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.
But now it was someone else's turn to talk. For the first time in his life, Sells was on trial for a capital offense, and the little blond girl with the pixie smile was going to do her best to see that he got what he had coming. "She wants him to die. That's exactly what she said," says her mother, Pam Surles.
It was sometime in early 1998 that Tommy Sells rolled into Del Rio, a scruffy but easygoing border town of 30,000 people by Lake Amistad. Sells came to Del Rio as an itinerant carnival worker, but when the show left town, he stayed. He met a local woman, Jessica Levrie, 28, and moved into her home in the low-income San Felipe neighborhood, which later that year was wiped out when 20 inches of rain fell and the San Felipe Creek burst its banks. The Levrie family lost their home but survived the flood, moving into a government-provided relief trailer at a park west of town. After the flood, Sells married Levrie. Sells came and went from Del Rio, but while in was in town, he worked as a mechanic and later as a car salesman.
Sells also began attending Grace Community Church, where he met Terry and Crystal Harris, parents of Kaylene and three other children. Eventually he would prove the ultimate test of their faith.
While living in Del Rio, Sells at one point was a suspect in a sexual assault, but the matter was dropped when the victim declined to press charges. After his arrest for the Harris murder, police tried to piece together a rough outline of his life. Although loquacious and forthcoming about other matters, Sells shies away from talking about his past. "He's never talked about his childhood. He seems to be very secretive, but he indicates there was something there," says Pope, who over the last nine months had numerous chats and cigarettes with Sells.
As the story is known, Sells was born in Oakland, California, on June 28, 1964. His family later moved to Utah and St. Louis, where his mother and siblings still live. Family members have declined to talk about him. Another sister, Sells' twin, died at age 2 of spinal meningitis. Sells had the same high fever but survived, possibly with permanent brain dysfunction. Although he provides no details, Sells has alluded to episodes of sexual abuse in his childhood, an issue that came out during his trial in Del Rio. "There was a man in his neighborhood who befriended little boys, and Tommy absolutely refused to discuss what happened," testified a psychologist called by the defense.
Sells went to school until the eighth grade. At age 13 or 14, he left home for good for a peripatetic, hand-to-mouth existence of drugs and alcohol, car theft and day labor, freight cars and petty crime, that was suspended only by prison sentences. Sells served time in Wyoming for car theft, and later in West Virginia after a plea bargain to the charge of "malicious wounding." In plain English, he tried to rape and murder a 19-year-old woman, according to police. Over the years, he was also a ward of several mental hospitals, according to his court-appointed lawyer, Victor Garcia, who described Sells as highly intelligent, astute, and sane.
"I don't think he's a Charles Manson," Garcia says. "In fact, I know he's not. He's not crazy. He didn't sit in the court and stare down the jurors or make funny faces or be disruptive. The reason he's not mentally insane is as soon as he does it, he knows it's wrong. That's why he wipes off the fingerprints."
Garcia also says that Sells doesn't entirely lack compassion. "You can talk to any jailer, any priest he's befriended. He cares about his wife and his stepchildren. He has feelings and caring," he says.
"He just has some problems he can't control. When he's on drugs or alcohol, he cannot control himself. His brain does not tell him to stop. And when Tommy Sells loses control, he kills people."
When police served a murder warrant on Tommy Sells at his trailer home early on January 2, he expressed no surprise about the charge and did not resist being handcuffed.
In the back seat of a black Ford Taurus on the way to town, Sells struck up a conversation with Lt. Pope, who had deliberately asked him nothing about the Harris murder.
"He said, 'Well, I guess we've got a lot to talk about,'" Pope recalls.
"I said, 'No, I've pretty much got it figured out,'" replied the detective. "He said, 'I want to help.' And when we got to the office, he said, 'Well, I guess you'd probably like to hear about both of them,'" says Pope, who had no idea what Sells was talking about. "So he starts talking about killing someone in Kentucky, and I had to bite my tongue until I heard the name of the town: Lexington. I thought this guy must think I already know what he's done."
Sometime between the Harris killing and his arrest, Sells had apparently found religion. He wanted to come clean on everything he'd ever done, and when Garcia appeared, he was told he was not needed. "I said, 'Well, I understand you've already confessed to everything but the kitchen sink, and he said, 'Yeah. I want this over,'" Garcia recalls. "I suggested to him that he not talk anymore, and he said, 'I'm not going to stop. I don't need a lawyer.'"
For the next four months, Sells talked and talked, first with a series of confessions about the Harris killing, then moving to the May 1999 slaying of Haley McCone, a 13-year-old Lexington girl. Missing for 10 days, her body was found in bushes alongside railroad tracks near her home. She had been raped, and Sells has since been indicted for that murder. But this was just the beginning. Working the case closely with Pope was veteran Texas Ranger Johnny Allen, and he quickly--but cautiously--began looking into the other out-of-state killings that Sells was describing.
His caution was easily understood. In the early 1980s the Texas Rangers had been badly burned by another talkative drifter who eagerly claimed credit for scores of unsolved homicides around the country. Delighted to close their dead-ended open cases, out-of-state investigators hurried to Texas to chat with the one-eyed killer, who wove scraps of evidence and suggestion into coherent confessions. But Henry Lee Lucas, now serving a life term, eventually proved a huge embarrassment to the Texas Rangers when it was proved he could not have committed many of his confessed murders. Once burned, the Rangers were twice shy.
Allen listened as Sells described hazy recollections of murders in Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Tennessee, Missouri, West Virginia, and elsewhere. Eventually Sells spoke of murdering four members of the Darden family, three with a baseball bat, in Ina, Illinois, in 1987; about abducting and killing 9-year-old Mary Bea Perez in San Antonio in April 1999; about killing Ena Cordt and her 5-year-old son Rory in Forsyth, Missouri, in 1985; and about slitting the throat of Kent Alan Lauten in Tucson, Arizona, in 1988. Police believe he is telling the truth about these killings.
"We've tried to prove he's lied to us, but we can't prove it. I don't think he'll ever get to the point where he'll confess to a murder he didn't commit. We're making sure of that," Allen said in a January interview.
Screened by the DPS, selected teams of out-of-state detectives were soon coming to Del Rio to hear what Sells had to say about their unsolved cases. Some found him personable as well as helpful. "I spent about three hours with him, and I enjoyed talking to him," says Sgt. Terry Ward of the Pulaski County Sheriff's Department in Little Rock. "You can tell he's been around, lived on the streets most of his life. And the drugs have probably gotten to him, but to sit down and talk is like talking to anyone. He's as normal as can be."
Ward was trying to match several of Sells' confessions to unsolved cases in Arkansas. "He wasn't some strange, far-out-type person. He was just a normal person who loved to kill. If you made him mad, he'd kill," Ward says.
In the meantime, Sells had struck up a correspondence with the creator of the mansonfamilypicnic.com, a Web site disturbingly devoted to mass murderers. It featured him as the "Coast to Coast Killer." In his first published letter, he talked about wanting to die. "They know I've killed three as of now and will be more when they figure out with my help...I do want the death sentence. Texas, Kentucky and Arizona, which all have them, have murder charges on me. And there's so much more," Sells wrote in late January.
Regarding Charles Manson, Sells offered a critical analysis. "He and I are somewhat the same, but unlike him, I had and have the balls to do whatever I thinks for the best or when someone pisses me off. I'll kill in a heart beat and not think about it later or lose sleep over it," he wrote.
Eventually, police became convinced that Sells was a legitimate suspect for about half the 20 murders he described. Some of the others were recalled through a drug or alcohol haze that left even Sells unsure of details. Sells was a killer who fit no easy category. "This case is so strange because for Tommy, there is no set pattern. I can't think of a word that would fit him but opportunist. If an opportunity presented itself, something could go bad," Allen says. "Some were confrontations. Some were robbery. Some were pure anger, but I think the larger percentage of his motivations were sexual assault."
Treated with courtesy and respect by Allen and Pope, Sells reveled in his role of helping police investigate his past, taking on the role of junior investigator. He was grossly insulted to be described in press accounts as "a serial killer," or as "a killing machine," and his handlers were careful not to err in interviews about him.
By February, he was reporting to his Web correspondent: "I know I am putting nails in my coffin myself. But let me tell you and your readers, I am tired. I am going to try my best to clean my slate of all crimes. I've made my peace with my maker." Sells eventually made several trips with Allen to old crime scenes in Idaho, Nevada, Arkansas, and elsewhere in attempts to solve open homicide cases.
By late spring, the partnership was strained when inconsistencies starting to show in some of his confessions. Police started believing Sells was inventing things. "I'm taking some time off from working so close with the Rangers. As a matter of fact, I've stopped, for one or two reasons. Too much too fast. They are getting on my nerves as I was getting on theirs," he wrote in May. "Them Rangers want to rip my guts out because I've wanted a break."
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."
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.
Surles broke down once during her testimony, but recovered to finish. Throughout, she kept a steady eye on the defendant. When she finished testifying, the trial was over for Tommy Sells. The rest, stretching over two days, was mere aftermath. The prosecution showed videotape of Sells doing a walk-through of the Harris trailer, complete with climbing through the unlocked window and a narration of the attacks on the two girls. "I woke this girl up. I said wake up. She jumped. I cut her throat," he said of Harris, before turning his attention to Surles in the top bunk. "She was awake. She just laid there. I walked over to her and cut this one's throat. I was getting a little nervous. I walked out the back door," he said on the tape.
Prosecutors also entered into evidence Sells' two written confessions, including one in which he acknowledges forceful sexual advances toward Kaylene. In one of his confessions, he said he had considered killing all six people in the trailer. In another, he said he had first considered raping Crystal Harris. In still another, he claimed he had gone to the trailer to collect a $5,000 drug debt from Terry Harris. Police, however, said later they found no basis for this claim, which Harris denied.
In cross-examination, Garcia repeatedly sought to establish that Sells had been cooperative and had expressed remorse and responsibility for his actions.
"For Tommy Sells, it boils down to the death penalty or life. If I can get him life, I've done my job," said Garcia before trial. After deliberating for an hour, the jury found Sells guilty of capital murder.
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Outside the courthouse, in a crush of reporters and television cameras, members of the Harris and Surles families embraced and expressed their relief. In a tiny, bruised voice, Crystal Harris said her daughter had not died in vain. "I believe with all my heart the reason why this man was apprehended is because it was time for God. God wanted it done," she said. "And I believe the reason whey he did not get everyone in my house killed that night is because every angel of the people he killed was put there to make sure this man was caught."
The trial quickly moved to the punishment phase, and the jury heard testimony from psychologists and others about Sells' personality and the threat he represented to society. In what sounded like hyperbole but was probably understatement, one doctor described his personality type as "antisocial at the highest level." The jury took three hours to send Sells to Death Row. Only the original Henry Lee Lucas dodged that fatal address.
Afterward, Sells declined to talk about the case with the television crew that has been covering his story all spring. A con to the end, he wanted to keep all options open. "He said I'm going to Jesus, I'm going to see my maker, and I'm thinking, you've got the directions mixed up," Pope says. "He told 48 Hours he wouldn't talk to them because he's got an appeal pending. It's like, I want to die, but I've got this appeal."
Pope says he has little doubt that several people are now living because Sells was caught, and that others will stay alive for as long as Sells is medicated behind bars. "The killings stopped. By now, at the rate he was going, he would have killed one or two more," the detective says. Even in prison, Pope says, Sells is a threat. "If this guy gets off his medication, he kills people. It's like, it's either a frontal lobotomy or the death sentence."