GREENE COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) — On April 6, 1997, exactly 25 years ago to this day, a horrific murder case rocked Greene County, making headlines across the globe.
Six young people from Pikeville, Kentucky, ages 14 to 20, happened to cross paths with the Lillelid family of four. All were stopped at a rest area on I-81 in Baileyton, the Lillelids on their way home to Knoxville from a religious conference in Johnson City.
Vidar Lillelid, the father, approached the group of six as they sat at a picnic table at the rest stop, not knowing the horror that would lie ahead. A practicing Jehovah’s Witness, he shared his faith with the young people he encountered. It would be the final time he shared his religion.
Vidar, his wife Delfina and their two young children, Tabitha, 6, and Peter, 2, were kidnapped at gunpoint. They were taken in their family vehicle to rural Payne Hollow Lane in Baileyton and shot by their six young captors. All four were left lying in the ditch on the side of the road.
Only Peter would survive, though he was seriously injured.
The six convicted of the crimes are Jason Bryant, 14 at the time, Karen Howell, 17, Crystal Sturgill, 18, Natasha Cornett, 18, Edward Mullins, 19, and Joseph Risner, 20.
They were allegedly embarking on a cross-country “crime spree” when they encountered the Lillelids and they were in need of a better vehicle.
The six would flee to Mexico in the Lillelid’s van following the killings, where they would be captured at the U.S.-Mexico border just two days later and taken into custody. All were brought back to Greene County where they would be tried and convicted of the murders as adults.
Stopping to remember, 25 years later
A small gathering of community members and law enforcement officials met on Payne Hollow Lane Wednesday, the road where the Lillelid family was shot and left for dead.
The group hoped to honor the family and pay their respects at the site of the crime exactly 25 years later.
Watch Part One – Community gathers to remember the Lillelid family:
“Go with us Lord. Help us, help the families,” Frank Waddell prayed at Wednesday’s ceremony.
Waddell and his partner Jeff Morgan were the first two Greene County Sheriff’s Department patrolmen on the scene on April 6, 1997.
He said when they responded to a disturbance call, they thought it would be “drunks” shooting guns on Payne Hollow. What he and Morgan found has never left his mind.
“I can still see them laying there. It never leaves you. It’s just something you’ve got to deal with,” said Waddell, looking at the ditch where he found the Lillelids.
Waddell says Morgan held Peter, still alive, until EMS arrived.
“I didn’t see little Peter. Peter was laying in the ditch,” said Waddell. “The Lillelids did nobody harm. And there they laid in the ditch. I don’t see how it could get any worse.”
Also at the memorial, a gathering of just over a dozen community members who came to pay their respects. Among them, Freda Morelock, who has a family connection to the investigation.
“With my brother being the sheriff at the time, what they went through and everything, we just wanted to come down here today to be at this,” said Morelock.
A lifelong resident of Greene County, she says the shock of these crimes remains today.
“You never get over, it just always sticks there with you,” said Morelock. “It’s just something you don’t understand and probably never will.”
Greene County local James Stewart hosted Wednesday’s memorial for the Lillelids. He recently started a podcast series looking back at the crime called “The Devil Came Knocking.”
“This case has kind of took a life of its own. I feel personally involved now. I’ve interviewed so many people. I thought it would give the community some closure and the family some closure,” said Stewart.
Stewart says he is in regular contact with friends of the Lillelids. At Wednesday’s service he read a letter of gratitude penned by a close family friend thanking the community for stopping to remember.
“They are still cared about here,” Stewart said. “Part of their faith was to help people and that’s what the family truly believed.”
“It’s stuck with me all these years”
Tim Cloyd is a 30-plus year veteran of Greene County EMS.
“It could have been anywhere, it just happened to be here,” said Cloyd.
He recalls the randomness of the attack — kids from Kentucky and a family from Knoxville fatefully meeting at the I-81 rest stop.
“It was a lot more than we were expecting,” said Cloyd.
He was one of the first two paramedics on the scene in 1997.
“Pretty much immediately we could tell the mom and dad were already deceased but the little girl, little boy Peter, they were still alive,” recalled Cloyd. “He was actually whimpering, not crying, but whimpering. She wasn’t, but she was still alive.”
Cloyd and his colleague rushed Tabitha and Peter to the hospital by ambulance with gunshot wounds.
Peter would be the only member of his family to survive the attack. Tabitha died after being flown to a hospital in Knoxville.
“It’s stuck with me all these years, it has. It’s gotten easier to deal with through the years,” said Cloyd.
It is trauma Cloyd says he could not process at first – so traumatic he even considered quitting his job the day following the murders and never being a paramedic again.
“It didn’t really hit me hard until the day they caught them. Seeing that on the news at 11 o’clock. I broke down and it wasn’t pretty,” said Cloyd.
Cloyd stuck with his profession as a first responder. This is a case that has defined his career.
“This was definitely the worst, to this day. Even after 30 years it’s the worst,” said Cloyd.
Watch Part Two – Former DA, first responder reflect on Lillelid murders 25 years later:
“I believe justice was served.”
At the time of the crimes, Berkeley Bell was the District Attorney and the lead prosecutor on the Lillelid case. He is now a practicing defense attorney in Greeneville at the firm McAfee and McAfee.
Bell successfully secured sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for all six young people involved in the murders.
“I feel like there’s been justice served. They have been adequately punished for what they did,” Bell told News Channel 11. “The fact that nobody can agree on who pulled the trigger and what everybody’s participation in the entire event was, I think it’s appropriate they all serve the same amount of time.”
To this day, no consistent account of who fired what shots has ever been revealed. It is still a mystery to all but the six who were on the scene.
“They very much intended to do what they did and they were proud of it in a way that they wanted to have a memento of it with them to remind them of what they had done,” said Bell.
He says when each of the six were found and arrested they had a “trophy” from the victims, including a small toy kitty taken from Tabitha.
Reflecting on the case, the first thing that comes to mind is always Peter, says Bell. He met the child in the hospital soon after the attack — an encounter he will never forget.
“I walk into the hospital room where Peter was and his aunt was holding him. He’d never seen me before. He just put his arms out for me to take him and hold him, which was a very emotional moment for me,” said Bell. “I would have to say that had a great deal of motivation for me in making sure the people who killed his sister and his parents received the justice they deserved.”
Though the six convicted took a plea deal, a trial was held to settle on their sentence of life in prison without parole.
Bell says evidence collected by investigators shows there was a satanic motivation for the killings; for example, the bullets fired into the bodies were in the shape of a pentagram and the bodies were placed in a cross formation.
“I still believe that it was Satanic. I also believed and continue to believe it was some kind of initiation event or ritual. I believe they all participated, all took a shot. Something to band that group together,” said Bell.
He also added a witness told police they heard manic laughter at the time the gunshots were being fired.
Bell believes the fate of the Lillelids was sealed once Vidar approached the six to share about his own religion, a topic that could have fueled rage in the troubled youth.
“That was a mistake,” said Bell. “When he approached them, I think they targeted him.”
Bell says one thing that still shocks him 25 years later is the reaction of the six convicted killers behind bars.
“No remorse. They have yet to express any genuine remorse unless it’s in the context of blaming someone else,” said Bell.
None have been successful in appealing their conviction and life sentence.
After working seven days a week for nearly a year on the Lillelid case, Bell says he finds peace in knowing they brought the family as much justice as they could.
“This case, it was just totally random. It landed here and became our responsibility to seek justice against people from another state and for people from another community. We tried our very best to do that,” Bell said.