Wednesday is the 25th anniversary of one of the most horrific crimes in Greene County history.
Anyone over a certain age remembers well the April 6, 1997 murders of the Lillelid family on a remote road near Interstate 81 in Baileyton.
For the first time, a memorial rally is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Payne Hollow Lane site where the victims died.
Its host is a Greene County native who recently started a true crime podcast series. Episodes of James Stewart’s Lillelid podcast, titled “The Devil Came Knocking”, are available on social media sites like Spotify.
The podcasts include interviews with those who investigated and prosecuted the crime, several defendants serving life sentences, family members and acquaintances of the defendants, a friend of the victims and information about the surviving family member .
The most recent podcast includes an interview with a woman who spent time in an Arizona juvenile detention center with two of the then-teenage Lillelid defendants after they were apprehended trying to cross into Mexico.
The Lillelid case has become national news amid allegations of satanic beliefs by the six defendants as the motive for the crime. The podcast series includes interviews with some who believe the allegations – central to the prosecution’s case against the Lillelid defendants – are true, and others who strongly refute the allegations and advocate leniency for several of them. they.
Stewart, who works in information technology, said this week that the podcast series allows listeners to come to their own conclusions.
Stewart said at least one member of law enforcement who was among the first to arrive at the crime scene planned to attend the memorial, which is open to the public.
“We’re just trying to put together something nice for the family and honor them,” he said.
LIFE WITHOUT LIBERAL CONDITIONS
Six Kentucky natives are serving life sentences without parole in Tennessee prisons for the shooting deaths of Vidar Lillelid, his wife, Delfina, and their 6-year-old daughter, Tabitha.
The family members died of injuries after being kidnapped from a rest area on southbound Interstate 81 in Greene County. The victims were shot shortly afterwards on Payne Hollow Lane near Baileyton. Her son Peter Lillelid, 2 years old at the time of the crime, was shot and left for dead but survived his injuries, which left him blind in one eye.
Now 27, Peter Lillelid was raised by parents in Sweden and doesn’t want to be associated with crime as an adult.
In February 1998, the defendants pleaded guilty in Greene County Criminal Court to three counts each of first degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and robbery before Judge James E. Beckner, who died in 2020.
The six defendants are Jason Blake Bryant, who was 14 at the time of the shooting; Karen Renae Howell, who was 17; Natasha Wallen Cornett, who was 18; Crystal Sturgill, who was 18; Edward Dean Mullins, who was 19; and Joseph Risner, then 20 years old.
The criminal case involving the six accused Eastern Kentucky youths played out on the national stage. As the 20th anniversary of the crimes approached in 2017, emails from Howell and Sturgill to the Greeneville Sun expressed remorse. Both sought to explain their actions.
C. Berkeley Bell, a former district attorney general who served as chief prosecutor in the Lillelid case, said the 2017 shootings were part of “some sort of satanic ritual” and that the plea deal for the defendants was appropriate.
“They got the justice they deserved and they are not entitled to any kind of redress,” Bell said.
On the afternoon of April 6, 1997, the Lillelid family was returning home to the Knoxville area from a Jehovah’s Witness rally in Johnson City. Several of the defendants testified at their 1998 sentencing hearing that they had left earlier on a trip to New Orleans and stopped at the southbound I-81 rest area. in Greene County because they had mechanical problems with the old car they were driving.
‘The group brought two guns with them and began the trip in a rickety car, prompting them to talk about improving their mode of transportation by stealing a better car,’ says Court of Appeal notice of the United States in an account of the events leading up to the crime.
Vidar Lillelid, a 34-year-old Norwegian immigrant, stopped his family’s full-size Dodge pickup truck at the rest stop where the six youngsters had also parked. Lillelid approached the group as they sat at a picnic table and shared his religious views, according to the Court of Appeal’s opinion.
Risner showed a gun and, according to the Tennessee Supreme Court, “directed the Lillelid family to their van.”
The family were kidnapped at gunpoint and then shot several times while standing next to Payne Hollow Lane. Vidar Lillelid and his wife, Delfina Lillelid, 28, were shot and their daughter Tabitha was fatally injured. The little girl died the next day at a Knoxville hospital.
The six youths from the Pikeville, Ky., area were arrested two days later at a Mexican border crossing in Douglas, Arizona. They were in the Lillelid family van.
A plea agreement was reached before the trial. The six defendants were sentenced in March 1998 by Beckner to three terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus 25 years.
“Bryant claimed that Risner and Mullins were the shooters, but Howell and his remaining co-defendants argued that Bryant was the shooter,” according to the Court of Appeals account.
Howell argued in a 2017 statement to the Greeneville Sun that Bryant was the shooter.
Bell said the defendants never offered a cohesive account of the events leading up to the shooting. “We were never able to find out from any of them what really happened,” he said.
EMAIL FROM HOWELL
In her 2017 email, Howell, now 42, acknowledged the profound impact the case had had not only on the victims, but also on “the community, family (and) friends “.
“It goes on endlessly,” she wrote.
Howell wrote that she played no direct role in the shooting and “totally shut down” after it happened rather than report the crime to authorities.
Howell wrote that she was guilty “of having participated in a robbery and a kidnapping, which have haunted my heart and my mind to that day”.
In the 2017 post, Howell wanted to dispel perceptions that the six youths were a “satanic cult” bent on launching a crime spree inspired by movies like “Natural Born Killers.”
“We were not a ‘sect’. Neither of us even hung out together as a band,” Howell wrote. Howell said she dated Risner for about a month and was friends with Cornett, and knew the others to varying degrees except for Bryant, whom she only met. a day or two before the crime through Natasha.
Pre-sentence testimony established that Reiser suggested the group steal a pickup truck. Sturgill and Mullins never left the vehicle they were in during the shooting, Howell wrote.
“The fact that I was a minor at the time meant that (a plea deal) had no benefit for me. I was given three days to sign this deal or else they would seek the death penalty for the four adults,” Howell wrote. “Needless to say, I felt pressured and extremely manipulated into signing this plea bargain.
Howell added at the end of the email: “I don’t believe I deserve to die in prison for this murder. I never thought or even wanted or wanted anyone to die.
‘DECIDE FOR THEMSELVES’
Over the years, numerous appeals and requests for post-conviction relief by defendants have been denied.
Sturgill, now 43, was asked by an advocate for her release if she wanted to comment on Stewart’s planned memorial service.
“I would like to say something but ultimately the memorial should be about the Lillelids, not me. It shouldn’t even be about the horror that happened 25 years ago, it should be about the light that ‘they shone in this world of darkness,” Sturgill wrote on Friday. “What I can say is that the light inside of them did not go out that day, that it still shines from everyone they impacted, from every life they touched.”
The friend, Doug Cavanaugh, is a longtime advocate for the release of Sturgill and Howell from prison. Cavanaugh said Stewart’s podcast series contains information further indicating that the Lillelid murders had nothing to do with “devil worship”.
“This is THE most important podcast about Karen and her case that you will hear for a long time,” Cavanaugh wrote in an email.
A close friend of the Lillelid family who knew them when they lived in Florida suggested those attending Wednesday’s memorial service observe an ancient Jewish tradition of leaving a small ‘visiting stone’ at the Payne Hollow site. Lane near exit 36 of I-81 as an act. of remembrance.
Stewart will read a statement from the family friend, who lives out of state and cannot attend, and then “will open (the memorial) to everyone.”
“More than anything, I just wanted to pay tribute to the family. It will give everyone closure,” Stewart said.
Stewart, 36, was 11 when the Lillelid murders took place. His research led him to develop personal beliefs about the case.
“I have a point of view, but the only thing I do with the podcast is try to present it as honestly and sincerely as possible,” Stewart said. “I think people can form their own opinion and decide for themselves.”