The Lillelid Murders
Despite the fact that six people were eventually sentenced to life without parole in the murders of the Lillelid family in 1997, Natasha Cornett is the most talked about. Some say it is because she was the “leader” of the group. Natasha and her attorney's, as well as supporters, dispute that claim. Many believe that this belief came about from the representation of her first attorney who seemed to want to push the idea of cults and satanic rituals being a part of the case, something that seemingly more often pops up in cases from the southern region. During the time of this murder there seemed to be a lot of them actually but over time it has been thought that the Satanic culture was not exactly as it was portrayed or even existed. I cannot say for sure that is the case here but it has been widely disputed.
On April 6, 1997 the bodies of thirty-four year old Vidar Lillelid, his twenty-eight year old wife, Delfina were found on the side of the road in a deserted area in Greeneville Tennessee. Their six year old daughter, Tabitha and two year old son, Peter would also be found. Tabitha would die soon after arriving at the hospital. Peter would be the only survivor.
Vidar was from Norway and had come to the United States in 1985. He would meet American, Delfina while being involved in their ministry as Jehovah witnesses. They would marry in 1989 and apparently continued in their quest to spread their religious message. It became apparent that the family had encountered six teenagers at a rest stop that had been near where their bodies would later be found. It was reported by witnesses that it appeared that the couple were trying to convert, or at least spread their message to the teenagers.
Two days later six people would be arrested as they attempted to cross into Mexico driving the Lillelid's van. They were, Natasha Cornett, 18, Edward Mullins, 19, Joseph Risner, 20, Crystal Sturgill, 18, Jason Bryant, 14 and Karen Howell, 17.
Research seemed a bit sketchy as in some areas it indicated that there was one trial for all six defendants and that they were convicted of felony murder. However, most research indicates that there was no trial but that one by one they would all decide to plead guilty to avoid those facing the death penalty and all be sentenced on March 13, 1998. They would all receive a sentence of life without parole. I have looked at the Tennessee Department of Correction and none of the perpetrators have a release date of any kind. I did not expect for any of them but possibly the two youngest considering they were under eighteen when the crime occurred. In essence since Jason Bryant was fourteen and Karen Howell was seventeen they would not be eligible for the death penalty if the crime occurred today.
As I stated earlier so much of this case surrounds information dealing with Natasha Cornett and there is very little about the other perpetrators so I cannot say for sure that any of them had considered at any point of taking their cases to trial or what their defense attorney's had planned. However, it has been argued, and it really does seem that the prosecutor agreed, that Natasha's first attorney had wanted to use the “Satan angle” as the prosecutor called it. According to Natasha he wanted her to proclaim that she was the “Daughter of Satan” and that would have been the defense. For one reason or another the attorney was replaced and by all accounts it seems everyone on both sides were happy with that decision. However, it seems that it was that idea spread by the attorney that hit the media and causes judgment in the case before it ever saw a courtroom.
What is known is that after meeting the couple at the rest stop the six teens either followed the Lilelid family, or forced them, to a more isolated area. It as at this spot in which all four were shot. Two year old Peter was shot in the torso and the eye, bullets that would leave him permanently blind in that eye and apparently leave him with a limp. While the plea agreements did not apparently claim who did what in the commission of the crime it seems that Natasha's specifically stated she did not participate in the shooting, something she has maintained. In fact, she has claimed over the years that she had no idea what was going to happen and that when she did she attempted to stop it, but that apparently has never been verified by anyone else.
Psychologists would say that all six of the youths had what was described as “difficult childhoods” and “lived on the edge of the law.” For Natasha's part she had been raised in Pikeville Tennessee, an area known for it's poor residents. It was argued at some point it seems that as a child she suffered from anorexia and bi-polar disorder but went untreated due to lack of health insurance. She dropped out of school as a freshman and on her seventeenth birthday would marry Stephen Cornett. It appears that after only a few months the marriage ended and she went into a spiral that included drugs, alcohol and self mutilation. It has been indicated that many of the others in the case suffered similar issues.
It has been speculated that in 2001, while in prison Cornett and fellow inmate, Christa Pike, attacked another inmate by strangulating her with a shoe string. It was alleged that Cornett had lured the victim to Pike. Pike would get charged in the crime but apparently authorities could not prove anything against Natasha.
Once Peter Lillelid began to recover from his injuries and with the death of his family a fight for his custody began. Delfina's mother in Florida wanted custody of him but so did Vidar's sister in Sweden. In July of 1997 Vidar's sister, Randi Heier received custody largely based on she proclaimed that she would continue the teachings of the Jehovah as the parents would have liked. While it was not said the grandmother would not have it was indicated that this was the case.
Over the past few years there have been many stories and cases that have come up for review that have involved young offenders being sentenced to life without parole. I suspect that one day we will not hear the last of this case. While none of the offenders have a release dates as I stated earlier, that does not mean they have exhausted all appeals or that a ruling in another case may not one day make a difference in this one.