Profile of Serial Killer Tommy Lynn Sells

Coast to Coast Killer

Close up of pushpins on roadmap route
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Tommy Lynn Sells was a serial killer who claimed responsibility for over 70 murders across the United States, earning him the nickname "Coast to Coast Killer." Sells  was convicted of only one murder, but this single conviction was enough to land him on Texas's death row. In 2014, he was executed in the Allan B. Polunsky Unit near Livingston, Texas.

The Tip of the Iceberg

On Dec. 31, 1999, 10-year-old Krystal Surles was staying at the house of a friend, 13-year-old Kaylene 'Katy' Harris, when she was attacked by a man in the bedroom where the two girls were sleeping.

She watched as the man grabbed Kaylene and slashed her throat. Pretending to be dead, she stayed still until she had the opportunity to escape and get help from the next door neighbor.

With the help of a forensic artist, Krystal was able to provide enough detail to create a sketch that eventually led to the arrest of Tommy Lynn Sells. It turned out Sells knew Terry Harris, Kaylene's adopted father. Kaylene was his intended victim that night. 

Sells was arrested days later on January 2, 2000, at the trailer where he lived with his wife and her four children. It was a peaceful arrest; he did not resist or even ask why he was being arrested.

Sells later confessed to killing Kaylene Harris and attempting to kill Krystal, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. During the following months, Sells admitted to killing multiple men, women, and children in several states across the country.

Childhood Years

Tommy Lynn Sells and his twin sister Tammy Jean were born in Oakland, California on June 28, 1964.

His mother, Nina Sells, was a single mother with three other children at the time that the twins were born. The family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and at 18 months old, both Sells and Tammy Jean contracted spinal meningitis, which killed Tammy Jean. Tommy survived. 

Soon after his recuperation, Sells was sent to live with his aunt Bonnie Walpole, in Holcomb, Missouri.

He stayed there until age 5, when he returned to live with his mother after she discovered that Walpole was interested in adopting him. 

Throughout his early childhood years, Sells was left mostly to fend for himself. He rarely attended school and by the age of 7, he was drinking alcohol.

Childhood Trauma

Around this same time, Sells began hanging around with a man from a nearby town. The man showed him a lot of  attention in the form of gifts and frequent outings. On several occasions, Sells spent the night at the man's home. Later, this same man was found guilty of child molestation, which came as no surprise to Sells, who had been one of his victims starting when he was just 8 years old. 

From the age of 10 to 13, Sells showed a special knack for staying in trouble. By age 10, he had stopped attending school, choosing instead to smoke pot and drink alcohol. Once, when he was 13, he climbed naked into his grandmother's bed, his mother. This was the last straw for Tommy's mother. Within days, she took his siblings and left Tommy alone, leaving not so much as a forwarding address.

The Carnage Begins

Filled with rage after his abandonment, the teenage Sells attacked his first female victim by pistol whipping her until she was unconscious.

With no home and no family, Sells began drifting from town to town, picking up odd jobs and stealing what he needed.

Sells later claimed he committed his first murder at age 16, after breaking into a home and killing a man inside who was performing oral sex on a young boy. There was never any proof to back up his claim about the incident.

Sells also claimed to have shot and killed John Cade Sr. in July 1979, after Cade caught him burglarizing his home.

A Bad Reunion

In May 1981, Sells moved to Little Rock, Arkansas and moved back in with his family. The reunion was short-lived. Nina Sells told him to leave after he attempted to have sex with her while she was taking a shower.

Back out on the streets, Sells returned to doing what he knew best, robbing and killing, working as a carnival roustabout, and hopping trains to get to his next destination.

He later confessed to killing two people in Arkansas before heading to St. Louis in 1983. Only one of the murders, that of Hal Akins, was ever confirmed.

Transient Serial Killing

In May 1984 Sills was convicted of car theft and he was given a two-year prison sentence. He was released from prison the following February but failed to follow the terms of his probation.

While in Missouri, Sells started working a county fair in Forsyth where he met Ena Cordt, 35, and her 4-year-old son. Sells later admitted to killing Cordt and her son.

According to Sells, Cordt invited him back to her house, but when he caught her going through his knapsack, he beat her to death with a baseball bat. He then did the same to the only witness of the crime, the 4-year-old Rory Cordt. Their bodies were found three days later.

Overdosed on Heroin

By September 1984, Sells was back in jail for drunk driving after crashing his car. He stayed in jail until May 16, 1986.

Back in St. Louis, Sells claims he shot a stranger in self-defense. He then headed to Aransas Pass, Texas, where he was hospitalized for an overdose of heroin. Once out of the hospital, he stole a car and headed to Fremont, California.

While in Freemont, investigators believe he was responsible for the death of Jennifer Duey, 20, who was shot to death. They also believe he was responsible for murdering Michelle Xavier, 19, who was found dead with her throat cut.

Unconfirmed Killing

In October 1987, Sells was living in Winnemucca, Nevada, with 20-year-old Stefanie Stroh.

Sells confessed to drugging Stroh with LSD, then strangling her and disposing of her body by weighing down her feet with concrete and putting her body into a hot spring in the desert. This crime was never confirmed.

According to Sells he left Winnemucca on November 3rd and headed east. In October 1987, he confessed to murdering Suzanne Korcz, 27, in Amherst, New York.

A Helping Hand

Keith Dardeen was the next known unfortunate victim that tried to befriend Sells. He spotted Sells hitchhiking in Ina, Illinois and offered him a hot meal at his home. In return, Sells shot Dardeen and then mutilated his penis.

Next, he murdered Dardeen's three-year-old son Pete by bludgeoning him with a hammer. He then turned his rage on Dardeen's pregnant wife Elaine, who he attempted to rape.

The attack caused Elaine to go into labor and she gave birth to her daughter. Neither mother nor daughter survived. Sells beat both of them to death with a bat. He then inserted the bat into Elaine's vagina, tucked the children and the mother into bed and left.

The crime went unsolved for 12 years until Sells confessed.

Julie Rae Harper

Sells confessed to an unbelievable cross-country crime spree although many of the crimes he describes have never been verified. 

In 2002, crime writer Diane Fanning began corresponding with Sells as he awaited the death penalty in Texas. In one of his letters to Fanning, Sells confessed to the murder of 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick. Joel's mother, Julie Rae Harper, was found guilty of his murder and was in prison.

Later Sells told Fanning, during a face-to-face interview, that Harper had been rude to him at a convenience store, so to get back at her, he followed her home and murdered the boy.

The confession, along with Fanning's testimony at a prison review board and with help from the Innocence Project, later resulted in a new trial for Harper that ended in an acquittal.

Coast to Coast

For 20 years Sells was a transient serial killer that managed to stay under the radar as he roamed around the country killing and raping unsuspecting victims of all ages. Investigators believe that Sells is likely responsible for 70 murders across the country.

During his confessions, he took on the nickname "Coast to Coast" when telling about the different murders he had committed one month while in California and the next month while in Texas.

Based on Sells confessions throughout the years, the following timetable can be pieced together, however, not all of his claims have been proven.

  • December 1988 - Tucson, Arizona - Sells kills Ken Lauten over a bad drug deal.

  • Between December - January 1988 - Sells murders an unknown woman and her three-year-old son in Salt Lake City, Utah, disposing of their bodies in the Snake River in Idaho.

  • January 1988 -  Ina, Illinois - After murdering the Dardeen family, Sells is arrested for stealing a car. He takes off before his scheduled court appearance. 

  • January 1988 - Lawrence, Massachusetts - Melissa Trembly, 11, is raped and murdered.

  • January 27, 1989 - Truckee, California - Sells an unnamed prostitute and disposes of her body. An unidentified woman's body was found at the location that he describes to police.

  • April 1989 - Roseburg, Oregon - Sells kills an unnamed woman that was in her twenties.

  • May 9, 1989 - Roseburg, Oregon - Sells kills a female hitchhiker.

  • May 9, 1989 - Roseburg, Oregon - Sells is arrested for stealing from his employer. He spends 15 days in jail.

  • August 16, 1989 - North Little Rock, Arkansas - Sells is arrested on theft charges.

  • October 18, 1989 - Oakland, California - Sells is charged with public drunkenness and put into detox.

  • November 1989 - Carson City, Nevada - Sells is charged with public drunkenness.

  • December 1989 - Phoenix, Arizona - Sells is hospitalized for a heroin overdose.

  • January 7, 1990 - Salt Lake City, Utah - Sells is arrested on charges of cocaine possession, but released after police determine that he was not in possession of drugs. 

  • January 12, 1990 - Rawlings, Wyoming - Sells is arrested and sent to prison for auto theft. He is released in January 1991.

  • December 1991 - Marianna, Florida - Sells kills Teresa Hall, 28, and her five-year-old daughter.

  • March and April 1992 - Charleston, South Carolina - Sells is arrested for public drunkenness.

  • May 13, 1992 - Charleston, West Virginia - Sells is imprisoned for raping, beating and stabbing a 20-year-old woman who survived the attack. He is sentenced to two 10-year prison terms and released in May 1997.

  • October 13, 1977 - Lawrenceville, Illinois - Sells attacks Julie Rea Harper and stabbs10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick to death.

  • October 1977 - Springfield, Missouri - Stells kidnaps, rapes and strangles to death 13-year-old Stephanie Mahaney.

  • October 1998 - Del Rio, Texas - Sells marries a woman with three children. The couple is separated for two weeks in February 1999 and again in late March 1999.

  • March 30, 1999 - Del Rio, Texas - Sells rapes and murders Debbie Harris, 28 and eight-year-old Ambria Harris.

  • April 18, 1999 - San Antonio, Texas - Sells rapes and strangles nine-year-old Mary Perez.

  • May 13, 1999 - Lexington, Kentucky - Sells rapes and murders 13-year-old Haley McHone, then sells her bicycle for $20.

  • Mid-May to June 24, 1999 - Madison, Wisconsin - Sells is jailed for drunk and disorderly conduct.

  • July 3, 1999 - Kingfisher, Oklahoma - Sells shoots and kills 14-year-old Bobbie Lynn Wofford.

  • December 31, 1999 - Del Rio, Texas - Sells’ commits his final act of murder - 13-year-old Kaylene Harris and attempted murder of 10-year-old Krystal Surles.

Trial and Sentencing

On September 18, 2000, Sells pleaded guilty and was convicted of the capital murder of Kaylene Harris and attempted murder of Krystal Surles. He was sentenced to death.

On September 17, 2003, Sells was indicted for the 1997 Greene County, Missouri murder of Stephanie Mahaney.

Also in 2003, Sells pleaded guilty to strangling to death nine-year-old Mary Bea Perez of San Antonio, for which he received a life sentence.


Sells was executed in Texas on April 3, 2014, at 6:27 p.m. CST by lethal injection. He declined to make a final statement.

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Your Citation
Montaldo, Charles. "Profile of Serial Killer Tommy Lynn Sells." ThoughtCo, Feb. 22, 2018, Montaldo, Charles. (2018, February 22). Profile of Serial Killer Tommy Lynn Sells. Retrieved from Montaldo, Charles. "Profile of Serial Killer Tommy Lynn Sells." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 19, 2018).