Karen Howell and Crystal Sturgill have spent more than half their lives behind bars.
They were once two of the most hated people in America, their faces familiar to anyone who watched TV or read the newspaper. Nowadays, however, they’re just two of the nearly 1,600 women who call Tennessee’s prison system “home.”
Two-and-a-half decades ago, they pleaded guilty to murder for their roles in the kidnapping and shooting of the four members of the Lillelids: 2-year-old Peter Lillelid and his sister, 6-year-old Tabitha, were found in rural Greene County with the corpses of their parents, Vidar, 34, and Delfina, 28. Tabitha would die a short time later in a hospital. Peter — who was shot in the right eye and torso — miraculously survived. (For more on the crime itself, see https://www.hardknoxwire.com/new-lillelid-killers-want-new-evidence-to-set-them-free/)
Howell, 42; Sturgill, 43, and Dean Mullins, 44, have filed petitions in Greene County Criminal Court seeking to force prosecutors to test the murder weapons. They argue that, had the guns been tested 25 years ago, it would have proved that only one of the group, then 14-year-old Jason Bryant, had actually been responsible for shooting the victims.
They’ve received a great deal of help from various advocates who’ve become convinced they deserve a chance at freedom.
Doug Cavanaugh, for instance, is a friend and advocate for Sturgill and Howell. He currently lives in Los Angeles, Calif., and is the creator of the “Justice for Karen Howell” Facebook page. Doug claims that the majority of the “Lillilid Six” were traumatized teens, whereas Bryant was a dangerous sociopath who was obviously the “true killer.”
James Stewart is a Green County resident and father of four children. He is the creator of the podcast, “The Devil Came Knocking,” which is an exploration of the Lillelid killings. While researching the case, Stewart became convinced that they all deserved to go to prison, but — in his words — “they don’t all deserve to die there.”
Howell and Sturgill agreed to be interviewed by phone over the weekend along with Cavanaugh and Stewart (an interview with Mullins couldn’t be arranged). The following are transcripts of those conversations, edited for length.
Interview with Karen Howell and Doug Cavanaugh on July 24, 2022:
Which Prison are you currently in and what’s your typical day like there?
Karen: I’m currently at West Tennessee State Penitentiary in the Women’s Therapeutic Residential Center. Right now, I recently switched jobs and I’m trying to get into the routine of that. I’m working third shift waxing floors, which isn’t really what I want to be doing, but for now, it’s a job. During the day I’m not doing a lot, everything’s kind of on hold right now because I’m really anxious about the appeal. I usually spend my time talking to family members and friends on the phone, writing, things like that.
You said that you are feeling anxious about the appeal, what other thoughts and feelings are you having about it?
Karen: I’m really excited about it! All of the new things that have come to light, and all of the things that have not been talked about in a very long time… I’m really excited. I’m ready for something to happen and I’m excited for the future.
If all goes well with the appeal and you are released, what do you hope for in your future?
Karen: My main goal would be to be able to spend time with my mom and with the rest of my family. I would love to work as a dog behaviorist. My passion is working with rescue dogs. I’d also like to be able to provide therapy for people with PTSD and Autistic kids; that’s my dream. But I do not want to think that far ahead right now. I want to get out of prison first, and then I just want to spend time with my family and living in that moment.
At the time of the trial were you aware that fingerprints were not taken of the gun or is that something that you just recently learned about?
Karen: Well, this is what I had heard, my attorney at the time said that they couldn’t do the fingerprints off the gun because it was mishandled. I heard that a couple of times from him, but there was nothing else said. I didn’t know if they were actually fingerprinted or if they even tried to do it. It wasn’t until now, recently, that I know that didn’t even attempt to get fingerprinted.
There’s one thing in saying, “Well, we tried to get the gun fingerprinted, but it was inconclusive.” But there’s no report of anything. I didn’t know that they were completely not fingerprinted at all. It should be surprising, but it’s not surprising.
What went into your original decision to plead guilty?
Karen: Well, my attorney at the time was preparing me to actually go to trial and then it was just a few days, maybe like a week at the most (no pressure of course) they came up with a plea that if all six of us plead guilty to murder they wouldn’t take out the death penalty on the four of my codefendants that were eligible at the time. It was just, there was such a tremendous amount of pressure that I was feeling, like all from all different directions. I wasn’t eligible for the death penalty. The plea agreement didn’t benefit me at all. The actual trigger person was the other juvenile, he wasn’t even eligible for the death penalty. It just wasn’t right.
My family begged me not to do it. I just felt like Berkeley Bell was basically telling me, “Hey you have three days to sign this for your four codefendants/ friends or they’re going to be put to death.” So, it’s like the third day, and I signed the plea agreement. I thought, like, I thought in my mind, “OK, I can sign this document so they wouldn’t be given the death penalty and I could still maintain my innocence to murder.” At that moment, it just didn’t register in my seventeen year old brain, “Hey, I’m also signing the rest of my life away.” I didn’t realize that I was also signing the rest of my life away by signing the document. It was just so much pressure, I wasn’t thinking clearly. Everything was just foggy.
I’ve seen some allegations that said that you were given Xanax at the time and medicated; is that the case?
Karen: Yeah. When I was tried as an adult and taken to the county jail, they prescribed me Xanax for my depression and PTSD. There was a couple occasions where I had a panic attack, and they gave me a dose of Valium on top of the Xanax. Maybe like a few days before the plea agreement and my pre-sentencing, my attorney, I believe it was him, wanted me taken off from the meds, so I could think with quote “a clear head. “Looking back at it, I’m a 17 year old kid with a history of depression issues, an emotional wreck with everything that just took place and I eventually get prescribed something for my depression. But I’ve never been on any kind of medication before for it. I’m sedated on this Xanax, then I get taken off and I’m back to my emotions playing ping pong with each other, and, yeah it was just awful.
Later on, when I was doing an appeal, I had got another attorney and he said, “You know, you misspelled your last name…” I looked at it, and I said, “Well you know, it must have been the Xanax I was on.”
How is your current attorney feeling about the appeal? Has he said anything to indicate how things are going to go?
Karen: I’ll be talking to him really for the first time come Tuesday. I’ll be talking with him and another attorney of mine on a conference call. I think he is surprised that we’ve heard from this petition so quickly. It was filed a month ago, and now a month later there’s an arraignment. Things don’t usually move that quickly in the court system.
Doug Cavanaugh: It’s nice that we have truth on our side. I think last time they said that you were covering gunshot residue? When we got in the GSR report, it says right there in black and white she didn’t have an ounce of gunshot residue on her. So, they said so many falsehoods in these.
Karen: Yeah. Every single appeal that I have ever filed in the last 25 years, in the state’s response where they have come back in response to the appeal they’ve said “Berkeley Bell stated that I had gunshot residue all over my clothing.” Now I have the GSR report saying that I had no gunshot residue on my shirt or my pants. This took me a very long time to obtain a copy. With my last couple attorneys, I’ve tried and tried to tried and they never could get a copy. My new attorney finally just this past year got a copy.
Doug: They are good at dragging their feet about getting documents that might actually help Karen. How many lies are they going to allow to be told right there in court? There are the lies about the gunshot residue, and then they said that she stole $500 when it was actually her money. These are all provable untruths.
This time around do you think that there will be less problems with all the Satanic allegations and stuff about Marily Manson and Natural Born Killers or are you worried about that coming back up?
Karen: I’m not worried about that. People always will think what they’re gonna think, and I completely understand everyone has their own point of view. Some people do have an open mind and do want to stop and listen to the facts of the case. But I’m not so much worried about that.
What makes me happy is the first responder on the crime scene has actually came forth and said, “Hey, Berkeley Bell lied. The bodies were not in the shape of a cross.”
How dare Berkeley Bell say that? Yeah, take out vengeance on us if that’s what you wanna do, but it’s not fair for the victims. For you to put that in their heads and, like, make them think … (Karen’s voice starts breaking up at this point, crying) … that their loved ones were moved around. It’s unbelievable. I’m sure they had so many sleepless nights with just that one thought. God, it’s so unethical. Sorry. I still get really emotional about it.
Doug: Pretty darn ghoulish. He even said they danced around the bodies in one interview and that they were laughing and having a party.
Can you think of anything else that we should mention in this?
Doug: So much. I mean, we could focus more on Bell’s lies if you wanted to. He said that the gunshots were formed into two equilateral triangles where he put them together to make a pentagram. That’s what he said. Two triangles don’t make up a pentagram. You put two triangles together and you get a Star of David, the Jewish star. He can’t even get his shapes right. He can’t even get his lie straight. I mean, he’s deliberately misrepresented himself to the public as a paid elected official.
Karen: Yeah, I think the last story that I had heard recently was when he was being interviewed by James (Stewart), he said something about when Peter (Lillelid) was in the hospital. When it all happened, he said he came in to visit Peter, and Peter reached out to him. First of all, you’re not gonna let some strange man into that hospital room when horrendous things just occurred. They’re not gonna let some strange man into the hospital room. He hadn’t even been assigned to the case yet. Yet he keeps elaborating, like coming up with these strange stories. Like, just stop. Stop lying.
Doug: If you are going to convict somebody do it honestly with the truth, not with lies. I mean, it’s supposed to be without passion or prejudice, that’s the maxim of the law. But this case is all passion and all prejudice. If it’s ever made into a book, or a movie is ever done on this, it should be called “Passion and Prejudice.” If anything underscores this case that’s what it is: passion, prejudice, and lies.
And then there’s the statements that Karen should have done something to stop the crime. She was supposed to somehow become Wyatt Earp and do something about it. We just saw a couple years ago a policeman freeze up and not do anything at a school while kids were being killed on the other side of the door, and not know what to do. Now a 17-year-old troubled teen with a history of poor coping skills is supposed to become Wyatt Earp and save the day? I mean what’s he talking about? What are you talking about when we’re holding troubled teens to a higher standard than we hold our law officers? It’s crazy.
Why didn’t she go to the police and report it? When was she safe to do that? The gunman was in the car with her. It was miles of desert. How’s she supposed to find a place to make a call when the shock finally wears off? 48 hours later you’re being detained? None of us had cell phones back then. Was she supposed to run and yell out “Hey, here’s the killer!” What’s to stop him from pulling out the gun and pulling the trigger? He’s already threatened to kill Crystal and Dean. What’s to keep him from killing her? I’m sorry, I’m just helping right now. These are actually Karen’s words. I know she’s got them just right now she’s at an emotional state.
Karen: Yeah, you know it’s hard to say these things when you’re emotional.
Doug: When was the shock supposed to wear off? A 17-year-old with poor coping skills can’t even deal with basic things, let alone murder, let alone triple murder. I used to work with troubled teens. I used to work with a lot of Natasha Cornetts and Karen Howells. They can’t cope with anything. We had a kid hang himself in the hospital and the kids on that floor, they shut down for days, and that’s not even murder. It’s like not even something they saw, they just knew in the next room he was dead. The kids all went into shock for days. They just couldn’t cope with it. A 17-year-old brain is not even fully developed yet, so that’s not something realistic at all. But Judge (James) Beckner said that “Oh, there’s a gun available, so why didn’t the other kids stop the shooter and help?” Judge Beckner said that on the record, I have it on tape. I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding me. That lynch mob showed up to that court house back in ‘97 — it was guilty until proven innocent. I’m sorry I keep chiming in.
Karen: It’s ok. Your saying things that should be said. My time is almost up on this phone call.
Ok, I’ll let you all go now. Karen, if you think of anything else you want to say, feel free to reach out to Doug or James and they can get you in touch with me.
Karen: Ok. Thanks so much. I’ll definitely reach out if I think of something.
Interview with Crystal Sturgill and James Stewart on July 23, 2022:
Which prison are you currently in and what’s your typical day like there?
Crystal: I’m at the rehabilitation center in Henning (Women’s Therapeutic Residential Center). I was moved here in 2016. Things are different here from the other prisons. It’s much better now.
Since I’ve been here, I normally wake up at 5 a.m. and I’m normally at work by 7 a.m. I’m working in a call center. I normally get off work at about 5, eat dinner and then maybe watch some TV and go to bed. It’s a pretty normal life, other than I can’t go anywhere.
What would you be doing differently if you were out, if you could go do things that you wanted to do?
Crystal: I’d still be a homebody and wouldn’t be going out and doing much. I’d probably still be just going to work and then coming home in the evening. I’d be content to just be able to go home and sit out on the front porch and watch the sun go down every evening.
How are you feeling about the appeal?
Crystal: I’m super excited, but I’m also anxious and nervous. I’m glad the truth is finally getting out there and that people are finally understanding what really happened.
Why did you originally plead guilty? What happened that led to that decision?
Crystal: They used our friendships as leverage to make us do it. They told us that the offer that they had offered was it, and it’s not gonna get any better. They told me that if I don’t plead guilty, they’re probably gonna kill Dean (Mullins). Basically, they told everybody we had no choice. They told me, “You’re probably not gonna get the death penalty, but your friend will.”
There were reports after the sentencing hearing that at least some of you were given Xanax the morning that you went into the courtroom…
Crystal: Yeah, we were all medicated. I don’t know if it was Xanax or Valium, but they were definitely giving us all stuff.
James: There are actually records at the courthouse that they were giving Karen Xanax, so I know that she was medicated for sure.
What are your thoughts on the gun not being fingerprinted during the investigation? When was this discovered?
Crystal: It’s one of the many ways that justice did not occur in the case, yet another way that things were stacked against us. For people who are familiar with the case, it’s something that has been known all along. The gun not being fingerprinted is mentioned in the original transcripts several times by the lawyers.
James: The gun not being fingerprinted is a key factor in the appeal. With Tennessee’s new law that passed last year, its opening up an angle for them to fight their case based on them not fingerprinting the gun. It’s been a known fact by many all along, but with help from Imani’s organization, and mentioning it to Karen’s attorney and getting them interested in this angle, its kind of snowballed from there.
Do you think that all of the allegations about Satanism are going to come back around and be an issue again or do you think that isn’t going to be as much of a problem now?
Crystal: I don’t think that any of that is going to be an issue now, knowing it was just a lie that was latched onto that Berkeley Bell used to advance his own agenda. It was used to create fear and hysteria. Remember back in the 90’s all that stuff with the school shootings was first starting. I can remember seeing on the news and seeing all those people who would say, “These kids look like children but they’re not, they’re little monsters. They’re killers.” It wasn’t just us and our case, but other children. There was this crazy fear in the 90’s that we needed to lock up a bunch of children and keep people in prison forever because there was something wrong with them.
James: Here’s where the story gets interesting. The Natural Born Killers theory… If the state tries to bring that stuff up, I’ve also got pictures from inside Natasha’s house that they’re claiming are Satanic writings and stuff on the walls. If you know anything about 90’s era music, it’s song lyrics — it’s Nine Inch Nails lyrics, and lyrics from another punk rock band. A lot of the stuff that they were claiming was Satanic is nothing more than kids that listen to rock music.
Is there anything else that you think that we should let people know about this case?
James: Frank Wadell’s testimony is a big game changer in this case. The responding officer contradicted what Berkeley Bell said about the group stacking the bodies in a cross. I think that’s the biggest game changer in this case along with the gunshot residue test. The gunshot residue clearly points to Jason Bryant. Frank Wadell has testified to me in the podcast, and there’s videotape of him as well for a documentary that was shot where he clearly states the bodies were not stacked in a cross. I’ve got his original statement from 1997 where it says clearly in his statement that the fourth body was down the ditch from the other three.
Do you think that he would be willing to testify during the appeal and retrial?
James: Absolutely! If he was subpoenaed, he’ll testify. He’s always been an honest straight-shooter. Frank is a retired law enforcement officer, he actually still kind of works with law enforcement officers doing training at the gun range. From day one that I’ve talked to him, he’s said those bodies are not stacked in a cross. He even goes so far on the podcast to say that it was just Berkeley Bell trying to add on to his little fabricated story, basically.
Do either of you have anything to add?
James: No, I think that covers it.
Crystal: That’s all from me. Thanks for spending the time talking with me.
Jennifer Stambaugh may be reached at email@example.com.
Published on June 26, 2022.