April 6, 1997.
A witness heard gunshots the evening before. Police investigated the unpaved rural road, Payne Hollow Lane, a dead end near Highway 81, Tennessee.
Four bodies bled in a ditch.
The mother and the father had died, victims of multiple bullet wounds. Each of the children had been shot at least once. The toddler boy and little girl clung to life. Tabitha would die within two days.
Little Peter Lillelid survived.
He was two years old.
They could have been the family in a tv commercial, handsome, smartly-dressed. Tiny blonde Tabitha smiles sweetly in photographs. Peter could be a Gerber Baby.
Vidar Lillelid moved from Norway to Miami, where he married Delfina Zelaya, an American of Honduran background, in 1989. They moved because they were concerned about raising children in a big city, with its crime and suspect culture. In their new home of Knoxville, Tennessee, Vidar worked as a hotel bellhop. He also sought work cleaning businesses. Delfina homeschooled their daughter.
Devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, they were returning from a religious conference on April 5, 1997. Their religion requires them to proselytize. At the highway rest stop, they approached a group of kids in black. Vidar asked two of the girls if they believed in God. They said that they did not, but they talked pleasantly, and their friends joined the conversation. Witnesses saw the groups leave together, some of the youth in the Lillelids' van.
What witnesses did not see is that the eldest of the youthful group, Joseph Risner, age 20, had produced a gun and ordered the family to go along with them. Vidar offered his wallet and keys freely if they left his family behind. Risner refused to let witnesses remain at the rest stop.
Whatever we learn about the perpetrators in this case, we should remember a young family whose members died because they trusted others.
By the 1990s, the mines in Pikeville, Kentucky provided few employment opportunities. As in most small towns that have seen better days, one finds young people who want to move elsewhere.
One particular group of young people had additional reasons to leave their town behind them.
Natasha Wallen Cornett, 19 in 1997, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Less than two weeks before the massacre of the Lillelids, she had been released from the Charter Ridge Behavioural Centre in Lexington, Kentucky due to insufficient medical insurance.
Her mother, Madonna Wallen was a victim of child sexual abuse, for which she had received medical treatment. As an adult, Madonna regularly involved herself with abusive partners, and once shot one of her husbands—- non-fatally-- in self-defense. When Natasha was in fifth grade, she awoke to find that her mother had swallowed a bottle of pills in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. A former boyfriend of her mother’s took Madonna to the hospital; Natasha went to school.
Natasha's once-strong grades began to falter as she grew older, and conspicuously rebellious. She turned to alcohol and drugs: marijuana, LSD, PCP, ecstasy. She suffered from eating disorders. Her grandmother had a strong interest in occult phenomena and the paranormal, and this may have influenced Natasha’s similar interests. The girl affected a gothic look and often signed her name backwards, as "Ah Satan." She cut herself and drank her own blood. She also acquired a juvenile record for theft and forgery and was charged once with threatening her mother.
When she was 17, she married her boyfriend, Steve Cornett. He left her within a year.
Her friends included Crystal Sturgill and Karen Howell, both 18 in '97. Sturgill had been sexually abused by her stepfather, a fact which he acknowledges. Her family, however, took his side, and she spent most of her time with the Wallens. Her school record indicates above-average ability, but her grades began to slide in high school, and she also began consuming drugs.
Karen Howell, a girl of comparatively low intelligence, has no recorded history of serious troubles. She does acknowledge the use of alcohol and illegal drugs, and she has exhibited mood swings which may indicate bipolar disorder. She shared in Cornett's vampiric fixation, and the pair apparently drank each other's blood, and that of their boyfriends.
None of these girls completed high school, where all complained of bullying. They allege that the school not only failed to address their concerns, but blamed them for drawing attention to themselves by their manner of dress.
Joseph Risner had a history of drug abuse that began when he was 9. The habit runs in his family; his mother and stepfather used marijuana, cocaine, and LSD, often in his presence. He claims to have been molested at the age of 12 by teenage baby-sitters. He had past convictions relating to his part in a fatal accident; the army discharged him for marijuana use.
Edward Dean Mullins had no prior criminal record and was active in his church.
Jason Blake Bryant, 14 in 1997, had acquired already a reputation as a troublemaker at school and had one prior conviction for the theft of a car. He had only recently started associating with the group.
That spring, shortly after some of their members trashed a hotel room, the group decided to leave Pikeville. Karen Howell took $500.00 and a gun from her father's house. Some of her friends acquired another gun from an acquaintance. Joseph Risner borrowed his mother's blue Chevy Citation. They had no clear plan, though they decided to head for New Orleans, where Natasha Cornett had lived, briefly. Some reports state the group hoped to visit writer Anne Rice, but this appears to be more of an afterthought than a goal. It has been alleged they discussed a crime spree patterned on the film Natural Born Killers; the veracity of this claim also remains (at best) uncertain.
Before leaving, they had a dispute with Jason Bryant's father. He reported the group to the police, because in leaving town, he knew, Bryant was violating probation.
The group discussed the need to find a new vehicle. They were six, and the Citation was uncomfortably crowded.
The Lillelids Murders
Later that evening, they pulled into a Greene County rest stop.
Some of the group directed the Lillelids to turn down isolated Payne County Lane. At this point, testimony becomes contradictory, accounts confused.
Risner emerges as a ringleader, though the others identify Bryant as the sole shooter. Many question this claim. Bryant, newest to the group, may have seemed a likely scapegoat. At fourteen, he was too young to face Tennessee's death penalty. Bryant claims that Risner shot the Lillelids. At some point, Howell and Cornett allegedly asked that the children be spared. Howell, however, had gunpowder residue on her clothing.
Edwards Mullins, too, had gunpowder residue on his clothing, though he and Crystal Sturgill claim they remained in the car during the shooting. Bryant disputes this point and identifies Mullins as one of the shooters.
The family were told to stand in the ditch. Someone fired seventeen shots.
The group abandoned the Citation and fled in the Lillelids Dodge van, running over the bodies of Vidar and Delfina along the way. Risner, who drove, says he did so accidentally. The others disagree.
At that point they abandoned their New Orleans plans and drove towards Mexico. They crossed the border after a first, failed attempt, but they were stopped by authorities a short time later and sent back to the United States. By that point police had identified the abandoned Citation and put out warrants for the arrest of the six. They were apprehended returning from Mexico. Two days had passed since the murders, one since the grisly discovery on Payne Hollow Lane.
At some point, Bryant received bullet wounds. He claims Risner shot him, while the others say the injuries were self-inflicted, the results of an accident.
The involvement of the youths appears beyond dispute. They left Pikeville together in a vehicle found at the murder site. They were caught fleeing in the Lillelid van. They had taken trophies, including Tabitha's Hello Kitty diary, a photograph of the little girl, and the Lillelids' house keys. Natalie Cornett had a piece of Vidar’s belt among the swatches she used to dress her self-inflicted cuts.
The slaughter of a family with young children received the expected response. A hostile crowd greeted the accused at the courtroom in Knoxville, Tennessee. A local business displayed six nooses. The reputation of this already hideous crime grew ever worse, at least in the American Bible Belt, as theories about the massacre ran wild.
The police saw no evidence of occult involvement at the crime scene, and said so. Yet, tellingly, claims of Satanic rituals appeared in newspapers before the suspects were apprehended. The frightening appearance of the accused only encouraged such speculation, as did the initial statements by one of the accused.
Natasha Cornett quickly took the media attention with tales of Satanic involvement. The killings were as speculation claimed, a ritual sacrifice. Demons spoke to her. These claims met with shock and denial from the other five.
Read accounts of the crime now, and the focus often falls on Cornett, who called herself the devil’s daughter and travelled with books on witchcraft. For many people, this became a story of Satanists sacrificing wholesome Christians in diabolic ritual. Charles Berkeley Bell, the District Attorney who handled the case, has spoken about his belief that demonic forces were at work, and that the Lillelids were indeed sacrificed to the devil.
On April 19, 1997, Cornett's first lawyer was dismissed from the case. In the days that followed, the girl's story began to resemble that of the other five. She stated (and his since repeated) that her first lawyer—- who actively courted the media—- had encouraged her to make statements about occult involvement in order to establish an insanity defense. However, she also continued to claim that she heard voices.
The six initially pleaded not guilty. They changed their pleas when the State agreed that they would not face the death penalty. All received life sentences with no possibility of parole. They are appealing their convictions and sentences, but their success seems unlikely.
Certainly, the Lillelids' religiosity may have helped the self-styled rebels distance themselves from their victims. However, the actual motives appear to be less sensational than those suggested in some media, though perhaps more frightening. The group wanted a new, more spacious vehicle.
The Lillelids had a van.
Nothing excuses this crime. One seeks explanations, however, factors that might have misshaped the killers' minds and lives. As with many crimes committed by groups, the murder of the Lillelids likely never would have occurred without the twisted group dynamic that existed among their killers. Quite possibly, that dynamic may never have come about had histories of abuse and evidence of mental illness been addressed.
The case made headlines at the time but, perhaps because legal proceedings ended so quickly, it failed to gain the widespread notoriety of, say, the Manson Family murders. Dr. Helen Smith has co-produced a documentary on the story, Six, and addressed it in her book, The Scarred Heart: Understanding and Identifying Kids Who Kill. City Confidential has an episode, "Kentucky Gothic," which predictably gives unfettered rein to speculation of occult involvement.
The case cast a shadow on the region, and had the following practical consequences:
Peter Lillelid, who now lives with relatives in Sweden, will grow up without his family.
Six people, some of whom, with proper guidance, might have developed productive lives, will grow old in jail.
Vidar, Delfina, and Tabitha Lillelid will not grow old at all.
Bill Jones. "Lillelid Murderer Bryant Appeals his Conviction." Greene County Online. June 6, 2005. www.greene.xtn.net/index.php?table=news&template=news.view.subscriber&newsid=121888
Karen Renee Howell vs the State of Tennessee. 34 S.W.3d 484
Lillelid Trial Coverage. WGRV News Online. http://www.greeneville.com/trial/
Jesse Fox Mayshark. "A Blackened Rainbow." WeeklyWire.com April 20, 1998. http://weeklywire.com/ww/04-20-98/knox_feat.html
Stephanie Piper. "The Lillelids Murders: So Preventable." Tennessee Alumnus Magazine. Fall 2004. http://pr.tennessee.edu/alumnus/alumarticle.asp?id=427
Dr. Helen Smith. Six the Movie: Official Website. http://www.sixthemovie.com/html/about_the_movie.html
Gina Stafford. "Innocence Lost: Chance encounter led to unthinkable tragedy." Knoxville News-Sentinel. February 22, 1998.
"Witness may link suspects, Lillelids." Associated Press. January 9, 1998.