Killer Smile

Tommy Lynn Sells claims to have murdered dozens, and Texas Rangers fear he's telling the truth

Somewhere during the spring, Sells' wish to be executed for his crimes and "meet his maker" was replaced by a keen interest in staying alive, and by May, he saw his chances as good. "I do have a trial date of Aug. 22," he wrote to mansonfamilypicnic.com. "Live or die. If I was a betting man, I would go with life, because my Dream Team is better than O.J.'s," he wrote.

By now, Sells was claiming upwards of 50 to 60 murders, and both Allen and Pope suspected him of fabricating homicides he did not commit. As Garcia tells it, it was another old drifter who ruined everything. Sells had finally found a role model. "The Rangers found out he wasn't being truthful. I think he tried to play the Henry Lee Lucas game. He told me that Henry Lee Lucas had gotten a life term by confessing to crimes he hadn't done, and he was going to do it too," Garcia says. "He told me he was trying to save his life by making things up."

The collaboration was all but over. "He's a con and a half," said Pope recently. "Tommy tries to dangle stuff in front of me even now, but it just ain't working."

Tommy Lynn Sells--center, with beatific smile--arrives in Little Rock in March. Texas Rangers brought him there to talk to local authorities about two murders he claims to have committed.
AP/Wide World
Tommy Lynn Sells--center, with beatific smile--arrives in Little Rock in March. Texas Rangers brought him there to talk to local authorities about two murders he claims to have committed.
Krystal Surles, 11, and still recovering from her knife wound, poses with her cousin, 15-year-old Nina Mangum, in January.
AP/Wide World
Krystal Surles, 11, and still recovering from her knife wound, poses with her cousin, 15-year-old Nina Mangum, in January.


The capital murder trial of Tommy Lynn Sells unfolded in a second-floor courtroom in the old courthouse in downtown Del Rio, with a crew from 48 Hours in Hawaiian shirts taping every twist for a November show.

Five hundred people had been called for jury service. It had taken 14 laborious days to question and seat a panel to decide the fate of a man accused of a savage slashing attack on two young girls. Some prospective jurors had been dismissed because they said the death penalty was too kind for Sells, who had made four confessions to the crimes. With its outcome all but pre-ordained, it was more a morality play than a trial, even though Sells, in a barely audible voice, pleaded not guilty to the capital murder of Harris at its onset.

"This is a hellish case. This is a brutal case," Garcia said in his opening remarks. "Common sense will tell you he's guilty, but not of capital murder."

The first witness was a dark-haired woman named Noell Houchin who was tending bar on December 30, 1999, at Larry's Lakeside Tavern, not far from the trailer where Sells lived. Her story set the sordid tone for the trial.

Sells had been a customer that night, and a memorable one at that, and not only because he had appeared wearing shorts and a jacket on a cold winter evening.

"He was obsessed with having sex with me. That's all we talked about all night long...At the end, he wanted just five minutes of my time," she testified.

Sometime after the 2 a.m. closing, Sells had been asked to leave by another male patron. Hours later, he allegedly climbed through an open window at the Harris family trailer five miles to the west with rape and murder on his mind.

Prosecutors put Houchins on the stand to establish Sells' state of mind. In order to convict him of capital murder, they had to show he killed Harris while intentionally committing another felony, in this case sexual assault, and his fate turned on the slender legal reed of intent. In what was to remain a pattern, Garcia asked only a few questions of Houchins on cross-examination. For the defense, the guilt or innocence phase of the trial was nearly irrelevant. "It was just a speed bump on the way to sentencing," Garcia said later.

The slain girl's parents, Crystal and Terry Harris, testified next, telling how they had befriended Sells at Grace Community Church and how he had come to the family trailer on Guajia Bay outside of town. "He came to talk to my husband about marital problems and problems with his job," said Crystal Harris in a near whisper. Mrs. Harris testified how she awoke on December 31 with her home full of police, having slept through the attack.

Her husband later testified how, while leaving Del Rio for Kansas on the evening of December 30, 1999, he had run into Sells at a local convenience store. "He asked me about the luggage in the back, and I said I was taking a short trip up north and would be back soon," recalled Harris. In other words, Sells knew there was no man in the house that night.

And then, on the afternoon of the first day of trial, Krystal Surles took the stand and told what she had seen when she awoke in her top bunk to find a strange, bearded man in Kaylene Harris' bedroom. It was a chapter from a child's book of nightmares: The man under the bed was real. "He was standing behind her with one hand over her mouth, and a knife right here," said Surles, indicating her throat. "She was struggling, and she told me with her eyes to stay there and not to move, so I did. I laid there but I could still see. He took the knife and slit her throat. She just fell," she testified. "She started making really bad noises, like she was gagging for air but couldn't get any breath because of all the blood," she said. Then, she testified, the bearded man turned to her. "I told him, 'I'll be quiet. I promise. I'm not making a noise. I won't say nothing. It's Katy making the noise,'" she testified. The man said nothing when he reached the bed. "He reached over and cut my throat. I just laid there and pretended I was dead. If he knew I was alive, he would have come back and killed me for sure," she said.

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