Killer Smile

DEL RIO, Texas--In the moments before the trial began, the small blond girl sat close by her grandmother on a hard oak courtroom bench, chatting nonchalantly about Creed and getting a troublesome artificial nail filled.

"Why should anyone be nervous? Lots of people want to know my story," she said, using a felt-tipped marker to color a page.

Except for the formal legal setting and the jagged pink scar running diagonally across her throat, Krystal Surles, 11, could have been any cute sixth-grader on a family outing. Dressed in a pink striped blouse, navy skirt, white canvas mules, and a delicate anklet, she could have been waiting for a Sunday school class instead of the public reprise of a personal nightmare.

But the coloring stopped and the courtroom hushed when a very pale, short-haired man with a blue tattoo beneath his left ear entered, flanked by two armed deputies. Dressed in a blue suit and white shirt, the man sat quietly next to his lawyer and then glanced at the spectators, perhaps seeking one in particular.

"He looked at me. He keeps looking at me," said Krystal, nestling deeper under a protective arm.

"It's all right," said her grandmother.

The pudgy man with the jailhouse complexion was Tommy Lynn Sells, the killer drifter, who, after a lifetime of shiftless anonymity, had hit it big. Television cameras now followed his every move. In the space of a few months, Sells had gone from being one of those pathetic shabby guys who slouch by the roadside holding a sign reading "Work for Food" to a nationally known killer.

Sells was tried last month for the December 31 murder of Kaylene Harris, a 13-year-old Val Verde County girl who was killed in her bedroom while her mother and two siblings slept nearby. He was also charged with the attempted murder of Krystal, a girl from Kansas who was staying with the Harris family at their doublewide trailer west of town. Sells and Surles were again eye-to-eye, and the girl did not flinch. Sells had made a name for himself in the months after the Harris slaying by claiming to have killed 20 or more people. Police believe he has murdered at least 10 people and are also convinced he is a savvy, merciless killer, rarely leaving behind as much as a fingerprint, much less an eyewitness. But this time, one got away and lived to tell on him. "I thought I killed her too," Sells later told police.

He nearly had, using a wickedly ugly 12-inch boning knife to slice through Krystal's windpipe, rendering her speechless. The knife had cut into the sheath of her carotid artery. A bit deeper, and Krystal would have quickly bled to death like her friend Kaylene. But this time Sells bungled the job on a 10-year-old girl weighing less than 80 pounds. Feigning death, Krystal had lain motionless on the top bunk until the bearded, long-haired man turned off the bedroom lights and left. After hearing a car start and drive off, she found her way through the darkness, over the bloody, lifeless body of her friend, and out into the rural night.

A quarter mile down the unlit road, she knocked on the door of the first house she found. Inside, Herb Betz, a military retiree, lay awake, having set the alarm early to observe the televised arrival of the new year. When he looked through the peephole, he saw a little girl on his front porch. When he opened the door, he saw she was covered with blood and was pointing to her throat. "Her little eyes were saying to me, 'Help me,'" he recalls. It was a few minutes after 5 a.m. that Betz called 911. "I told them I had a little girl with a slashed throat, and that other people were hurt."

The girl asked for pen and paper and wrote out several messages. "The Harrises are hurt," was one. "Tell them to hurry," was another. And finally she wrote: "Will I live?" By this point, Krystal was lying on the floor and going into shock. "I kissed her on the forehead and told her several times she'd be all right. I didn't believe it. I thought she'd die on my kitchen floor," Betz says.

A day later from a San Antonio hospital bed, still speechless, Krystal drew a composite of the wild-haired intruder. The sketch reminded a family friend of Tommy Sells. After Krystal picked him from a photo lineup, police obtained a murder warrant for his arrest. On a Sunday morning, just over 48 hours after the attack, Sells was arrested at the mobile home he shared with his wife and her four children. "If we had come a day later, he would have been gone," says Lt. Larry Pope of the Val Verde County Sheriff's Office. "He told us he was leaving town. He'd sold a car and was just waiting around for the banks to open to get the money." Once arrested, Sells quickly confessed to the Harris murder, but he didn't stop there. He spent the next several months in the Val Verde County Jail talking to police about all the people he had killed.

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John Maccormack