Lillelid killers want new evidence to set them free

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The Lillelid killers today: Karen Howell, 42; Natasha Cornett, 43; Crystal Sturgill, 43; Dean Mullins, 44; Jason Bryant, 40; and Joseph Risner, 45. (Source: Tennessee Department of Correction)

Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series. The second part contains interviews with two of the “Lillelid Six,” both of whom are currently serving life sentences without parole. It can be found here: https://www.hardknoxwire.com/new-in-their-words/.  The third part is an interview with former District Attorney Berkeley Bell, who prosecuted the case 25 years ago and who remains a controversial figure due to his unwavering belief that all six defendants were guilty. That story can be found here: https://www.hardknoxwire.com/new-former-da-brushes-aside-allegations/.

It’s been 25 years since a chance encounter at a rest area on Interstate 81 in Green County led to one of the most infamous crimes in East Tennessee history.

On the evening of April 6, 1997, a pair of deputies from the Greene County Sheriff’s Office found a little girl dying, her younger brother crippled, and their parents dead in a ditch that ran alongside a rural road near the rest stop.

All four had been shot: 2-year-old Peter Lillelid and his sister, 6-year-old Tabitha, were found 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. 

The Lillelid family: Delfina and Vidar with their daughter, Tabitha, and son, Peter.

It took only two days for authorities to find the six young people who had stolen the Lillelid family’s van. Natasha Wallen Cornett, 18; Edward Dean Mullins, 19; Joseph Lance Risner, 20; Crystal R. Sturgill, 18; Jason Blake Bryant, 14; and Karen R. Howell, 17, were arrested in Arizona after trying to cross the Mexican border in the stolen vehicle.

It was already one of East Tennessee’s most gruesome crimes in living memory, but when the six killers were revealed to be members of the “Goth” subculture it also became one of the most lurid. For months, the faces of the “Lillelid Six” filled the front pages of supermarket tabloids along with sensationalized tales of Satanism, blood-drinking, and group sex. On TV, a gallery of talking heads seemed to veer randomly between breathless recitations of the crime’s bloody details and clueless speculation about everything from black lipstick to pop act Marilyn Manson.

All six have spent the last 25 years behind bars in the Tennessee prison system, the result of an unusual “all-or-nothing” plea bargain that triggered life sentences for each of them. Their plea agreement has been questioned many times since, both in the media and in a series of courtrooms where their appeals were (predictably enough) shot down. 

But an unlikely team of advocates have decided to roll the dice for some of the infamous “Lillelid Six” once again, hoping against hope they can convince a judge to agree that their sentences were deeply unfair.  The odds may even be in their favor this time around, thanks to a new state law that could force prosecutors to finally test key pieces of evidence to determine who actually pulled the trigger on the Lillelid family all those years ago. 

An indecipherable atrocity 

The crime itself —like many atrocities — is easy enough to describe but perhaps impossible to fully understand, even by those who participated in it. 

In early April of 1997, the six young men and women (two of them were still juveniles and none were old enough to buy a beer) had decided to flee their homes in Eastern Kentucky. Armed with stolen 9mm and .25 caliber pistols, they drove Risner’s car south on I-81 with their minds fixed on eventually reaching New Orleans, La. 

The scene of the crime. (Source: James Stewart)

The Big Easy was a predictable enough destination for this group of outcast teens who had adopted the rebellious vocabulary of their chosen “goth” subculture. Had it been the 1960s, they may have worn long hair, bell bottoms and psychedelic colors. If it were the 1980s, they might have sported torn jeans, Members Only jackets and mullets. But it was the late 1990s, which meant facial piercings, post-punk hairdos and a fashion obsession with everything black. It also meant the caustic music of rock groups like Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails, vampire novels by Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite, and films like Natural Born Killers and The Doom Generation. New Orleans was a logical place for them to fixate on, as it occupied the same piece of cultural geography to them as Haight-Ashbury and the Sunset Strip had to previous generations.  

In fact, calling them “outcasts” from the small, conservative Appalachian enclaves that dot the Cumberland Mountains is probably a gross understatement. Several of the teens had also experienced appalling levels of neglect and abuse at home, and it was clear that — in the manner of alienated teens everywhere — they were trying to forge their own “family” with their friends.

They had discussed the possibility of stealing a car because they doubted that Risner’s vehicle could make the trip, and they ended up at a rest stop on I-81 near Baileyton, where they encountered the four members of the Lillelid family — and the family’s van. The Lillelids, who were driving home to Knox County from a Jehovah’s Witnesses conference, were kidnapped at gunpoint by the teens and forced to drive down a narrow country lane off the nearest exit.

What happened next has never been resolved.

At the time, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in Greene County was District Attorney Berkeley Bell, an affable yet serious lawyer who’d tried numerous killers over the course of his 32 years in office. Bell retired in 2014 and couldn’t be reached to discuss the case for this article, but in numerous interviews over the years he has asserted that the defendants were equally culpable for what happened to the Lillelids.

Bell has always maintained the shootings were part of a “Satanic ritual” of some kind.  As proof, he’s repeatedly claimed that the bullets were fired into the bodies in the shape of a pentagram and that the bodies were arranged in the shape of a cross. He also believes that all the defendants fired shots and that Vidar Lillelid essentially sealed his family’s fate by proselytizing to the youths. 

In fact, he told The News Sentinel in 2017 that the case was “the highlight of my career as a prosecutor” and reiterated his opinion that the youths were “driven by evil — almost a supernatural-type evil. That sense of evil just permeated the whole thing from start to finish. It infused the defendants, and it empowered them. That’s what I believed then, and my opinion has not changed.”

Berkeley Bell

All six defendants eventually entered into a joint plea agreement after prosecutors threatened to seek the death penalty against the adults if they all didn’t agree to go down together. Each member of the group pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder and related charges and, on February 20, 1998, they were all sentenced by Criminal Court Judge James E. Beckner to three terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Peter Lillelid was eventually adopted by relatives in Sweden. His injuries caused permanent damage and he still uses a wheelchair, but as an adult he moved back to the United States and now lives in Connecticut with his wife, according to a recent report from WBIR-Channel 10.

He couldn’t be reached for comment on the pending appeals.

The defendants as they were in 1998: Karen Howell, 17; Natasha Cornett, 18; Crystal Sturgill, 18; Dean Mullins, 19; Jason Bryant, 14; and Joseph Risner, 20.
(Source: James Stewart)

A new law equals a new chance 

Last week, Howell, Sturgill and Mullins filed petitions in Greene County Criminal Court seeking a reexamination of the evidence that would have been used against them if they had gone to trial. 

Only Howell is represented by attorneys thus far, court records show. Lawyers James G. Thomas and Nathan C. Sanders of Nashville drafted her petition, which details the arguments they plan to bring when the case is finally heard in court.

Howell and Sturgill are scheduled for arraignment Aug. 1 before Greene County Judge Alex E. Pearson, while Mullins is set to appear Sept. 9.  Sturgill and Mullins are expected to have attorneys appointed to represent them at their arraignments, according to the Greene County Criminal Court Clerk’s office. 

Despite differences in length and sophistication, all three petitions make essentially the same arguments and rely upon a new law called the Post-Conviction Fingerprint Analysis Act of 2021, court records show. The law, which went into effect a year ago, creates an avenue for convicted individuals to prove their innocence. Tennessee is one of only six states with a similar law on the books.

In her petition, Howell’s attorneys describe her as “an accomplice in the homicides of three individuals in 1997.”

“Petitioner received these life sentences despite the fact that there was no evidence that she killed-or had any intent to kill-the victims,” her petition says. “The record upon which her sentence was based contained significant uncertainty as to the identity of the shooter, including whether there was more than one. Despite this substantial uncertainty — and the readily available evidence — the State declined to test the guns for fingerprints, and the District Attorney pursued a ‘package’ plea deal requiring all defendants to plead guilty or else the State would pursue the death penalty against those eligible regardless of relative culpability.”

The petition continues: “If the guns had been tested, they would have confirmed that the only shooter was Jason Bryant (a juvenile ineligible for the death penalty) — as Ms. Howell, and all the other defendants except for Jason Bryant, testified at the time. This information would have materially altered the position of the defendants by substantially lowering the possibility that any of the adult defendants would receive the death penalty, and preventing the State from being able to use the threat of the death penalty as leverage in the group plea bargain. For the foregoing reasons, it is probable that a proper analysis of the available evidence would have resulted in a more favorable sentence, and the Court should therefore order that the two handguns in this case be subjected to fingerprint analysis.”

The current District Attorney for Greene County, Dan Armstrong, couldn’t be reached for comment.

“I thought they should all die in prison”

Howell might be the only one who’s been able to retain private council, but Sturgill and Mullins aren’t fighting alone. 

Their petitions were put together by James Stewart, a mild-mannered father of four  children who had zero intentions of becoming an advocate for any of the infamous “Lillelid Six” when he first started researching the case last year. 

“I thought they should all die in prison,” Stewart said. 

James Stewart

He started his podcast, “The Devil Came Knocking,” as a hobby, something to do for fun. His original plan was to explore true crime stories from throughout East Tennessee and, living in Greene County, he decided to start with the Lillelid case due to its accessibility.  

“The original plan was for a three- to four-episode podcast on the case and then move on to a new one,” Stewart said. 

 After the first couple of weeks spent delving into the case, however, Stewart came to believe that the true story had never been told. 

As far as Stewart is concerned, the gunshot residue tests that were performed on the defendants’ clothes were the turning point. Stewart believes the reports clearly show that Jason Bryant was the sole shooter, as was alleged by most of the other defendants. 

“After that, I just couldn’t let it go, and the more I dug the more lies I found,” he explained. “I began to reach out to the individuals and their families, and the podcast turned into a full investigation of the case.”

Stewart says that he was stunned to find out the suspected murder weapons were never fingerprinted. 

“The fact we can have six people sent to prison for life without the chance of parole and the authorities never even fingerprinted the murder weapons should terrify everyone,” he said. “The gun not being fingerprinted is a key factor in the appeal.  With Tennessee’s new law that passed last year, it’s opening up an angle for them to fight their case based on them not fingerprinting the gun.” 

Stewart also believes the statements of Frank Wadell, the Green County Sheriff’s Department deputy who found the Lillelids, point to other problems with the version of events championed by Bell.

For instance, he believes that Wadell’s descriptions of where and how the bodies were found disprove Bell’s oft-repeated assertion that the bodies were laid out in the shape of a cross. 

“I’ve got his (Wadell’s) original statement from 1997, where it says clearly in his statement that the fourth body was down the ditch from the other three,” Stewart continued. “From day one that I’ve talked to him, he’s said those bodies were 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.” 

“That’s not justice”

After completing his series of podcasts on the case, Stewart shifted gears to legally advocating for the three prisoners that he believed were the least culpable: Sturgill, Howell, and Mullins. 

Stewart eventually learned about Community Defense of East Tennessee (CDET), a nonprofit organization in Knoxville. CDET is a part of a national network of groups practicing “participatory defense,” a community organizing model that “empowers individuals, families and communities to impact the outcome of cases and change the landscape of power in the criminal justice system,” according to its website. 

He began discussing the case with CDET’s director, Imani Shula. He also started attending the group’s weekly meetings, where the family and friends of incarcerated individuals receive support and advice on how to navigate the criminal justice system with the goal of bringing their loved ones home sooner. 

“James started attending the meetings and just went at the case full throttle,” Shula said. “He worked to get the appeals to go forward, with the other families attending the meeting helping him to proofread and working together to edit the documents.  CDET has also helped with raising the travel funds necessary for filing the appeals.”  

Shula said the case is a good example of why she wanted to work through CDET in the first place.

Imani Shula

“Even if you believe in our criminal justice system, how can any justice be served if you have to lie, manipulate and threaten children to obtain a verdict?  That’s not justice,” Shula said. “It’s time to highlight the discrepancies in this case.” 

CDET has recently been focused on working with juvenile offenders who have been tried and sentenced as adults, according to Shula.  

“Sentencing children for life is cruel and unusual punishment,” Shula said. “Children are the most capable of change, and the most receptive to reform. Scientifically, their brains are not yet fully developed. Yet, our system keeps them locked up in prisons because more money can be made off private prisons than can be made off prevention efforts on the front end.”

When Stewart reflects on the past few months and everything he’s learned, he’s terrified by the shortcomings he saw in the criminal justice system. “I care because I realize if their due process and rights aren’t safe, then neither are mine or yours. It could be my kids or yours that are railroaded next,” he said.

Stewart understands that the “Lillelid Six” aren’t the most sympathetic of subjects and that many people believe that everyone in the group got what they deserved. He counters that argument by pointing out that he started out feeling the exact same way.

“All of them deserved to go to prison for what they did,” he said. “But not all of them deserve to die there.” 

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Jennifer Stambaugh can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on July 25, 2022.