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Thursday, July 15, 2004 03:40 pm

Never Say Die

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Last Sunday, in a cramped visitation cubicle inside the Crawford County jail, Julie Rea-Harper climbed onto a small stool and balanced carefully on her bare feet. She wanted her visitors on the other side of the bulletproof glass to admire her toenails, freshly painted a delicate shade of peachy pink. A few days earlier, when all signs seemed to indicate that she was about to be released from prison, Rea-Harper had given herself a pedicure.

"I thought tonight I'd be in my husband's arms and my mother's Jacuzzi," she told her visitors.

But Rea-Harper, 35, had taken two steps forward, one step back. Even though the 5th District of the Illinois Court of Appealsoverturned her conviction and issued an order freeing her from the maximum-security Dwight Correctional Center last Thursday, the sheriff of Lawrence County met her at the prison door to arrest her again on the same gruesome charge -- stabbing her own young son to death.

 

The Oct. 13, 1997, murder of Joel Kirkpatrick has attracted national media attention sporadically over the past few years. There's something morbidly fascinating about the facts of the case -- a sweet, exceptionally bright 10-year-old boy is killed with a knife from his mother's kitchen as he sleeps in her home. And there's something irresistibly off-kilter about the notion that Rea-Harper -- daughter of a minister father and schoolteacher mother, a corporate trainer working toward her Ph.D. in educational psychology -- could have actually killed her own child.

From the very beginning, Rea-Harper consistently asserted that a masked intruder had appeared in Joel's room and that she had struggled with this man as he rushed from her house. But Lawrence County prosecutors insisted that there wasn't enough evidence to support her story -- just one unidentified bloody shoeprint and a couple of unanalyzed hairs. Besides, what kind of person would come in -- without bringing a weapon, without stealing anything -- and kill a kid but not the adult?

Three years after Joel's death, authorities decided that only Joel's mother could have killed him. Though no physical evidence linked her to the crime (a search of the home's plumbing and septic tank failed to reveal any cleanup effort that could explain the notable lack of blood on Rea-Harper's clothing) prosecutors focused on her bitter custody battle with her ex-husband, Len Kirkpatrick, and the fact that Rea-Harper lost an appeal for physical custody of Joel shortly before his horrendous death. She was convicted in 2002 and sentenced to 65 years in prison.

Then, out of the blue, the masked intruder reappeared. Tommy Lynn Sells, a serial killer imprisoned on Texas' death row for slitting a young girl's throat, confessed in writing that he had stabbed a child in Illinois on Oct. 13, 1997 [see "Who Killed Joel?", published July 24, 2003, at www.illinoistimes.com].

Sells made this voluntary confession to Diane Fanning, an author who was working on a book about him. They had become pen pals of a sort, and, in an earlier letter, Sells had complained that the Texas Rangers didn't seem to believe his claim that he had killed as many as 70 or 80 people.

That's no mystery. Anyone who remembers the name Henry Lee Lucas can explain why the Texas Rangers would be gunshy about trusting supposed serial killers -- some turn out to be just notorious serial confessors.

"The Rangers have been extra-cautious with how they conduct themselves," Fanning says. "After the Lucas case, they instituted a lot of new processes and procedures, and that's why they wanted more details from him."

In her next letter to Sells, Fanning reminded him that the Rangers had to convince other agencies and prosecutors who were likely skeptical of the idea that footloose monsters such as Sells truly exist, much less that one might have found prey in their town.

As an example, she offered a capsule version of a segment she had just seen on TV in which a prosecutor ridiculed the tale told by a young mom who said an intruder had come into her house and murdered her son. Fanning mentioned no names, locations, dates, or details ("I try to use the same careful rules that the Rangers told me about so I don't give him details to feed on," she says) and knew Sells had no access to TV. So she was stunned when he wrote back: "About that woman who claims someone broke into her house? Was that like maybe two days before my Springfield, Mo., murder?"

In fact, Sells has been indicted for the abduction, rape, and murder of Stephanie Mahaney, a Springfield, Mo., 13-year-old killed Oct. 15, 1997, two days after Joel's murder.

When Fanning's book Through the Window came out in April 2003, the revelation about Joel's murder revitalized the interest of both the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, based at the University of Illinois at Springfield, and Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions. Last July, Innocence Project investigator Bill Clutter began tracking down witnesses who had reported meeting a "twitchy" drifter around Lawrenceville in the days before and after Joel's murder.

One was Alan Berkshire, a Lawrenceville area resident who struck up a conversation with a man fitting Sells' description at a local diner on the evening of Oct. 11, 1997. What started as small talk took a disturbing turn when this man told Berkshire's then-11-year-old son, "You know, maybe you should be afraid of me. I guess maybe all children, I guess maybe everybody, ought to be afraid of me." Berkshire tried to follow the drifter when he left the diner and concluded that he had gone over the railroad tracks.

Johnny Allen, a Del Rio-based Texas Ranger sergeant who has spent years interviewing and investigating Sells, says Berkshire's account of the drifter's physique and mannerisms "fits the physical description of Tommy Lynn Sells to a T."

More important, Berkshire's recollection of the drifter's statements matched Sells in ways Berkshire couldn't have known. The man in the diner told Berkshire he had family in Arizona but had been working in St. Louis. Sells lived in Arizona briefly and had been working in St. Louis just days before this encounter. And Berkshire's conclusion that the man had gone across the tracks was significant: Rea-Harper and her son lived in a subdivision just beyond the railroad.

Clutter also interviewed Sandra Wirth, the ticket agent at the Greyhound bus terminal in Princeton, Ind., less than 40 miles from Lawrenceville. On the night of Oct. 14, a nervous and disheveled man fitting Rea-Harper's description of the intruder bought a bus ticket to an obscure Nevada town called Winnemucca. The man said he was in a hurry because he needed to see his mother. The bus made several stops, including St. Louis (where Sells' mother lives), before reaching Nevada.

The Texas Rangers believe that Sells got off the bus in St. Louis; traveled to Springfield, Mo., where he killed the Mahaney girl; and subsequently used his bus ticket to complete his trip to Nevada. The Rangers found hotel records proving that Sells arrived in Winnemucca two months later.

Sells, who had lived in Winnemucca briefly a decade earlier, committed one of his most gruesome murders there -- the killing of a 20-year-old female hitchhiker.

 

The Texas Rangers were able to "conclusively corroborate" 14 Sells murders before he decided to stop answering their questions (other killings he confessed to are still being investigated). The Joel Kirkpatrick case was one he never got around to discussing with the Rangers, although last November, Sells did sit down for a lengthy interview with the Illinois officials who had prosecuted Rea-Harper.

A transcript of that conversation shows that the date wasn't all Sells knew about the murder. Sells accurately described Rea-Harper's neighborhood as "upper white class" and her house as "brick and . . . almost like two stories." He accurately described the layout of the kitchen, then detailed finding a knife on the counter, proceeding to a bedroom, stabbing a sleeping person, and instantly encountering a thin blond woman wearing a light-colored nightshirt. He described brief scuffles in the house and back yard during which his sole goal was escape.

Clutter, the Innocence Project investigator, found more than 50 factual matches between Sells' account, Rea-Harper's 1997 statement, and the recollections of other witnesses. Some discrepancies exist, but Clutter calls them "minor" and says Illinois authorities weren't using objective interview techniques.

"When you read this [transcript], it's clear that what they're trying to do is trip him up, not pin him down. They're not there to clarify details; they're there to confuse him -- and at some point he has to back them up," Clutter says. "They're taking minor details and nitpicking and ignoring the major consistencies that they can't explain."

Ranger Sgt. Allen likewise found Sells' account credible. In April, he outlined numerous reasons in a five-page sworn affadavit. He concluded: "Based on my 26 years as a law enforcement officer, and my extensive experience investigating Tommy Lynn Sells, I find the foregoing evidence corroborating Sells' confession to the murder of Joel Kirkpatrick to be compelling evidence of his guilt."

 

Officially, Tommy Lynn Sells had nothing to do with the Illinois Court of Appeals' decision to vacate Julie Rea-Harper's conviction. The legal opinion addressed only a technicality -- that the special prosecutor was improperly appointed -- and specified that evidence presented at trial "viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution" was enough to convince a rational person of Rea-Harper's guilt.

Sells' confession came to light more than a year after Rea-Harper's trial had ended.

But recently, in a twist Fanning says is no surprise, Sells recanted his confession. After extensive interviews with Illinois authorities, the TV show 20/20, and lawyers from Northwestern University, Sells wrote a letter to Bob Schanz, a Branson, Mo., man who advises him on media relations, saying he wasn't in Illinois at the time of Joel's murder and was "getting this case messed up with another one."

However, long before Sells' confession, Texas Rangers had constructed a timeline of his movements, and it showed that he was within 90 miles of Lawrenceville during the relevant time frame. "He was damn sure in that area at that time," says Ranger Sgt. Allen.

Fanning says Sells has twice reconfirmed his confession, once when she visited him in prison and again in a letter. "Actually, he brought it up," she says, reciting a paraphrased version of their conversation. "He said, 'I hope you're not angry with me for that letter [to Schanz]; I was just fed up and frustrated. When I told you I killed that woman's boy, I was telling you the truth.'

"And he sent me a letter and explained again how he felt like everybody was on his back and they wouldn't leave him alone and he was angry about that, and that's why he wrote the letter, but his confession was true."

This waffling, using recantations to manipulate authorities, is a habit of Sells', Fanning says. She adds that he recanted and reconfessed multiple times to the murder of a San Antonio 9-year-old named Mary Bea Perez before finally pleading guilty: "It gives him a certain element of control. . . It's what he does to entertain himself on death row. He is not a nice man."

Rea-Harper's supporters wonder why prosecutors are so eager to charge her again that they couldn't at least wait for DNA results, due any day now, on two hairs found at the crime scene.

Rea-Harper's husband, Mark Harper, entering his third year of law school, tries to comprehend events from the prosecutors' perspective. "The first time, I could see how they would want to try her," he says. "But now we're just asking, 'When is this insanity going to end?' It's hard for me to believe that they're really doing this."

So far, prosecutors seem determined to proceed. David Rands and Ed Parkinson will represent the state, as they did at Rea-Harper's first trial, and they are expected to ask the court to bar Sells' confession.

Rea-Harper is scheduled to be arraigned Friday; until then, her temporary bail is set at $2 million.

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