Natasha Cornett was eighteen years old when she took part in the now infamous Lillelid murders in Tennessee. According to court documents Natasha Cornett along with Edward Dean Mullins, 19; Joseph Lance Risner, 20; Crystal R. Sturgill, 18; Jason Blake Bryant, 14; and Karen R. Howell, 17 were on a road trip to New Orleans Louisiana when they stopped at a rest area in Tennessee
The Lillelid family who just attended a Jehovah Witness convention. The father Vidar Lillelid approached the group to spread the word but what he did not know is that Natasha Cornett and her group were planning on carjacking his van in order to complete their trip to New Orleans.
The Lillelid family which consisted of Vidar Lillelid, his wife Defina and their two children: six year old Tabitha and two year old Peter were forced at gunpoint to their van which was then driven to a remote location.
Who exactly shot the Lillelid family is not 100 percent clear however fourteen year old Jason Bryant and other male members of the group were involved. Vidar and Defina would both die at the scene, six year old Tabitha died on the way to the hospital and two year old Peter would survive his injuries but would lose the sight in one of his eyes.
Natasha Cornett and her group were soon arrested and charged with the three murders. All of the group members who were eighteen years plus, including Natasha, would take a plea deal in order for the death penalty to be taken off the table. The younger members would ultimately receive the same sentences.
A number of years later Natasha Cornett and death row inmate Christa Pike would both be charged and convicted in the attempted murder of another inmate.
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|Assigned Location:||DEBRA K. JOHNSON REHABILITATION CENTER|
|Combined Sentence(s) Length:||LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE||Supervision/Custody Level:||MEDIUM|
|Sentence Begin Date:||03/13/1998||Sentence End Date:|
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The van rolled through the twilight, gravel crunching beneath its wheels and a few quiet sobs escaping from inside.
The sun had set, and dusk thickened to dark. The van stopped, and the doors opened.
One by one, the occupants climbed out — from behind the wheel, the father, a tall, thin man in his 30s; from the back, the mother, slightly younger and holding the hands of their daughter and son; two women in black; and a man and a boy, each holding a gun. A car pulled up the road behind them, circled around the van and came to a stop, its headlights still on.
One gunman turned to the other.
“What do you think we should do?” he asked. “Do you think we should let them go or do you think we should kill them?
Six people, all serving life sentences with no chance of parole, know what happened next that Sunday evening of April 6, 1997. Each tells a slightly different story. In each story, another fires the fatal shots.
John Huffine can recite the events from memory. The retired detective knows every inch of the spot along Payne Hollow Lane in rural Greene County, right down to the number of feet from the spot where the van parked to the main road, to the nearest house, to the ditch where deputies found four bodies lying in a bloody pile. Twenty years later, he can point out all the landmarks.
Here were the tire tracks. There was a shell casing. This house wasn’t here then. That tree was smaller. The stump — that’s gone.
He can tick off all the names on his fingers — Vidar and Delfina Lillelid, the Knoxville couple whose names still call to mind one of the most gruesome and notorious murder cases in modern East Tennessee history; their 6-year-old daughter, Tabitha, who offered chocolates to her killers on the ride to her death; their 2-year-old son, Peter, the only one of the family to survive.
He remembers the killers, too, whose names, mug shots and fascination with devil worship, blood-drinking and the occult topped front pages, TV newscasts and tabloid covers for months after the killing, and whose motives still drive online debates among true-crime aficionados. Natasha Cornett, then 18; Karen Howell, then 17; Joseph Lance Risner, then 20; Jason Blake Bryant, then 14; Joseph Dean Mullins, then 19; and Crystal Rena Sturgill, then 18, all deny to this day they knew what was about to happen on the side of that gravel road
The longtime investigator knows how the killers met their victims, can tell the story of how the family, devout Jehovah’s Witnesses headed home from a religious convention, stopped at the rest area on Interstate 81 South at just the right time to cross paths with six Kentucky youths on the run from police, parents and a community they hated. He knows the path they followed from there to the murder scene. He knows how many shots were fired, in what order and from what distance.
What he still can’t say for sure is exactly what happened after the van stopped.
“Everybody has their theory, and I have mine,” Huffine said. “I think it was a crime of opportunity. All the elements just came together. But this case is like an inkblot. Everybody who looks at it sees something different.
The six still have their defenders, from family members to strangers who don’t dispute their guilt but insist all shouldn’t die behind bars. Attorneys for Bryant and Howell have filed motions to reopen their exhausted appeals, citing recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that restrict the imposition of life sentences on juveniles. Howell’s motion could be heard April 21.
Berkeley Bell, who prosecuted the case as district attorney general, sees not an inkblot, but a clear-cut face-off between good and evil.
“It was the highlight of my career as a prosecutor,” said Bell, now retired after 32 years in office. “The whole thing was driven by evil — almost a supernatural-type evil. That sense of evil just permeated the whole thing from start to finish. It infused the defendants, and it empowered them. That’s what I believed then, and my opinion has not changed.
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The next time convicted killer Christa Gail Pike engages in a cage match with another murderer, she might want to lose the smack talk.
The state Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday ruled that Pike ‘s own words belied her claim that she nearly choked to death one Knoxville killer to save another notorious East Tennessee murderer.
“Her stated intention was to protect” convicted killer Natasha Cornett, Appellate Judge John Everett Williams wrote. “There was ample evidence by her actions and ( Pike ‘s) own words that contradicted this position.”
The appellate court, in upholding Pike ‘s conviction for the attempted murder of Patricia Ann Jones in the Tennessee Prison for Women, also rejected Pike ‘s argument that the Davidson County jury that convicted her was prejudiced by testimony that Pike is on death row.
“Although the unsolicited remark was prejudicial, it was mitigated by the setting in which these events took place,” Williams wrote. “The inmates of the maximum security wing of the Tennessee Prison for Women are generally considered to have attained their status through other than innocent and meritorious means.”
Pike , on death row for the 1995 torture-slaying of fellow Knoxville Job Corps student Colleen Slemmer, attacked Jones in 2001 while the pair and Cornett were placed together in a “recreation cell or cage” after a fire-related evacuation of prison cells, the opinion stated.
All three women are among East Tennessee’s most notorious killers.
Jones is serving life plus 40 years for killing 84-year-old Alberta Coker during a robbery at Coker’s East Fifth Avenue home in 1995. Like Pike , Jones had come to Knoxville via the Job Corps program. Jones stabbed Coker 77 times so she could steal jewelry and corn, which she traded for $50 worth of cocaine.
Natasha Cornett was the ringleader of a crew of Kentucky teenagers who kidnapped a Powell family from a rest area in Greene County in 1997. The teenagers took Vidar and Delfina Lillelid and their two children, 2 and 6, to a remote area and shot them. Only the toddler survived. She is serving life without possibility of parole.
According to the appellate court opinion, Jones had a beef with Natasha Cornett and has a reputation for fighting other inmates.
“I just want to kill her, maybe come up behind her and split her throat or catch her when the police ain’t around and just beat her until I get tired,” Jones said of Cornett in a chat with a prison doctor before the August 2001 incident with Pike .
Despite that, prison guards put Jones, Cornett and Pike together in the recreation cage because of a fire at the prison on Aug. 24, 2001.
Pike came armed with a shoelace-like string, the opinion stated.
“When asked of her intention toward (Jones), ( Pike ) said, ‘I don’t wanna (sic) say that I intended to kill her but I would say that I didn’t care if she died,’?” the opinion stated.
In a telephone conversation with her mother after the incident with Jones, Pike described what happened after the trio was locked inside the cage.
“Patricia was running her (expletive) mouth to Natasha,” Pike said in the tape-recorded phone call. “And she is constantly doing it, you know. I hate that (expletive).”
Pike told her mother than Jones raised her fist as if to hit Natasha Cornett.
“I said, ‘Oh, (expletive) no!’?” Pike said. “And I wrapped that shoestring around her (neck) and tried to choke the (expletive) life out of her. She was passed out on the ground, Mama, twitching, foaming at the mouth. Her eyeballs were bugged out so far her eyelids were flipped up.”
According to the opinion, Pike explained to her mother that she now knows “the difference between premeditated murder and what happened to (Slemmer) ’cause I premeditated the (expletive) out of this. If I’d of had 30 more seconds, we’d have a little chalk line out there in our rec pen and that (expletive) would be gone somewhere.”
Jones survived the attack.
Pike is currently on her last round of appeals of her convictions in the Slemmer slaying. A hearing on that appeal is set for September in Knox County Criminal Court.
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ach of the six defendants was indicted for three counts of first degree murder, one count of attempted first degree murder, two counts of especially aggravated kidnaping, two counts of aggravated kidnaping, and one count of theft of property valued over $1,000. The charges stemmed from the April 6, 1997, murder of Vidar Lillelid (34) and Delfina Lillelid (28), the murder of their six-year-old daughter, Tabitha Lillelid, and the attempted murder of their two-year-old son, Peter Lillelid. The crimes were committed near a rest stop in Greene County, Tennessee.
The defendants were en route from their homes in Pikeville, Kentucky, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Before leaving Kentucky, they had acquired two guns, a 9mm and a .25 caliber pistol. Shortly after their departure, they realized that their car, which belonged to Joseph Risner, would not likely sustain the length of the trip. They discussed the possibility of stealing a car from a parking lot or a dealership before meeting the Lillelids, who were returning to their residence from a religious convention, at a rest stop on Interstate 81 near Greeneville.
Vidar Lillelid, who was an active Jehovah’s Witness, approached Cornett and Howell at the rest stop in order to discuss his religious views. He was accompanied by his son, Peter. Eventually, Risner and Bryant joined the conversation. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lillelid and her daughter, Tabitha, were seated at a nearby picnic table. After a time, Risner, Bryant, Howell, and Cornett joined the entire Lillelid family and continued their conversation. At some point, Risner displayed one of the guns and said, “I hate to do you this way, but we are going to have to take you with us for your van.” As he then directed the Lillelid family into their van, Vidar Lillelid pleaded with the group, offering his keys and wallet in exchange for permission to remain at the rest stop. Risner refused.
Vidar Lillelid drove the van while Risner, still armed, sat in the passenger seat. Risner, Bryant, Howell, and Cornett were in the van with the Lillelids. Mullins and Sturgill followed in Risner’s car. In an attempt to calm the children, Delfina Lillelid began to sing. Bryant purportedly ordered her to stop. Risner directed Mr. Lillelid first to the interstate and then to a secluded road at the next exit.
What happened thereafter is in dispute. The accounts given by Risner, Cornett, Howell, Mullins, and Sturgill are consistent, except for minor discrepancies. They claim that Bryant began to take charge of the situation once Risner ordered the van to a stop. Risner, who was in possession of the 9mm weapon, contends that he handed the gun to Cornett at that point, explaining that he could not continue. Cornett maintains that she placed the weapon on the floor of the van while Bryant, who had the .25 caliber gun, ordered the Lillelids to stand in front of a ditch. According to all but Bryant, the Lillelids pleaded for their lives and especially for the lives of their children, promising that they would not call the authorities. The other defendants contend that when Bryant refused, Cornett and Howell then pleaded with Bryant to let the Lillelids go. According to the other defendants, Bryant again refused, explaining that the Lillelids would likely call the police. When Bryant promised that he would not hurt the children, Howell and Cornett testified that they returned to the van, where Risner had remained. They then heard a rapid succession of gunshots. Some claim that Mr. Lillelid was the first to be shot, while others say that it was Mrs. Lillelid. All contend that when the shooting stopped, Bryant returned to the van, and said, “They’re still f-ing alive.” He then grabbed the other gun and fired another round of shots. Bryant, they said, laughed and bragged about the shootings. After the shootings, Risner went to his car and removed the license plate and registration from his vehicle. Risner claims that he accidentally struck one or more of the bodies when, in response to an order from Bryant, he turned the van around. They each claim that Sturgill and Mullins remained in Risner’s car throughout the entire episode.
At the sentencing hearing, Bryant testified that it was Risner who ordered the Lillelids out of the van and directed them to stand by a ditch. He contended that Risner first shot Vidar Lillelid with the .25 caliber weapon and then slapped Mullins on the shoulder, and that Mullins also shot at the victims. Bryant claimed that he kept his eyes closed during the shootings and that he never fired either weapon. Bryant contended that Mullins and Risner ordered the others into the van after the shootings. The defendants then drove the Lillelids’ van to a gas station where they purchased a road map. They stopped at a Waffle House while traveling through Georgia but left the restaurant when a group of police officers arrived. They decided to abandon their plans to travel to New Orleans and instead drove toward Mexico. When they reached the border, they were initially denied admittance because they did not have the proper forms of identification but eventually found a way into the country. While in Mexico, Bryant was shot in the hand and leg. The source of the wound is disputed by the defendants. Bryant testified that Risner asked him to take the blame for the shootings because Bryant was a juvenile. He claimed that when he hesitated, Risner shot him in the hand and in the leg. The other defendants asserted that Bryant’s wounds were self-inflicted.
Later, the defendants were stopped by the Mexican authorities. When they claimed they were lost, the officers ordered the defendants out of the van and conducted a search. When they found a knife and a photo album belonging to the Lillelid family, they ordered the defendants to the border to re-enter the United States. American officers searched the defendants at the border patrol and took them to an Arizona jail. At the time of their arrest, several of the defendants had in their possession personal items belonging to the victims.
Upon their return to Tennessee, the state filed formal charges and provided notice seeking the death penalty for each defendant, except for Howell and Bryant, who were juveniles at the time of the commission of the crime. In exchange for withdrawal of the requests for the death penalty, Cornett, Risner, Mullins, and Sturgill pled guilty to three counts of first degree murder and one count of attempted first degree murder. Juveniles Howell and Bryant also entered pleas of guilt to the same charges.
The sentencing hearing, conducted in February of 1998, lasted one week. All of the defendants testified at the hearing, with the exception of Mullins and Sturgill.
Dr. Cleland Blake, a forensic pathologist, testified to the extent of the victims’ injuries. Vidar Lillelid, age 34, received a total of six gunshot wounds, one to the right side of his head and five to his chest. In Dr. Blake’s opinion, the first shot entered the victim’s right eye, traveled through his temple, and exited in front of his right ear. While he could not be certain, it was Dr. Blake’s opinion that this shot was fired by a 9mm handgun and would have caused a loss of consciousness. Dr. Blake believed that the victim fell to the ground and was shot three times in the upper right side of his chest. He described the shots as consistent with a 9mm. It was Dr. Blake’s opinion that the three gunshot wounds to the chest were deliberately fired in order to form the shape of an equilateral triangle and that the victim was lying on his back at the time. A gunshot wound just below Mr. Lillelid’s nipple was consistent with a .25 caliber weapon. A final 9mm gunshot wound was located just beneath the .25 caliber wound. There was a “graze laceration” on the victim’s right forearm where a bullet skimmed across the surface of his arm. A span of approximately 23 centimeters divided the five chest wounds. All of the wounds were grouped along the right side of the body. There were postmortem superficial abrasions to the back of the victim’s legs. Dr. Blake believed that the victim most likely died within a few minutes of the initial gunshot to his right eye.
Delfina Lillelid, age 28, was shot eight times. All eight bullets were recovered; six were from a 9mm and two were from a .25 caliber. In Dr. Blake’s opinion, the first of these shots, fired by a 9mm, shattered the bone in her left arm. The second shot, also from a 9mm, shattered the thigh of her left leg. Dr. Blake testified that these shots would have caused severe pain, but would not have produced her death. Dr. Blake believed that the victim would not have been able to stand after these wounds were inflicted. Mrs. Lillelid was shot six additional times while she lay on her back. The first three shots struck the left side of her abdomen. It was Dr. Blake’s opinion that these shots were fired to form a triangular pattern, similar to the injuries inflicted on Mr. Lillelid. The three shots pierced her stomach, leaving a four- to five-inch tear, and traveled through her pancreas, spleen, left kidney, and left adrenal. A final 9mm entry wound was located at the mid-section of Mrs. Lillelid’s abdomen just above her navel and was recovered from her vertebrae. There was a .25 caliber gunshot wound under her left armpit; the bullet lodged in the skin on the back of her left shoulder. A .25 caliber weapon also caused a wound to Mrs. Lillelid’s left side. The bullet was recovered from the center of her liver. She also suffered abrasions on her right calf. Dr. Blake testified that Mrs. Lillelid’s wounds were not immediately fatal and that she could have been conscious for as long as 25 minutes, including when her body was driven over by the van.
Six-year-old Tabitha Lillelid was shot once in the head by a small caliber weapon. The bullet entered her head on the left side, traveled downward, and exited behind her right ear, causing immediate brain death. Her organs continued to function through the use of life support until her uncle, who had been named her custodian, gave permission for the donation of several of her internal organs. Physicians harvested her heart, liver, gallbladder, kidneys, pancreas, spleen, and adrenals. She was pronounced dead one day after the shootings.
Two-year-old Peter Lillelid was shot twice with a small caliber weapon. One shot entered behind his right ear and exited near his right eye. A second gunshot penetrated his body from the back and exited through his chest. He was transported to the pediatric intensive care unit at the University of Tennessee Memorial Hospital by a Lifestar helicopter and was listed in critical condition. He required vigorous resuscitation. There was a contusion to his right lung and some residual bleeding in his right chest cavity. Eleven days after the shootings, doctors removed the damaged eye. He remained in the hospital for 17 days before being transferred to a rehabilitation center in Knoxville.
With regard to the first degree murder of Vidar Lillelid, the trial court found the two following aggravating circumstances applicable to each of the six defendants:
(1) the murder was committed for the purpose of avoiding, interfering with, or preventing arrest or prosecution, Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-13-204(i)(6); and
(2) the defendants committed “mass murder,” Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-13-204(i)(12).
The trial court concluded that these two aggravating circumstances also applied to the murder of Delfina Lillelid. A third aggravating circumstance was also found to be present: Her murder was “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel” because of the “torture and abuse ․ on the way to [the] murder, when [the victims] were crying and begging, pleading and singing” and because Mrs. Lillelid “cried and begged and pleaded before she was killed, at least for her children ․ and then was [deliberately] run over while she was still alive.” Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-13-204(i)(5).
With respect to the murder of Tabitha Lillelid, the trial court applied three aggravating circumstances to all six defendants:
(1) the defendants committed “mass murder,” Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-13-204(i)(12);
(2) the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, Tenn .Code Ann. § 39-13-204(i)(5); and
(3) the murder was committed for the purpose of avoiding, interfering with, or preventing arrest or prosecution, Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-13-204(i)(6).
The trial court reasoned that the murder of Tabitha Lillelid was “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel” because she “saw her parents shot and fall to the ground.” As to the defendants Risner, Mullins, Sturgill, and Cornett, the trial court found a fourth aggravating circumstance, Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-13-204(i)(1), applicable to the murder of Tabitha Lillelid because she was under the age of twelve and the defendants Risner, Mullins, Sturgill, and Cornett were at least eighteen. Because Bryant (14) and Howell (17) were under the age of eighteen, this aggravating circumstance was not applicable to them.
The trial court found the following statutory enhancement factors applicable to each of the defendants as to the attempted murder of Peter Lillelid:
(1) the victim of the offense was particularly vulnerable because of age, Tenn.Code Ann. § 40-35-114(4);
(2) the victim was treated with exceptional cruelty during the commission of the offense, Tenn.Code Ann. § 40-35-114(5); and
(3) a firearm was used during the commission of the offense, Tenn.Code Ann. § 40-35-114(9).
The trial court imposed the maximum possible sentence upon each of the defendants: Twenty-five years for the attempted murder of Peter Lillelid and life sentences without the possibility of parole for each of the three first degree murder convictions. The trial court ordered that all four sentences be served consecutively, finding each defendant to be a dangerous offender, having little regard for human life within the meaning of Tenn.Code Ann. § 40-35-115(4).
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