Killer Smile

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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.
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