Monday, July 21, 2008

Out of the Closet

by Diane Fanning

Just when I thought law enforcement had forgotten Tommy Lynn Sells, along comes a former deputy with Missouri's Cape Girardeau County Sheriff’s Department asking about a long forgotten body. And once again, Sells' name was dropped as a possible suspect. I thought by now he’d been considered in every single cold case that remained open in his home state in the 1980s and 1990s. Apparently not.

Back when Sells was arrested, on January 2, 2000, investigators across the country dusted off files of cold cases eager to see if Sells was a possible perpetrator. After 48 Hours aired the show about the serial killer, Texas Rangers Johnny Allen and Coy Smith came into their offices to discover hundreds of requests from detectives all across the country wanting to know if Sells could have been in the right place at the right time to commit an unsolved murder in their jurisdiction.

The inquiries and interview requests continued to flood into Texas up to Sells' trial in September 2000, when he was convicted of the murder and sexual assault of Katie Harris and the attempted murder of Krystal Surles in Del Rio, Texas. Sells was sentenced to death.

Some law enforcement agencies no longer wanted to waste resources on looking at Sells—after all, unlike some states, Texas is very serious about the enforcement of their death penalty. Other investigators, though, who hungered to find closure for family members and satisfaction in their quest for justice, continued travelling to Texas to question Sells.

I fielded a lot of requests for information, too. I heard from detectives, family members, prosecutors, defense attorneys, private investigators, and some from uninvolved but curious true-crime buffs. Among the latter group, I received hundreds of emails about the Darlie Routier case. Although she sits on Death Row for the murder of her two sons, many people still believe in her innocence. They wanted to know if Tommy Lynn Sells was in the Dallas area at the time of that crime. While there may be doubts about Darlie’s guilt, Sells had an ironclad alibi—he sat behind bars in a West Virginia prison. There was no way he was responsible for killing those two boys.

This summer, though, as Sells approaches the eighth anniversary of his death sentence, interest in the Death Row inmate seemed to have died down. The only question most people still asked was: Have they killed him yet?

Until this month in the boot heel of Missouri, that is. Renewed interest in a 1981 homicide case raised his name again. The remains of an unknown white male, aged 20 to 40 and ranging from 5-feet-nine to five-feet-eleven inches tall, were found in a wooded area on April 6, 1981. The corpse was clothed in green pants, a short-sleeved khaki shirt (above) and a pair of black loafers adorned with a buckle. His skull, however, was missing.

Two years and one week later, a mushroom hunter found the missing head in a nearby creek. In the area, there were only three missing men who fit the description of the victim. A comparison of dental records discovered no match to any of them. So, the remains and the clothing moldered away in a basement closet archive at the Southeast Missouri State University for the next two decades. Forgotten by all but one man.

Now he’s come forward, resurrecting the case, looking for justice. Will the authorities be able to tie it to Tommy Lynn Sells? The odds are stacked against them. In 1979 and 1980, when Sells wasn’t on the road, he was in Missouri. In 1981, though, his home base was Little Rock, Arkansas and he was just 17 years old. He has confessed to committing homicide at that young age but he never mentioned this case.

If not Sells, will they be able to identify anyone as the killer? Will they even be able to give the victim a name? It sounds unlikely after 27 years but scientists make a habit of transforming the impossible into the routine every day.

Forensic Science is an amazing and rapidly expanding field. What seemed like fantasy five years ago is now common forensic investigative technique in labs across the country. Who knows what microscopic trace evidence is nestled in the folds of his shirt or on the buckle of his shoe (above), waiting for a diligent individual to uncover.

One day, the unknown man in green pants may find justice after all.


Anonymous said...

Why do they suppect Sells? Is it just grasping? Does the body indicate some type of trauma that is similar to the types of crimes Sells committed? It will be interesting to see how far they can go with this case.

Anonymous said...

I think that it just grasping Michelle. Just like with [I can't remember his name] the amish man that killed his pregnant wife in a fire. and then several years later he killed his son and left him in his PJs by the side of the road. They keep looking at him for a lot of cold cases as well.

Anonymous said...

Eli Stutzman.

They did the same thing with Otis Toole when he was caught.
It is surprising how many cases are solved when a roving killer is caught. Sometimes ones that they never even asked about that the killer brings up.

Unknown said...

You are probably right about the grasping. But Sells worked for a road construction company in Cape Girardeau so I guess it makes sense considering him.
If they can get some DNA evidence then they may have something to use to tie it to someone.

Anonymous said...

That is him Michelle. Thanks.

I don't blame police at all for grasping. When you have cases that are so old, you need to look at everyone that is a possibility, even if it is a long shot. Some cases are solved this way.

Anonymous said...

I find it sad that people can die without someone in this world claiming them.
Someone sent me a post about people who were found murdered and were never identified. One of them was an eight year old boy. How could a parent not miss their child? If the parents were involved how could someone who knows that family not wonder where the child went.