Killer Smile

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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.

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John Maccormack