Recalling one of the most horrific acts in East Tennessee history

Responding to multiple reports of shots fired on the countryside of Greeneville, Tenn., the Greene County Sheriff’s Department arrived to one of the most horrific acts of crime in East Tennessee’s history. They discovered the bodies of the Lillelid family in a ditch, all four positioned in what resembled an inverted cross, the symbol most associated with satanism. The mother and father had triangles of gunshot wounds.

This heinous act would consume the local and national community for weeks to come, and East Tennesseans are still trying to come to terms with what happened.

Returning home from a Jehovah’s Witness event in Johnson City on April 6, 1997, the Lillelid family had no idea of the horrors they would be subjected to on that unforgettable day.

As the family made a quick stop at a rest stop, Vidar Lillelid approached a group of teenagers to talk to them about his faith. This would be the single worst decision Vidar would make. It would lead to the execution of his entire family.

Unbeknownst to Vidar and his family, they had approached six teenagers on a quest to “start Armageddon.”

The six teenagers — Karen Howell, Jason Bryant, Crystall Sturgill, Joseph Risner, Edward Mullins and Natasha Cornett — had fled their homes in southeast Kentucky with the intention of perpetrating killings across the region then fleeing to Mexico. They conjured up the plan during a drunken stupor at a motel in Pikeville, Ky. where they also attempted satanic rituals, burned “666” in the carpet and tried to contact the dead through a medium. The next night they stole some cash and all piled into one of their vehicles that was in very poor condition.

As they drove south they realized that they could not continue on their journey without stealing another vehicle. This is when they decided to take the Lillelid’s van.

It began with the teenagers simply wanting the vehicle, with Risner saying “I’m sorry about this. Everybody just be quiet and nothing’s going to happen to you. All we need is the van.” It quickly changed when Vidar Lillelid offered his keys and wallet, as the teens rejected his offering and forced the entire family into the car.

The group eventually pulled onto Payne Hollow Layne, a relatively desolate road with few homes spread about. This would be the Lillelid’s final stop.

The family was ushered into a ditch and then executed one-by-one, the only survivor being then two-year-old Peter. Before continuing their journey, the teenagers took personal items from the Lillelid’s as trophies for memory of the act they had committed. The six teenagers then immediately fled to Mexico but were taken into custody at the border. During their booking into Cochise County jail, Cornett was asked for her religious preference. She responded with one word: “Satan.”

The teenagers were eventually extradited back to Tennessee where they faced three counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. When they appeared in court to announce their pleas to each crime, all six teenagers plead guilty. All were sentenced to life in prison.

When asked years later why he believes the six teenagers decided to commit one of the worst acts to occur in East Tennessee’s long history, Berkley Bell, the lead prosecutor, said this:

“We always thought it might have been some kind of initiation. They did it to get the van, and that may have been the initial motivation. But I think they took advantage of the situation to engage in a satanic ritual. I think everybody participated in some fashion.”

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