Natasha Wallen CORNETT
Characteristics: Carjacking - Self-described Satan worshipper
Number of victims: 3
Date of murder: April 6, 1997
Date of arrest: 2 days after
Date of birth: January 26, 1979
Victims profile: Norwegian Vidar Lillelid (34), his American wife Delfina (28), and their daughter Tabitha (6)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Greene County, Tennessee, USA
Status: Pled guilty to all charges against her to avoid a possible death sentence. Sentenced to life in prison without parole on March 25, 1998
Natasha Cornett, 24, is a self-described Satan worshipper serving three life sentences for the shooting deaths of a Knoxville couple and their 6-year-old daughter. Cornett and many other Kentucky teen-agers encountered the Lillelid family at a rest stop near Greeneville, Tenn., in 1997. The couple's 2-year-old son also was shot, but he lived.
Natasha Wallen Cornett is currently serving a sentence of life without parole at the Tennessee Prison For Women in Nashville. Cornett, then 19, was convicted in March 1998 with five other youths in the notorious Lillelid murders.
The youths, aged 14 to 20, had left Pikeville, Kentucky, headed to New Orleans. By chance, they met the Lillelid family at an interstate highway rest area where they carjacked the family for their van. The youths drove the Lillelids to a remote side road where mother, father and daughter were shot dead and the son was left wounded.
This crime took place on April 6, 1997 near the town of Greeneville in the eastern part of Tennessee. Two days after the shootings Cornett and the five others were taken into custody by US Customs and Immigration officials in Arizona while trying to cross into Mexico in the stolen van.
The conviction was the result of a plea bargain where Cornett pled guilty to all charges against her to avoid a possible death sentence. Although she took the plea bargain, court testimony strongly established she did not participate in the actual shooting of the four victims. During her own testimony Cornett claimed she tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent the deaths.
Cornett was born on January 26, 1979 into poverty in rural Eastern Kentucky. Cornett's mother Madonna Wallen was not married to her biological father, a local police officer named Roger Burgess with whom Madonna was having an affair. When Natasha was young her mother left her husband, Ed Wallen and Madonna raised Natasha alone as a single mom in a trailer located in the outskirts of Pikeville, Kentucky. By junior high school Cornett was alienated from her follow students due to her unconventional behavior. She suffered from anorexia and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder which went largely untreated due to lack of health insurance. Sometime during her freshman year of high school Cornett dropped out.
Married to a long time friend named Stephen Cornett on her 17th birthday, Natasha told Women's Entertainment Network interviewers in a 2009 documentary that when Stephen ended the marriage after only a matter of months she was "devastated".
By the time the murders occurred, Cornett had embraced the Goth subculture manner of black clothing and dark "doom-ridden music". Also at this time Cornett was abusing drugs and alcohol and practicing self-mutilation, activities she had been involved with since her early teen years. Young people similarly inclined were drawn to Cornett and she became the informal leader the group. On April 6, 1997, per court testimony, Cornett, looking to escape what was to her the boredom, poverty, and general unhappiness of life in Pikeville took to the road with the five others heading for a hoped for new life in New Orleans. New Orleans was never reached as a chance encounter with the Lillelid family at an interstate rest stop in Tennessee resulted in murder and Cornett's current confinement to prison.
Since her arrival at the prison in Nashville, Cornett has earned her GED and a certification in cosmetology. In a 2007 article published in The Knoxville News Madonna Wallen stated that her daughter serves as a mentor for some fellow inmates as they work to earn their GEDs.
On August 24, 2001, death row inmate Christa Pike with alleged assistance from Natasha Cornett attacked fellow prisoner Patricia Jones and nearly strangled her to death with a shoe string after Pike and Jones were placed in a holding cell with Cornett during a fire alarm. Although the Department of Corrections believed that Cornett was involved, investigators found insufficient evidence to charge her with helping Pike, who was subsequently found guilty of attempted murder.
The Lillelid murders refers to a criminal case in Greeneville, Tennessee, United States in 1997. A Norwegian-Honduran-American family of Jehovah's Witnesses were carjacked and then shot; three of the four were killed. Six young people were convicted and sentenced for the crime.
Norwegian Vidar Lillelid (age 34), his American wife Delfina (28), their daughter Tabitha (6) and son Peter (2) were shot on a deserted road in Tennessee on 6 April 1997. Vidar and Delfina were found dead, while Tabitha died after being transported to the hospital. Peter, who was found lying in a ditch, was the only survivor. He had been shot once in the torso and once through the eye. As a result of the shooting, he was left blind in one eye and permanently disabled.
Vidar Lillelid grew up in Bergen, Norway. He moved in 1985 to the USA, where he married Delfina Zelaya in 1989. They met through their common involvement in Jehovah's Witnesses. She was born in New Jersey, USA by parents from Honduras.
Details of the crime
Six young people—Natasha Wallen Cornett, 18; Edward Dean Mullins, 19; Joseph Lance Risner, 20; Crystal R. Sturgill, 18; Jason Blake Bryant, 14; and Karen R. Howell, 17—were arrested two days after the killings. The six individuals were taken into custody in Arizona after trying to cross the Mexican border in the van which they had stolen from the Lillelid family. All of the perpetrators had difficult childhoods and lived on the edge of the law. In addition to that references were made by prosecutors at trial to rumors that they were involved with occultism and Satanism, however no evidence was presented and this omission was cited in Ms. Cornett's unsuccessful 2002 appeal of her conviction.
Witnesses observed the youths in conversation with the Lillelid family at a rest area picnic spot. From there, they forced the family to drive them away from the rest area and to a more remote location. After the family had been shot and left for dead, the six abandoned their original vehicle and left in the Lillelid's van.
Their trial was completed in March 1998. The six youths were sentenced to prison for life with no chance for parole. The judge applied the same aggravating circumstances for all. However, it was not exactly decided which of them had the main blame for the killings. Per court testimony it was established that the youngest, Jason Bryant, had fired shots, but the judge opined another undetermined member of the group might also have done so.
Aftermath of the victim family
Soon after Peter Lillelid's medical condition stabilized at the end of April 1997, a custody battle began between his maternal grandmother Lydia Selaya of Miami, Florida, USA and his father's sister Randi Heier of Sweden. Citing Randi's pledge to raise Peter in the faith and teachings of the Jehovah's Witnesses as the deciding factor, local Judge Fred McDonald awarded her custody of Peter on July 1, 1997.
Peter has since been raised in Sweden by his Aunt Randi Heier and her family.
As of 2007 at the age of about twelve years, he still had trouble walking because of the injuries.
Natasha Cornett Tells Why She Is Seeking A 'Fair Trial'
August 3, 2009
MORRISTOWN - In an interview with The Greeneville Sun and WCYB-TV (Channel 5) on Wednesday afternoon, convicted murderer Natasha Wallen Cornett, 22, maintained that she tried to prevent the April 1997 shootings of three members of the Lillelid family near Baileyton.
Cornett and her court-appointed attorney, Susanna Thomas - here for a hearing before Criminal Court Judge James E. Beckner on a petition to overturn her 1998 guilty pleas and resulting three consecutive life sentences - agreed to a brief post-hearing interview at the Hamblen County Justice Center.
Nearly four years after she entered guilty pleas, along with her five codefendants, on Feb. 20, 1998, to three counts of felony murder, one count of attempted murder, plus counts of aggravated kidnapping, especially aggravated kidnapping and theft, Cornett said she wants those guilty pleas overturned and wants a "fair trial."
Asked what she would like to see happen as a result of the petition currently before Judge Beckner, Cornett said, "Ideally, I would like to have a fair trial. Ideally, I would like to get out of prison before I'm too old to really care. To get out one day and have an opportunity to be a productive citizen."
Thomas, the Newport lawyer who currently represents Cornett, said Cornett hopes that, during a new trial, it can be shown "who was individually responsible for what happened (during the Lillelid murders)."
"I think what she (Cornett) is hoping to accomplish by getting a new trial would be to really clear up what actually happened and what the individual levels of responsibility were," Thomas said.
Cornett: 'I Didn't Know'
Asked what her involvement in the kidnapping and shootings of the Lillelid family had been, Cornett said, "I didn't know what was transpiring until it was too late. And when I did figure out what was happening, I tried my best to prevent it."
The first indication of trouble she received was a "gut feeling" that something was wrong at the Interstate 81 rest area near Baileyton, where the group of six young Kentuckians encountered the Lillelid family on a Sunday afternoon in April 1997, she said.
"It was when Joe (codefendant Joseph Lance Risner) said he wanted to converse with Vidar (Lillelid) about his religious beliefs," she said. "That just brought up red flags, because Joe was not a religious man. I tried to convince him (Risner) that we should just leave and get on our way. Every step that he took, I was there trying to prevent it."
Cornett claimed during the interview that Risner initiated the kidnapping of the Lillelid family from the I-81 rest area by pulling a gun on the family.
The Lillelid family was returning to their Knoxville-area home from a Jehovah's Witnesses convention in Johnson City when they encountered the six young Kentuckians who had left their home state earlier that day and had stolen two pistols along the way.
After Vidar and Delfina Lillelid and their children - Tabitha, 6, and Peter, 2 - were kidnapped from the rest area and driven in their own van to isolated Payne Hollow Lane off Van Hill Road north of Baileyton, Cornett said, she tried to intercede with Risner and Jason Blake Bryant, the then-14-year-old she accuses of firing the fatal shots.
"I got in between Jason (Bryant) and the family to where the gun was pointed at me and tried to convince him to not do that," she said. "I begged and I pleaded for what seemed like an eternity for him to stop. When I discovered that there was no stopping him, I begged for at least the children to be saved. He told me that if I didn't move, he would shoot me.
"I don't think I would have moved anyway until he promised and swore to me that he would not harm the children. That's when I moved. I didn't think that I could do anything to prevent it if I was dead.
"I thought I had more of an opportunity to convince him not to do anything if I got out of his way to where he could calm down."
Bryant Said To Have Fired
During the March 1998 sentencing hearing for all six of the young Kentuckians, Cornett and codefendants Risner and Karen R. Howell testified that Bryant fired the shots that killed Vidar, Delfina and Tabitha Lillelid and seriously wounded 2-year-old Peter Lillelid.
Bryant, however, testified that Risner and Edward Dean Mullins fired the shots and later tried to force him to take the blame as the six Kentuckians fled across the country in the Lillelid family's van.
A car registered to Risner's mother was found abandoned at the murder scene where the bullet-riddled bodies of the Lillelid family lay in a roadside ditch.
Asked what she would like to do if released from prison, Cornett said, "There are all kinds of things that I would do. Grow a garden. Visit forests. Live somewhere like out in the woods somewhere. But the first thing I would do would be to go visit my mom."
Cornett noted that her mother had come to visit her at the Greene County Detention Center last Friday after she was returned there to await Wednesday's hearing before Judge Beckner.
"I don't like her making the trip all the way that far," Cornett said of her mother. "It makes me worry about her."
During the interview, which her attorney requested not touch on the facts of the case, Cornet said life in prison had not been what she had expected.
"I expected big women with shanks (home-made knives) and stuff like that," she said. "You know, like the typical prison scene that you would see in a movie. But it's not like that."
Typical Day In Prison
However, Cornett noted that prison still isn't fun for her. "It's hard to have a good time when you're locked up," she noted.
Asked what a typical day is like for her, Cornett said, "you just get up, go to meals, have an hour out for recreational purposes and watch television and read." She said she spends more time reading than watching television.
Asked if she worked in prison, Cornett said, "Not for the time being, but I was a teacher's aide for about a year."
Cornett noted that she had been transferred from the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville to the Mark Luttrell Correctional Center near Memphis about two months ago. Codefendant Karen R. Howell, 21, also is being held at the Memphis prison, Cornett said, noting that she sees Howell "every once in a while."
Asked how Howell was faring in prison, Cornett said, "She seems to be doing okay."
In response to a reporter's question about how she faces the possibility that she might never be released from prison, Cornett said, "It's tough. Beyond tough; it's heart-breaking. There are a lot of people there who have to go through it on a daily basis."
Asked if she felt her situation is fair, Cornett said, "It's hard to put the word fair to anything that has to do with this whole situation. I don't think anything that has happened is fair to them (the victims), to us. I don't think the word (fair) can be put in context, or in the same paragraph, with this case."
Blames Her First Lawyer
In response to a reporter's question about why she had been "dubbed the ring-leader of this group (the convicted killers of the Lillelids)," Cornett said, "I'm assuming it has something to do with Eric Conn, the first lawyer that I had. Otherwise, I don't know why it was me that was picked out of everyone else. I know he did a lot to damage to me and my case."
At that point in the interview, Thomas, Cornett's current court-appointed attorney, interjected comments about Conn, the Kentucky lawyer who represented Cornett shortly after her arrest in Arizona in the wake of the Lillelid murders.
"He volunteered to represent her, then immediately began negotiating movie rights," Thomas said.
Stacy Street and Robert E. Cupp, the lawyers subsequently appointed to represent Cornett in Greene County, both claimed Conn caused harm to Cornett's defense by granting early media interviews and raising issues of alleged Satan worship by Cornett.
On Wednesday, Cornett claimed she was unaware of what Conn was saying about her early in the case. "I was unaware of anything that was transpiring until after he had been taken off my case," she said. "They would keep all the newspapers away from me, and I couldn't watch the news (while still being held in Arizona). To me, he was presenting himself as a good lawyer and to everybody else, he basically used me as a crutch for a movie deal."
Asked if she was concerned that she might be opening herself up for possibly receiving the death penalty if she wins a new trial, Cornett said, "It's a chance I'm willing to take. I'm aware that it could be reinstated, but that's something I'm willing to deal with."
Peter Lillelid Is 'A Happy Little Boy' 3 Years After Murders Of His Family
April 1, 2009
Peter Lillelid, who was 2 years old when he was shot and left for dead three years ago beside a northern Greene County roadway, turned five last month.
The attack, in which Peter's parents, Vidar and Delfina Lillelid, and their 6-year-old daughter, Tabitha, were murdered, left Peter with spinal cord damage and blinded him in one eye.
The Lillelids were kidnapped from an Interstate 81 rest area three years ago on the afternoon of Sunday, April 6, 1997, as they were returning to their Knoxville-area home from a Jehovah's Witnesses convention in Johnson City.
Later that night, they were found shot on isolated Payne Hollow Lane, located off Van Hill Road a short drive north of Baileyton.
The family van was missing, and an old Chevrolet sedan registered to a Kentucky woman was found at the shooting scene.
Six young Kentuckians were arrested a few days later in Arizona while driving the Lillelid family van.
They pleaded guilty in Greene County Criminal Court two years ago to murdering Vidar, a Norwegian immigrant, and his wife, Delfina, and their daughter, Tabitha, and to wounding Peter.
All six now are serving life-without-parole sentences in various state prisons.
Despite his wounds, Peter survived; but a legal custody battle ensued between his paternal aunt, who lives in Sweden, and members of his mother's family, who live in the U.S after emigrating from Honduras.
The court decided in favor of his paternal aunt, Randi Heier, sister of Vidar Lillelid, and the 2-year-old went to Sweden in July 1997 to live with her and her family.
Protecting Boy's Privacy
On Thursday, the third anniversary of the shootings, a Greeneville Sun reporter telephoned Randi Heier at her home and learned that the family now is trying to maintain a low profile and shelter Peter from news media coverage.
"We don't want to say anything about it anymore," Heier said by telephone from her home in a suburb of Stockholm, the Swedish capital. "He (Peter) needs to go on with his life, and we want him to grow up as a normal child."
Heier said, however, that she had told Peter about what happened to his family in the United States. "He knows everything about what happened," she said. "But it's not fun for him to read about it in the media."
Heier declined to answer other questions about Peter.
Jehovah's Witnesses friends of the Lillelid family did, however, provide some new information about Peter.
'A Happy Little Boy'
Mattie Turner, a member of the West Knoxville Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall formerly attended by the Lillelid family, said Thursday afternoon that Peter and the Heiers had made a low-profile visit to the Knoxville area last fall.
"They didn't announce that they were coming," Turner said. "There was nothing in the newspaper about it here (Knoxville)."
Last fall, Turner said, Peter was "a happy little boy" who was able to "go everywhere" using a special walker.
Turner also noted that she understood Randi Heier had taken Peter to New York last fall to visit his maternal grandmother and other maternal relatives.
"They (the Heiers) have been teaching him Spanish so he can speak with his grandmother by telephone," Turner said.
'Bigger And Stronger'
Troy and Judy Love, who also are members of the West Knoxville Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses and were friends of Vidar and Delfina Lillelid, also spoke with a Greeneville Sun reporter Thursday about Peter.
Troy Love said he saw Peter last November during the boy's visit to Knoxville.
"He's much bigger and stronger now," Love said. "He didn't seem to remember me at first, but I gave him a 'horsy ride' like I used to do, and I could tell that he remembered me."
Peter, according to Troy Love, was speaking only Swedish when he visited Knoxville. "I think they (the Heiers) think English will confuse him," Love said.
Troy Love also noted that he understood Peter had been attending the Swedish equivalent of preschool last year.
Judy Love said the Lillelids and their children often had been guests in the Love home before the April 6, 1997, tragedy.
"We were best friends with them," she said. "Vidar liked for the children to come here to play because we had dogs and ducks and other animals."
She also noted that the Loves hosted a baby shower for Delfina before Peter's birth. "It was different because Vidar wanted the men to come too," she said.
Judy noted that the Loves also stay in telephone contact with Lydia Zelaya, Peter's maternal grandmother. "She called me to let me know Peter was coming last fall," Judy Love said.
Although Zelaya speaks English haltingly, Judy Love said, the two women have been able to communicate about Peter.
The Loves said they hope Peter will visit Knoxville again, possibly as soon as later this year.
Mrs. Love said that while the Heiers and Peter were in the U.S. last fall, they spent a week in the Knoxville area and another week in New York.
"While they were here, they traveled to the Smokies and Chattanooga," she noted.
Earlier this year, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals denied appeals of the life-without-parole sentences now being served by the six young Kentuckians who pleaded guilty in 1998 to the Lillelid murders.
Sentences of three consecutive terms each of life without parole imposed on Jason Blake Bryant, Natasha Wallen Cornett, Karen Howell, Edward Dean Mullins and Joseph Lance Risner were upheld.
The appeals court changed Crystal Sturgill's sentence to three concurrent terms of life without parole.
Since no one can serve more than one term of life without parole, however, the change in Sturgill's sentence has little practical effect.
The six are serving their sentences at various state prisons.
Routine call, horrific crime
Responding officer, others remember Lillelid family slayings
By J.J. Stambaugh - KnoxNews.com
April 1, 2007
GREENEVILLE, Tenn. - A decade has passed since Greene County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Frank Waddell was dispatched to Payne Hollow Road to investigate what he thought would be a routine disturbance call on a Sunday night.
Instead, he came across a pile of bodies by the side of the road and a toddler lying in a ditch.
Although he didn't know it yet, Waddell had found the grisly fruits of a chance encounter at a nearby rest stop on Interstate 81 that left a little girl dying, her younger brother crippled, and their parents dead.
Every day since then, Waddell says, he's thought about pulling 2-year-old Peter Lillelid from the ditch. He also remembers Peter's sister, 6-year-old Tabitha, whom he found by the corpses of their parents, Vidar, 34, and Delfina, 28.
All had been shot. Both the adults were already dead; Tabitha would die a short time later in a hospital. Peter survived, although he never fully recovered physically - he was shot in the right eye and torso, and the injuries left him half-blind and disabled.
"The little girl had been shot point-blank in the head," Waddell said as he pointed out the spot by the rural road where the family had been left by six young people from Kentucky. "The little boy was laying in the ditch, and I picked him up. Thank God the ambulance was here in a hurry."
It took two days for authorities to track down the people who had stolen the Lillelid family's van. Natasha Wallen Cornett, 18; Edward Dean Mullins, 19; Joseph Lance Risner, 20; Crystal R. Sturgill, 18; Jason Blake Bryant, 14; and Karen R. Howell, 17; were taken into custody in Arizona after trying to cross the Mexican border in the stolen vehicle.
All six now are serving life sentences in the state prison system, and Peter Lillelid lives with relatives in his father's native Sweden. Lillelid's family declined a request to be interviewed, and none of the defendants - all now in their 20s or 30s - could be reached for comment.
For a brief time, the six killers were the center of a storm of publicity. Their faces filled the front pages of supermarket tabloids along with tales of Satanism, blood-drinking, and speculation about "Goth" culture.
Some tried to understand the case by delving into their personal histories, trying to come up with a reason that might explain why they took the lives of an innocent family who had the misfortune of running into them while returning home to Powell from a Jehovah's Witnesses conference in Johnson City.
People still ask why the tragedy occurred and wonder what - if anything - could have prevented it. Others feel that not all the defendants were equally responsible and question the justice of the plea bargain, which took the death penalty off the table in exchange for an "all-or-nothing" guilty plea that triggered life sentences.
Many take satisfaction in knowing the rest of the defendants' lives will be spent behind prison walls.
Examining why Waddell, for his part, is still haunted by the seemingly mundane nature of the call, which was dispatched about 8:20 p.m. on April 6, 1997. Someone from a nearby house had reported hearing gunshots and "people laughing and hollering, something like a party," he said.
As far as Waddell is concerned, life in prison is a just outcome for all those involved.
"I know one thing, they're getting what they deserve, every one of them, because anyone who would shoot a kid point-blank " Waddell paused to shake his head. "They're getting what they deserve."
The Greene County detective who led the investigation, John Huffine, seems satisfied with the case's disposition. He's also not overly interested in delving into the whys of what motivated the killers - it's enough for him to know he unearthed the facts that ultimately led to the case's conclusion.
"I've seen people killed for $5," he said. "There's never a good reason."
Huffine is cynical of the media's continued interest in the case, as he says he's investigated many homicides that were every bit as brutal but didn't garner much coverage. "We've had school schootings, patricides - just about every kind of case you see on the national news here," he said. "(These) occur on a daily basis somewhere in the United States."
One reason for the notoriety, he said, is the sensational nature of the young men and women, who seemed to represent an inversion of just about everything that mainstream culture deemed good. For instance, the killers embraced "the antithesis of the normal religion" and their victims were Jehovah's Witnesses, which led to a perception that the case was about larger issues.
"Good and evil, some people wanted to apply God and the Devil," Huffine said. "If that's the case, every case has an element of that."
Huffine said it was never entirely clear exactly who shot the Lillelids and "some might have been up the road" when the killings happened. The evidence pointed to two gunmen - Bryant and Risner - but was inconclusive as to whether anyone else took place in the actual shootings.
Still, he said, all were ultimately responsible for what took place. "When it was done, they got back in the van and went to Mexico with them," he said.
Huffine also reflected on how easy it would have been for the group to get away with the crime. If they'd not ditched the car they'd driven from Kentucky at the scene, for instance, police might not have been able to trace the killings back to them, he said.
"But getting away wasn't what was uppermost in their minds," Huffine said. "I think it was the notoriety."
Forensic psychologist Helen Smith of Knoxville spent a lot of time looking at the case because of her interest in learning "why kids kill." Her aim is to prevent troubled teens from endangering the lives of innocent victims like the Lillelids. She filmed a documentary called "Six" that focused on the group's lives back in Kentucky with a particular focus on Cornett, who was often portrayed as the group's ringleader.
Smith points out that many factors may have contributed to the tragedy, including a mental health system that largely ignored Cornett's psychological problems and what the youths perceived as a hypocritical Christian morality at play in their community.
Cornett, for instance, had been hospitalized for 11 days due to mental problems but was kicked out of the facility when her government health care benefits stopped, even though she'd been classified as "a danger to herself and others," Smith explained.
"She was already violent, but nobody gave a damn," Smith said.
Also, some of the youths harbored a strong grudge against many of their peers and adults at schools and churches. "They were told how they were supposed to be tolerant to everybody, but they were treated like dogs," Smith said.
None of these factors in any way excuses the killers or seems to completely explain their actions, Smith adds, but they might provide some guidance about how to prevent similar crimes from occurring in the future.
"It symbolizes how hard it is to be a young person in our society, and how many problems are swept under the rug," she said. "We have dangerous people in our society, but we don't do anything about them."
'The wrong people' If any one of the defendants came to represent the group in the public's eyes, it was Cornett. Shortly after her arrest, the young woman gave interviews in which she claimed that Satan would help her and urged other youths "to raise hell while they can" before the world ended.
Cornett later said she made the statements at the advice of her attorney, who was removed from the case.
Cornett and the others eventually launched unsuccessful appeals challenging various elements of the case, and Cornett now lives at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville.
Her mother, Madonna Wallen, said in a phone interview that Cornett has earned a high school diploma and is taking culinary arts classes. Wallen said she hopes her daughter will be freed someday because she doesn't believe she had a firsthand role in the killings.
"Every day I miss her more," Wallen said. "I have a picture of her in the kitchen, of her face. It's just like I've got her here, part of her anyway."
Wallen said she's never spoken with the family of Peter Lillelid but would like to do so. She said she recently watched a television report on the boy's life in Sweden and "it broke my heart."
"Me and Natasha wish him the best," she said. "(Natasha) has mentioned his name quite often, she asks if we've heard anything or how he is. I would like to let (Peter's family) know Natasha, and let them know she didn't shoot the gun. Sure, she was there, but she was with the wrong people."
Wallen said lots of children have problems similar to those her daughter had and could easily find themselves in trouble if they start running around with the wrong crowd.
"You never know - you could be just out goofing around, and the next you know somebody's robbing a bank and the next thing you know, you're an accessory," she said.
Cornett, now 28, is focused today on helping other young women in prison by teaching GED classes and attempting to be a mentor to other inmates, her mother said.
"She is accomplishing something," Wallen said. "If she can show that to somebody and it helps them, I think that's what she's working for - to help somebody else not get in the same predicament that she did."
A Blackened Rainbow
How do we make sense of the Lillelid murders?
By Jesse Fox Mayshark
APRIL 20, 1998:
Prologue: April 12, 1997
People are out in the streets of Pikeville, Ky., for Hillbilly Days, but the carnival's a little strained. There's tension beneath the festiveness at the fair, the biggest party of the year in this coal-mining region. Everybody in town has heard the rumor—a bunch of vampire kids have bought up all the razor blades at Wal-Mart and are going to run through the crowds, cutting people. They're part of the same group as those kids in jail, the ones from around here who killed that family in Tennessee last week. There's going to be trouble.
The local police have stepped up their patrols. As one walks through the crowd, he says into his walkie-talkie, "Yeah, I've got my stake and my holy water." In the end, nothing happens.
Natasha Wallen Cornett has her thumbs hooked through holes in the sleeves of her white thermal shirt, which she wears beneath the navy blue jumpsuit that marks her as a resident of the Greene County Jail. It may be to keep her hands warm. It may be just an affectation, a small act of rebellion, the only kind left to her anymore. It may be so the sleeves don't roll back to expose the scars on her arms. I don't think to ask.
It's hard, in fact, to know what to ask her. She's flanked by Crystal Sturgill and Karen Howell, in identical uniforms, all of them pallid under the fluorescent hallway lights. Sturgill's somewhat frizzy hair and Howell's puffy eyes suggest they haven't been up long this morning, an observation Howell confirms. "They got us out of bed," she says, her small voice registering not so much resentment as resignation."
So here they are. Three convicted murderers. Three demonic killers, vampires, would-be anti-Christs, if you believe everything said about them in court and in news reports over the past 12 months. Three confused, angry, wounded children, if you believe their lawyers, their families, and their psychiatrists.
What they mostly seem like up close is three teenage girls. Cornett and Sturgill are 19, Howell is 18, but they could all be several years younger. They're guarded at first, but they soon relax. This is their seventh or eighth interview since they were sentenced to life in prison four days ago—on Friday the 13th—and they seem glad to talk. They make in-jokes with each other, giggle at some embarrassing detail or other (like the widespread innuendoes about Karen and Natasha's supposed lesbianism—"I don't understand what the hell that had to do with the case," Natasha says), and punch each other lightly on the shoulders. But then one of them will say something—"Please print that we're not satanists and we're not monsters"—that brings the context crashing back.
The crime is familiar by now. East Tennessee media covered it obsessively, and the state Associated Press named it the number one story of 1997. On April 6 of last year, Cornett, Howell, and Sturgill left their homes in Eastern Kentucky with three friends—Joe Risner and Dean Mullins (Howell and Cornett's boyfriends) and 14-year-old Jason Bryant. That evening, at an I-81 rest stop north of Greeneville, they kidnapped a family of Knox County Jehovah's Witnesses who were on their way home from a religious conference, drove them to a dead-end gravel road, shot all four of them—mother, father, grade-school daughter, toddler son—and took their van, leaving the adults dead and the little girl to die the next day in a hospital. Only the 2-year-old boy survived, his right eye destroyed. Two days later, the six were arrested in Arizona after trying to cross into Mexico.
In the flood of news stories that followed, the case took on near-mythic dimensions of good and evil. The victims—Vidar and Delfina Lillelid and their children, Peter and Tabitha—became an embodiment of innocence and hope, immigrants from different continents who had started a life together dedicated to their family and their faith. Their attackers assumed an aura of darkness that went beyond the horror of their crime. The first lurid physical descriptions of them, their "wild haircuts" and face piercings, were quickly joined by tales of occultism, witchcraft, and satanic rites. Most of the stories revolved around Cornett—how she was married wearing a black dress and red cape, how she cut herself and drank blood, how she signed her name backwards, "Ah-Satan". She even gave jailhouse interviews (which she now says were at the instruction of her first lawyer, who was soon dismissed by the court) claiming she was Satan's daughter.
The obvious questions about the case have been answered. Although the six have offered different versions of who did the actual shooting, all of them pleaded guilty in February to first-degree felony murder. Last month, Judge James E. Beckner sentenced each of them to three consecutive terms of life without parole, plus 25 years. Even as I talk with the three young women, Risner and Mullins have already been moved from the county jail to Brushy Mountain penitentiary.
So what do we make of them now? I've tried to answer that question for myself, with uncertain results. A crime so brutal and unmotivated, so emblematic of so many fears, has to mean something. But the fascination with the case's bizarre details tends to crowd out anything else, including history and insight.
"In this business we're always looking for an explanation, and I'm not sure there is one," says Allan S. Perry III, the lean, bearded publisher of the bi-weekly Floyd County Times, which is published in Prestonsburg, about 20 miles from where Cornett lived. Perry, a forward-thinking pro-development type, would much rather talk about prospects for new factories and new jobs in the depressed coal-mining region than about the murders that thrust the area into the international spotlight (the crime was front-page news in Norway, Vidar Lillelid's homeland). "I'm not sure you can explain why or how this happened."
I'm not sure either, but that dead-end shrug doesn't seem like enough. If there is evil in the Lillelid murders—and if evil means anything, there is—it's an evil with a genealogy. I'm not pretending the final act of this tragedy is something we can or should understand. We may even be leery of trying, because we know how quickly understanding turns into excusing in the age of Menendez. But there are things we can know here, things we should know, about what makes evil possible. Where did it come from? The literal answer—Kentucky—might not seem helpful; but it's a start.
Before they left home, they stopped at McDonald's for lunch. Karen paid, with some of the $500 she had taken from her father's house. They were talking about going somewhere far away—New Orleans, maybe, because Natasha had been there before—and they knew Joe's Chevy Citation was too small and too old to get all six of them there. They already had the guns—one from Karen's father's cabinet and one from a friend. "Joe said we could stick somebody up for their car in a mall parking lot," Natasha said in court. "I said, what do you mean a mall? Like a K-Mart? He said, no, a big mall like they have in Lexington." They decided to look for a mall in Tennessee, since it was on the way to New Orleans.
There's a violence about U.S. Route 23 where it cuts through the hills of Pike and Floyd Counties. At 55 or 60 mph, the road feels like a brutal slash that leaves the cliffs cut open and brown with exposed shale. The road is nothing but arcing bends, and around every one is another wall of amputated rock. They blur together until it's hard to be sure you're going anywhere. Not far off the highway a parallel track carries brown rail cars laden with coal.
Wide and fast—everybody I talk to just calls it "the four-lane"—Route 23 is both a promise and a threat. It's the only way in or out, running north all the way to Michigan and south to Tennessee; an escape hatch for those who want to leave and a landing strip for the in-bound jobs and tourists local planners dream of. With an eye toward the latter, sections of the highway are named after country music singers from these parts: Dwight Yoakam, Patty Loveless, Loretta Lynn. Yoakam wrote a song about the road, about people leaving the region to look for work elsewhere. It was the highway Risner took, headed south.
"Have you ever been down Kentucky-way,
Say south of Prestonsburg,
Have you ever been up in a holler,
Or have you ever heard
A mountain man cough his life away
From diggin' that black coal in those dark mines
If you had you might just understand
The reason that they left it all behind
'Cause they'd learned readin' rightin', Route 23
To the jobs that lay waiting in those cities' factories
They didn't know that old highway
Could lead them to a world of misery"
—Dwight Yoakam, "Readin' Rightin' Route 23"
It is late January, and it's not a good time to be in Betsy Layne. The sky is gray, the ground is muddy, the hills are brown with bare trees. In a few days, it will snow.
I'm sitting in the living room of Madonna Wallen's small trailer on Floyd Pike Hollow, a narrow road that turns off of Route 23 at the Betsy Layne fire station and winds into the hills. Farther up the road is a small mining operation, the Clark Coal Company. Natasha Cornett's mother is a woman in her mid-50s with auburn hair going gray and large-frame glasses that make her eyes look like they're peering out of oblong windows. She's in an easy chair by the window; when she turns to the side, light through the blinds shows the tired lines on her face. While she talks, in quiet tones colored with hollow laughter, a brown-black poodle snuffles around her feet and occasionally leaps into her lap. Three cats patrol the room's perimeter, leaping onto the back of the couch and keeping a watchful distance from the poodle. A second dog, a black mutt, is tied up outside on a clothesline lead. He barked when I parked across the road at the local senior citizens' center, the pale creamy building where, two years ago, Natasha Wallen married Steve Cornett.
Madonna named the oldest feline Mommy Cat, even though she hasn't had kittens. Natasha named the rest. One cat is called Panda, but that's a nickname, short for Pandemonium. The third cat is Rage. The poodle is Malkavian, named after a family of vampires in a role-playing game Natasha liked (she had a Vampire: The Dark Ages score sheet in her wallet when she was arrested). And the dog outside, a 1996 Christmas present from Steve Cornett, is called Evil.
Tomorrow, Jan. 26, is Natasha's birthday.
"I blame myself for a lot of the things Natasha got herself into, her mental condition, and the whole thing," Wallen says. "You have one of those cases where you wish you could go back to the beginning and start all over again."
Greeneville, March 10-13
Nobody I talk to in the press corps at the sentencing hearing has heard of the classic Japanese film Rashomon. But I keep thinking about it. The movie recounts one event—a rape and murder in a forest—as told by four people. Each version is different from the others, and the movie suggests each could be true. At the hearing in the packed Greene County Courthouse, four defendants take the stand (only Mullins and Sturgill decline to testify). Two central versions of the story emerge: Jason Bryant's and everyone else's.
Bryant, the youngest and least articulate of the group, says he never knew what was going on during the trip and was stunned by the carjacking and the killings. He names Risner and Mullins as the shooters but can't offer many details of the crime (he says he went into shock). Cornett, Howell, and Risner all say the opposite—that Bryant was the sole shooter, emptying two handguns into the family while the others watched in varying degrees of horror. They have divergences, though; Natasha and Karen say Natasha tried to stop Jason, or at least tried to save the children; Risner says nothing about that; Risner admits he ran over the bodies as the six were fleeing in the Lillelids' van, but insists it was an accident; Karen and Natasha (and, in the jail interview, Crystal) say it was intentional and Risner was laughing as he did it.
"All we've heard about this case since it started is Natasha, Natasha, Natasha, Natasha."
—Stacy Street, attorney for Natasha Cornett, at the sentencing hearing
The Wallen family history reads like a catalog of domestic miseries.
Sexual abuse: Madonna Wallen was molested when she was four or five by a local man, a pastor at a nearby church; nobody talked about it—this was the 1940s—but her mother took her to the doctor to deal with the resulting physical trauma. Her first daughter, Velina, says she was molested for years by Madonna's second husband, Ed Wallen.
Violence: At 17, Madonna married a Pepsi Cola salesman, an abusive alcoholic named Don Adkins; Velina was born in 1960; the couple divorced in 1966, after Madonna fired a shotgun at Adkins while he advanced on the house, threatening to kill her; his wounds weren't fatal and she wasn't charged, on grounds of self-defense.
Adultery: Her second marriage ran into problems too; eventually, Madonna started having an affair with Roger Burgess, a Pikeville policeman; in 1978, she got pregnant; she knew the baby wasn't Wallen's; Natasha was born in 1979; in 1985, Madonna was diagnosed with breast cancer; it was successfully treated; around the same time, she was working for a Pikeville lawyer; she says he demanded sex from her as a condition of employment; after she quit, she sued him for sexual harassment, but the case was dismissed (he said the affair was consensual).
"The first time I ever remember trying to kill myself, I was in a crib and I tried to suffocate myself with a blanket...I remember that my mom was like yelling at me for something. She was just like, like I couldn't do anything right to her, or for her, no matter how hard I tried. It's like I couldn't make her love me. And one night it just kind of all hit me."
"How old do you think you were?"
"Um, I'd say around three or four."
—Interview with Natasha Wallen Cornett, March 17, 1998
"I never hit her with my fists," Madonna Wallen says quietly, sitting at her kitchen table. I'm back in Kentucky two weeks after the sentencing. Madonna's responding to statements Natasha made in court about her childhood. "I don't know, maybe she thought I did, but I hit her always with my hand open." She pauses. "I've hit her with a plastic ball bat, a hollow plastic ball bat, maybe throwed a few books at her, let's see...I've whipped her hard. I really have. I have whipped her too hard, I know, at times. Because she'd lose it and I'd lose it too." Crystal Sturgill says she remembers seeing Madonna hit Natasha with a Bible.
One morning in fifth grade, Natasha woke up on her own instead of at her mother's urging. The trailer was quiet. Her first thought was that her mother, who had threatened to abandon her before, was gone. She walked out of her room and down the narrow hallway to her mother's bedroom door. When she opened it, she saw Madonna Wallen naked on the bed, unconscious, with an empty bottle of pills on the floor. Natasha called her mother's former boyfriend, who came and took Madonna to the hospital. Natasha went to school, where she burst into tears in front of an uncomprehending teacher. When she got home, her mother was asleep. Natasha spent the night curled on the floor outside her mother's door.
In seventh grade, she stopped eating—first she'd skip meals for a day, then a week, then, she says, a whole month. She lost 30 pounds. Madonna had her hospitalized in Lexington. Doctors at Charter Ridge Behavioral Health System evaluated her and said she was not only anorexic but severely bipolar (or "manic depressive"). When they discharged her, they told her mother the girl still needed a lot of help, but they couldn't provide it any longer—the state's insurance would pay for only 11 days of treatment.
Vidar Lillelid approached the group outside the bathroom at the rest stop, carrying his young son in his arms. The blond, smiling father asked the teens if they believed in God. Natasha said no; He had never answered her prayers when she was little. While they spoke, Delfina and Tabitha Lillelid came up. Tabitha reached out her hand and offered Karen and Natasha a Hershey's kiss.
One weekend along Route 23:
Church—Satan is alive in Betsy Layne this Sunday morning. He hovers over the congregation at Betsy Layne Baptist Church; they know he's there, looking for any sign of weakness. The service is a series of testimonials and requests for prayer for family members and co-workers who have fallen under the temptor's sway. It's punctuated by karaoke-style performances from three singers accompanied by pre-recorded music. One of them, a blond-haired woman with a high, full voice, breaks down crying during the second verse of her light-rock hymn but recovers in time for the chorus. When she's done, she says apologetically, "I don't do this professionally. Satan will get you anyway he can, and I can't sing and cry at the same time. But I asked God for the strength to let me finish, and He gave it."
Wal-Mart—Bob Collins and his friends are sitting at small formica tables in the back corner of the Wal-Mart Supercenter outside Pikeville. Mostly retired coal miners and railroad men, they meet here daily to drink coffee and talk politics (Collins offhandedly mentions he's running for sheriff). They're friends of Roger Burgess, Natasha Cornett's father. He comes in here some days, when he's not feeling too poorly. "Young people around here don't have much chance," Collins says. "They don't have anything to do." The others nod. They remember the coal boom days of the '70s, when anyone could get a job and families migrated from the north—mostly Ohio—in search of work. Now many of them have moved back.
The only jobs available now, Collins observes looking around the windowless cafeteria, are the diminishing ones in the mines or behind the register of a place like this. And Wal-Mart, he notes, doesn't hire full-time. "It's all big business now," he says. Still, the men gather here because the places they used to frequent have closed down, even as the superstores and strip malls have sprung up along the four-lane. Wal-Mart is inescapable in these parts. There's another one down the road outside Prestonsburg and a third in Paintsville. The Supercenter replaced the old Pikeville Wal-Mart, which now sits empty by the highway. Cornett, Risner, et al., stopped there on their way out of town to buy an atlas. The first clue detectives at the crime scene had to the killers' point of origin was a Wal-Mart receipt in Risner's abandoned car.
Shoney's—There's an air of defiance about Tiffany Caudill as she walks into the restaurant, just off the highway between Pikeville and Betsy Layne. She's wearing jeans, workboots, and a black White Zombie T-shirt with "Say You Love Satan" emblazoned on the back. I'm conscious of suspicious stares from some of the families eating dinner around us. Tiffany says the shirt got her beat up once in a local redneck bar, where a few women told her they didn't want any "devil worshippers" hanging around.
Caudill, 21, is a friend of Natasha's. She met her on the younger girl's 15th birthday, which she recalls as the first time Natasha ever smoked a joint. She isn't a devil worshipper. (She rolls her eyes at people who don't get the joke of White Zombie's mock-satanic posturing.) But she is intensely cynical about the cultural norms of Eastern Kentucky. It's a place, she says, where people go to church on Sundays to make peace with the Lord, and then go home and make war on each other. The men work hard or not at all, and either way they don't make much. Money goes toward beer, and anger goes toward whoever's around. "That's why half the women in this town get beaten," she says, her eyebrows furrowing. "The men are taking it out on them." And, she adds darkly, it's hard to find a woman in the region who hasn't been sexually abused.
Greeneville, March 10-13:
The hearing becomes a numbing litany of failed families. Joe Risner never met his real father; Crystal Sturgill doesn't even know who her father is. Jason Bryant's father is an alcoholic; his mother abandoned the family when he was young. After Karen Howell's parents divorced because of her father's drinking, her mother had a nervous breakdown. Even Dean Mullins, who is close to both of his parents and his sister, comes from a divorced family. Howell says she was molested for five years by an uncle and a cousin.
In December 1996, Sturgill filed charges against her stepfather, Gene Blackburn, accusing him of rape. The detective investigating the case says Blackburn admitted having sex with Crystal "about 10 times." After she made the allegations, Crystal was cut off by her family, who sided with Blackburn. She ended up at Natasha Cornett's trailer for want of anywhere else to stay. In a letter home to a friend from jail, she said the only good thing about being arrested is that "my family all loves me again."
"You believe, do you not, that you as a witch, you as a lover of Satan, get special power from killing children?"
"No. And I'm not a witch."
—District Attorney General Berkeley Bell questioning Natasha Cornett
Berkeley Bell doesn't want to hear about tormented childhoods, economic depression, borderline personalities, or anything else that sounds like an excuse. The ruddy-faced district attorney general believes all six of the Lillelid defendants planned and participated in killing the family. There's no question in his mind that the murder was a satanic ritual carried to its logical terminus. He's sympathetic to the six young people's families, but he wasn't moved by any of the tears—Cornett's, Howell's, Risner's—shed at the sentencing hearing.
"They certainly didn't indicate to me at any level that they were remorseful about what they had done," he says, sitting in his fifth-floor office in the NationsBank building adjacent to the Greene County Courthouse. "They were remorseful that they were convicted of first-degree murder and that they are going to die in the penitentiary. But that's about the only level of remorse I have seen from these people."
Bell didn't set out looking for witches. But he says the evidence quickly accumulated to such an extent that it was impossible to ignore: from the upside-down cross spray-painted in Natasha's bedroom to the one she carved into Jason Bryant's left arm two nights before the killings, from her books on witchcraft to the testimony of friends about Natasha and Karen's blood rituals, everywhere Bell's investigators looked, they found occultism.
He doesn't pretend to understand the teens' exact beliefs, which he characterizes as a mish-mash of ideas cribbed from a wealth of sources. But he's sure they were the reason for the killings. And in his 16 years as D.A., he's never had a case convince him so thoroughly that there is evil—"spiritual evil"—in the world.
"That's what we're taught in our religion," he says. "But I don't know that it was ever quite driven home before as emphatically as it has been in this case."
Bell has a 3-year-old son. Every day for 10 months when he went home from work, he looked at his son and thought of Peter Lillelid.
On her 17th birthday, Natasha married Steve Cornett, a friend who had become a best friend and then a boyfriend. It lasted about six months. "I just went crazy, period," she says. She wouldn't let her husband leave home to go to work some mornings, threatening to kill herself if he did. She had stopped drinking and using all drugs, because she wanted to get pregnant. "I've always wanted a baby," she says. "I don't know if this will make sense or not, but I thought that having a baby and treating it good, doing it right, would heal my pain." "The more one knows, the less one believes."
—Proverb in fortune cookie at Peking Chinese restaurant, Route 23
Richard Gray is a gregarious guy with round, excitable eyes and a blond ponytail. I'm following him down a steep bank of scrub grass on the outskirts of Pikeville one Saturday afternoon to look at some graffiti. Gray, 32, is a student at Pikeville College and a self-styled occult hobbyist; he's not a practitioner, but he's interested in what goes on. He provided investigators in the Lillelid case with some of their information on occult activities in the area (he's still waiting to get his copy of The Satanic Bible back from them).
At the foot of the bank are openings to two parallel tunnels, wide cement box culverts as long as a football field and eight or nine feet high. When it's not raining, they stay fairly dry. They're covered, end to end, floor to ceiling, with spray-painted slogans and symbols.
"I think it's in this one," Gray says, choosing the left-hand tunnel. But as we walk it, scanning the walls in the dim sunlight that filters in from both ends, he can't find what he's looking for. "They may have painted over it," he says, frowning. Coming out the other end, we make a U-turn into the right-hand tunnel and head back. About two-thirds of the way along, just as we get into about an inch of water, Gray stops and gestures. It's still there, on the right. When Natasha Cornett was 13 or 14 years old, she came down here with a can of black spray paint and in letters two feet high scrawled the name of a popular Pat Benatar song: "Hell is for Children." It's signed, "by Natasha Ah-Satan."
Greeneville, March 10-13:
During one break in the testimony, I watch the defandants' families file out, red-eyed women and clench-jawed men, a procession of fathers who weren't and mothers who should have been. I can't help wondering if in some way they were the ones their children saw at the end of their guns. Or, if it's true that only Jason Bryant did the shooting, whether the others' failure to stop him arose in some way from the certainty that it didn't matter anyway, that this is what happens to all families in the end: they get blown apart. Describing the shooting, Natasha Cornett sobbed, "I didn't know how to stop it." For the ones who watched, maybe it was a horror made no less tragic by its inevitability, but no less inevitable by its tragedy.
In the Lillelids' van, Joe Risner sat in the front seat holding the 9 mm gun. Jason Bryant, Natasha Cornett, and Karen Howell were in the middle, next to Peter Lillelid in his car seat. Jason was holding the .25 caliber. Delfina and Tabitha were in back. Tabitha was crying. Delfina started singing to her. Natasha says Jason told Delfina, "You'd better shut her up!" The Lillelids tried to assure their kidnappers they could let them go without fear of repercussions. "[Delfina] said she wouldn't be able to identify any of our faces because all teenagers dress alike these days," Karen says.
"Tara" dresses a lot like Natasha Cornett and her friends. Today, she's wearing a black Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, with an upright pentagram dangling from her thin necklace. She doesn't want her real name used. Although she is "out of the broom closet" to her friends and co-workers, the 20-year-old college student is wary of letting too many people in Pike County know she's a Wiccan, a witch.
Although she goes to church occasionally and can quote Scripture, Tara's been a Wiccan for three years. She knows most people around here won't see much difference between her religion and satanism. But she says she adheres to pre-Christian pagan beliefs that don't even acknowledge Satan, much less worship him. She finds the religion liberating in all the ways her hometown's brand of Christianity is stifling. Wicca revolves around natural dichotomies: seasonal changes, light and dark, earth and spirit. It has only one commandment, the Wiccan Rede—"An ye harm none, do as ye will."
Tara estimates there are 200 or so Wiccans in the immediate vicinity, most of them solitary practitioners. Natasha Cornett, she says, wasn't one of them. She was something different, darker.
"I think Natasha liked to find your weak points and exploit them," she says. She met Cornett twice and was spooked by her. "She liked to use intimidation."
The god Natasha says she believes in is a yin-yang deity similar to the Wiccan goddess. But Tara thinks Cornett lost sight of the good in pursuit of the evil.
"In the immortal words of Kurt Cobain," Tara says, giving an ironic half-smile at the name of the dead singer, "the darkness catches you. You can run from it, but it catches you. If you completely embrace the dark side without the light, then the dark will claim you."
After Steve Cornett left her, Natasha and a friend took a road trip to try to find him in Lexington. Failing that, they ended up in New Orleans, where they lived for a month, hanging out with "gutter punks" and sleeping in abandoned houses. They did drugs, including heroin. They went to a tarot reader; the cards said Natasha was going to "do something big" with her life.
Entry from Dean Mullins' journal, six months before the murders (Mullins is describing a vision of two different lands):
"Behind me to the south, an encouraged world, a world of undisturbing peace. The happy place. The grass the prettiest green. Everyone is the perfect skin color. All the Eves had blonde [sic] hair and all the Adams had brown, the nicest brown, the color of trees.
Finally the north. What all will be here Let's see. ... [S]lowly my orbs adjust to the macabre. The scene of sickening growth of incomprehensible corpses. The life blood dried from their leathery skin covered skeletons. Nothing could prepare my weak mind for this vision of horror...The bodies rest upon each other, stacks and stacks of crimson colored and dirt. If all the world saw this, what wouldn't they feel, think. I don't believe a totally stable frame could inherit such wisdom...What is it, what truth should I see in this, I must see truth to make a decision on this crossroad. Why rule a kingdom, a world of my own if it is destroyed and there is no life, no one to rule. But also, why envelop a world where everything is bewilderment and a blackened rainbow absorbs the obvious. But there still remains the orgy of decomposed bodies. What shalt be my fate if I take forth there. Will I join them, or rule them; but what is there to rule. What? Fuck this! Fuck it! Why must I decide!? I can't! I have not the power of such a choice. Fuck!"
The word "Gothic" is mostly a fashion statement these days. It means dark clothing, black lipstick, chains on jeans, and the doom-ridden music of bands like Marilyn Manson and Tool. (One Knoxville club has a regular "Goth Night.") Tara offers a definition: "The whole idea behind Goth, in my opinion, is embracing your darker side and recognizing it."
She's not far off from the more subtle analysis offered in a recent book, Nightmare on Main Street, by University of Virginia literature professor Mark Edmundson. Tracing Gothic thought to its roots in 18th and 19th century literature (Edgar Allan Poe was kind of a high priest of Gothic), Edmundson suggests its core ideas—that we are haunted by pasts we can't escape, that there is no hope for redemption—have come to define our culture. He sees the effects of Gothic thought in everything from Freudian psychobabble to slasher films. (Vampires, who are both haunter and haunted, are very Gothic.) Edmundson isn't an alarmist, exactly; he notes violent crime, for example, is actually down, even as obsession with it is up. But he wonders about the cultural impact of so much determined, or pre-determined, darkness: "[I]n a culture of Gothic...there is no love to mitigate the drive to domination, not even a conception of love that can adequately counter the Gothic myth that all is haunted and that death inevitably wins out."
After the shootings, Natasha says, Jason jumped into passenger seat of the Lillelids' van. He and Risner were laughing. Karen says Jason fiddled with the stereo. "He said, 'I've gotta hear some Marilyn Manson.'" The stereo wouldn't work.
Jason Bryant is nervous. His fingers twitch, and he looks around the small, empty jail conference room worriedly, his large brown eyes never resting anywhere for more than a few seconds. His face is pocked with acne. His left forearm still shows the reddened scar of the inverted cross Cornett cut into it.
The only thing everybody—everybody but Bryant—agrees on about what happened at Payne Hollow Road is that this muscular boy shot the Lillelids. (Bell, of course, thinks all six pulled the triggers; Judge Beckner, in sentencing Bryant, also opined there were other shooters, but Bryant was the only one he said he was sure of.) By Howell's testimony, Jason's the one who walked up to Tabitha Lillelid while the 6-year-old was screaming over her mother's fallen body, put a gun to the girl's blond head, and fired. Crystal Sturgill calls him "a monster."
In person, he's wary. He talks about another reporter he spoke to who he thinks tried to "twist my words around." In court, he was the only one to testify who didn't cry on the stand, which he knows hurt him in public opinion. But that's how he was brought up, he insists.
"We was basically raised up that you show emotion, you're weak," he says. He repeats a line his lawyer used repeatedly, about how he and his siblings had to "raise ourselves" in a home with an alcoholic father and an absent mother. That this is an inappropriate use of that cliché—which usually describes people rising above adversity, not fostering it—obviously doesn't occur to him.
I start to ask what it's like to wake up every morning and realize he's in jail, but Bryant anticipates the question and misunderstands it. "Every morning when I wake up, I grab my right eye," he says, clamping his hand to his face to demonstrate. He said the same thing in court, to illustrate his trauma at seeing Vidar Lillelid shot in the head. The motion looked oddly mechanical on the stand; it seems even moreso close-up.
The only times Bryant's eyes relax are when he talks about playing football or fixing cars. He had fantasies of playing for Notre Dame ("ever since I saw that movie Rudy!"), although this 15-year-old with a third-grade reading level admits it might have been a stretch.
He'll be in a juvenile center for the next three years, and then he'll transfer to a regular prison. He says he'll spend the time lifting weights, so he'll "be ready" when that time comes.
At the end of the interview, Bryant says he has one message he wants to convey to his peers; he wants "to get the word out." Again, there's the sense of a rehearsed moment. "Stay off of drugs, and watch your friends," he says solemnly. Then he repeats it.
March 25, 1998:
The blue phone on the wall in Madonna Wallen's kitchen rings. She answers it, listens for a moment, and presses a button to accept a collect call. It's Natasha calling from the Prison for Women in Nashville. She likes it there, Madonna says, at least better than the Greeneville jail. She and Karen are cellmates, and they can take classes and move around during the day. But Natasha's not happy now. A money order her mother sent her hasn't gotten there yet. Natasha thinks she did it wrong and wants her to send another.
Madonna's voice stiffens, due either to the presence of visitors or the tone of Natasha's voice or both. "I know I'm not the one stuck in there with nothing, but I can only do so much," she says into the phone, methodically turning a purple cigarette lighter in her left hand. After about 15 strained minutes, Natasha ends the call abruptly. Madonna hangs up and says with a sigh, "You just heard me talking to manic-depressive Natasha."
Natasha Cornett was born with a hole in her heart. When she was 16 months old, she went back to the hospital for surgery to heal the birth defect. She says her earliest memory is of that hospital room, of being alone there, with the surgical scar itching.
When she was five or so, her mother worked in an Army surplus store. Madonna Wallen used to dress her daughter up in camouflage outfits, complete with army boots. The little girl loved it. She also loved knives—Swiss Army knives, hunting knives. It was hard for her mother to keep them away from her.
When Natasha first started cutting herself, it was on her ankles. Later, she moved to her arms. When she was arrested, she had slash marks running from her wrists past her elbows. There were razor blades in the Lillelids' van.
Madonna Wallen remembers buying a denim dress for Natasha when she was young. The girl loved it and wore it to school. But its low neck showed Natasha's surgery scar, and another student made fun of her. She never wore it again. In prison, Madonna says, she wears longsleeve shirts so no one will ask her about the marks on her arms. I think of thumbs hooked through sleeve-holes.
A week after my interview with Cornett, Howell, and Sturgill, I'm back in Greene County to spend a day going through the mountain of red folders that makes up the case file. Leaving around 2:30 p.m. to head to another appointment, I start the car and turn on the radio. The news comes on. The first story is from Arkansas. The details are sketchy, but it appears two boys, 11 and 13, have just opened fire on a field full of middle school students. An undetermined number are dead.