Tommy Lee Sells was arrested January 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 upon them.
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 states.
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.
Authorities 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.
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 Lawrenceville, Ill.
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.
After months 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."
The crucial question
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.
"She was 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 year.
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:
"I 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 someone."
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 murder.
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.
Hamilton County 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:
"I remember 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 the door."
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 glitches.
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 student.