Tommy Lynn Sells
A Life of Crime
From 1978 to 1999, Sells crisscrossed the country by hopping freights, hitching rides or stealing cars. He spent time in half the states in the union, begging or working as a carny, barber, mechanic and laborer.
A precise accounting of his felonies is impossible; Sells didn't keep a crime diary.
But a murder he committed in July 1985 serves as a prototype.
He was working with a carnival that had set up in Forsyth, Mo., a town of 1,000 on Table Rock Lake near Branson, then a burgeoning country music center.
Among the visitors to the fair was Ena Cordt, 35, a petite divorcee who scraped by working at a car wash. She was treating her 4-year-old son, Rory, to a night out.
By Sells' account, he met Cordt at the fair, and she invited him back to her home late that night. The authorities found the bludgeoned bodies of the woman and her child three days later.
The way Sells tells the story, he had consensual sex with Cordt, then found her stealing from his backpack. He picked up her son's wooden baseball bat and beat her to death, then killed the child, a potential witness.
There is no telling what really happened. Perhaps he ogled her at the fair, stalked her home, raped and murdered her.
Dead men tell no tales, as Lovins said. Nor do women and innocent children.
After his arrest in Texas, Rangers and FBI agents led Sells on a series of out-of-state field trips to try to confirm his recollections of homicides, some of which were vague, owing perhaps to the passage of time and a haze of substance abuse.
But the rangers used caution in accepting Sells' accounts.
The agency was stung with embarrassment over its handling of serial confessor Henry Lee Lucas. Arrested in 1983, he claimed to have committed hundreds of homicides, and detectives from across the country rushed to Texas in a case-clearing frenzy.
In 1995, the Dallas Times-Herald charged that the Lucas confessions amounted to a hoax abetted by overzealous law enforcers.
With Sells, the rangers were more persnickety about confirming his claims.
For example, Sells told author Fanning that he killed a man with a pistol in Mississippi during a home break-in just weeks after his 16th birthday, and he claimed an ice-pick murder in Los Angeles the following year. Police discount those claims as unconfirmed.
In March 2000, Sells took a homicide-investigation field trip to Little Rock, Ark. He had lived there in the early 1980s, and he claimed he raped and murdered a woman near Little Rock and pitched her body into a bauxite mine pit. He also claimed he shot a man during a burglary there.
He led police to the mine pit and to the burgled house. It turned out his shot had missed the man, who was alive and well. The mine-pit murder remains unresolved.
Evidence indicates that Sells went on a murderous rampage in the late 1980s. He claims to have killed a dozen people in seven states from 1987 to 1989, literally coast to coast.
The investigative technique for fleshing out details of these cases would go something like this: Sells would say he killed a family in the Midwest or a woman hitchhiking in the southwestern desert on an approximate date, and detectives would set out to find matches. They would then press Sells for details of the crimes, the victims and the settings for comparison to cold cases.
In the fall of 1987, Stephanie Stroh, a 20-year-old free spirit, was hitchhiking across America back home to San Francisco after a year-long trek to Europe and Asia. On October 15, she was standing beside a road with her thumb out in Winnemucca, Nev., when a roofer driving a stolen truck pulled over to offer a ride.
The roofer, who had drifted into town that summer, was Tommy Sells. By his account, he drove the young woman toward Reno on I-80, pulled off at some point, choked her to death, then dropped her body down a hot spring. Two weeks later, Sells failed to show up at work. He was on the road again. Despite a massive search, Stroh's body was never found.
Some law enforcers believe Sells' account. Others doubt he killed the woman.
But everyone agrees he was responsible for one particularly depraved multiple homicide in Illinois in the fall of 1987.
A few days before Thanksgiving, hunters walking a field near Ina, Ill. (pop. 500), 80 miles east of St. Louis, found the body of Keith Dardeen. He had been shot in the head, and his genitals were mutilated.
In the trailer where he lived, police found tucked in bed the bodies of Dardeen's wife, Elaine and their son, Pete, 3. Each had been bludgeoned to death, and Elaine had been raped and sexually assaulted with the baseball bat the killer used as a murder weapon.
Also in the bed authorities found the body of a newborn daughter, born prematurely during or after the beating administered to Elaine. The infant, too, was beaten to death. The case had been unsolved for 12 years, until the arrest of Sells, who claimed responsibility.
The Ina murders are examples of the frustrations law enforcers and survivors have had in debriefing Sells. They are certain that he killed the Dardeen family, but they are not certain of why—or what touched off the violence.
Sells claims he met Keith Dardeen at a truck stop, and the man invited him home. He also claims Dardeen made sexual advances. Relatives say that it is unlikely that Dardeen, who was fearful of crime to the point of paranoia, would have invited a stranger home, and they say the sex come-on allegation is absurd.
Criminals who commit heinous acts frequently concoct circumstances to explain or even mitigate their own blame, of course. How else can someone with even a shadow of conscience rationalize the pummeling of a newborn child?
Perhaps even Sells doesn't know the truth of his carnage. By 1987 he was a heavy drinker and drug-user. He preferred heroin but settled for just about any drug he could ingest or inhale—crank, coke, acid, meth.
He would work a few days or steal something of value, then use his earnings to buy drugs and get high. He was often in a haze.
Sells told investigators that his bloody binge continued in 1988 and '89. The list is numbing. He said his victims included an adolescent girl in New Hampshire; a woman and her 3-year-old son killed at a bridge overlook near Twin Falls, ID; a transient named Kent Lauten, 51, knifed to death in a fight over a marijuana debt in a hobo camp near Tucson; a prostitute in Truckee, Calif., and a young woman hitchhiker in Oregon.