Profile of Serial Killer Tommy Lynn Sells

Tagged the 'Coast to Coast Killer' Because His Mayhem Spanned the US

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 U.S., earning him the nickname "Coast to Coast Killer." Sells pleaded guilty to just two murders, but that was enough to land him on Texas' death row. He was executed in 2014.

Tip of the Iceberg

On Dec. 31, 1999, 10-year-old Krystal Surles was staying at the house of a friend, Kaylene "Katy" Harris, 13, when a man entered the bedroom where the girls were sleeping. The man grabbed Katy and slashed her throat, killing her. He then slashed Krystal's throat and she dropped to the floor, pretending to be dead. She stayed still until she could escape and get help from a neighbor, thinking everyone in the house had been killed.

Krystal provided enough detail for a forensic artist to create a sketch that eventually led to the arrest of Tommy Lynn Sells. It turned out Sells knew Terry Harris, Katy's adoptive father. She 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. He did not resist or even ask why he was being arrested. Sells later confessed to killing Katy and attacking Krystal, but that was 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

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 when the twins were born. The family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and at 18 months old, both twins 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 age 7 was drinking alcohol.

Childhood Trauma

Around this 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 man was found guilty of child molestation, which came as no surprise to Sells, who had been one of his victims since he was 8.

From ages 10 to 13, Sells showed a knack for staying in trouble. By 10, he had stopped attending school, preferring to smoke pot and drink alcohol. When he was 13, he climbed naked into his grandmother's bed. 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.

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.

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

Bad Reunion

In May 1981, Sells went 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 on the streets, Sells returned to what he knew best: robbing, killing, working as a carnival roustabout, and hopping trains between cities. 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 confirmed.

Transient Serial Killing

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

While in Missouri, Sells started working at a county fair in Forsyth, where he met Ena Cordt, 35, and her son. Sells later admitted to killing them. 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, 4-year-old Rory. Their bodies were found three days later.

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 claimed 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. They also believe he murdered Michelle Xavier, 19, who was found with her throat cut.

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 her feet with concrete and putting her into a hot spring in the desert. This crime was never confirmed.

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

Helping Hand

Keith Dardeen was the next known victim who 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, then mutilated his penis. Next, he murdered Dardeen's 3-year-old son, Pete, by bludgeoning him with a hammer, then turned his rage on Dardeen's pregnant wife, Elaine, whom 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

In 2002, crime writer Diane Fanning began corresponding with Sells as he awaited execution 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, had been found guilty of his murder and was in prison.

Sells told Fanning in a later 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 help from the Innocence Project, resulted in a new trial for Harper that ended in acquittal.

Coast to Coast

For 20 years Sells was a transient serial killer who managed to stay under the radar as he roamed the country, killing and raping victims of all ages. During his confessions, he took on the nickname "Coast to Coast" when describing the murders he had committed one month in California and the next month in Texas.

Based on Sells' confessions throughout the years, the following timetable can be pieced together, though not all his claims have been proved:

  • December 1988, Tucson, Arizona: Kills Ken Lauten over a bad drug deal.
  • December-January 1988, Salt Lake City, Utah: Murders an unknown woman and her 3-year-old son, disposing of their bodies in the Snake River in Idaho.
  • January 1988,  Ina, Illinois: After murdering the Dardeen family, is arrested for stealing a car. He takes off before his scheduled court appearance.
  • January 1988, Lawrence, Massachusetts: Rapes and murders Melissa Trembly, 11.
  • January 27, 1989, Truckee, California: Kills an unnamed prostitute and disposes of her body; an unidentified woman's body was found at the location he gave police.
  • April 1989, Roseburg, Oregon: Kills an unnamed woman in her 20s.
  • May 9, 1989, Roseburg: Kills a female hitchhiker.
  • May 9, 1989, Roseburg: Is arrested for stealing from his employer; spends 15 days in jail.
  • August 16, 1989, North Little Rock, Arkansas: Is arrested on theft charges.
  • October 18, 1989, Oakland, California: Is charged with public drunkenness and put into detox.
  • November 1989, Carson City, Nevada: Is charged with public drunkenness.
  • December 1989, Phoenix, Arizona: Is hospitalized for a heroin overdose.
  • January 7, 1990, Salt Lake City, Utah: Is arrested on charges of cocaine possession but released after police determined that he was not in possession of drugs.
  • January 12, 1990, Rawlings, Wyoming: Is arrested and sent to prison for auto theft; released in January 1991.
  • December 1991, Marianna, Florida: Kills Teresa Hall, 28, and her 5-year-old daughter.
  • March-April 1992, Charleston, South Carolina: Is arrested for public drunkenness.
  • May 13, 1992, Charleston, West Virginia: Is imprisoned for raping, beating, and stabbing a 20-year-old woman who survived the attack; sentenced to two 10-year prison terms and released in May 1997.
  • October 13, 1997, Lawrenceville, Illinois: Attacks Julie Rea Harper and stabs 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick to death.
  • October 1997, Springfield, Missouri: Kidnaps, rapes, and strangles to death 13-year-old Stephanie Mahaney.
  • October 1998, Del Rio, Texas: Marries a woman with three children; the couple is separated for two weeks in February 1999 and again in late March.
  • March 30, 1999, Del Rio: Rapes and murders Debbie Harris, 28, and Ambria Harris, 8.
  • April 18, 1999, San Antonio, Texas: Rapes and strangles Mary Perez, 9.
  • May 13, 1999, Lexington, Kentucky: Rapes and murders Haley McHone, 13, then sells her bicycle for $20.
  • Mid-May-June 24, 1999, Madison, Wisconsin: Is jailed for drunk and disorderly conduct.
  • July 3, 1999, Kingfisher, Oklahoma: Shoots and kills Bobbie Lynn Wofford, 14.
  • December 31, 1999, Del Rio, Texas: Murders Katy Harris,13, and attempts to murder Krystal Surles, 10; his final murder.

Trials and Sentencings

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

On September 17, 2003, Sells was indicted but never tried for the 1997 Greene County, Missouri, murder of Stephanie Mahaney. That same year, Sells pleaded guilty to strangling to death 9-year-old Mary Bea Perez of San Antonio, for which he received a life sentence.

Sells was executed by lethal injection in the Allan B. Polunsky Unit near West Livingston, Texas, on April 3, 2014, at 6:27 p.m. CST. He declined to make a final statement.

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