Killer Smile

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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 "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.

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John Maccormack