Tommy Lynn Sells, 49, was executed by lethal injection on 3 April 2014 in Huntsville, Texas for the sexual assault and murder of a 13-year-old girl inside her home.
In 1999, Terry and Crystal Harris lived with their son and two daughters in a trailer home in Del Rio, on the Rio Grande, west of San Antonio. They attended Grace Community Church, where they made the acquaintance of Tommy Sells, a used car salesman, and his wife, Jessica Levrie. Sells visited the Harris home several times, asking Terry for counseling about his marital difficulties. Terry also bought a used truck from Sells.
Pam Surles had been friends with the Harrises in Kansas before they moved to Del Rio in 1995. Surles decided to move to Del Rio also. She brought her two daughters and her boyfriend, Doug Luker, down in December 1999. On 30 December at around 6 p.m., she and Luker then set out on a return trip to Kansas to collect their belongings. Terry Harris went with them, leaving his wife at home with their three children and Surles' two daughters. As they were leaving town, they stopped to fill Terry's truck up with gas. There they happened to run into Sells.
Sells was later seen at a local bar. The bartender testified at his trial that Sells repeatedly harassed her to have sex with him until a male customer in the bar shooed him away at the 2 a.m. closing time.
Some time after that, Sells, then 35, went to the Harrises' home and entered it through an open window. He found himself in the bedroom of Justin Harris, 14, who was blind. Thinking the noise he heard was his sisters being mischievous, Justin called out, "Will y'all stop coming into my room?" Sells then moved out of Justin's room and looked into the next bedroom. Using the flame of his cigarette lighter for a light, he saw Marque Surles, 7, sleeping. Moving to the master bedroom, Sells flicked his lighter again and saw Crystal Harris asleep with her 12-year-old daughter, Lori. He then went to a fourth bedroom, where he saw Kaylene "Katy" Harris, 13, sleeping in the bottom bunk. He did not notice Krystal Surles, 10, sleeping in the top bunk.
Sells laid down next to Katy and nudged her. She awoke, looked at him, and sleepily said, "What are you doing here?" He then put his hand over her mouth and brandished a 12-inch boning knife he had brought with him. He sliced off Katy's shorts, panties, and bra and began fondling her. She wiggled free, stood up, and screamed to Krystal, "Go get Mama!" Sells then turned on the light and moved to block the door. Katy saw herself bleeding and said, "You cut me!" He then moved behind her, put his hand over her mouth, and sliced her throat twice. Katy dropped to the floor and gurgled. Sells stabbed her 16 more times.
"I'll be quiet, I promise. I won't say anything," Krystal said as Sells moved toward her. He reached over and sliced her throat. She fell to the ground. "I just lay there and pretended I was dead," Krystal said later. "If he knew I was alive, he would come back and kill me for sure."
Sells then turned off the light, wiped his fingerprints off of a doorknob, and took two window screens he thought might contain his fingerprints. He then walked out through the front door and drove home. He stopped along the way to discard the knife and screens.
Assuming that everyone in the house had been killed, Krystal ran outside. Holding her hand to her throat, she went to a neighbor's house a quarter of a mile away. The neighbor, Herb Betz, saw her covered in blood and dialed 9-1-1. While she was waiting, Krystal, unable to speak, wrote three sentences: "The Harrises are hurt. Tell them to hurry. Will I live?" Betz kissed her on the forehead and assured her repeatedly that she would be all right.
"I didn't believe it," Betz said later in an interview. "I thought she'd die on my kitchen floor."
Medical responders took Krystal to a hospital in Del Rio. She was then flown by helicopter to a hospital in San Antonio for surgery to repair her severed windpipe. At the Harris home, Katy was dead. No one else was harmed, and nothing was missing from the home except for the two window screens.
From her hospital bed, Krystal used pen and paper to write a description of Katy's killer. A police artist made a sketch from this description. Meanwhile, Terry Harris, Pam Surles, and Doug Luker heard about the crime while on the road to Kansas. They turned around and hurried back to Texas.
Luker told Texas Ranger John Allen that the sketch and Krystal's description reminded him of the man he met at the gas station the evening they left for Kansas. He thought the man's name was Tom or Tommy, and he worked as a salesman at a used car lot. Allen obtained the full name of the salesman from the car lot owner and then obtained his photo from a crime data base. Krystal then identified Sells as her attacker from a lineup of six photos.
Sells was arrested at his trailer on 2 January 2000. During the ride to the Val Verde County sheriff's office, he turned to Lieutenant Larry Pope and said, "Well, I guess we've got a lot to talk about." Sells confessed to killing Katy Harris and attacking Krystal Surles. He went with police to the residence and gave a videotaped re-enactment of the crime, which aligned with Krystal's account.
This confession was only the beginning, however. Over the next few months, Sells confessed to a string of murders all over the United States, spanning three decades. He used the nickname "Coast to Coast" for himself to describe both his migratory lifestyle and his trail of killings. He traveled by hopping trains and stealing vehicles and made money by working, panhandling, or stealing. He told his lawyer, who advised him to be quiet, that he was glad he was finally caught. "I want this over," Sells said.
At his trial, Sells pleaded not guilty. He did not admit killing Katy or sexually assaulting her. He admitted attacking Krystal.
Sells' first criminal conviction was for felony theft in Missouri. He was confined for eight months, then released on parole in December 1985. He was confined for another 16 months after returning on a parole violation for driving while intoxicated.
In January 1990, a police officer in Wyoming spotted Sells running toward a train. He arrested him for public intoxication. At the time, he was carrying evidence from a truck he had just stolen. He was convicted of vehicle theft and served 16 months in prison. He was released on parole in January 1991.
In 1992, Sells was in Charleston, West Virginia. Fabienne Witherspoon, then 19, said that she saw him under an underpass holding a sign reading, "I will work for food." She invited him to come with her to the apartment belonging to a woman she was cat-sitting for. According to Witherspoon, she told Sells to wait outside while she got him some food. He asked if there was anyone else inside, and she said no. She then went into the kitchen, and when she came back out, he was standing inside. He then locked the doors, got a steak knife, and raped her. She fought back, hitting him on the head several times with a ceramic duck. He tied her hands to her feet, and held a knife to her throat. He then covered her head with a quilt, hit her over the head with a piano stool and left.
Sells spent a week in the hospital because of injuries Witherspoon gave him. At his trial, he claimed she attacked him for no reason. He then accepted the prosecution's offer of a plea bargain for malicious wounding. He was sentenced to 2 to 10 years in prison and was released in May 1997.
A jury found Sells guilty of the capital murder of Kaylene Harris in September 2000 and sentenced him to death. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence in March 2003.
While on death row, Sells continued working with the Texas Rangers to provide details about murders he committed. According to Ranger Allen, "There are fifteen that I'm confident he's connected to, that we feel reasonably sure he's committed." Sells himself said there were thirteen of his murders where all of the details had been verified. But many of his confessions were vague - he had trouble remembering details, since many of the crimes were so similar, and he was frequently drunk or high. Some of his confessions have even been proven false, but there is no doubt that his victims numbered at least several dozen. After his attack on Fabienne Witherspoon, which left him injured and resulted in a prison sentence, all of his victims were children.
Eventually, Sells stopped cooperating with the Rangers. According to the Rangers, Sells was more interested in taking field trips outside of the prison than in providing conclusive information. Sells said the Rangers wanted "too much too fast" from him. He did continue to talk about his crimes, however, including televised interviews on ABC News' "20/20" and "The Montel Williams Show" in 2004.
"To me, it's been a lifetime of slitting someone's throat, banging someone in the head, squeezing their neck till they can't breathe. It's no more than peeling an orange or a tomato," he told Williams.
As he described it on "20/20", once he chose a victim's home, he generally broke a window to get inside, then either picked up a kitchen knife or other weapon from inside the house, or killed with his bare hands. "Your hands is just a lethal weapon as anything else," he said. He said he confessed to these murders to bring his victims' loved ones "a piece of mind on what did happen."
If Sells is to believed, he committed as many as seventy murders. Compiling a list of the states where he killed is difficult, let alone the cities and names of his victims. He was indicted, but not tried, for the killing of 13-year-old Stephanie Mahaney in Missouri. Because he was already on death row, he was not charged with most of his other murders. His only other killing that was adjudicated is the 18 April 1999 killing of Mary Bea Perez at the Fiesta event in downtown San Antonio. The 9-year-old girl disappeared while attending a music festival with her family. Her body, which had been molested, was found in a creek ten days later. Sells pleaded guilty to that murder in 2003 and received a life sentence.
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