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.
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He landed on his back, to be shot at least four more times. Two more shots, one from a 9 mm and one from a. 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.
A gunshot to the middle of her abdomen by the 9 mm and two more in the left chest and abdomen from the.
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Blake estimated she could have lived as long as half an hour — long enough to see her husband and both her children shot. 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. 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 computer system at the border crossing manned by federal agents in Douglas, Ariz. It was a Tuesday at 5 p. The system came online again just before the Dodge pulled into the checkpoint.
The van was headed back into the U. The driver had a resigned look as officers ran the license plate number and ordered everyone out. A search of the van turned up toys, a car seat and Lillelid family photos. Sturgill had the key ring to the Lillelid home. In Tennessee, Bell moved immediately for extradition and announced his plans to seek the death penalty for all four adults.
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Howell and Bryant, as juveniles, faced potential life sentences. News of the arrests exploded nationwide. 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.
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, miles to the south, for the trial, ultimately set for March That trial never came.
Instead, six defendants rose in a Greene County courtroom on Feb. 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. Four of the six — Risner, Bryant, Cornett and Howell — took the witness stand to testify at a weeklong sentencing hearing.
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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. Delfina Lillelid began singing softly to comfort the children until Bryant barked at her to shut up.
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Risner, Cornett and Howell all insisted Bryant, the year-old, fired every shot, fatal and otherwise, from both guns. Bryant testified Risner and Mullins did the shooting and that the others began hashing out a story to blame him from the day of their capture. When the Citation ran over a stump and got stuck, those inside abandoned the car for the van and sped away with Risner at the wheel, swerving to run over the Lillelids on the way out. He shakes his head at the popular theory of Satanism as a motive, too. This family was an easy target, and they stopped there at just the right time.
If the Lillelids had been there 15 minutes earlier or 15 minutes later, they might all be alive today. But Bell, the retired prosecutor, sees too many troubling patterns to rule out something darker.
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He cites the stories of friends who said Cornett tried to talk them into robberies and killing sprees. He points to resemblances between the triangle patterns blasted into the bodies of Vidar and Delfina Lillelid and the triangles and anarchist symbols that appear over and over in drawings by Cornett. Those words conjure up a vision in his mind of six people dancing and chanting with glee as the shots ring out and the bodies fall.
But I think they took advantage of the situation to engage in a satanic ritual. I think everybody participated in some fashion. Whatever the motivation, the six soon discovered life on the run and behind bars to be nothing like what they might have imagined. In letters written from prison, Howell and Sturgill still insist they never touched a trigger that night and that they felt pressured to take the guilty plea. The Tennessee Department of Correction no longer allows onsite interviews with inmates, and only Howell and Sturgill responded to letters inviting them to comment.
He left the U. Morgan, the deputy who held Peter that night in the ditch and wondered whether the boy would live, said he never saw the child again after that, even though the memory still crosses his mind. Part of me would like to know.
The Lillelid murder case rocked East Tennessee and drew worldwide notice 20 years ago this week. This story relies on court transcripts, police records, News Sentinel archives and interviews to reconstruct the principal events of the case.
Vidar and Delfina Lillelid of Powell, Tennessee, are shown in an undated family photo with their children, Tabitha and Peter. The Lillelids were shot to death April 6, , while returning from a Jehovah's Witnesses conference. Tabitha, 6, died later in a hospital; Peter, 2, survived. Only Peter survived. This front page story on the News Sentinel from April 13, depicts the memorial and graveside services held for the Vidar, Delfina and Tabitha Lillelid.
Highway 23, the route the group took to Tennessee two days after a party here in John Huffine, the retired Greene County Sheriff's Department detective who investigated the Lillelid killings, describes how the six teenage killers kidnapped Vidar and Delfina Lillelid, along with the couple's children, Tabitha and Peter, from the parking lot of a rest area off Interstate 81 in Greene County. The killers told authorities they wanted the family's van. The family was shot April 6, , after being kidnapped from a rest area off Interstate 81 in Greene County by six teenagers who wanted their van.
Only Tabitha's 2-year-old brother, Peter, survived. The U. This front page of the News Sentinel from April 10, depicts the four adult suspects caught at the US-Mexico border in an attempt to flee the country. Peter was the only survivor.