Natasha Cornett was eighteen years old when she took part in a murder that made National headlines. According to court documents Natasha Cornett, Edward Dean Mullins, 19; Joseph Lance Risner, 20; Crystal R. Sturgill, 18; Jason Blake Bryant, 14; and Karen R. Howell, 17 decided they wanted to get out of their small town and headed to New Orleans. Along the way the group decided to stop at a rest area. At the same rest area was a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the two groups would begin to talk. Somewhere along the conversation the mood turned and the young family was forced to drive to a remote location where the mother, father and two young children were all shot. Only the youngest child would survive the brutal attack. The group would soon be arrested and in the end all of the members of the group would plead guilty and be sentenced to multiple life terms. Natasha Cornett would make news again in 2001 when she and Christa Pike, an inmate on death row in Tennessee would attempt to murder another inmate
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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 Wallen 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.
“We don’t know everything that happened that night. I’d like to know. They’ve never told the whole story. They’ve had the opportunity. I feel like we’re very close. What we have are conclusions drawn from circumstantial evidence. That may be all we ever know.”
The weekend had been a long one, and the family was ready to go home.
Vidar and Delfina Lillelid had spent that Sunday at the annual Jehovah’s Witness assembly at Freedom Hall in Johnson City, where members of the faith from across East Tennessee had gathered for fellowship, Bible study, sermons and prayer. This year’s assembly had focused on Isaiah 54:13: “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children.” A focus, as always, had been the importance of bearing witness to friends and strangers alike.
Vidar, 34, had moved to Miami from Norway a decade before. Delfina, 28, the New Jersey-born daughter of Honduran immigrants, met him there. They married in 1989 and moved to Knoxville after their daughter’s birth in search of a peaceful place to raise their children, without the drugs and violence of a big city. A hiking trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park convinced the couple they’d found the perfect place. They’d lived in East Tennessee two years when Peter was born in 1995.
The week ahead promised to be busy. Vidar had to be back at work for his job as a bellman at the Holiday Inn Cedar Bluff in West Knoxville on Monday, and Delfina had chores to do and home-school lessons to prepare for the children. The family had moved six months ago into a rented 50-year-old home in the Powell community, the children’s first taste of life outside an apartment complex. The house needed work, and the parents had finally saved enough to buy a new swingset for Peter and Tabitha. Later they hoped to renovate the upstairs into an apartment for Delfina’s mother. And in just a month, mother and father planned to fly to Norway for the first time with the children to visit Vidar’s relatives.
Some friends invited the Lillelids to stop for dinner on the way home. But the couple’s weekend cash had run low, and more big purchases were coming up. Vidar turned them down, and the family climbed into their van, a cream-colored 1987 Dodge, and headed south on Interstate 81. Just before 7:20 p.m., the van pulled into the rest area at mile marker 41, halfway home.
Natasha Cornett wanted to get out — somewhere, anywhere, no matter where.
Life had revolved around conflict, rebellion and escape since the time Cornett turned a teenager in the southeast Kentucky town of Betsy Layne. She starved herself to look thinner. She slashed her arms with razors and licked the blood. She wore black, pierced her eyebrows, read books on witchcraft and called herself Satan’s daughter. At age 14, she threatened her mother with a knife. The mother tried in vain to find treatment for her. Cornett told friends she’d talked to angels and demons since age 4. She wrote about the apparitions in her diary and gave them names, in between fantasies of macabre violence and tirades against her mother.
She’d tasted life away from home twice. The first taste came when she married at age 17 in a ceremony where the bride and her maids of honor dressed in black and wore chains. That marriage ended less than a year later when her husband dropped her off at her mother’s home and drove away without a word. The second came a few months later when Cornett and a friend drove to New Orleans and lived on the streets before coming home. She told friends she wanted to go back, that she dreamed of living out one of her favorite movies, “Natural Born Killers,” Oliver Stone’s ode to mayhem about a pair of lovers who leave a trail of bodies on their way to the Mexican border.
That idea came up again during a Friday night party of drinking beer and getting high in a room at the Colley Motel in Pikeville, Ky., on April 4, 1997. Most of those in the room had known each other since at least high school, staying on and off with Cornett at her mother’s trailer. Karen Howell, a friend Cornett called her “soulmate,” shared a fascination with the occult and stories of childhood visions and sexual abuse. Dean Mullins was dating Cornett; Joe Risner had dated Cornett and now Howell. Crystal Sturgill, a newcomer no longer welcome in her home after reporting her stepfather for sexual abuse, had found a home with Cornett.
Jason Bryant, the youngest of the group at 14, had been on probation as a runaway when Cornett picked him up from a street corner, offering him cheap bourbon and kisses. He routinely lied about his age and even let Cornett carve her initials into his arm to show he wasn’t afraid.
News reports and word-of-mouth later told of séances, satanic rituals and an attempt to burn the number “666” into the motel room carpet. Bell, the prosecutor, believes Cornett birthed the plan there for a Mexico-bound murder spree. Witnesses say Cornett cried and commiserated with Howell about fighting with her mother, hating life in Kentucky and wanting out. Risner, the oldest of the group at 20, was on spring break from the local tech center, where he’d been taking trade classes after earning his GED. He had a car, a Chevrolet Citation registered in his mother’s name. He was up for a trip.
Cornett’s mother, Madonna Wallen, later told police how the six came back to the trailer from the motel on their way to a bonfire party.
“Natasha and them had said they were going to go start the Armageddon,” she recalled. “Karen turned around and looked at me, and she said, ‘The end of time is coming.’ … I said, ‘Oh,’ and that’s it, you know. That’s all she said.”
At the rest area in Baileyton, Peter Lillelid was restless and crying from an earache, so his father took him for a walk. Delfina and Tabitha headed to the restroom and stopped to chat with a friend, Karen Sinclair, who was headed home from the assembly with her teenage daughter, Cara. They talked about the weather, the ride home to Knoxville, the week ahead. As the women walked in, Natasha Cornett and Karen Howell walked out.
Joe Risner smoked a cigarette as the rest of the group milled around the vending machines. He knew the car wouldn’t make it much further. The hatchback hadn’t run well to begin with; it could barely hold four people and now carried six. The group had stolen two guns — a 9 mm and a .25-caliber — and some cash before leaving Kentucky. The thefts had put them behind, adding up to a late start that afternoon. He’d caught a speeding ticket an hour ago when a trooper stopped him on the way through Gate City, Va. If anyone — parents, police or otherwise — had started looking for them yet, the car wouldn’t be hard to find. He and the others talked about finding a car to hotwire at the rest area, but too many people were around.
Vidar Lillelid and Peter stood by the door to the visitor center as Cornett and Howell walked out. Vidar, who always kept a religious pamphlet handy in his pocket, looked up and smiled.
“Do you believe in God?” he asked.
Cornett shook her head.
No, she said. God never answered any of my prayers when I needed him.
Risner had seen the family step out of their van moments earlier. He and Bryant walked up as Vidar pulled out a pamphlet.
“He had a pretty thick accent,” Risner testified later. “He was talking about God or something. … He said, ‘Would you like to learn more about God?’
“I said, ‘Well, yeah, sure.’ ”
Delfina and Tabitha emerged from the restroom, and Vidar invited the four over to a nearby picnic table to talk. Karen Sinclair saw them head that way as she drove away.
“I noticed the group began moving, like a herd, over toward Vidar’s direction, but I really didn’t think much of it at the time,” she told police. “I honked at Vidar and waved, and we went on.”
At the table, Vidar held Peter on his lap and began laying out the basics of the Jehovah’s Witness faith. Risner got up and headed back to the car.
Mullins and Sturgill sat in the back seat, bored and not paying attention. Risner reached inside.
“We’re going to do something,” he whispered. “Just be ready.”
He walked back. Vidar was still talking. Risner pulled out the 9 mm.
“I’m sorry about this,” he said. “Everybody just be quiet and nothing’s going to happen to you. All we need is the van.”
The calls to E-911, both of them, reported gunshots on Payne Hollow Lane. One caller, a neighbor, saw two vehicles pull in and only one leave. The other, a contractor working on a water tower, heard two bursts of gunfire, one right after the other, followed by a muddled commotion “like children on a playground.”
Deputy Jeff Morgan pulled up around 9 p.m. All he and his supervisor saw at first were headlights shining in their direction.
“There was a car sitting at about a 45-degree angle facing us with the headlights on,” recalled Morgan, now chief detective for the Greene County Sheriff’s Office. “That was what immediately got our attention.”
The car, a blue Chevrolet Citation, had been abandoned, stuck on top of a stump in the mud. The deputies checked it out — empty, the license plate gone.
Four bullet-riddled bodies lay in the ditch — a man and a woman, a boy and a girl on top of them. Prosecutors later insisted the bloody pile formed the shape of an upside-down cross. That didn’t cross the deputies’ minds as they searched for some sign of life.
Vidar and Tabitha Lillelid’s bodies lay rigid, their legs crushed and marred by tire tracks. Tabitha’s body twitched slightly atop her father’s. Doctors spent the night trying to save her and pronounced her dead the next day at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville.
Peter lay unmoving atop his mother’s corpse, his face buried in the mud. Morgan knelt down to turn him over, and a wail echoed through the clearing.
“When I touched the little boy, he started crying,” Morgan said. “I held him and just stayed there with him in the ditch until the ambulance arrived. I’m sure it was only a matter of minutes, but it seemed like it took forever for them to get there. What do you say to a child that’s shot full of holes? I just tried to tell him, ‘Nobody’s going to hurt you. You’re going to be OK.’ ”
Peter would live, the only survivor of the shooting, with one eye lost and severe spinal damage. Doctors concluded he would have suffocated if left in the mud much longer.
An autopsy by Dr. Cleland Blake, one of East Tennessee’s early deans of forensic pathology, determined the family had been lined up along the ditch and shot, with Vidar Lillelid most likely the first to fall. The parents had been not only shot but run over, with Delfina Lillelid probably alive when the stolen van rolled over her.
One shot, probably the first, struck the father in the right eye and would have knocked him unconscious immediately. He landed on his back, to be shot at least four more times. Three shots, all from a 9 mm pistol, formed a nearly perfect triangle on his right upper chest, a pattern that could only have been “intentional,” Blake concluded. Two more shots, one from a 9 mm and one from a .25-caliber pistol, had pierced his chest below the right nipple.
Delfina Lillelid had most likely been shot first in the left arm by the 9 mm. The second bullet struck her in the left leg and shattered her thighbone, bringing her to the ground. Neither wound would have been fatal, and the mother lived to be shot six more times. On the left side of her abdomen, Blake found another triangle of gunshot wounds, almost identical to the pattern on her husband’s chest and from the same caliber of bullet. A gunshot to the middle of her abdomen by the 9 mm and two more in the left chest and abdomen from the .25-caliber rounded out the list of wounds. Blake estimated she could have lived as long as half an hour — long enough to see her husband and both her children shot.
Tabitha had been shot once in the head by a “small-caliber” bullet. Peter had been shot twice — once in the head behind his right ear and out his right eye, and once in the back, both from a small-caliber gun.
Pathologists later argued over whether the parents could have been holding the children when they fell or whether the bodies were arranged deliberately. Morgan believes to this day they’d been piled together, whether dumped haphazardly or stacked by design.
“My opinion is they probably didn’t fall that way,” he said. “It didn’t look natural.”
Huffine, the lead investigator on the case, still counts it a godsend that the killers left the Citation behind at the scene. With no other link between the family and the six strangers, detectives might have searched endlessly in vain. The car had no tags, but the vehicle identification number enabled authorities to trace the registration to Kentucky and ultimately to Risner’s mother, Mary Castle.
Castle hadn’t seen her son in two days. She didn’t know where he was. But she knew the names of the friends he’d been with, and they were missing, too.
The shift was winding down when the van rolled up.
The computer system at the border crossing manned by federal agents in Douglas, Ariz., at the U.S.-Mexico border had crashed earlier in the day. It was a Tuesday at 5 p.m., and officers weren’t sure when they’d be able to run records checks.
The system came online again just before the 1987 Dodge pulled into the checkpoint. The van was headed back into the U.S.; Mexican agents at an interior checkpoint had sent it back when the occupants failed to show the proper paperwork and claimed to be lost.
The driver had a resigned look as officers ran the license plate number and ordered everyone out.
“There was not a doubt in my mind we would be busted,” Joe Risner testified later.
One agent asked Risner who owned the vehicle. He shrugged and said he didn’t know.
A search of the van turned up toys, a car seat and Lillelid family photos. Cornett carried a wallet with a photo of Tabitha and a piece of Vidar Lillelid’s belt inside.
“Summer 1995,” was scribbled on the back of the photo. “My favorite girl.”
Howell had a “Hello Kitty” diary lock that had belonged to Tabitha. Sturgill had the key ring to the Lillelid home.
“These were trophies,” said Bell, the prosecutor. “They had taken trophies from these people they killed to remind them of what they’d done.”
At the Cochise County jail, the booking officer asked Cornett her religious preference.
“Satan,” she told him.
In Tennessee, Bell moved immediately for extradition and announced his plans to seek the death penalty for all four adults. Howell and Bryant, as juveniles, faced potential life sentences.
News of the arrests exploded nationwide. The same tabloid media culture that Oliver Stone satirized in “Natural Born Killers” lived up to its portrayal, fitting the story into a wave of narratives on school shooters, serial killers and kids gone bad.
Cornett’s initial defense attorney, Eric Conn, fed the frenzy by playing up the image of his client as a mentally disturbed outcast with nowhere to turn but devil worship — supposedly to bolster an insanity plea. But Bell believes the true horror that captured the country’s imagination lay in the random, pitiless nature of the killing, as casual and arbitrary as a lightning strike.
“That’s the key,” he said. “It could happen to anybody. ‘This could be me. This could be me and my family at this rest stop on the interstate’ — that you think is the safest place in the world.”
Outrage over the killings swept across East Tennessee. In Knox County, a convenience store owner hung six nooses on a scaffold in front of his business. A crowd chanting “Burn in hell” greeted the four adults when deputies escorted them back to Greene County.
Morgan, the deputy who pulled Peter Lillelid from the mud, helped escort them to the jail.
“I’d never in my life seen anything like it,” he said.
Newspapers and TV stations from Knoxville to Norway sought spots in the courtroom to cover the trial. Criminal Court Judge Eddie Beckner denied repeated defense requests to try the six separately, remarking that a half-dozen such trials might bankrupt the county. He ruled finding a fair jury in Greene County would be impossible and ordered a jury bused in from Bradley County, 150 miles to the south, for the trial, ultimately set for March 1998.
That trial never came. Instead, six defendants rose in a Greene County courtroom on Feb. 20, 1998, raised their right hands and admitted to charges of murder and attempted murder.
“Do you all understand what you’re charged with?” the judge asked. “Are you all pleading guilty because you are guilty?”
“Yes,” came each answer.
Bell had been in Bradley County for jury selection when he made the decision to offer the plea deal for life in prison without parole for all six — all or none. A key witness, an Arizona jailer who claimed Risner admitted the killing to him while on suicide watch, turned out to have an arrest record. That development left prosecutors with a mostly circumstantial case and no confession that would hold up in court.
Twenty years later, Bell said he’s still satisfied with the result.
“It was a struggle to reach that decision,” he said. “But I take comfort in knowing that they will all die in prison.”
Four of the six — Risner, Bryant, Cornett and Howell — took the witness stand to testify at a weeklong sentencing hearing. They told a generally consistent story, up until the moment the van stopped on Payne Hollow Lane.
Risner told of walking the Lillelids at gunpoint from the picnic table to the van. The father offered them his wallet and keys, to no avail. When the van doors opened, Risner started to take the wheel until Cornett suggested forcing Vidar Lillelid to drive. Mullins and Sturgill followed in the Citation.
Peter and Tabitha didn’t understand what was happening. Delfina Lillelid began singing softly to comfort the children until Bryant barked at her to shut up. Howell smiled at Tabitha to keep her from crying, and the girl offered her a Hershey’s Kiss.
Risner, Cornett and Howell all insisted Bryant, the 14-year-old, fired every shot, fatal and otherwise, from both guns. Once they stepped out of the van and argued about what to do — kill the victims or let them go — Bryant turned and began shooting, according to Risner’s testimony. Risner testified he couldn’t stand to watch what happened next.
“I jumped in the van and closed the door and said, ‘Oh, my God, they’re dead!’ ” he said.
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