gathering of disturbed youth who had decided on a road-trip to escape their troubled lives, holding no concern for the consequences of their actions. Their decisions that night resulted in the cold-blooded execution of three members of one family with a fourth, a two-year-old little boy, being lucky to survive.
Vidar Lillelid, 34, and his wife of eight years Delfina Lillelid, 28, were Jehovah’s Witnesses and had just attended a weekend religious convention in Johnson City, Tennessee with their 6-year-old daughter Tabitha and 2-year-old son Peter. On their route home in their 1987 Dodge van at around 7.20 pm they pulled into a rest stop on Interstate 81 South at Baileyton in Greene County, halfway between the convention and their home. A chance decision which put them in the sights of these six teenagers.
Natasha Cornett (18), Karen Howell (17), Joseph Risner (20), Jason Bryant (14), Edward Dean Mullins (19) and Crystal Sturgill (18) all from Kentucky, kidnapped the Lillelid family at gunpoint driving them in their van into an isolated lane a few miles away.
All claim the murders were not planned and they didn’t know that was going happen when they stopped the van. Each of these teens had troubled and complex pasts, bringing them together on a dangerous collision course. Natasha Cornett left school before the end of ninth grade with a criminal record dating from the age of 14 for thefts and an assault on her mother involving threatening her with a knife.
Her home life was disruptive with her mother in numerous relationships and different father figures coming in and out of Natasha’s life. She began self-harming at a young age and attempted suicide at age 13 with a period spent in psychiatric care as a result. Natasha Cornett believed in the devil and believed Satan existed. With an interest in spirits and demons, she had tried to make contact with them through various rituals believing she could hear them talking to her. In a psychiatric assessment after the murders, it was concluded Natasha was not psychotic but there were clear mental and emotional disturbances with symptoms presenting of bipolar and personality disorders.
The youngest of the group Jason Bryant had a low IQ and underdeveloped social and emotional skills for his 14 years. As with Natasha Cornett, he had been abusing both drugs and alcohol from as young as 9 years old and had some criminal history with joyriding, running away from home and being out width the control of his school featuring in his record. Meeting Natasha Cornett just one month before the murders, she took pity on this lost boy after finding him on the streets of Kentucky and took him back to her home where she supplied him with alcohol.
Edward Dean Mullins differed in that he did not have a history of substance abuse or criminal activity and those close to him felt his behavior changed once he began a relationship with Natasha Cornett. Joseph Risner as with Edward Mullins, did not have a criminal record but became involved in this group when he met them through high school classes.
Karen Howell had dropped out of school aged 16 and her early home life was littered with violent fights between her parents. Karen Howell claimed she had suffered sexual abuse by an uncle from the age of 5 and at 13 years old, like Natasha Cornett, had begun to self-harm with a number of reported suicide attempts. Involved in substance misuse, Howell began to dabble in the occult, using Ouija Boards and casting what she called ‘love spells’. Also with a low intelligence score like Jason Bryant, Howell was assessed as being able to engage well but easily gives up when under pressure with poor judgment and reasoning skills.
Crystal Sturgill had no prior criminal behavior but had noted emotional neglect on her record due to her home life with her mother and stepfather. Four months before the murders, Crystal had accused her stepfather of sexual abuse dating back a number of years to which her step-father confessed to. Her mother, however, did not believe the allegations, despite her husband’s admissions of guilt, causing a difficult rift between mother and daughter. Unable to stay living at home, Crystal Sturgill moved from family member to family member being told to move on from each after short periods of time.
By the time she met Natasha Cornett, she had lived in over 13 locations since her reports of abuse four months earlier, accepting Cornett’s offer of somewhere to stay after running out of options.
At the time of the murders, Natasha Cornett was in a relationship with 19-year-old Edward Dean Mullins, while Karen Howell was seeing 20-year-old Joe Risner, the oldest of the group. Joe Risner had his mother’s car and at some point they all agreed on a road trip towards New Orleans. Before leaving Kentucky they stole two guns and handfuls of cash but what their intentions were, has never been fully established.
In what can be at best described as a collective of disturbed youngsters who wanted to push back at authority, this was a group which in their teenage angst and impulse thought they knew better and they had something to prove. They wanted to make an impact, throwing their fingers up at parents, police and anyone else who stood in their way. While the exact plans for their trip have never been revealed, the decision to arm themselves with two guns does not suggest they were going to go about their business quietly.
All indications point to this group planning on doing something, something they knew would be wrong both morally and legally and something which would make them feel powerful and in control of their own lives. When like-minded people get together a combined force pushes them forward towards their shared aims, and in this case, such a combination proved devastating.
The Lillelid Murders
At the same time as the Lillelid family pulled into that rest stop, the six teenagers were already there, milling around considering stealing another car that might take them further afield and to make it harder for their parents and the police to find them. When two of the group were spotted by Vidar Lillelid he began talking to them about God and the Jehovah Witness faith, something that despite their disinterest the two teens encouraged with a shared understanding that this could be their way to a new vehicle.
There are numerous inconsistencies and discrepancies in the statements taken from the group once they were apprehended about the murders themselves, however, their police statements do agree on the events that led up to the shooting. Vidar had spoken to Natasha Cornett first, then Joe Risner who had already had his eyes on the family’s van. Risner then returned to the group’s car and told Mullins and Sturgill to be ready, before walking back to Natasha and Vidar, who had baby Peter on his knee, and pulling out the gun.
Police received two 911 calls reporting gunshots being heard in the area of Payne Hollow Lane, a rural road just off Highway 81 and nearby the rest stop at around 9 pm that evening. When they arrived at the scene they found an abandoned Chevrolet Citation with its license plates removed and looking around further they made the horrifying discovery of four bodies piled on top of each other in a ditch at the side of the road. Vidar and Delfina Lillelid were already dead with their two young children barely alive on top of them.
Medical evidence suggested the family had been lined up by the ditch and shot one by one. Both parents had been shot and run over by a vehicle. Vidar was shot at least four times, once in the right eye and at least three times in his chest. Delfina was shot in the arm and then her leg, both shots she would have survived, then shot a further six times. Both parents had a triangle pattern of deliberately aimed shots on their bodies. Tabitha had been shot once in the head and baby Peter shot twice, once in the back of his head and once in his back. Tabitha Lillelid was transported to the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville but died from her injuries the following day. Peter Lillelid did survive the attack but suffered terrible injuries to his head, right eye and his spine resulting in the loss of his eye.
The abandoned Chevrolet was Joe Risers mother’s car and proved to be the link between the teenagers and this multiple murder scene. As police and forensic teams searched the area for evidence, the Lillelid’s Dodge van, now in the procession of the teen group, was heading into Mexico after they abandoned the idea of going to New Orleans. After shooting an innocent family dead in an isolated lane they had decided to continue their road-trip with seemingly no remorse for what they had just done. When they tried to re-enter the US at the border, the lack of correct papers and a license plate check on their stolen vehicle quickly put an end to their time on the run and all six were taken into custody.
“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.” – Berkeley Bell, District Attorney
With Karen Howell and Jason Bryant being under 18 years old, they were juveniles facing life sentences without the possibility of parole if convicted of murder. The other four, who were over the age of 18, were charged as adults with the District Attorney at the time, Berkeley Bell, making it clear for the severity of this crime, he would be seeking the death penalty against all four.
Each time the group appeared in a court hearing, the public openly displayed their disgust at what these six teenagers had done and the media did not hold back on their reporting. Requests for separate trials were denied and a trial date was set for March 1998 once a suitable impartial jury could be found from a neighboring county. On 20 February 1998, almost one year after the murders, all six defendants pleaded guilty to charges of murder and attempted murder, waiving their right to trial by jury.
In exchange for their guilty pleas, the sentence of death was removed from the case leaving all six defendants accepting sentences of life in prison with no possibility of parole.
Although the teenagers spoke of what happened before the shooting and the immediate events leading up to it, when it came to the details of the shooting itself and crucially, who fired the fatal shots, their stories began to differ in a game of blame where none were willing to take responsibility for firing the weapons that ended the lives of the Lillelid family.
Jason Bryant, the youngest of the group at 14 years old was blamed by Natasha Cornett, Joe Risner and Karen Howell for pulling out the gun and shooting the family, actions they claim, they had no warning of and no idea he was about to carry out. Jason Bryant claimed it was Joe Risner and Edward Mullins who fired the guns and they had planned to put the blame onto him as he was the youngest and a juvenile more likely to get a lesser sentence.
In their joint sentencing hearing, the trial court concluded that each defendant had played a role in these murders. Although it was acknowledged all of them did not pull the trigger firing the fatal shots, all were present throughout the kidnapping of the family and through to their deaths, doing nothing to prevent what was happening despite ample opportunity to do so.
The trial court believed Jason Bryant was either the only shooter or one of the shooters in this case. Furthermore, they believed Joe Risner played a significant part in instigating these events by threatening the Lillelid family with a gun, with the help of Karen Howell, at the rest stop and being the driver of their van when the group kidnapped the family against their will. Overall the trial court’s opinion was that each of these defendants were involved in the attack and murder on the Lillelid family and each fled the scene, evading police for two days showing no hint of remorse despite the severity of the crime.
In the years since these horrific murders, these teenagers have grown into adults and have spent the last 20 years of their lives behind bars. Natasha Cornett, who many feel was the leader of the dysfunctional group, made a number of appeals against her conviction in years following the murders, all of which were rejected. It was surrounding Cornett that the idea of satanic worship first emerged when her original lawyer used this angle, it is believed, to try and gain attention and introduce mitigating circumstances for her upcoming trial, actions which it is now felt damaged her case and any hopes for freedom.
The Greeneville Sun reports this week how Karen Howell and Crystal Sturgill have both sent emails to the media trying to explain their actions 20 years ago and express their remorse. Both Howell and the youngest defendant Jason Bryant, have motion hearings in the coming weeks to have their sentences reconsidered. These motions come on the back of the 2012 US Supreme Court decisions that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional. Decisions which in 2016 were opened up so they could be applied to offenders who were sentenced before the original decision was made in 2012 and therefore potentially being applicable to Howell and Bryant’s cases.
“I don’t believe that I deserve to die in prison for this murder. I never thought or even wanted or intended that someone should die.” – Karen Howell
In the emails released this week, Karen Howell tries to dispel some of the myths and hype she states has been circulated about this case and their group since the crime in 1997. “We were never a “cult” she says. “There were no “Satanic rituals” performed over the bodies. There was no moving the bodies into the shape of a cross. There was no “taking turns” shooting that poor family. All lies heaped upon an already tragic happening to hype it more.”
Crystal Sturgill has also released an email where she too tries to explain her actions 20 years ago, “I would like to take this opportunity to apologize, not just to the Lillelid family, but to the community.” she writes, “I realize that my inability to act altered more lives than I can imagine. While it is of little, if any, consolation I have spent the past 20 years trying to atone.”
When crimes as horrific and brutal as the Lillelid murders are carried out there is often talk of evil taking over and when the people who carry out such crimes are teenagers, the disbelief and horror is accelerated with the world wondering just what went wrong. The truth of exactly what happened at the side of that isolated lane in 1997 it appears we will never be sure of with the statements from these individuals still differing and contradicting each other. While for some, the opportunity to gain parole and be released from prison in the future is a possibility, it is still in the balance whether they will ever, and should ever, achieve that aim.
- Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee at Knoxvile, October 1999 Session. Filed Appeal Opinion in State of Tennessee Vs Karen R. Howell, Natasha W. Cornett, Jason B Bryant, Edward D. Mullins, Joeseph L. Risner and Crystal R. Sturgill, filed on 29 February 2000.
- Lakin Matt (2017) Lillelid Murders Still Haunt East Tennessee, 20 Years Later, USA Today
- Little, K (2017) 2 Defendants In Lillelid Murders Want Sentence Reduced, The Greeneville Sun
- Rovner, J (2017) Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview, Sentencing Project Publications, sentencingproject.org/publications
Guy, F. (2017, Apr 06) Bids For Freedom: The Lillelid Murders 20 Years On. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from https://www.crimetraveller.org/2017/04/the-lillelid-murders-20-years-on/