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Thursday, Sept. 25, 2003 02:20 pm

A twisted tale

New evidence may link serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells to the murder of a 10-year-old Illinois boy

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Julie Rea has never changed her story. Ever since October 13, 1997, when her 10-year-old son, Joel Kirkpatrick, was murdered in his sleep, Rea has claimed the killer was an intruder who entered her home in the wee hours of the morning, took a knife from her kitchen, and killed her child. Authorities in Lawrence County didn't believe Rea and instead focused on her as their suspect. In 2002, she was convicted of murder and sentenced to 65 years in prison.

But in a book published in April, serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells, imprisoned on Texas' Death Row, voluntarily confessed to killing Joel Kirkpatrick [see Illinois Times' July 24 cover story, "Who Killed Joel?" at www.illinoistimes.com]. Sells has been convicted of killing two young girls in Texas, and he was indicted earlier this month for the October 15, 1997, abduction, rape, and murder of a young girl in Springfield, Missouri.

Since July, the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project based at the University of Illinois at Springfield has been investigating both Sells' confession and Rea's account of the murder.

Earlier this week, at a statehouse press conference, the project's investigators announced their findings. Investigator Bill Clutter presented quotes from taped interviews with several witnesses who encountered a man matching Sells' description in and around Lawrenceville in the days before and after the murder.

One witness is Alan Berkshire, who says he ate dinner with his family at the Lawrenceville Drive Inn on October 11, 1997. Berkshire recalls meeting a "drifter with problems"--a man who was "disoriented" and "twitchy." Berkshire believed the man was drunk or on drugs, but he was more concerned about the attention he focused on Berkshire's then-11-year-old son, Rusty, and other children who came into the restaurant. In a conversation, the drifter 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).

Berkshire tried to see where the drifter went when he left, and concluded he had gone over to the railroad tracks. Rea and her son lived in a subdivision just beyond those tracks.

After Joel Kirkpatrick's murder, Berkshire went to the sheriff's office to report his encounter with this man, but no one followed up on his tip.

Berkshire's description matches Sells, even in details that have not been publicized. For example, Berkshire described the drifter as a nail-biter, but not "a continual biter," saying he chewed his nails, especially while looking around.

Diane Fanning, the author of Through the Window, the book about Sells, says the serial killer does indeed chew his naills, but not constantly. "He's more of a gnaw-on-the-edge kind of person," she says.

On the night of October 14, another witness, Sandra Wirth, encountered a man resembling the intruder Rea described. The man appeared at the Greyhound bus terminal where Wirth worked in Princeton, Indiana, just a short train ride southeast of Lawrenceville, and purchased a ticket to a tiny town Wirth had never heard of--Winnemucca, Nevada. He said he needed to see his mother. The route went through St. Louis (where Sells' mother lives), with another stop scheduled for Denver before reaching Nevada. Wirth alerted police about this man, and they had officers meet the bus in Denver. The man wasn't on it.

Sells has confessed to and been indicted for a murder in Springfield, Missouri, that occurred late the next night. He resurfaced two months later, according to Texas Rangers, in Winnemucca, Nevada.

After the press conference, Rea's relatives delivered a petition for executive clemency, citing the new information, to the office of Governor Rod Blagojevich.

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