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April 17, 2014

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10 Years Ago Today ... An Unforgettable Tragedy

Photo by Phil Gentry

Lillelid murder site 10 years later

Originally published:
Last modified: 2009-08-03 17:05:06
 


Today, Friday, April 6, is the 10th anniversary of what is often considered the most horrific crime in Greene County's modern history.

On that day, Vidar, 34, and Delfina, 28, Lillelid, of Knoxville, were shot to death and their 6-year-old daughter, Tabitha, was fatally wounded. She died at a Knoxville hospital the next day.

Her brother, two-year-old Peter Lillelid, also was shot and left for dead along isolated Payne Hollow Lane north of Baileyton.

The family had been kidnapped at gunpoint from the southbound Interstate 81 rest area in northern Greene County and then shot as they stood beside Payne Hollow Lane, a one-lane gravel road, a short distance north of Baileyton.

Peter Lillelid survived his wounds, which left him blind in one eye and with impaired motor skills. Now 12, he resides with his maternal aunt's family in Sweden.

A battered blue sedan, without a license plate, was found abandoned at the murder scene. Authorities would learn later that the Lillelid's van had been stolen.

Six young Kentuckians were arrested two days later at a Mexican border crossing in Douglas, Ariz.. All six were in the Lillelid family's Dodge van when they were taken into custody.

The six defendants - Jason Blake Bryant, who was 14 at the time of the shootings; Karen R. Howell, who was 17 when the murders took place; Natasha Wallen Cornett, who was then 18; Crystal Sturgill, who was then 18; Edward Dean Mullins, who was then 19; and Joseph Risner, who was 20 at the time of the murders - all pleaded guilty in February 1998 to three counts of first-degree murder and other charges.

They were sentenced by then Third Judicial District Criminal Court Judge James E. Beckner in March 1998 to three terms each of life in prison without the possibility of parole - plus 25 years.

All are now serving their sentences in various state prisons.

Events Recalled

This week, The Greeneville Sun interviewed some of those who were intimately involved in the initial response to the shootings of the Lillelid family and the investigation that followed.

Among those who recalled their memories of that tragic day were the sheriff's deputy who found the Lillelid family after the shootings, a paramedic who helped treat the wounded children and the lead investigator in the case.

Ten years ago, April 6 fell on a Sunday, which, until 8:21 p.m. that day, had been a "routine" day for the law enforcement officers and emergency medical personnel who would become assigned to the Lillelid murder case.

Late that afternoon, the Lillelid family was driving back to their Knoxville-area home from a Jehovah's Witness gathering in Johnson City.

In a tragic twist of fate, Vidar Lillelid, an immigrant from Norway, stopped his family's full-sized Dodge van at an Interstate 81 rest area in northern Greene County where the six young people from Eastern Kentucky also had stopped earlier.

Fateful Meeting

Several of the young Kentuckians testified during their 1998 sentencing hearing that they had set out earlier on a trip to New Orleans and had stopped at the southbound I-81 rest area in Greene County because they had experienced trouble with the aging car they were driving.

However, Sheriff's Detective Capt. John Huffine, the lead investigator in the case, said this week that some of the young Kentuckians had told friends in Pikeville, Ky., before the Lillelid murders that they were embarking on what amounted to a "cross-country crime spree."

Huffine said some statements made later by the young Kentuckians' friends in Pikeville indicated that the group possibly had been inspired by the movie "Natural Born Killers."

He noted that another acquaintance of the six young Kentuckians told investigators that at least one of them had said, "We're going to make headlines."

Any sense of routine for local authorities on April 6, 1997, ended soon after Greene County sheriff's deputies Frank Waddell and Jeff Morgan responded to a complaint that shots had been fired on Payne Hollow Lane, a dead-end road off Van Hill Road just outside Baileyton, Waddell said.

This week Waddell, who now holds the rank of sergeant and serves civil warrants and other court documents for the Sheriff's Department, recalled that he was "in the middle" of his patrol shift on April 6, 1997, when he and Deputy (now Detective Sgt.) Jeff Morgan were dispatched to a report that gunshots had been heard on Payne Hollow Lane.

Waddell's Recollections

"The call came in, I believe, as a car stuck in a ditch, (with) people hollering and shots fired," Waddell remembered this week about what he heard from his dispatcher.

Waddell recalled that darkness was falling as he turned his patrol car onto Payne Hollow Lane from Van Hill Road behind Deputy Morgan's car.

"Me and Jeff Morgan (traveling in separate cars) went up the interstate (I-81) to answer the call. We pulled onto Payne Hollow Lane and we saw a little blue car sitting up in front of us. We got out, checked the car out and (found) nobody around."

But what Waddell and Morgan had not seen in the failing light as they drove down Payne Hollow Lane toward the abandoned blue sedan were the bodies of the Lillelid family lying beside the narrow road.

After finding no one around the abandoned car, Waddell said, he told Deputy Morgan that he was going to back his patrol car down the narrow, tree-lined road and request by radio that a tow truck be sent to the scene to remove the abandoned car.

"As I was backing down Payne Hollow Lane with my (patrol car's) alley lights (lights atop the patrol car that illuminate objects to the left and right of the car), I looked over to my left and I saw the bodies lying there."

Waddell said he then called by radio for Deputy Morgan's help.

The bodies, he said, were located some 200 feet nearer to Van Hill Road than was the abandoned Chevrolet.

"He (Morgan) came down and I believe I picked up little Peter and gave him to Jeff," Waddell said. "I checked the rest of them (the Lillelid family members). I knew the mother and father were deceased. The little girl (Tabitha Lillelid) was still breathing, but she had been shot in the head
point-blank."

Waddell said he then called for an ambulance to be sent to the scene from the Greene County-Greeneville Emergency Medical Services substation in nearby Baileyton.

"They (EMS personnel) came and took over," he said.

Asked how discovering the shooting victims had affected him, Waddell said, "It was a big shock."

Asked if he had ever seen in his 20 years in law enforcement anything to match what he had seen on the night of April 6, 1997, Waddell answered without hesitation.

"No. And I hope I never do again."

Waddell said he remained on the scene until sheriff's investigators and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agents reached the scene and then resumed routine patrol activities.

He played no role in the subsequent investigation, Waddell said.

Paramedic Remembers

Former Greeneville-Greene County EMS Paramedic Tim Cloyd recalled this week that he and his partner, Emergency Medical Technician Ken Kilday, also had experienced a "slow" day on Sunday, April 6, 1997, until they were dispatched that night to Payne Hollow Lane.

"I don't know if we had done anything else up to then," he said.

Cloyd recalled this week that he and Kilday did not realize the seriousness of the call to which they were responding until they reached the scene.

"I remember that as soon as we pulled up, with all the lights from all the vehicles, you could see the family lying up through there over in the ditch," Cloyd said.

He said he and Kilday jumped from the ambulance and ran to offer emergency medical assistance.

"I went to two of them (the Lillelids) and he (Kilday) went to two of them," Cloyd said.
"We figured out that the mom and dad were dead and the kids were still alive. He (Kilday) grabbed Peter and I grabbed Tabitha, and to the ambulance we went."

Cloyd recalled that former Baileyton Police Chief Tim Weems was at the scene and offered his assistance.

"We told him 'just drive; let's go now,'" Cloyd said, noting that Weems drove the EMS ambulance as fast as possible to Laughlin Memorial Hospital.

"We left the scene with both of us (Kilday and himself) working with the children.
The next thing I knew, we were at Laughlin (Memorial Hospital). From the time we arrived on scene until we got to Laughlin was either 17 or 19 minutes."

En route, he said, he and Kilday did "whatever we could do" to stabilize the two seriously injured children.

At the hospital, he said, he and Kilday carried the injured children in their arms into the emergency room.

"We didn't put them on stretchers, we just carried them into the ER," he said.

He noted that he and Kilday remained at the hospital while physicians treated the children and later helped move them to a University of Tennessee Lifestar helicopter that flew them to Knoxville hospitals.

Tabitha Lillelid died of her wounds the next day in a Knoxville hospital.

Cloyd said he hopes that the emergency medical care that Kilday and he provided Peter Lillelid at the shooting scene and en route to Laughlin Memorial Hospital contributed to the boy's survival.

"I don't know if anything that Ken and I did helped him be here today," he said. "If it did, I'm glad."

'I Lost It'

Asked how the events of April 6, 1997, had impacted him, Cloyd said he was "doing pretty good" until a couple of days after the events of April 6, 1997.

He noted that he and Kilday had begun a regularly scheduled four-day break from their 24-hour works shifts on the morning of April 7, 1997.

But while watching television news "a day or two later," he said he saw a photograph of the Lillelid family.

"I lost it," he said. "I didn't want to come back to work (at the end of his four-day break). I told my wife I wasn't coming back."

What affected him most about the Lillelid murders was the similarity between blonde-haired Peter Lillelid, then two years old, and his son, Ryan Cloyd, who was then four years old and also blonde.

"It was hard on me seeing him (Peter Lillelid) lying there, not much younger than my son," said. "Some idiot had shot him for no reason."

But Cloyd said his wife, Katina, who is now an emergency room nurse at Laughlin Memorial Hospital, and Devin Ellenburg, his former paramedic instructor, convinced him to return to work.

Cloyd, who stopped working as a full-time EMS paramedic last September after 18 years on the job, said he still thinks almost daily about the Lillelid family.

"Something will trigger a thought in my mind and I will think about it for a few minutes," he said. "Then, it's gone."

Investigator Recalls

Greene County Sheriff's Department Detective Capt. John Huffine recalled this week that Sunday, April 6, 1997, had had been a routine day for him until he learned what Deputies Waddell and Morgan and found on Payne Hollow Lane that night.

Huffine explained that in 1997, he was a detective sergeant and was working a Sunday rotation as the second-shift detective on duty.

He recalled that he heard the initial radio dispatch that sent Waddell and Morgan to Payne Hollow Lane, but didn't think it would turn out to be related to a serious incident.

But when Deputy Waddell called the Sheriff's Department's dispatcher to report what he had found on Payne Hollow Lane, Huffine said, he realized that something very bad had happened there.

"He got out (of his car) and then came back on the radio and I could hear it in his voice (that something was wrong)," Huffine said.

"He said, 'I've got two adults and two children that have been shot. Send me an ambulance.'"

Huffine said it took him about 25 minutes to reach the scene from western Greene County where he had been.

"The ambulance had transported the children just before I arrived," he said.

That, he said, helped him maintain a sense of professional detachment.

He noted that he realized the two adult victims (Vidar and Delfina Lillelid) had been shot "multiple times" because numerous spent shell casings were lying on the ground near their bodies.

"I couldn't figure out what had happened," he
said. "The first thing that went through my mind was that it might have been some kind of domestic violence situation."

Huffine said he immediately requested that Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agents be summoned to the scene.

"I tried not to disturb the crime scene and waited for other investigators to arrive," he recalled.

Huffine noted that then-Sheriff Terry Jones, other sheriff's detectives and three TBI agents reached the scene that night and joined in the investigation.

Identifying The Victims

As investigators began evaluating the crime scene that night, the first order of business was to identify the victims.

That was difficult, he said, because none of the victims had any identification in their clothing.

Investigators got a break in identifying the victims when they found a pager on the body of the man who would subsequently be identified as Vidar Lillelid, Huffine said.

"They (the killers) had removed Vidar Lillelid's wallet and other identification, but they left his pager," Huffine said. "They either didn't see it or it didn't cross their mind to take it. Using the pager, we were able to determine the identity of the owner of the pager and learn that he worked at a Holiday Inn (in Knoxville) as a maintenance man."

After learning Vidar Lillelid's identity, Huffine said, investigators learned that the Lillelid family had a van. They also learned the van's license plate number, he said.

The car found abandoned at the scene, he said, was an older Chevrolet Citation that did not have a license plate. "They had taken the tag off and tried to do what they could to keep the car from being identified."

But a chance discovery by a TBI agent provided a key to identifying the origin and owner of the abandoned Chevrolet.

"While looking in the car, one of the TBI agents located a receipt from a Wal-Mart in Pikeville, Ky.," Huffine said. "That gave us a potential state (or origin)."

By cell phone from the scene, Huffine said, a TBI agent contacted the Kentucky State Police and learned that the car was registered to the mother of Joseph Risner, a youth who subsequently was charged along with five of his friends with the murder of the Lillelids.

"We learned that the car was registered to Joseph Risner's mother," he said. "She was contacted directly, and she was the one who told us that her son and five of his friends had left Kentucky the previous day, supposedly going to New Orleans in her car."

The next day, he said, he, Det. Sgt. Jim Ellison and a TBI agent traveled to Pikeville, Ky.

"We received a lot of cooperation from the Kentucky State Police and started interviewing people," he said. "We were able to learn a lot about the six people who had left Kentucky. We got names, dates of birth, pictures in some cases and descriptions."

Captured In Arizona

All that information and the license plate number of the Lillelid family's van was entered into the National Crime Information Center computer by Margaret Knight, a Greene County sheriff's department dispatcher, Huffine recalled.

Knight said this week that she has no difficulty remembering the date of the Lillelid murders because they took place on the first birthday of her son, Will.

"All six young Kentuckians were entered into NCIC as being wanted as suspects in a triple homicide," Huffine noted.

On April 8, 1997, while he and other investigators were still conducting interviews in Kentucky, they received information that the six suspects had been taken into custody in Arizona while attempting to come back into the U.S. from Mexico.

On April 9, 1997, Huffine said, he and TBI agent Barry Brakebill flew to Tucson, Ariz., and subsequently drove to Douglas, Ariz., to interview the suspects.

While there, he said, he and Brakebill were able to negotiate with the court-appointed attorney for Edward Dean Mullins.

Although they were never able to speak directly with Mullins in Arizona, he said, Mullins, through his attorney, agreed to make a drawing that showed detectives where to find the two guns that were believed to have been used in the Lillelid shootings.

The handguns, Huffine said, were found hidden in the back of one of the van's seats.
All six defendants eventually waived extradition to Tennessee. They had attorneys appointed to represent them, but they all eventually pleaded guilty to the murders.
 
For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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