April 6 marks the 20th anniversary of the Lillelid murders, considered by many among the most horrific crimes ever committed in Greene County.
The shootings of four members of the Lillelid family in 1997 drew worldwide attention. Developments involving the six young case defendants from Eastern Kentucky played out on a national stage.
All are now adults and serving prison sentences of life without the possibility of parole. Two of those defendants spoke out this week about the events leading up to the deaths of three members of the Lillelid family, and permanent injuries suffered by the survivor, who was 2 years old when he was shot.
Emails from Karen Renee Howell and Crystal Sturgill express remorse and attempt to explain their actions in the hours and days after the crime.
Howell and another of the Lillelid defendants, Jason Blake Bryant, have upcoming motion hearings in Greene County Criminal Court requesting that post-conviction petitions be re-opened for reconsideration of their sentences.
The motions are based on U.S. Supreme Court rulings since 2012 that held mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.
Dan Armstrong, 3rd Judicial District attorney general, said this week the defendants do not merit consideration on the basis of the Supreme Court rulings because of the nature of the crime. He added the state will “vigorously” defend the validity of sentences imposed in 1998 by then-3rd Judicial District Criminal Court Judge James E. Beckner.
An advocate for Howell and two other defendants, Dean Mullins and Sturgill, said it is time for the court to reconsider the role of those three defendants individually, without sensationalizing the case, and allow them the possibility of release from prison.
Howell and Sturgill contacted The Greeneville Sun through Douglas Cavanaugh, a California man who became interested in their cause more than 10 years ago after watching an episode of the television show “City Confidential” that focused on the Lillelid case.
Cavanaugh said that the acts and motivation of some defendants to commit the crime as portrayed on the TV show, other tabloid-style accounts and some claims by prosecutors are “myths” perpetuated because of the high-profile nature of the crime.
Cavanaugh set up a “Justice for Karen Howell” Facebook page, which was “created by supporters of Karen Howell and is dedicated to righting the wrong done to Ms. Howell by the Tennessee legal system.”
Armstrong, who was not with the district attorney general’s office at the time of the crime, said that the case had a lasting impact on all those involved, including prosecutors and law enforcement officers.
He said the time for apologies and explanations of conduct “is long past.”
C. Berkeley Bell, the former district attorney general who served as chief prosecutor in the case, had not reviewed the statements of Howell and Sturgill, but maintained Friday the shootings were part of “some sort of Satanic ritual” and the plea agreement for the defendants was appropriate.
“They got the justice that they deserved, and they’re not entitled to any type of relief,” Bell said.
HOWELL, STURGILL EMAILS
In an email, Howell acknowledged the profound effect the case had on not only the victims, but “the community, family (and) friends … it goes on without end.”
She described a troubled upbringing and offered her version of events leading up to the shootings. She wrote there “is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about (survivor) Peter Lillelid and wonder how he is doing.”
Howell, now 37, wrote that she had no direct role in the shootings and “totally shut down” after they occurred rather than report the crime to the authorities.
She has exhausted all other appeal options available through the state legal system. In May 2003, Beckner denied her petition for post-conviction relief.
A similar request was dismissed in 2013 by Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wright. A habeas corpus petition filed by Howell that argued she received ineffective assistance of counsel before pleading guilty was denied in U.S. District Court, and affirmed in 2013 by the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Cavanaugh said that Howell realizes that commenting on the Lillelid murders 20 years after the fact could stir up negative sentiments. But beyond her expression of remorse, Howell has another point she wants to convey.
Howell wrote she is “guilty of going along with robbery and kidnapping, which has haunted my heart and mind since that day.”
But, she adds at the conclusion of her email, “I don’t believe that I deserve to die in prison for this murder. I never thought or even wanted or intended that someone should die.”
In a brief email, Sturgill apologizes for her “inability to act” after the shootings and wrote she has spent the past 20 years “trying to atone.”
Sturgill vividly recalls her Greene County Criminal Court appearances, in particular a child often present in the courtroom.
“I never knew who that girl was, but I will never forget the looks of raw pain she gave me. That child had more impact on my life than she will ever know,” Sturgill wrote. “I don’t know if she will see this but want to tell her that I am so sorry. I would give anything to change what happened.”
The day of the crime, 34-year-old Vidar and 28-year-old Delfina Lillelid were shot to death and their 6-year-old daughter, Tabitha, was fatally wounded. The little girl died the next day at a hospital in Knoxville, near where the family lived.
Tabitha’s brother, 2-year-old Peter Lillelid, also was shot and left for dead with his family along an isolated stretch of Payne Hollow Lane north of Baileyton.
Peter Lillelid survived his wounds, which left him blind in one eye and with impaired motor skills. He moved to Sweden to live with his maternal aunt’s family after the murder of his parents. He is now 22. He could not be reached for comment.
On the afternoon of April 6, the Lillelid family was driving back to their Knoxville-area home from a Jehovah’s Witness gathering in Johnson City.
Several of the young East Kentucky natives testified during their 1998 sentencing hearing that they had left 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.
“The group brought two guns with them and started the journey in a rickety car, prompting them to talk about upgrading their mode of transportation by stealing a better car,” the U.S. Court of Appeals opinion states in a recitation of the events leading up to the crime.
Vidar Lillelid, an immigrant from Norway, stopped his family’s full-sized Dodge van at the rest area where the six young people had also parked.
Lillelid approached Howell and her friends while they were sitting at a picnic table and shared his religious views with the group, the Court of Appeals opinion states.
Risner displayed one of the guns and according to the Tennessee Supreme Court, “directed the Lillelid family to their van.”
The family was kidnapped at gunpoint and then shot multiple times as they stood beside Payne Hollow Lane.
The six young people from the Pikeville, Ky., area were arrested two days later at a Mexican border crossing in Douglas, Ariz. They were in the Lillelid family’s Dodge van.
The six defendants — Jason Blake Bryant, who was 14 at the time of the shootings, Howell, who was 17, Natasha Wallen Cornett, who was 18, Sturgill, who was 18, Edward Dean Mullins, who was 19, and Joseph Risner, then 20 years old — were all returned to Greene County.
“Bryant claimed that Risner and Mullins were the shooters, but Howell and her remaining co-defendants maintained that Bryant was the shooter,” according to the Court of Appeals account.
Howell maintained in her statement released to the Sun that Bryant was the shooter.
Bell said Friday that the defendants never offered a clear picture of the events leading up to the shootings.
“We’ve never been able to find out from any of them what actually happened,” he said.
GUILTY PLEAS ENTERED
All six defendants pleaded guilty in February 1998 to three counts of first-degree murder and other charges.
They were sentenced in March 1998 by Beckner to three terms each of life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus 25 years.
A habeas corpus petition filed by Howell was denied by the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2008 because she “has not made the requisite ‘substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right,’” according to a court order.
Bell said prosecutors believe that the co-defendants blamed the shooting on Bryant because he was the youngest of the group.
“That was their strategy to avoid the death penalty” for the four defendants age 18 and older, Bell said.
Howell wrote in her email that many public perceptions about the crime were not true. She is supported by Cavanaugh, who said he has worked with troubled teenagers for many years and has supported her in trying to dispel perceptions the young people were a “Satanic cult” intent on starting a crime spree inspired by movies like “Natural Born Killers.”
“We were not a ‘cult.’ None of us even hung out together as a group,” Howell wrote. Howell said she had dated Risner for about a month and was friends with Cornett, and knew the others to varying degrees with the exception of Bryant, who she only met “a day or two prior to the crime through Natasha.”
“There were no ‘Satanic rituals’ performed over the bodies,” Howell wrote, nor was there “moving the bodies into the shape of a cross.”
“There was no ‘taking turns’ shooting that poor family,” she wrote. “All of it was done by Jason Bryant alone.”
Pre-sentencing testimony established that Reiser suggested the group steal a van and Cavanaugh wrote that “if the Lillelids did not have a van they would not have been kidnapped.”
Howell calls the portrayal of the crime in some accounts “all lies heaped upon an already tragic happening to hype it more.”
Sturgill and Mullins never left the car while the shootings occurred, Howell wrote.
After their arrests, Howell said she began hearing “a lot of the crazy things people and the media were saying about my case — ‘It was a ritual Satanic cult killing!’ ‘They were on a rampage inspired by the movie “Natural Born Killers,”’ ‘They kept trophies from their victims,’ etc. — I was shocked. I wasn’t some Satanist, nor a murderer,” Howell wrote.
A plea agreement with the defendants was reached before trial.
“Being that I was a juvenile at the time meant that it had no benefit for me at all. I was given three days to sign this deal or they would seek the death penalty on the four adults,” Howell wrote. “Needless to say, I felt pressured and extremely manipulated into signing that plea bargain.”
Howell’s court appearance is scheduled in April. Bryant was to have appeared for a motion hearing earlier this year, but his Nashville-based lawyers did not appear in court and the proceeding was continued. No new date has been set.
In a reply to the state’s motion to dismiss the hearing to reopen Howell’s post-conviction petition, her lawyers cite a 2016 case heard by the Supreme Court, referencing a 2012 decision that “announced a new rule of substantive law” retroactive in cases such Howell’s.
Even “if a court considers a child’s age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates the Eighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity,” Howell’s reply states.
The Eighth Amendment covers “cruel and unusual punishments” inflicted on a defendant.
The 2012 case “determined that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but ‘the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.’”
“The court should set (Howell’s) motion for a hearing to determine whether (her) case should be set for a resentencing hearing,” the reply by Howell’s lawyers states.
Cavanaugh, who is in frequent contact with Howell, believes she, Sturgill and Mullins all merit reconsideration of their sentences of life without parole.
“These were troubled teens who reacted to stress the way they reacted to (the shootings). They shut down,” Cavanaugh said.
Howell and the other two had no history of violent behavior and “had no idea things were going to happen the way they did,” Cavanaugh said.
“I want to see those three released out in society. They were never a threat to begin with,” Cavanaugh said.
Armstrong believes otherwise. He said any application of the Supreme Court ruling in connection with the Lillelid case is “misconstrued.”
“What happened in this case puts this squarely outside the Supreme Court rulings and we will vigorously defend the sentencing that took place. The sentences that were handed out were appropriate and just,” Armstrong said.