The Disturbing Story Of Tommy Lynn Sells, The Sexual Psychopath Who May Have Killed 70 People

Published November 30, 2023

After a 10-year-old surviving victim named Krystal Surles escaped Tommy Lynn Sells' clutches, the infamous American serial killer was soon captured and sentenced to death.

Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions and/or images of violent, disturbing, or otherwise potentially distressing events.

Tommy Lynn Sells

Wikimedia CommonsTommy Lynn Sells, the “Coast to Coast Killer,” is responsible for as many as over 70 murders across the country.

In 1992, 19-year-old Fabienne Witherspoon was walking to a friend’s apartment in Charleston, West Virginia when she came across a disheveled man under an overpass holding a sign that read “I will work for food.” The man showed her a picture of his wife and kids, and, feeling sorry for him, Witherspoon invited him home with her so she could give him some food.

But once they got inside, the man grabbed a knife, locked them in, and attempted to rape her. Witherspoon’s survival instincts kicked in. She hit him over the head, grabbed the knife, and stabbed him repeatedly before he finally managed to smash a piano stool over her head, knocking her out.

The next thing she knew, she was waking up in the hospital, having just received surgery for a severe head wound and hand laceration. Her attacker was in the ICU and under police custody. Witherspoon had nicked his liver and kidneys and sliced his testicle.

“I just wanted to get away, and I didn’t realize I had stabbed him,” Witherspoon told “20/20.” “It was very, very, very hard to know that I had the capability of hurting someone like that… I always felt if something like that ever happened to me… I would just — I would faint and die. I would not fight. But I found out that I was somebody different.”

What she didn’t know at the time was that she had just survived an attack by a serial killer.

Fabienne Witherspoon

Kanawha County Prosecutor’s OfficeNineteen-year-old Fabienne Witherspoon is one of only two known survivors of serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells.

Tommy Lynn Sells was already an experienced killer by the time Witherspoon met him. And after he served five years in prison for “malicious wounding” following her attack, he would go on to kill many more.

The Early Life Of Tommy Lynn Sells

Tommy Lynn Sells undoubtedly had a rough upbringing. He was born in Oakland, California in 1964, and was one of seven kids to a single mom. He and his twin sister Tammy Lee contracted spinal meningitis at just 18 months old. Tammy died, but Tommy survived.

According to the Office of the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney, at age seven, Sells was drinking alcohol from his grandfather’s stash. By eight, he had a relationship with an adult man who Sells said molested him at the encouragement of his mother. And by 10, he was smoking marijuana.

Three years later, when Sells was 13, he crawled naked into his sleeping grandmother’s bed, leading his horrified family to allegedly leave him for good at their Missouri home without saying goodbye. Sells was left to fend for himself.

Enraged over this abandonment, Sells soon embarked on a cross-country crime spree that would span more than 20 years.

“The first time I did a shot of dope, it was the best feeling I ever had in my life. The first time I killed somebody, it was such a rush,” Sells would later tell ABC News. “It was just like that, a shot of dope every time I did it, it was that rush again. And I started chasing that high.”

The Many Murders Of Tommy Lynn Sells

For more than two decades, Tommy Lynn Sells travelled across the country, taking odd jobs, indulging in various substances, and committing heinous crimes along the way. He took to calling himself the “Coast to Coast Killer.”

In the end, Sells was only convicted of two murders. But he confessed to dozens more, and police believe he committed a total of 22. Sells claimed he was responsible for over 70.

Tommy Sells

ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock PhotoTommy Lynn Sells was convicted of only two murders out of the over 70 he claims he committed.

According to the Associated Press, retired Texas Ranger John Allen said, “We did confirm 22… I know there’s more. I know there’s a lot more. Obviously, we won’t ever know.”

Here are a few of the murders police can confidently link to Sells.

The Cordts

In July 1985, Tommy Lynn Sells was working at a carnival in Missouri, where he met Ena Cordt and her 4-year-old son Rory.

According to Sells, Ena invited him back to her house, where they had sex. Sells claims when he woke up, Ena was attempting to steal from his backpack. He then beat her to death with her son’s baseball bat and killed Rory, too, as he would be a potential witness.

The bodies of Ena and Rory Cordt were found three days later, after Sells had left town.

Suzanne Korcz

In May 1987, Suzanne Korcz disappeared after leaving a bar in Rockport, New York, alone. Her body was found near Niagara Falls eight years later. Sells confessed to the murder in 2004, according to research by Radford University.

Stefanie Kelly Stroh

In October 1987, 21-year-old Stefanie Kelly Stroh was last seen hitchhiking through Nevada. Sells said he picked her up and offered her a ride to Reno. According to Sells, he strangled her and dumped her body in a hot spring. Her body was never found.

Joel Kirkpatrick

In October 1997 in Lawrenceville, Illinois, 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick was stabbed to death in his bedroom while he was asleep. His mother, Julie Rea-Harper, said she ran to her son’s bedroom and found a man wearing a ski mask. She fought him off, and the man fled, leaving a steak knife from the kitchen on the floor outside Joel’s bedroom.

But authorities didn’t buy Rea-Harper’s story at first. There were no signs of the struggle she described, or of forced entry into the house. They named her as the primary suspect, and in 2000, she was charged with first-degree murder.

Prosecutors argued that Joel was the center of a bitter custody battle between Rea-Harper and her ex-husband. While the case against her was almost entirely circumstantial, she was convicted of the murder and sentenced to 65 years in prison.

Joel Kirkpatrick And Julie Rea

University of Illinois SpringfieldJoel Kirkpatrick with his mother, Julie Rea-Harper, who was originally convicted of his murder before being exonerated by Sells’ confession.

By the time Rea-Harper was convicted, Tommy Lynn Sells was already on death row for another murder. Diane Fanning, a true-crime writer working on a book about Sells, wrote to him in prison. To her surprise, he wrote back with details about the crime he couldn’t have known unless he’d been there.

Fanning brought the letter to a Texas Ranger who had worked on the Sells case, and in 2003, authorities interviewed Sells about Joel Kirkpatrick. He confessed to the murder, corroborating details of Rea-Harper’s story.

Rea-Harper’s conviction was overturned after she’d spent two years in prison. Prosecutors attempted to retry the case against her, but her defense showed Sells’ taped confession in court, and she was found not guilty.

Sells was never formally charged with Joel Kirkpatrick murder.

The Dardeen Family

In November 1987, Tommy Lynn Sells was invited into the Ina, Illinois home of the Dardeen family after befriending the father, Russell Keith Dardeen. There, he committed perhaps his most heinous murder.

After killing Russell, he raped Russell’s wife Ruby Elaine and beat their three-year-old son Peter to death with a bat.

Tragically, Ruby Elaine was seven months pregnant at the time of the murders. Sells bludgeoned her so brutally that she gave birth during the attack. After she was dead, Sells turned to the newborn baby girl and beat her to death, too.

Mary Beatrice Perez

On April 18, 1999, 9-year-old Mary Beatrice Perez was kidnapped from the annual Fiesta festival in San Antonio, Texas. A week later, police found her body in a creek. She had been raped and strangled to death with her T-shirt.

Tommy Lynn Sells pleaded guilty to Perez’s murder in 2003 and was given an additional life sentence on top of his previous death sentence.

Kaylene ‘Katy’ Harris, The Murder That Sent Tommy Lynn Sells To Death Row

Krystal Surles

Courtesy of the Surles Family, via CBS NewsTen-year-old Krystal Surles recovers at a hospital in San Antonio after having her throat slashed by Tommy Lynn Sells.

On Dec. 31, 1999, in Del Rio, Texas, Tommy Lynn Sells brutally murdered 13-year-old Kaylene “Katy” Harris in her trailer home. He broke in, sexually assaulted her, sliced her throat, and stabbed her 16 times.

Sells had befriended the Harris family after meeting them at a local church, and had visited their trailer home several times; he had known Katy’s father would be conveniently out of town that night.

What he hadn’t realized was that Katy’s friend, 10-year-old Krystal Surles, would be at the Harris home for a sleepover that night, sleeping in the top bunk above Katy. When Sells realized she was there, he turned on her and sliced her throat, too — but Krystal survived.

“He reached over and cut my throat,” Krystal said, according to Crime Library. “I just lay there and pretended I was dead. If he knew I was alive, he would come back and kill me for sure.”

Sells left, thinking both girls were dead. Krystal got up and walked a quarter of a mile with a severed trachea to a neighbor’s house to get help. She was flown to a San Antonio hospital and rushed into surgery.

While Krystal Surles’ injuries were severe, she recovered well and soon helped police create a sketch of Sells to be distributed to family and friends. Sells was identified and quickly arrested.

“It took just 10 minutes for Sells to uproot our family,” Terry Harris, Katy’s father, told The Kansas City Star, as reported by Crime Library. “He stole our daughter’s accomplishments, every birthday, every holiday… It eats me up that I tried to help Tommy. I talked with him. He was a guy down on his luck that I tried to help. He repaid me by killing my daughter.”

Tommy Lynn Sells Sketch

Texas RangersKrystal Surles helped a forensic artist create the sketch that would identify Sells as her attacker.

Tommy Lynn Sells’ Conviction And Death Sentence

In 2000, a jury convicted Tommy Lynn Sells of the murder of Katy Harris and sentenced him to execution in Texas. His reign of terror was finally at an end.

Soon after, he pleaded guilty to the 1999 murder of Mary Beatrice Perez, receiving an additional life sentence. He also confessed to dozens of other crimes, though many of the murders he confessed to were never officially linked to Sells or even confirmed to have happened.

Sells was executed by lethal injection at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville on April 3, 2014. Krystal Surles attended his execution, along with members of the Harris and Perez families.

While Sells declined to make a final statement, his feelings about his crimes were made in clear in an interview with ABC News in 2010.

“I am hatred. When you look at me, you look at hate,” he said. “I don’t know what love is. Two words I don’t like to use is ‘love’ and ‘sorry,’ because I’m about hate.”

After reading about Tommy Lynn Sells’ reign of terror, read about the true stories behind some of history’s worst serial killers. Or, read some of the most chilling quotes from serial killers.

Hannah Reilly Holtz
Hannah Reilly is an editorial fellow with All That's Interesting. She holds a B.A. in journalism from Texas Tech University and was named a Texas Press Association Scholar. Previously, she has worked for KCBD NewsChannel 11 and at Texas Tech University as a multimedia specialist.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.