If he
knew I was alive, he would come back and kill me for sure."
The assailant switched off the
light and walked out, leaving through the front door. After a minute,
Krystal heard a car start and drive off. She put a hand to her throat
and ran outdoors. Assuming that everyone in the house had been killed,
she made her way to a neighbor's house a quarter-mile away.
There, retiree Herb Betz was up
early to watch TV coverage of the arrival of the millennium in Australia
. He heard a door knock and peered through the peephole. There stood
Krystal Surles in a T-shirt, boxer shorts and socks. She was awash in
The child was unable to speak. The
knife had severed her windpipe and grazed the sheathing of her carotid
artery. She had come within a millimeter of Katy Harris' fate.
"Her little eyes were saying to
me, 'Help me,'" Betz told Texas journalist John MacCormack.
Betz dialed 911. As she lay
waiting for help, Krystal asked for writing instruments, and she penned
three brief notes:
"The Harrises are hurt."
"Tell them to hurry."
"Will I live?"
Betz said, "I kissed her on the
forehead and told her several times she'd be all right. I didn't believe
it. I thought she'd die on my kitchen floor."
Medical rescuers found the girl in
shock, her body convulsing.
She was raced to a Del Rio
hospital, and then flown by helicopter to University Hospital in San
Antonio , where surgeons worked for hours to repair the damage done by
the five-inch cut across her throat.
Back at the Guajia Bay
subdivision, rescuers found Katy Harris dead, although the others in the
house were unharmed.
Krystal Surles awoke groggy on New
Year's Day, her throat heavily bandaged. Texas rangers and county
sheriff's investigators were anxious to debrief the girl about her
attacker, but they were careful to allow her time to recover.
But soon after regaining
consciousness, Krystal was ready to get to work. She used gestures to
demand a pen and paper and began writing descriptions of her assailant.
Authorities called in Shirley
Timmons, a forensic artist, from her home in Midland to work with
Krystal from her San Antonio hospital bed.
The first sketch showed a
dark-eyed, round-faced man with long brown hair and a full beard. The
image resembled a swarthy Chuck Norris.
Cops quickly distributed the
description and image, and they pressed the Harris family to mull over
friends and acquaintances for a match.
Nothing was missing from the home.
Law enforcers assumed the murder was motivated by sexual deviance, not
robbery. And they suspected the killer was acquainted with the Harrises
before climbing in the window-and that Katy Harris had been his intended
The two Surles girls were staying
with the Harrises while her mother, Pam, was moving from Kansas to Del
Rio over the holiday. The families had been friends in Kansas before the
Harrises moved to Texas in 1995, and Pam Surles and her daughters were
now joining them there.
A group left Del Rio at 6 p.m.
December 30 for the 13-hour drive north to collect Surles' belongings.
Those on the trip included Terry Harris, adoptive father of the murder
victim, Pam Surles and her boyfriend, Doug Luker.
They turned around and rushed back
to Texas when they were informed of the murder and assault.
When Luker heard the description
and saw the sketch, it reminded him of a man the moving group had seen
at a Del Rio gas station just before they left for Kansas .
He remembered the man's name as
Tom or Tommy. He seemed to be a friend of Terry Harris, Luker said, and
he worked as a salesman at Amigo Auto Sales.
Luker shared his recollections
with Texas Ranger John Allen, who tracked down the owner of the car lot
by phone. The man was uncooperative with Allen, but he quickly
He phoned the Val Verde County
Sheriff's Office and gave a friend there the name of the employee.
Rangers searched state crime files and came up with a picture of the
man-beardless, but it was the best they could do.
They went to Krystal Surles'
hospital room and showed her a photo array of six men. She studied the
pictures purposefully, and then pointed at one as the intruder.
It was the used-car salesman from
Del Rio. His name was Tommy Lynn Sells.
Investigators prepared an arrest
warrant and paid a visit early on January 2 to the trailer Sells shared
with his wife, Jessica Levrie, and her four children.
He went along without rancor. He
didn't ask why he was being taken in, and investigators didn't offer to
But during the ride to the
sheriff's office, Sells turned to Val Verde County Sheriff's Lt. Larry
Pope and said, "Well, I guess we've got a lot to talk about."
'He loved to kill'
Over the next few months, Sells
talked and talked about a singular life of killing.
The lifelong transient admitted
the murder of Katy Harris and the throat-slashing of her friend. He said
he killed an entire family in Illinois, a mother and daughter in
Missouri, a teenage girl in Lexington, Ky., a drifter in Arizona, a
child in San Antonio. And there were many more-a string of perhaps 20
murders across America that spanned three decades, by Sells' account.
Sells began using the nickname
"Coast to Coast," the geographic spread of his carnage.
"He wants to clean the slate and
get everything behind him," Ranger Allen told reporters. "He's told us
he wants closure for himself and for the families of the victims he's
killed. Closure was his word."
Sells' court-appointed attorney,
Victor Garcia, said he advised his client to stop talking.
"I said, 'Well, I understand
you've already confessed to everything but the kitchen sink,' and he
said, 'Yeah. I want this over,'" Garcia told journalist MacCormack. "I
suggested to him that he not talk anymore, and he said, 'I'm not going
to stop. I don't need a lawyer.'"
The country has had more
prolific--perhaps even more depraved--serial killers.
But several features of his work
make Tommy Lynn Sells standout in the pantheon of American murderers.
Sells, nearly illiterate with an
eighth-grade education, spent his life as a boozy, doped-up drifter. Yet
he managed to fly beneath the radar of law enforcement for 20
years-particularly unusual in that most of his victims were not hobos
and hookers, who typically occupy the lowest-priority slot at the back
of the homicide-investigation file drawer.
He spent time in prisons for a
number of other offenses, and that crime pedigree was readily available
to law enforcers. But he was never even a suspect in a murder until he
failed in his attempt to kill Krystal Surles.
His pattern, to the extent that he
had one, was simple: kill and move on.
Bud Cooper, a Missouri police
investigator, explained to a San Antonio reporter why Sells escaped
detection: "If you or I drove across the United States , we'd be fairly
easy to follow. We use credit cards and telephones. But this guy takes
trains, uses no credit cards, doesn't use checks. It's kind of like
chasing a ghost."
The American fascination with
crimes and criminals often centers on the workings of the criminal mind.
But Sells exhibited none of the evil genius of a Ted Bundy or a Charles
"He wasn't some strange,
far-out-type person," said Sgt. Terry Ward of the Pulaski County
Sheriff's Department in Little Rock , Ark. , told the Arkansas Democrat
. "He was just a normal person who loved to kill. If you made him mad,
Motivation has been a muddy issue
as investigators have reconstructed Sells' life of crime. Some
investigators termed him an "opportunist" criminal who would strike when
a likely victim appeared.
True-crime author Diane Fanning,
who wrote about Sells in "Through the Window," claimed that he killed
"with no apparent motive and no common pattern."
Yet the evidence shows that Sells
was a sexual predator. Many of his crimes included rape and sexual
mutilation, and most of his murders began as deviant assaults, including
the murder of Katy Harris.
It is true that Sells killed with
many implements, including knives, guns, a baseball bat and various
garrotes. And it may be true that some of his crimes were spontaneous
rather than calculated.
But his sexual predatory urges
became more acute over time, as adolescent girls and petite women-often
lonely single mothers-became his victims of choice. His body of criminal
work makes one pattern, one motive all too clear: Tommy Lynn Sells was a
sexual psychopath who stalked, raped and murdered women and girls.
A throwaway kid
Sells was born with a twin sister,
Tammy Jean, in Oakland on June 28, 1964.
His mother, Nina, had two sons
before the twins were born, and three more boys would soon follow.
The children had a non-traditional
upbringing, including fundamental questions about parentage. Officially,
an insurance agent named William Sells was their father.
But author Fanning said the
biological father was Joe Lovins, a used-car salesman. Fanning wrote
that Lovins had bailed Williams Sells out of a financial hole, and Sells
agreed to claim the children as his own in an insurance scam. Sells' job
provided health insurance benefit to the children.
(Much later in life, Tommy Sells
would credit Joe Lovins for the fatherly adage that helped him kill so
many for so long: "Dead men tell no tales.")
When twins Tommy and Tammy were 18
months old, Nina Sells moved her troupe to St. Louis , where she had
There Tammy contracted meningitis
and died. Tommy exhibited the same high fever as his sister, but he
Nina Sells sent her son away to
live with her aunt, Bonnie Walpole, from ages 2 to 5. The woman told
Fanning that the mother never visited, so she inquired about adopting
Tommy. The mother was furious. She took possession of the boy and
refused to allow him to visit Walpole .
Tommy Sells became a chronic
truant at the extraordinarily early age of 7-an indication of his
She defended herself to Fanning by
saying, "He was the kind of child that, whatever you wanted him to do,
he was going to make sure he did not do it. Going to school was one of
At age 8, young Sells was allowed
to spend time with a man from a nearby town who had befriended him. He
would take the boy on day trips, and the man would lavish gifts and cash
on the child. Sells began to sleep at his home with increasing
The man would later be identified
as a pedophile who molested boys, including Sells, for years before he
was caught, according to Fanning.
Every aspect of Sells' upbringing
seemed tainted by his mother's neglect. Harbingers of behavioral
pathologies appeared frequently.
He was allowed to sample alcohol
with his grandpa at age 7. He began smoking ditch-weed marijuana at age
10. He crawled into bed naked with his grandma at age 13, and he would
later undergo mental examination when he tried to rape his own mother.
By age 14 he was off on his own, a boy posing as a man, hopping trains,
stealing, and doing what he had to do to survive.
A life of crime
From 1978 to 1999, Sells
crisscrossed the country by hopping freights, hitching rides or stealing
cars. He spent time in half the states in the union, begging or working
as a carny, barber, mechanic and laborer.
A precise accounting of his
felonies is impossible; Sells didn't keep a crime diary.
But a murder he committed in July
1985 serves as a prototype.
He was working with a carnival
that had set up in Forsyth , Mo. , a town of 1,000 on Table Rock Lake
near Branson, then a burgeoning country music center.
Among the visitors to the fair was
Ena Cordt, 35, a petite divorcee who scraped by working at a car wash.
She was treating her 4-year-old son, Rory, to a night out.
By Sells' account, he met Cordt at
the fair, and she invited him back to her home late that night. The
authorities found the bludgeoned bodies of the woman and her child three
The way Sells tells the story, he
had consensual sex with Cordt, then found her stealing from his
backpack. He picked up her son's wooden baseball bat and beat her to
death, then killed the child, a potential witness.
There is no telling what really
happened. Perhaps he ogled her at the fair, stalked her home, raped and
Dead men tell no tales, as Lovins
said. Nor do women and innocent children.
After his arrest in Texas ,
Rangers and FBI agents led Sells on a series of out-of-state field trips
to try to confirm his recollections of homicides, some of which were
vague, owing perhaps to the passage of time and a haze of substance
But the rangers used caution in
accepting Sells' accounts.
The agency was stung with
embarrassment over its handling of serial confessor Henry Lee Lucas.
Arrested in 1983, he claimed to have committed hundreds of homicides,
and detectives from across the country rushed to Texas in a
In 1995, the Dallas Times-Herald
charged that the Lucas confessions amounted to a hoax abetted by
overzealous law enforcers.
With Sells, the rangers were more
persnickety about confirming his claims.
For example, Sells told author
Fanning that he killed a man with a pistol in Mississippi during a home
break-in just weeks after his 16 th birthday, and he claimed an ice-pick
murder in Los Angeles the following year. Police discount those claims
In March 2000, Sells took a
homicide-investigation field trip to Little Rock , Ark. He had lived
there in the early 1980s, and he claimed he raped and murdered a woman
near Little Rock and pitched her body into a bauxite mine pit. He also
claimed he shot a man during a burglary there.
He led police to the mine pit and
to the burgled house. It turned out his shot had missed the man, who was
alive and well. The mine-pit murder remains unresolved.
Evidence indicates that Sells went
on a murderous rampage in the late 1980s. He claims to have killed a
dozen people in seven states from 1987 to 1989, literally coast to
The investigative technique for
fleshing out details of these cases would go something like this: Sells
would say he killed a family in the Midwest or a woman hitchhiking in
the southwestern desert on an approximate date, and detectives would set
out to find matches. They would then press Sells for details of the
crimes, the victims and the settings for comparison to cold cases.
In the fall of 1987, Stephanie
Stroh, a 20-year-old free spirit, was hitchhiking across America back
home to San Francisco after a year-long trek to Europe and Asia . On
October 15, she was standing beside a road with her thumb out in
Winnemucca , Nev. , when a roofer driving a stolen truck pulled over to
offer a ride.
The roofer, who had drifted into
town that summer, was Tommy Sells. By his account, he drove the young
woman toward Reno on I-80, pulled off at some point, choked her to
death, then dropped her body down a hot spring. Two weeks later, Sells
failed to show up at work. He was on the road again. Despite a massive
search, Stroh's body was never found.
Some law enforcers believe Sells'
account. Others doubt he killed the woman.
But everyone agrees he was
responsible for one particularly depraved multiple homicide in Illinois
in the fall of 1987.
A few days before Thanksgiving,
hunters walking a field near Ina , Ill. (pop. 500), 80 miles east of St.
Louis , found the body of Keith Dardeen. He had been shot in the head,
and his genitals were mutilated.
In the trailer where he lived,
police found tucked in bed the bodies of Dardeen's wife, Elaine and
their son, Pete, 3. Each had been bludgeoned to death, and Elaine had
been raped and sexually assaulted with the baseball bat the killer used
as a murder weapon.
Also in the bed authorities found
the body of a newborn daughter, born prematurely during or after the
beating administered to Elaine. The infant, too, was beaten to death.
The case had been unsolved for 12 years, until the arrest of Sells, who
The Ina murders are examples of
the frustrations law enforcers and survivors have had in debriefing
Sells. They are certain that he killed the Dardeen family, but they are
not certain of why-or what touched off the violence.
Sells claims he met Keith Dardeen
at a truck stop, and the man invited him home. He also claims Dardeen
made sexual advances. Relatives say that it is unlikely that Dardeen,
who was fearful of crime to the point of paranoia, would have invited a
stranger home, and they say the sex come-on allegation is absurd.
Criminals who commit heinous acts
frequently concoct circumstances to explain or even mitigate their own
blame, of course. How else can someone with even a shadow of conscience
rationalize the pummeling of a newborn child?
Perhaps even Sells doesn't know
the truth of his carnage. By 1987 he was a heavy drinker and drug-user.
He preferred heroin but settled for just about any drug he could ingest
or inhale-crank, coke, acid, meth.
He would work a few days or steal
something of value, then use his earnings to buy drugs and get high. He
was often in a haze.
Sells told investigators that his
bloody binge continued in 1988 and '89. The list is numbing. He said his
victims included an adolescent girl in New Hampshire; a woman and her
3-year-old son killed at a bridge overlook near Twin Falls, ID; a
transient named Kent Lauten, 51, knifed to death in a fight over a
marijuana debt in a hobo camp near Tucson; a prostitute in Truckee,
Calif., and a young woman hitchhiker in Oregon.
By Christmas 1989, Tommy Sells was
a doped-out shell. He stumbled into Rawlings , Wyo. , and on January 12,
1990, crossed paths with a young couple who needed tires for their
truck. Sells accommodated them by stealing a truck, removing the tires
and selling them at a deep discount.
He scored with his profit, then
hid out near railroad tracks, planning to jump a freight. A cop happened
to see his wobbly run toward a train and arrested Sells for public
intoxication. He was carrying incidental items from the stolen truck, so
cops brought theft charges that led to a 16-month prison term.
But Sells had a difficult time
going cold turkey off narcotics while in jail. He was having anxiety
attacks and hallucinations. (Among other things, he was carrying on
conversations with his awful collection of splotchy, self-inflicted
tattoos, according to author Fanning.)
A jail shrink ordered mental
tests, and Sells was diagnosed with a psychiatry textbook's worth of
personality disorders, addictions, depressions and psychoses.
Medications stabilized Sells, and he did his time without incident.
A free man a year after he was arrested, Sells hit
the road again, returning to his bloody work.
In September 1991, Sells told authorities, he killed
Margaret McClain and her daughter, Pamela, in Charleston , W. Va. Eight
months later in the same city, he attacked a 20-year-old woman who took
him home and offered him bags of food and clothing after she found Sells
on a street corner begging. He raped and stabbed the woman, but she
managed to wrest the knife from Sells and slash him repeatedly,
inflicting 23 wounds on her assailant.
Sells picked up a piano stool and beat the woman into
submission, leaving her for dead. But she survived.
The woman helped identify Sells, who had become a
familiar face around downtown Charleston , often holding a sign that
read, "Hungry. Will Work for Food."
Sells pleaded guilty to malicious wounding, and a
rape charge was dropped. He was sentenced in June 1993 to two to 10
years in West Virginia state prison. Two things happened during his four
years behind bars: He got married, and he was diagnosed as bipolar.
Released in May 1997, Sells moved to Tennessee with
his new bride, Nora Price. But the marriage was not blissful. Sells
abandoned the woman again and again, as the peripatetic murderer set off
on more cross-country travels. For example, he has claimed blame for the
October 1997 strangulation death of Stephanie Mahaney, 13, whose remains
were found in a pond west of Springfield , Mo.
In the latter months of 1997, Sells hooked up with
the Heart of America carnival. He operated the Ferris wheel and drove
the truck that hauled it from town to town.
In late February 1998, the carnival put down stakes
for an eight-day stop in Del Rio , Texas , a border town of 35,000 on
the Rio Grande just below the Amistad Reservoir dam. There he met a
lonely local woman, Jessica Levrie, 28, the mother of four young
She was enraptured. Sells went away with the
carnival, but she lured him back just days later. He moved into her
trailer on March 31, just a few days before his wife, Nora, was giving
birth to his son in Jonesboro , Ark. (She gave the child up for
Sells took a job maintaining and selling used cars at
Amigo Auto Sales in Del Rio . He and Levrie married in October 1998,
although the license was invalid because he had never bothered to
divorce Nora. No matter. Sells cut his beard, trimmed his mullet and
wore a rented tux for the big event in Del Rio .
She gave him a used pickup truck as a wedding gift.
He gave her a lifetime of nightmares.
Into Del Rio
Beyond the polygamy, their union was a mismatch in
many ways. Levrie was a born-again Christian, and Sells was indifferent
to religion. The woman was sincere, and Sells was a con man. Sells posed
as an abiding husband, but he secretly caroused at night, maintaining
his well-worn habit of drug and alcohol abuse.
As always, Sells would disappear periodically. His
road trips came frequently in 1999. He would lie to Levrie that he had
business out of town or that he had to see a relative. In fact, Tommy
Sells made Del Rio his home base for a furious endgame series of murders
On April 4, he apparently broke into the trailer home
of a 32-year-old woman in Gibson County , Tenn. , 75 miles northeast of
Memphis . He raped and stabbed the woman to death, then stabbed to death
her 8-year-old daughter.
He hightailed back to Texas , landing in San Antonio
two weeks later with another carnival troupe for the city's huge Fiesta.
At 10 p.m. on April 18, Mary Bea Perez, 9, disappeared from her family's
table at the El Mercado music fest downtown. Ten days later, the girl's
body turned up in a San Antonio creek. She had been molested and slain.
The case was unsolved until Sells was arrested and
Sells hurried out of San Antonio and headed back east
to Lexington , Ky. , where he bedded down at a homeless shelter and
worked as a day laborer.
On May 13, he saw Haley McHone, 13, enjoying a
solitary springtime ride on a swing in a Lexington Park . He accosted
her and forced her to a wooded section, where he stripped, raped and
choked the girl to death. He rode off on the girl's bicycle and sold it
for $20 in a housing project, then used the proceeds to get falling-down
He was arrested late that night for public
intoxication. He was released from jail the next morning, then scooted
west back to Del Rio -gone long before the girl's body turned up.
There may have been other murder excursions before
the turn of the millennium. Sells told investigators he traveled to
Kingfisher, Okla. , in July, where he raped and shot Bobby Lynn Wofford,
In Del Rio Sells and Levrie began attending Grace
Community Church at the invitation of Sells' boss at Amigo Auto Sales.
At the church Sells met Terry and Crystal Harris and
their children, including Katy, a girl of the proper age for the sexual
Sells insinuated himself into their lives. He visited
their double-wide several times, pretending to seek Terry Harris'
counseling about his marital difficulties. In fact, he was ogling Katy,
her 12-year-old sister, Lori, and their slender mother, Crystal.
The opportunity for the crime opened up when Sells
happened to cross paths with Terry Harris on December 31 as he gassed up
his truck for his trip to Kansas .
Harris was a rugged man-a former cop and nightclub
bouncer. Sells' MO was to attack women and children, with only a few
exceptions. He likely would not have gone to the Harris home that night
had he not known that Terry Harris would be away.
A brief trial
Sells faced trial for murder in Del Rio in September
2000. He wore a blue suit that covered his tattoos. His hair was closely
trimmed, and he wore studious spectacles.
Testimony revealed that Katy Harris may not have been
his first choice for sexual deviance on the night of her murder. He
spent that evening at Larry's Lakeside Tavern. The first witness,
bartender Noell Houchin, said Sells harassed her all night long.
"He was obsessed with having sex with me. That's all
we talked about all night long," she testified.
At the 2 a.m. closing, Sells was shooed away by
another man, a customer looking out for Houchin.
Crystal Harris took the stand to testify that her
family met Sells in church, then bought a used truck from him because
they felt sorry for him.
But the star witness was Krystal Surles, the child
whose throat he slashed. As the trial began, Sells pleaded guilty to
that assault-a well-considered legal maneuver.
"He's attempting to save his life," his lawyer,
Victor Garcia, told reporters. "He's trying to show the jury that he is
But the trial belonged to young Krystal, who mounted
the witness stand with a jagged pink scar across her neck. She bravely
recounted the murder of her friend and the slashing of her own throat.
She looked Sells in the eye as she testified, and she calmly pointed him
out as her assailant.
The girl's mother, Pam Surles, told reporters, "She
wants him to die. That's exactly what she said."
Sells did not testify, but he did appear in a
videotaped walk-through of the crime scene that was played for jurors.
During the tour, he told investigators that he had "nothing intentional
on my mind" when he went to the Harris home at 4 a.m.
Attorney Garcia allowed that the murder was "a
hellish, brutal crime," but he argued it was not capital murder, a
verdict required for condemnation.
The jury disagreed. It took just an hour to convict
on that charge after a brief, three-day trial. The jury then voted for
Sells joined more than 450 others on Death Row in
Livingston , Texas , whose execution total of nearly 300 since 1982
leads the nation. No execution date for Sells has been set. The average
stay on Texas Death Row is 10 years, at a cost to taxpayers of $55 per
day, state officials said.
When his time comes, Sells will be given a dose of
three drugs (cost: $86)--a deadly dose of the sedative sodium thiopental,
a form of bromide muscle relaxant to collapse his lungs, and potassium
chloride to stop his heart beat.
Katy Harris' adoptive father says he looks forward to
that day. Terry Harris says the family has saved a bottle of champagne
they had intended to use to toast the new millennium. It will be
uncorked the minute Tommy Lynn Sells is executed, Harris says.
In 2001, the Harris family sat for an interview with
the Kansas City Star. They had moved back to Kansas , unable to live in
the place where Katy was murdered.
"It took just 10 minutes for Sells to uproot our
family," Harris told the paper. "He stole our daughter's
accomplishments, every birthday, every holiday...For a whole year,
everything snowballed downhill. He stole our lifestyle. We may have to
file bankruptcy. I'm not allowed to work - I have too many anger issues.
The drugs we're on for depression are really expensive. I don't feel
like a man. Forget about sex. There's no way you can plan for something
He continued, "It eats me up that I tried to help
Tommy. I talked with him. He was a guy down on his luck that I tried to
help. He repaid me by killing my daughter."
While the survivors of his murders try to cope, Sells
grouses about his treatment in letters posted on the Internet. He
complains about denial of "basic hygiene," a paucity of food and a lack
Like a number of other condemned inmates, Sells has
become a Death Row Picasso. His kindergarten-quality art shows up on the
Internet, including manacled praying hands and a Texas flag with the
message, "Gov. George Bush Killed 135, Still Going."
Sells wrote a letter to author Fanning that was
included at the end of her book "Through the Window."
The content of the letter was self-pitying,
self-serving and anti-Semitic. It showed precious little reflection and
managed to blame everyone but himself for his predicament-including,
He waxed sanctimonious about the value of human life,
particularly his own. Among other things, he expressed outrage that the
prosecutor in the Katy Harris murder had had the temerity to show jurors
an autopsy picture of the girl. His take on this issue perhaps best
exemplifies his disconnection from the reality of what he has done.
Tommy Sells wrote, "That is what got me the guilty
verdict, not evidence. I still do not get it to this day. That picture
had nothing to do with what happened at the Harris home."
Sells had a falling out with the Texas rangers, and
he stopped cooperating.
As he put it in a letter posted on the Internet, "I'm
taking some time off from working so close with the Rangers. As a matter
of fact, I've stopped, for one or two reasons. Too much too fast. They
are getting on my nerves as I was getting on theirs. Them Rangers want
to rip my guts out because I've wanted a break."
Investigators said Sells was using his cooperation
shrewdly, parsing out details that might lead to additional field trips.
He also knows that should he start talking again down the line, it might
be reason enough to prompt delays of his execution.
Still under scrutiny
An accurate accounting of the murders committed by
Tommy Lynn Sells may never be possible. Although he is unlikely to face
trial again, his name continues to crop up in court documents across the
In 2003 Sells pleaded guilty to capital murder for
slaying 9-year-old Mary Bea Perez at the San Antonio Fiesta. In exchange
for the plea, prosecutors waived the death penalty, and Sells
automatically received a sentence of life in prison.
Also that year he was indicated in Missouri in the
1997 strangulation death of Stephanie Mahaney, 13, near Springfield .
In April 2004, police in Lockport , N.Y. , officially
notified survivors of a murder victim there that Sells likely was
Suzanne Korcz, 28, disappeared in May 1987 after she
stormed out of a Lockport bar following a quarrel with her boyfriend.
Her skeletal remains were found eight years later at the base of an
escarpment in Lockport , near Niagara Falls .
The details of the homicide are unclear, but Sells
confessed in 2002 that he was responsible for the long-unsolved murder.
Authorities said he gave details that lead them to believe he was
telling the truth, including a description of the victim.
He is being scrutinized in the murders of a woman and
her daughter in St. Louis is 1983 and the rape and gunshot slayings of a
farm wife and daughter in Portageville , Mo. , in 1998.
And Sells is at the center of a wrongful-conviction
allegation in Illinois .
Julie Rea-Harper was sentenced to
65 years in prison in 2002 following conviction by a jury for the 1997
stabbing death of her son, Joel Kirkpatrick, 10.
Prosecutors alleged that
Rea-Harper killed the boy in her home in Lawrenceville, in downstate
Illinois , after she lost custody of him to his father as a result of a
In May 2004, the Center on
Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School took up the
cause, saying courts should grant a new trial because Sells wrote two
coy letters indicating he may know something about the case. Others have
joined in the call for a new trial for the woman, who has continued to
proclaim her innocence.
Young Kirkpatrick was killed just
two days before Stephanie Mahaney, and the murder scenes were less than
100 miles apart.
The issue is whether Sells can be
trusted. If his victims were able, they might advise: Don't bet your
life on it.