Friday, December 4, 2009

Out of the Darkness

By Diane Fanning

Ten years ago this month, Krystal Surles encountered a living nightmare -- serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells. In "Live to Tell," the news-magazine 48 Hours revived that night of terror in interviews with the survivor, now 20; her family; and lead investigator John Allen, a Texas Ranger.

As I watched the show, the crime-scene photographs I'd pored over eight years ago throbbed and burned behind my eyes: The foot-long boning knife found in a field (below left) by Sells' home; the dead body of Krystal's friend, Katie Harris, bloodied and slumped on the floor. The trail of 10-year-old Krystal's blood leading out of the bedroom. The small, bloody hand prints marking her path down the hall. The dried river of red that ran out the doorway, down the steps and into the ground of the front yard. The long gravel road that led to the house, far away, where Krystal found refuge and salvation. Out of that darkness emerged an amazing young girl and a survivor in every sense of the word.

I felt thrust back in time to the cluttered room where I sat alone at a makeshift desk, flipping through one photo after another. I felt again the same horror, shock and building nausea that accompanied that two-dimensional glimpse into Krystal's nightmare.

I asked myself again: How did I manage to write that book? How did I navigate through one deadly crime scene after another? How could I look at those portraits of evil and sit for hours interviewing the man responsible -- a man Texas Ranger John Allen described as an animal in a human body?

The simple answer to both of those questions is Krystal Surles.

An urge to write this story washed over me after I watched her in the courtroom video just nine months after the crime. She walked in, head held high, past Sells and into the witness box. She looked sweet, pretty and innocent in a pink and white striped shirt. But the angry, diagonal scar the knife left across her neck made it clear that her innocence had been stolen long before she raised her finger and pointed at the monster who murdered her friend and left her for dead.

She awoke every night throughout the trial, screaming from nightmares brought on by memories of the bloody horror and her own harrowingly narrow escape. Yet she was able to do what she must to get justice for her friend Katie.

One small child, with the courage of a dozen grown women, stopped the two-decade killing spree of an evil, crafty criminal. She said she survived because Katie's soul came to her that night, giving her the will to fight for her life. No matter where her courage came from, the existence of so much of it in such a little girl took my breath away.

Now, Krystal (right) is a young woman speaking of her past but looking to her future. She possesses an abundance of poise and confidence. But the faint scar that traces a line across her neck speaks of the poignant pain and eternal grief she bears from witnessing the death of her friend.

Krystal Surles was my hero then. She is my hero now. God bless you, Krystal -- no matter where you go or what you do, may your everlasting courage serve you well all the days of your life.

Diane Fanning is author of Through the Window, the book that chronicles Tommy Lynn Sells' two-decade killing orgy ended by Krystal Surles' bravery. The book helped win a new trial and acquittal for a woman wrongfully convicted of one of Sells' murders.

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