Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Tommy Lynn Sells

'He Loved to Kill'

Over the next few months, Sells talked and talked about a singular life of killing.

Tommy Lynn Sells, mugshot
Tommy Lynn Sells, mugshot

The lifelong transient admitted the murder of Katy Harris and the throat-slashing of her friend. He said he killed an entire family in Illinois, a mother and daughter in Missouri, a teenage girl in Lexington, Ky., a drifter in Arizona, a child in San Antonio. And there were many more—a string of perhaps 20 murders across America that spanned three decades, by Sells' account.

Sells began using the nickname "Coast to Coast," the geographic spread of his carnage.

"He wants to clean the slate and get everything behind him," Ranger Allen told reporters. "He's told us he wants closure for himself and for the families of the victims he's killed. Closure was his word."

Sells' court-appointed attorney, Victor Garcia, said he advised his client to stop talking.

"I said, 'Well, I understand you've already confessed to everything but the kitchen sink,' and he said, 'Yeah. I want this over,'" Garcia told journalist MacCormack. "I suggested to him that he not talk anymore, and he said, 'I'm not going to stop. I don't need a lawyer.'"

The country has had more prolific--perhaps even more depraved--serial killers.

But several features of his work make Tommy Lynn Sells standout in the pantheon of American murderers.

Sells, nearly illiterate with an eighth-grade education, spent his life as a boozy, doped-up drifter. Yet he managed to fly beneath the radar of law enforcement for 20 years—particularly unusual in that most of his victims were not hobos and hookers, who typically occupy the lowest-priority slot at the back of the homicide-investigation file drawer.

He spent time in prisons for a number of other offenses, and that crime pedigree was readily available to law enforcers. But he was never even a suspect in a murder until he failed in his attempt to kill Krystal Surles. 

His pattern, to the extent that he had one, was simple: kill and move on.

Bud Cooper, a Missouri police investigator, explained to a San Antonio reporter why Sells escaped detection: "If you or I drove across the United States, we'd be fairly easy to follow. We use credit cards and telephones. But this guy takes trains, uses no credit cards, doesn't use checks. It's kind of like chasing a ghost."

The American fascination with crimes and criminals often centers on the workings of the criminal mind. But Sells exhibited none of the evil genius of a Ted Bundy or a Charles Manson.

"He wasn't some strange, far-out-type person," said Sgt. Terry Ward of the Pulaski County Sheriff's Department in Little Rock, Ark., told the Arkansas Democrat. "He was just a normal person who loved to kill. If you made him mad, he'd kill."

Motivation has been a muddy issue as investigators have reconstructed Sells' life of crime. Some investigators termed him an "opportunist" criminal who would strike when a likely victim appeared.

Through the Window
Through the Window

True-crime author Diane Fanning, who wrote about Sells in "Through the Window," claimed that he killed "with no apparent motive and no common pattern."

Yet the evidence shows that Sells was a sexual predator. Many of his crimes included rape and sexual mutilation, and most of his murders began as deviant assaults, including the murder of Katy Harris.

It is true that Sells killed with many implements, including knives, guns, a baseball bat and various garrotes. And it may be true that some of his crimes were spontaneous rather than calculated.

But his sexual predatory urges became more acute over time, as adolescent girls and petite women—often lonely single mothers—became his victims of choice. His body of criminal work makes one pattern, one motive all too clear: Tommy Lynn Sells was a sexual psychopath who stalked, raped and murdered women and girls.

 

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