WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
On April 6, 1997, all 4 members of the Lillelid family were shot during a carjacking on a rural road in Greene County, Tennessee. The parents, Vidar and Delfina, died on the scene. Their 6-year-old daughter, Tabitha, died at the hospital. And their 2-year-old son, Peter, survived, but was left with disabilities, and without his loving family.
The carjacking was committed by 6 young people, including 2 minors. All 6 were convicted of felony murder, and all 6 received life sentences with an additional 25 years for the attempted murder of Peter.
THE MURDERS (1)
On the day of the murders, a group of 6 people ranging from 14 to 20 were traveling from Pikeville, Kentucky to New Orleans, Louisiana. Shortly after starting their trip, they figured the car would not last all the way to New Orleans, and discussed stealing a car from a parking lot. They had 2 guns.
Eyewitnesses observed the 6 youths at a rest stop in Greene County, Tennessee, having a conversation with the Lilleid family. Delfina and Vidar had met through their religious involvement, and remained active in their church. (Wikipedia said they were Jehovah's Witnesses, but says they have no citation support for it, so I cannot confirm or deny.) They were returning home from a religious conference, and had struck up a conversation with the youths about their religious views.
Allegedly, during the conversation, the ringleader showed Vidar one of the guns and said: "I hate to do you this way, but we are going to have to take your with us for your van." He walked Vidar, holding his 2-year-old, to the van, while he pleaded, offering his keys and wallet in exchange for allowing them to stay at the rest stop. They refused.
Vidar drove the van while a gun was held on him. Some of the group traveled in the van with the family, while the others trailed in their car. Most of the time, if you are forced into your car and told to drive, you are advised to drive your car into something. You may not survive the accident, but you are definitely not going to survive wherever they are taking you. It is your best shot. But when you are driving with your wife, your 6-year-old and your baby, with 4 criminals in your car and 2 following behind, do your risk it?
Though Vidar's head was probably running with ways he could possibly get himself and his family out of this mess as he drove them with a gun to his temple, he couldn't think of anything better. He went where he was directed. Once they made it to a secluded exit, he was told to get out of the car with his family, where they were lined up against a ditch. They were all shot, and then shot again.
They left the family for dead, taking their car and leaving theirs at the crime scene with the plates removed. They stopped for a post-murder treat at Waffle House while traveling through Georgia, but when a group of police officers arrived, they left. Not shady at all. They ditched their plans for New Orleans and instead, drove toward Mexico.
Once in Mexico, the group was stopped by Mexican police. They claimed they were lost, but when the officers conducted a search in the van, they found a knife, and a photo album belonging to the family. They were ordered to re-enter the United States, where they were searched and taken to jail. They were arrested just 2 days after the murders, with several of the killers having personal items belonging to the Lillelid's on their person at the time.
During the autopsy, the pathologist found that Vidar had been shot 6 times, one to the right side of his head, and one to his chest. He believed, but could not be sure, that the first shot would have caused a loss of consciousness, and he likely died within a few minutes of that first gunshot. He had been shot by 2 different guns.
Delfina was shot 8 times from 2 different guns. The first 2 shots had shattered her left arm and femur, neither enough to kill her but enough to cause extreme pain. She had likely fallen, unable to stand, and the additional 6 shots were while she was on her back. The pathologist estimated that she was likely alive for up to 25 minutes. After shooting the family, the perpetrators drove over them while leaving. He estimated that she was probably alive when that happened.
Tabitha was shot only once in the head, causing immediate brain death. Her organs continued to function on life support, but her uncle gave to take her off and donate her organs. She was pronounced dead one day after the shooting.
The perpetrators had shot 2-year-old Peter twice, once behind is right ear and once in the back. He was transported to the pediatric ICU and was able to survive his injuries. They had to remove one of his eyes. He was in critical condition in the hospital, and after 17 days, was transferred to a rehabilitation center in Knoxville, Tennessee.
THE KILLERS (2)
All 6 of the perpetrators were from Kentucky, and all had troubled backgrounds. They had all struggled in school or with drugs, and 5 of them had attended high school together.
Natasha Cornett was 18 years old when she helped murder a family. She had grown up in poverty, but until 6th grade, had been a nice kid and a good student. She left school before completing her freshman year of high school, and had only had a few babysitting jobs to make money. She got into alcohol, heroin, ecstasy and cocaine before she reached the age of 14. At 14, she was arrested for the first time for forgery. Her second arrest was for assaulting and threatening to kill her mother. She got married on her 17th birthday, but it lasted only 10 months.
Dean Mullins was 19 when he helped murder a family. He had attended almost all of school, but left during his senior year, but continued working on his GED. He had no criminal record and was employed at a grocery store for a few years. A relatively good kid, he went off the deep end when he became involved with Natasha, who he wanted to marry. (Because that paragraph about her makes her seem so lovable.)
Joseph Risner was 20 when he helped murder a family. In fact, he was the ringleader, the one who told Vidar he was going to have to kill them, and the one who held the gun to his head while he forced him to drive to their deaths. Before becoming a killer, he was a good student until his mom and stepfather, the only father he ever knew, separated. He had a history of marijuana, alcohol and LSD usage, and claimed to have had sexual relationships with babysitters when he was 12. He failed 7th and 8th grade, but improved academically in 10th grade. He attended Betsy Layne High School, which is where he met the other perpetrators, including his girlfriend, who we will get to next. He joined the army in 1995, but weed in his system resulted in a discharge. He earned his GED in 1996 and was accepted to a trade school the same year.
Karen Howell was 17 when she helped murder a family. She was Risner's girlfriend. Born in Ohio, she moved to Kentucky at age 3. Her childhood was wrought with violent fights. She was "recorded as having a borderline retarded IQ of 78" and I don't know if that is politically correct to say, so I pulled the words out directly. She said she was sexually abused between ages 5-10, and by the age of 13, she was cutting herself. She lived with her mother, but their relationship was filled with fights. She did not follow rules, she used illegal drugs, she exhibited runaway behavior, and became interested in witchcraft. Her latter interest caused her mother to bring ministers in to "cast out demons", but she said she was able to create love spells to make boys love her and that she heard voices. She moved in with her father and dropped out of school, but tried to earn her GED. Her only violent offense before the murders was trying to chew her friend's arm off during an LSD trip, so, yeah.
Crystal Sturgill was 18 when she helped murder a family. She was in her senior year in high school and she was an above-average student for a lot of her academic career, but drugs and alcohol helped to decline her grades in high school. She got a 28 on her ACT and had applied to several colleges. She worked at the local daycare as a part of her co-op program, where she received high marks. She had been suspended a few times, but had no criminal history. She was neglected in her home and her stepfather had sexually abused her. Between the time she accused her stepfather in December 1996 and the murders in April 1997, she had lived in 13 places. She was good friends with Dean Mullins, and did not think he should be in a relationship with Natasha.
Jason Bryant was 14 when he helped murder a family. He had a low IQ and the social skills of an 11-year-old. Wikipedia says that he had a history of drug and alcohol abuse BEGINNING AT AGE 3. He was an 8th grader at the time, and had met Natasha at random a month before the murders. It is not clear why an 18-year-old girl invited a mentally troubled 8th grader to New Orleans with her friends.
During sentencing, Natasha's attorney coached her to say she was the "Daughter of Satan" which is certainly an interesting defense tactic. The district attorney has said that Bryant, the 14-year-old, was the only one he could prove was a shooter, but he felt all 6 of them should be convicted. He drew up a deal, taking the death penalty off the table if they all pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. But, he had stipulated that all 6 had to accept the deal. Karen has stated that she wanted to fight it in court, but they were threatening the death penalty for everyone if she didn't sign, so she signed it, caving to the pressure. Because she was a minor, even if they had gone to trial, she would not have received the death penalty.
All 6 of the defendants signed and were convicted of felony murder. They were sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. Because there was no trial, it is still not entirely determined who was the main person to blame for the killings. The other defendants pinned it on Jason, but Jason said that Dean and Joseph were the killers.
In the 20+ years since the murders, the 6 have sat behind bars for their crimes. Natasha continued down the satanic path in attempt for various appeals, but they have not amounted to anything. Both Karen and Crystal have sent emails to the media, in hopes to explain their actions and express their remorse. Howell and Jason both had motion hearings to have their sentences reconsidered, as in 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for minors was unconstitutional. (2)
Karen said she never intended for anyone to die, and does not think she should die in prison for the murder. She dispelled any rumors about the group being in a satanic cult. Crystal used her email to apologize to the family and community, and referred to her involvement as an "inability to act", and said she had spent the last 20 years trying to atone. (2)
Peter Lillelid moved Sweden after custody was awarded to his father's sister. He left the U.S. a 2-year-old kid with a prosthetic eye and various surgeries allowing him to walk, and no parents or sister. He is in his mid-20s now. He graduated high school in 2014 and was interested in a career in business. He can walk by himself, though he has trouble and sometimes uses a wheelchair to get around. He does not remember the night of the murders. (3)
There is always something chilling about young murderers. Middle and high schoolers murdering other people just seems so wrong. But this wasn't just one. This was a group of six people who either shot the gun or sat by while other people shot the guns, killing almost an entire family. I understand feeling pressured, or getting into a situation that seemed manageable but quickly went too far, but to sit back and do nothing while someone puts a gun to a 2-year-old is unforgivable.
This wasn't a home invasion or a serial killer or something that people know about or think about. It was a family who stopped at a rest stop and then were lined up on the side of the road and murdered. It is horrific and senseless. The only peace that comes from this story is the 2-year-old did not remember and did not have to live the rest of his life traumatized by that night. But it doesn't stop the pain that the parents and siblings and loved ones of the family felt due to their senseless, random and violent deaths 23 years ago today.