Twenty-five years since the unthinkable

One year after receiving a bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Tech University with a double major in English and journalism, I was working as a reporter for the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Four years later, I was covering the story of my reporter life: A young family gunned down for their car.

The story came to me as a result of daily, routine calls to police dispatchers for each East Tennessee county in the News-Sentinel‘s coverage area. Typically, such calls might turn up news of a traffic crash or a liquor store robbery. On Monday, April 7, 1997, the morning call to the Greene County Sheriff’s Dispatcher resulted in learning of an investigation into a massacre that had happened little more than 12 hours earlier, around dusk on Sunday evening.

Police were called after reported sounds of gunfire off a dead-end road accessed from the Baileyton exit from Interstate 81. They approached an abandoned Chevy sedan, its headlights shining into the darkness. There, in a ditch, officers discovered a young man and woman shot multiple times and no longer alive, and lying with them a 6-year-old girl and 2-year-old boy, also shot but still alive. A press conference later that Monday identified the victims, Vidar and Delfina Lillelid, and reported their daughter, Tabitha, the 6-year-old, had died of her wounds. The boy, Peter, was the lone survivor.

I covered the story from that day, through the six suspects being caught days later in Arizona at the U.S. border with Mexico, to which they were trying to flee; to their prosecution. In Knoxville, where the young family had been living, the brutality of the slaughter provoked outrage alongside an outpouring of generosity as the community donated tens of thousands of dollars to a fund to pay for funeral expenses and Peter’s medical care. In Tennessee, the Associated Press named the story the top in the state for 1997 based on its extensive coverage.

I also covered Peter’s recovery in Sweden, where he was taken to live with his aunt and uncle who adopted him.

With photographer Margaret Bentlage, who joined me on assignment in Sweden.

The Lillelid family is made up of extraordinary people who were always kind and gracious to me as I worked to cover the tragedy that befell their loved ones all because of a stop at an interstate rest area.

Bedtime stories with Peter at home in Stockholm, 1998.
With Peter and his family in Sweden on a personal visit, 1998.

Most extraordinary about them is that we are friends to this day, 25 years later.

And the good news of today is that my friend, Peter, is 27, married and lives with his wife in Connecticut where he is pursuing a successful career in IT.

Below is a story I wrote for the News-Sentinel on the eve of jury selection for the trial of the six suspects. As it turned out, there was no trial because all six entered guilty pleas resulting in life in prison without parole for all in exchange for avoiding the death penalty, which the prosecutor had declared his intention to pursue. I’ve posted it here because–if you are interested to read–it is the most detailed account I wrote of the series of events immediately before and well after that April 6, twenty-five years ago today.

Innocence lost – Chance encounter led to unthinkable tragedy

February 22, 1998
By Gina Stafford, News-Sentinel staff writer

Too short on cash to join fellow worshipers for dinner out at the end of a daylong religious gathering, a young couple and their two small children headed out on a 100-mile drive home alone.

Carrying two handguns and a what remained of a stolen $500, six young people described as “a wild bunch” with pierced ears, noses, lips and eyebrows, black-dyed hair and razor-cut arms stopped at a highway rest area. An apparent chance encounter between the two groups resulted in an April 6, 1997, tragedy that forever altered 10 lives.

The family had been bound from Johnson City to their home in Powell. Their attackers were bound from Kentucky on a purported “crime spree.” The victims were kidnapped, robbed and shot 17 times on an isolated gravel road near the Baileyton rest area on Interstate 81 in Greene County. Vidar and Delfina Lillelid were found dead. Their daughter, Tabitha, 6, died the next day. The couple’s son, Peter, 2, was critically wounded but survived.

On Friday, three days before jury selection was to begin, six young Kentuckians pleaded guilty to the slaughter. They are Joseph Risner, 21, of Paintsville, Ky.; Natasha Cornett, 19, and Crystal Sturgill, 18, both of Betsy Layne, Ky.; Edward Dean Mullins, 20, and Karen Howell, 18, both of Toler, Ky.; and Jason Blake Bryant, 15, of Marrowbone, Ky. They now await sentencing for murdering the couple and their daughter, and attempting to murder a toddler. 

“Honestly speaking, in terms of who did the shooting and who did not, I don’t care,” Delfina’s sister, Ivette Zelaya, said by telephone from her home in New York. “If I had been involved with a group of teenagers doing something so horrible and I did nothing to stop it, I would consider myself also guilty. “I say if you see someone pointing a gun at a child, you put your own body in front of them. If you’re there, you need to be held accountable for your actions or nonactions. You don’t just stand and watch people die.”

A native of Norway, Vidar Lillelid initially settled in Miami upon moving to the United States. There he met the former Delfina Zelaya, born in New Jersey to Honduran parents, and married her in 1989. After Tabitha was born, concerns about crime prompted the couple to seek a safer place to raise children. A vacation that included a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains persuaded the family to make their home in Knoxville about five years ago. John McLaughlin, a congregation elder at the West Knoxville Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, was one of the first friends the Lillelids made in Tennessee. McLaughlin met the family one afternoon when Delfina and Vidar, carrying little Tabitha on his back, set out on foot from their Walker Springs Road apartment and walked to the Kingdom Hall on Andes Road in West Knox County.

The unassuming couple — Vidar worked as a hotel bellman while Delfina home-schooled Tabitha — was eager to get involved with the local congregation. Minutes before they were abducted, Vidar had picked up a restaurant business card inside the rest area so that he might contact the owner to offer cleaning services. The business card was found in Vidar’s bloody shirt pock|et. Blood-spattered religious pamphlets in several languages were recovered from the family’s stolen van.

Back in the Lillelids’ home, investigators made a bittersweet discovery. Hanging above a computer was an enthusiastic note. Penned by Vidar, it was a reminder that just one month remained until their first-ever trip to Norway as a family. “You couldn’t conceive of something like that happening to them,” McLaughlin said. “They were almost the personification of innocence.”

When the devoutly religious couple met the teenagers at the rest area, they discussed their faith with them. The two groups were seen leaving together. About two hours later, Greene County sheriff’s deputies found the victims lying in darkness except for the beam of headlights from their attackers’ abandoned car. Run over by their own van, muddy tire tracks crossed the couple’s legs. Vidar had six bullet wounds. His wife had eight. The children — Tabitha shot through the head; Peter, shot in the back and through one eye — were lying across their parents’ torsos.

Two days later, the young Kentuckians, then 14 to 20 years old, were arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border. They were found in the Lillelids’ van, along with Peter’s child safety seat, Tabitha’s doll and Delfina’s purse. Also found were “The Book of Black Magic” and the “Complete Book of Magic and Witchcraft.” Cornett came out of the van with reportedly almost 20 cuts on her right arm and about 50 on her left arm. Bryant, the youngest and the alleged shooter of the victims, had a superficial gunshot wound and a bandaged hand. Authorities took a wallet from Cornett that was packed with bloody razor blades, bloody swatches from a hotel mattress and a piece of Vidar Lillelid’s belt. Taken from Vidar’s wallet, there also was a photo of Tabitha, on the back of which was written, “Tabitha Lillelid … Summer 1995 … My Favorite Girl.”

Sturgill had keys to the family’s home. Howell had Tabitha’s “Hello Kitty” diary lock on a chain. In the possession of the killers, prosecutors say the items constituted “trophies.” The brutal slayings made news from Arizona to Kentucky, from Miami and New York to Scandinavia. In Tennessee, the murdered Lillelids were among 11 people shot to death in three separate incidents that occurred less than four weeks apart. Gov. Don Sundquist ordered beefed-up security at rest areas statewide.

But in Greene and Knox counties, shock and outrage reigned. Six nooses dangled from a gallows erected outside a Knoxville convenience store. When word of the adult suspects’ return from Arizona leaked through downtown Greeneville, a hostile mob assembled at the courthouse. “Burn in hell, murderers!,” was among the shouts and jeers from the crowd as police individually escorted four of the six suspects into the jail. The other two suspects, meanwhile, were fighting extradition from Arizona — a battle the juveniles eventually would abandon. District Attorney General Berkeley Bell filed notice he would seek the death penalty against the four adults. Strong public support greeted the decision, and Scandinavian journalists called local media seeking photos of Tennessee’s electric chair.

Meanwhile, 2-year-old Peter Lillelid fought for his life in a Knoxville hospital as hundreds — some who’d known the victims, others who knew only of their fate — visited a funeral home across town to pay their respects. Overwhelmed relatives from Sweden, Norway, Miami and New York stood for hours at one end of a large hall while at the other end, Tabitha’s blond hair shone from the middle of three open caskets where their loved ones lay. The job of preparing the Lillelids for burial had been an emotionally difficult one for the staff of Weaver Funeral Home. “When we put that little girl in the casket, we cried like babies,” attendant Tommy Petty said. A stunned, sympathetic public gave thousands of dollars to help relatives with expenses and to trust funds to benefit Peter. Some of that money bought simple, understated gravestones placed at the family’s graves in a West Knoxville cemetery late last year.

The killings had brought Peter’s maternal and paternal relatives from two continents together for the first time. As a painful custody dispute over who would raise Peter wore on, the tragedy also threatened to divide them. The four-day hearing in Knox County Chancery Court put private family matters on painful display and drew medical experts from Sweden to testify about care Peter would receive there. It concluded with Chancellor Frederick McDonald’s decision to grant custody of Peter to his paternal aunt, Randi Heier, and her husband, Odd. Days later, Peter calls his Aunt Randi “momma” as he boards a plane bound for Stock|holm with her and her family. Peter, who had been fitted with an artificial eye, has been promised state-of-the-art therapy in Sweden to help him regain his ability to walk, which was lost when a bullet passed by his spine on its way through his back. 

While many have said justice in the case could be obtained only through executing the killers, prosecutor Bell said after the six entered guilty pleas on Friday that Tennessee’s death penalty is “in name only.” With almost 40 years elapsed since an execution, Bell said a death sentence in Tennessee is an effective sentence of “life in prison without parole.” Bell said he had concerns a jury would be torn at sentencing because an alleged shooter — Bryant — would be ineligible for execution because of juvenile status, yet the four adults would face execution regardless of their shooting a victim or not. “Credibility problems” for two key prosecution witnesses — one with an existing criminal history, the other with a just-discovered felony record — also helped swing a decision to offer the six removal of the death penalty from sentencing consideration in exchange for their complete admissions of guilt.

Greene County Criminal Court Judge James E. Beckner will impose sentencing at a hearing Monday, March 2. He will consider evidence from both prosecution and defense attorneys. Depending on testimony, the hearing may or may not reveal how or why the Lillelids were attacked. Zelaya, who planned to attend the trial and now plans to attend the sentencing hearing, said she is hoping for “answers” into the deaths of her sister, niece and brother-in-law. “Even though something this senseless doesn’t have answers, I’ve asked myself what they could be,” she said. “Why my family? Why the children? But I don’t have an inkling of what was going through their minds because I can’t put myself inside the head of these beasts. “I read that they cried about the crime-scene pictures, and I thought about how many tears my sister and my niece must have cried when this happened. “Their faith was so important to them, and at least I know they are in a better place now.”

“All your children shall be taught by the Lord, And great shall be the peace of your children.”

Isaiah 54:13

The Lillelids spent most of the last day of their lives practicing their faith. The one-day Jehovah’s Witness conference they departed hours before their deaths took its theme from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, chapter 54, verse 13. It says: “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, And great shall be the peace of your children.”

2 responses to “Twenty-five years since the unthinkable”

  1. Oh goodness. I remember this event and what a terrible strategy. Thanks for writing this article and I am glad Peter is doing well.

    By the way, although I have been a resident of Middle Tennessee for over 40 years, I grew up in Hixson. Chattanooga has sure changed a lot since I left there in the late 70’s.


    1. Thank you for your kind words.


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