Woman convicted in Knox County family’s murder say she doesn’t deserve to die in prison

Karen Howell pens letter explaining her side of the story

Karen Howell

GREENEVILLE (WATE) – A woman convicted in a murder that shocked in East Tennessee says she doesn’t deserve to die in prison. Karen Howell sent out a letter to the media saying much of the talk of satanic rituals surrounding the Lillelid murders consisted of fear and hysteria hyped by the media.

In April 1997, Howell was 17, running away from home with a group of other young people. They encountered the Lillelid family at a rest stop on Interstate 81. The Lillelid family was carjacked and shot execution-style.

Only the youngest child, three-year-old Peter survived. The days that followed brought claims that the teens had been involved in a cult and even drank blood. Howell and the others were later convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

Almost 20 years later, Howell and co-defendant Jason Bryant are hoping that their young ages at the time of the murder could mean another chance. Below is a copy of Karen Howell’s letter addressed to the media from one Douglas Cavanaugh. Crystal Sturgill, a second woman who was convicted in the killings also wrote a letter.

Related: 2 charged in 1997 murder of Knox County family file petitions hoping for parole

In the letter, Howell said the case has affected her family, friends and community, that she doesn’t deserve to die in prison and she believes she can one day leave prison.

Full copy of letter

A message from Karen:

My case has affected so many; the community, family, friends…it goes on without end. Some of the bad personal experiences I had as a child had a huge effect on me- pain, confusion, anger, low self-worth, etc. I think a lot of children are never taught how to deal with or voice those kinds of emotions when bad things happen, so wounds lay open in silence. I think that is when kids begin to make poor choices. I think many could identify with that. Those feelings stayed with me for years because I didn’t know how to process and deal with them. Being quiet and reserved meant I didn’t have the best communication skills. I guess you could call it an “arrested development” stage. It’s where wounds from your childhood hinder your mental and emotional development.

A lot of my childhood experiences I allowed to define me and as a result I began to make poor decisions. I ran away from home on several occasions and quit school at an early age, some of it due to bullying. Out of curiosity (as many kids do) I dabbled into stuff that I shouldn’t have. At one point I did start to get my life back on track for a while, studying for my GED and babysitting for my family for many hours a day and saving money to buy a car (money which the DA for some reason claimed that I “stole”, even after my family stated otherwise). But at some point I lost myself again and found myself in bad situations and looking for validation in wrong company at times. It caused my life to begin another downward spiral. It ultimately led to me being here.

As I write this, I realize it may seem to some that I’m feeling sorry for myself. But that is so far from the truth. I’ve always held myself accountable for my actions in life, even the bad ones and by no means do I ever get so self-absorbed that I pity myself. I simply want the public to see that 17-year old girl that I was as an individual, not what the various lies pumped out by the media over the past two decades have made me out to be.

There is much speculation from different sources regarding what happened on April 6, 1997. The media ran with the initial fear and hysteria and hyped it all up so much that it has twisted the facts, much of it due to distortions of the truth by the D.A. I want to clear some those things up right now:

We were not a “cult”. None of us even hung out as a group. I knew Dean Mullins from school. We were cool, but we never just hung out together. Natasha and I were good friends and hung out every so often on weekends, but I stayed busy working and she had what was going on in her personal life. I dated Joe for about a month, but he lived far away and we only hung out every so often as well. I knew Crystal from school, but not well.

I had only met Jason Bryant a day or two prior to the crime through Natasha. I knew he was “off” and he portrayed himself to be big and bad from the jump, mostly because he had some obsession with wanting to impress Natasha. He claimed to be 17 but he was actually only 14. I had no idea that he had a violent past and found out later that he’d pushed someone down a flight of stairs among other things.

So no… we were never a “cult”.

There were no “Satanic rituals” performed over the bodies.

There was no moving the bodies into the shape of a cross (how the D.A. got that one I’ll never know!).

There was no “taking turns” shooting that poor family. All of it was done by Jason Bryant alone (when my clothes were tested at the lab I had no gunshot residue or blood from the victims on my clothing).

All lies heaped upon an already tragic happening to hype it more.

Like anyone else, I have made a lot of mistakes in my life. The biggest (and final) one was when I ran away from home with five other people in April of ’97. If I had known that there was going to be murder or death in any way, I would never have left home. I may have been a troubled kid, but anyone who knew me could tell you that I was no killer, ESPECIALLY not a child killer.

But I didn’t do anything about the robbery and kidnapping, which has haunted my heart and mind since that day. Joe Risner, who was my boyfriend at the time, had a car that was in no condition to get us to our destination. After several unsuccessful attempts by Jason to hotwire a car for us there began a discussion among them of robbing someone for theirs. Later that day at the rest stop when it actually started to happen, I just went along with it, not dreaming anyone would actually get hurt, much less killed.

It was a moment in time that would forever change my life.

Getting back to what happened, there is no need to rehash the kidnapping as that is one of the few things that they actually got right in the telling of the story. Joe pulled the gun out and kidnapped the family, promising that they wouldn’t be hurt. As we drove along Jason became more vocal about things, telling little Tabitha to “shut the fuck up!” when she began crying, etc. It’s after we arrived at Payne Hollow Road that the story starts to get twisted in the media telling of the tale.

First off, Jason Bryant had bought a bag of weed earlier that day and had been smoking quite a bit. Pot makes certain personality types very paranoid and Jason was one of those types and acted out of paranoia. He freaked out and there was no reasoning with him in that state of mind. He was on probation and it was stuck in his head that the Lillelids would identify him and get him “busted” (his words). He kept repeating that over and over, his anger escalating and he became very manic.

I told everyone that we should just leave them alone and just go. Natasha actually stood in between him and the family and tried to make him stop. But he was not listening at all. So she started trying to negotiate with him and trying to make him promise to at least spare the children.

He agreed, but when she stepped away he began shooting.

After I heard the first shot I froze. It was as if fear completely seized me. I was there, but it felt like I left my body. It’s a feeling that is hard to describe in words. The only thing I kept saying to myself was “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god…” I totally shut down. I had done this many times before when confronted by stresses in life. It was how I coped. But this was different. It was total shut down. I had never witnessed this kind of violence before, just on TV. Looking back, that would have shocked even a normal kid, but for me it was beyond shock. I can only describe it is that from that point on it felt like I was wearing a bag over my head with no holes. I couldn’t process my thoughts because I had witnessed the worst nightmare imaginable.

My recollection on some things is hazy due to the mental block, but I do recall seeing Crystal Sturgill covering her face and Dean Mullins ducking his head down in the car, which both were still in. Not so long after everything happened Jason started making threats to kill them both, all because he “didn’t like them”.

Fast forward to April 8, two days later, Jason is sitting behind me in the van reloading the gun. I don’t know why he was reloading but it was chilling to think who those bullets were meant for and what would have happened had he not shot himself in the leg. Anyway, the gun went off. It was so loud and so close to me that I thought I had been shot in the back of the head. My head felt tight, my ears were numb and all I could hear was a loud ringing. All I could do was yell that I had been shot as I was feeling myself all over my head. The moment I realized that I hadn’t been shot I felt relief mixed with disappointment. It felt like a rollercoaster ride of madness and insanity and I wanted it to end. And that day it did end when we all got arrested.
Later on when I started hearing a lot of the crazy things people and the media were saying about my case– “It was a ritual Satanic cult killing!” “They were on a rampage inspired by the movie ‘Natural Born Killers’!” “They kept trophies from their victims!” etc. — I was shocked. I wasn’t some Satanist, nor a murderer. I wanted to clear my name so I asked my attorney if I could take a lie detector test. He told me no, because those tests don’t hold up in a court of law. I knew absolutely nothing about the law at that time. I was even asked at one point to testify for the state. It seemed like the D.A. wanted me to tell THEIR crazy side of the story. There was just so much being tossed about that it was hard to keep up with it. While being prepped for trial I was shown pictures of hanging nooses in an article and photos of the murdered Tabitha, which I refused to look at. I was told by my attorney that a jury wouldn’t see me as an individual, but as part of a “group”.

So they came up with a plea bargain. Being that I was a juvenile at the time meant that it had no benefit for me at all. I was given 3 days to sign this deal or they would seek the death penalty on the four adults.

Needless to say, I felt very pressured and extremely manipulated into signing that plea bargain. But I didn’t want any more death going on, so I caved-in to that pressure and it was a huge mistake. I thought that even though I was pleading guilty to felony murder that I could still maintain my own innocence. It was all so confusing to me. My young, immature and screwed up teenage mind didn’t fully comprehend that I was truly signing my life away to die in prison. As a side note they took me off my Xanax just a couple of days before signing. I took it for my panic attacks. As I’ve gotten older and look back, I think they knew what they were doing when they did that. I was very much naïve and easily manipulated. I was such a mess mentally and emotionally that I signed my own last name with one “L” on that piece of paper. That should tell you a lot.

When the Judge sentenced me he told me that it wasn’t my actions that brought me there, but my inactions. He told me that my making no attempts to flee or to notify a police officer made me an accomplice and sentenced me to life without the possibility of parole. I wasn’t sure at what point he thought that I should have felt “safe” enough to “flee” someone who had a gun and who I’d just witnessed murder an innocent family and who I knew would have no problem with murdering me as well (he had already spoke of killing Crystal and Dean), especially if he was scared of being “identified”. But there it was.

For so long after I had the “what if” and “if only” thoughts that would invade my mind day and night. Everything that I could recall would replay over and over in my head as if it were some movie stuck on replay: “If only I hadn’t been seized by fear”, “if only I could have thought more rationally”, etc. I didn’t understand for the longest time what was wrong with me. I hated myself because of how I would just fall to pieces under pressure. I couldn’t forgive myself for a very long time. It took me years to be able to do so, with some help.

Anyone who knows or knew me could tell you that I was no killer, nor would I ever approve in the murder of anyone. I have never had a murderous or violent bone in my body. To suggest otherwise is silly. I was simply a screwed-up kid with poor coping skills and an inability to process or deal with stressful situations. This was the most frightening and stressful situation of my 17 year old life, so naturally I didn’t deal with it the way a “healthy” or “normal” kid MIGHT have.

I say might, because nobody truly knows how they would react in a situation such as that. Things happen so fast and it’s all so insane. If only they’d considered that before deciding that I was some sort of evil person with murder in my heart and blood on my mind. Nothing could be further from the truth. I was 17 years old then. I am 37 now. I’ve grown up so much in prison. And even though it’s been 20 years my heart still weeps for the heartache that family and friends had to endure, and my tears still fall for the victims of the crime. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Peter Lillelid and wonder how he is doing. I’ve always hoped that his heart is beautiful and that the tragedy of what happened to his family didn’t cast a shadow over it.

I don’t believe that I deserve to die in prison for murder. I never thought or ever wanted or intended that someone would die. That’s never been who I was, then or now. In my own heart I have never stopped hoping and believing that maybe one day I’ll have the chance of walking out of prison. Even on days when my hope feels lost, my faith still remains.

Thanks for reading this.

Karen Howell

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