The Lillelid murders refers to a criminal case in Greene County, Tennessee, United States, where three members of the Lillelid family were murdered on April 6, 1997. Vidar Lillelid (aged 34), Delfina Lillelid (aged 28), and their daughter Tabitha (aged 6), and son Peter (aged 2) were shot on a deserted rural road near Greeneville during a carjacking committed by a group of youths. Vidar and Delfina were found dead at the scene, while Tabitha died after being transported to the hospital. Peter survived, but as a result of the shooting was left with disabilities. Six young people from Kentucky, including two minors, were convicted of felony murder for the deaths of Vidar, Delfina, and Tabitha Lillelid, with all six perpetrators receiving three life sentences, and an additional sentence of 25 years each for the attempted murder of Peter Lillelid.
Vidar Lillelid grew up in Bergen, Norway, and in 1985 moved to United States. In 1989, Lillelid married Delfina Zelaya, a first-generation Honduran-American from New York City, whom he had met through their common involvement in the Jehovah's Witnesses religion.. By 1997, the Lillelids had two children: 6-year-old daughter Tabitha and 2-year-old son Peter.
On April 6, 1997, six young people, ages 14 to 20, from Pikeville, Kentucky—Jason Bryant, Natasha Cornett, Dean Mullins, Joseph Risner, Crystal Sturgill, and Karen Howell—were travelling to New Orleans, Louisiana. Shortly after leaving Pikeville, they realized that Risner's car would not likely last the distance to New Orleans, and they discussed the possibility of stealing a car from a parking lot or a dealership. The group was armed with two guns: a 9mm and a .25 caliber pistol. Eyewitnesses observed six youths at a rest stop picnic spot along Interstate 81 outside Baileyton, in rural Greene County, Tennessee, in conversation with the Lillelid family, who were returning from a religious convention.
Vidar Lillelid, carrying his son Peter, had approached Cornett and Howell to discuss his religious views, before Risner and Bryant joined the 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 pleaded with the group, offering his keys and wallet in exchange for permission to remain at the rest stop, but Risner refused. Vidar Lillelid drove the van while Risner, holding the gun on him, sat in the passenger seat. Risner, Bryant, Howell, and Cornett were in the van with the Lillelids, while Mullins and Sturgill followed in Risner's car. In an attempt to calm her children, Delfina Lillelid began to sing; Bryant purportedly ordered her to stop. Risner directed the Lillelids first to the interstate and then to a secluded road at the next exit, Payne Hollow Lane, near Greeneville. The Lillelids were then lined up against a ditch along the road, where they were shot. Checking the bodies, Bryant stated, "They're still fucking alive," and shot them again.
The group left the family for dead and continued their journey towards New Orleans in the Lillelids’ van, abandoning Risner's car at the crime scene with its registration plates removed. They stopped at a Waffle House while traveling through Georgia, but left the restaurant when a group of police officers arrived. Deciding to abandon their plan to travel to New Orleans, they 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, and the group was stopped by the Mexican police. When they claimed they were lost, the officers ordered the group out of the van and conducted a search, finding a knife, as well as a photo album belonging to the Lillelid family. They ordered the group to re-enter the United States, where American border patrol officers searched them and subsequently took them to an Arizona jail. At the time of their arrest, two days after the murders, several of them had personal items belonging to the Lillelids in their possession.
Dr. Cleland Blake, a forensic pathologist, testified that Vidar Lillelid received a total of six gunshot wounds, one to the right side of his head and five to his chest. The first shot entered his 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 from a 9mm handgun and would have caused a loss of consciousness. The victim then fell to the ground and was shot three times in the upper right side of his chest. The wounds were described as consistent with those from a 9mm, and that the three gunshot wounds to the chest were deliberately fired to form the shape of an equilateral triangle, with the victim lying on his back at the time. A gunshot wound just below Mr. Lillelid's nipple was consistent with a .25 caliber weapon, and a final 9mm gunshot wound was located just beneath it. There was a "graze laceration" on the victim's right forearm where a bullet skimmed across the surface. There were postmortem superficial abrasions to the back of the victim's legs. Vidar Lillelid most likely died within a few minutes of the initial gunshot to his right eye.
Delfina Lillelid was shot eight times, and all eight bullets were recovered; six were from a 9mm and two were from a .25 caliber weapon. The first of the 9mm shots shattered a bone in her left arm; the second shot, also from a 9mm, shattered the femur in her left thigh. Dr. Blake testified that these shots would not have killed her, but would have caused severe pain, leaving the victim unable to stand. Mrs. Lillelid was shot an additional six times while on her back, with the first three shots striking 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 gland.
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 spine. There was a .25 caliber gunshot wound under her left armpit where the bullet entered, coming to a stop in the skin on the back of her left shoulder. Another shot caused a wound to Mrs. Lillelid's left side, and the bullet was recovered from the center of her liver. She also suffered abrasions on her right calf. Mrs. Lillelid's wounds were not immediately fatal, and she could have been conscious for as long as 25 minutes, including while her body was driven over by the van.
Six-year-old Tabitha Lillelid was shot once in the head with a small caliber weapon, with the bullet entering the left side of her skull, traveling downward, and exiting behind her right ear. The wound caused 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 adrenal glands. Tabitha Lillelid was pronounced dead one day after the shooting.
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 back and exited through his chest. He was transported to the pediatric intensive care unit at the University of Tennessee Memorial Hospital in Knoxville by a Lifestar helicopter, where he was listed in critical condition. Peter required vigorous resuscitation, having sustained a contusion to his right lung with some residual bleeding in his right chest cavity. Eleven days after the shootings, doctors removed his damaged eye. He remained in the hospital for 17 days before being transferred to a rehabilitation center in Knoxville.
All six of the perpetrators were from Kentucky, were known to have had troubled backgrounds, struggled academically or with substance abuse, and—with the exception of Bryant—had attended Betsy Layne High School.
Natasha Wallen Cornett, 18, was born in Betsy Layne, Kentucky. She was the product of an affair and grew up in poverty. Cornett had been a polite and good student until sixth grade, when her academic performance declined. She left school before completing ninth grade, and had no history of employment except babysitting. Cornett started using alcohol and illegal drugs, including heroin, ecstasy, and cocaine. At the age of 14, she was arrested for forgery due the theft of a box of checks, and sentenced by the juvenile court to one year of probation. Cornett was arrested a second time for assaulting her mother, Madonna Wallen, and threatening to kill her with a knife, but her mother dismissed the charges. On her 17th birthday, she married Steve Cornett, but the marriage ended after only ten months.
Edward Dean Mullins, 19, was born in 1978 in Harold, Kentucky. He had left school in 1996 during his twelfth grade year, but was working on his GED. Mullins had no criminal record, and had been employed at a grocery store in Pikeville, Kentucky, in 1993 and 1994. Mullins' family and friends stated that his behavior worsened after becoming involved with Natasha Cornett, whom he had planned to marry.
Joseph Lance Risner, 20, was born on October 13, 1976 in Hazard, Kentucky. He never met his biological father, and adopted his stepfather's last name. His family lived in Columbia, Kentucky, but moved to Georgia where he started fourth grade. Risner was described as a good student with a good work ethic until the separation of his mother and stepfather, which affected him emotionally. He and his mother moved back to Kentucky, where he had history of marijuana, alcohol, and LSD usage, and he claimed he had sexual relationships with two of his babysitters when he was 12 years old. Risner declined academically, failing seventh grade and eighth grade, before his grades improved in tenth grade, which he completed at Betsy Layne High School, where he met the other perpetrators, including his girlfriend Karen Howell. Risner joined the US Army in June 1995 but received an administrative discharge after testing positive for marijuana. He earned a GED on May 29, 1996, and was accepted at Mayo Regional Technology Center in September 1996. Risner was the eldest of the group.
Crystal Rena Sturgill, 18, was born on March 13, 1979 in Harold, Kentucky. Her mother, Teen Blackburn, refused to divulge the name of her father, and his name does not appear on her birth certificate. She was in her senior year at Betsy Layne High School and also attended Floyd County Technical School in Drift, where records indicate she had been a slightly above-average student. Sturgill’s academic performance declined in high school, which she blamed on drugs and alcohol. However, she performed well on standardized tests, including a total score of 28 on her ACT, and had applied for admission to several colleges. She worked in the Betsy Layne Elementary School daycare as part of a co-op program, where her supervisors believed Sturgill was a capable child caregiver, and she received very high marks. Sturgill had no prior criminal history as either a juvenile or an adult, but had been suspended from school several times. Observers commented on the amount of emotional neglect Sturgill suffered in her home, and in December 1996, she accused her stepfather of repeated sexual abuse. After the accusations, Sturgill moved in with her aunt in Prestonsburg and began attending Prestonsburg High School in January 1997, but soon had to move out. She lived in approximately thirteen different places from the time she made the allegations in December until the shootings occurred in April. Sturgill was good friends with Edward Mullins, and was critical of his relationship with Natasha Cornett.
She had no history of violence nor a criminal record before April of 1997.
Jason Blake Bryant, 14, was born July 18, 1982 in Hellier, Kentucky, had an IQ of 85, and the emotional and social skills of an eleven-year-old. He had a history of alcohol and drug abuse, beginning as early as age three, and was in eighth grade at Millard High School in Pike County, Kentucky. He had met Natasha Cornett at random in Pikeville, Kentucky, a month before the murders. Bryant was the youngest of the group, and was a legal minor at the time.
Karen R. Howell, 17, was born on September 25, 1979 in Delaware, Ohio. Her family moved to Kentucky when she was three years old, and her early childhood was characterized by severely violent fights between her parents, until they divorced when she was nine years old. She was recorded as having a borderline retarded IQ of 78. Howell claimed that she had been sexually abused between the ages of five and ten by her paternal uncle and a cousin, and described herself as fearful of relationships. By the age of 13, she began the practice of self-mutilation. Howell lived with her mother until she was 14, and the relationship was stormy, as the two often fought. Howell had a history of resistance to rules and regulations, dysfunction in school, illegal drug usage, runaway behavior, and an interest in witchcraft. The latter pursuit began with her use of a Ouija Board and "automatic writing", evidence of which her mother found, thereafter bringing in ministers who attempted to "cast out demons” from her daughter. Howell claimed that she had created "love spells" to get two boys to date her, and that she hears voices.
She moved in with her father briefly after her first semester of high school, although her father had rarely communicated with her. After Howell dropped out of school, she moved back in with her father and continued to earn her GED. By her early teens, she began abusing various drugs, particularly LSD. She claimed to have had a bad trip where she "half-heartedly" tried to chew her friend's arm off, but otherwise had no history of violence nor a criminal record prior to the murders. Howell reported that she had attempted suicide four times in the past, twice by cutting her wrists and twice by overdosing on drugs. She had met Natasha Cornett and her boyfriend Joseph Risner at school. Howell was a minor at the time of the crime, and was saving up to buy a car by babysitting full-time.
Howell was assigned David Leonard as her public defender. Leonard had never before worked a murder case.
Plea Bargain/Sentencing Hearing
During the sentencing hearing, Natasha Cornett said her first attorney coached her to say she was the "Daughter of Satan". District Attorney Berkeley Bell considered the Satanic angle a distraction (although he utilized occult experts during his investigation and constantly refers to the occult angle in interviews) and was relieved when Cornett's first attorney was replaced by the presiding judge. References were made by witnesses and prosecutors at trial to rumors that the six were involved with occultism and Satanism; however, no evidence of such involvement was presented. This omission was cited in Ms. Cornett's unsuccessful 2002 appeal of her conviction.
D.A. Bell has said in interviews that Bryant was the only one he could prove was a shooter, but he felt it wouldn't be just unless he convicted all six of murder. So before jury selection was completed, a plea bargain was drawn up in which the death penalty was taken off the table if the six pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. However, the D.A. stipulated that all six defendants had to accept the deal and do so within a very short time period, or the death penalty would be pursued. Karen Howell has stated for the record that she "wanted to fight it in court, even though I was not subject to the death penalty. But they were threatening to kill everyone if I didn't sign it. So I just caved in to the pressure."
All six defendants signed, and in March 1998, they were convicted of felony murder as participants in a felony kidnapping and carjacking that resulted in three murders (three life sentences each) and an attempted murder (25 years each). The six youths were each sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. The judge applied the same aggravated circumstances for all. However, it was not determined which of them had the main blame for the killings. Court testimony by the other defendants was that the youngest, Jason Bryant, had fired the shots, but the judge opined that another undetermined member of the group might also have done so.
Jason Bryant admitted to Officer Deb Mackey in Arizona that he had shot Vidar Lillelid. But Officer Mackey’s testimony was not allowed, as Bryant had not been read his rights before he made the admission (A.P. 7/18/1997). He later changed his story, saying Mullins and Risner did the shooting.
Soon after Peter Lillelid's medical condition stabilized at the end of April 1997, a custody battle began between his maternal grandmother, Lydia Selaya, in Miami, Florida, and his paternal aunt, Randi Heier, in Sweden. Citing Randi's pledge to raise Peter in the faith and teachings of the Jehovah's Witnesses as the deciding factor, local Judge Fred McDonald awarded her custody of Peter on July 1, 1997. Peter has since been raised in Sweden in the Stockholm area by his Aunt Randi Heier and her family. As of 2007 at the age of about twelve years, he still had trouble walking because of the injuries. By 2017, Peter had finished his IT education and was looking for work.
On August 24, 2001, Natasha Cornett and death row inmate Christa Pike allegedly attacked fellow prisoner Patricia Jones, nearly strangling Jones to death with a shoelace after Pike and Jones were placed in a holding cell with Cornett during a fire alarm. Although the Department of Corrections believed that Cornett was involved, investigators found insufficient evidence to charge her with helping Pike, who was subsequently found guilty of attempted murder.
District Attorney Berkeley Bell has stated in several interviews that the six youths had planned a "killing spree" inspired by the popular film, "Natural Born Killers." Considering that the killing began and ended with the Lillelid family at Payne Hollow Road, this theory is highly unlikely. Bell also insists that the bodies were "arranged in the shape of a cross," a statement refuted by Sheriff David Davenport, who investigated the scene. In his opinion, the teens "were just trying to get the hell out of there", and did not try to arrange the bodies in any manner (see "The Scarred Heart" by Dr. Helen Smith, page 120).
- "Routine call, horrific crime - Responding officer, others remember Lillelid family slayings". Knoxville News. April 1, 2007. Archived from the original on April 3, 2012.
- Jesse Fox Mayshark (April 20, 1998). "A Blackened Rainbow - How do we make sense of the Lillelid murders?". Metro Pulse Weekly Wire.
- Women's Entertainment Television Network (WETV) Women Behind Bars Series, Original Airdate June 16, 2009
- Case of State of Tennessee v. Howell, et al., opinion filed February 29, 2000.
- Helen Smith (2000). The Scarred Heart: Understanding and Identifying Kids Who Kill. Callisto. ISBN 978-0615112237.
- Six, a documentary film about the Lilleid murders and Natasha Cornett by forensic psychologist Helen Smith.
- Cornett vs State of Tennessee, Original Filed August 20, 2002
- Lillelid Sentencing, March 13, 1998.
- Town of Greenville TN Website, Lillelid Murder Archive
- "The Peter Lillelid: Ten Years Later". WBIR.com. 2007.
- "20 years later: 'Evil' killing of Powell family resonates". WBIR.com. 2017.
- "They shot and killed the Lillelid family by a highway in the United States. Only Peter (2) survived". bt.no. 2017.
Related News Articles
- 20 Years Later: The Lillelid Murders, WBIR.com, 2017
- Lillelid Murderer Mullins' Sentence Review Is Heard, The Greeneville Sun, 2002
- Lillelid Murder Defendant Risner Seeks Reversal Of His Sentences, The Greeneville Sun, 2002
- Natasha Cornett Tells Why She Is Seeking A 'Fair Trial', The Greeneville Sun, 2001
- Peter Lillelid Is 'A Happy Little Boy' 3 Years After Murders Of His Family, The Greeneville Sun, 2000
- Lillelid murders still haunt East Tennessee, 20 years later, by Matt Lakin, USA Today, April 2, 2017
- Six, a documentary about the murders