Tommy Lynn Sells
The Last Murder
At 4 a.m. on December 31, 1999, 20 hours before the turn of the millennium, a car rolled to a muted stop in the Guajia Bay subdivision, west of Del Rio, Texas.
A bearded man with a mullet haircut got out and padded quietly toward a double-wide trailer, home of Terry and Crystal Harris and their kids. He whispered reassurance to a caged pet Rottweiler in the backyard and approached the pen to allow the animal a whiff of his scent.
The man used the blade he was carrying, a 12-inch boning knife, to try to trip the lock on the back door. That failed, and so did an attempt to enter the home through a rear window that held an air conditioner.
He walked around to an open window on the front of the house. He tipped over a metal tub to use as a step, removed a screen and hoisted himself up and in.
The man found himself in the bedroom of Justin Harris, 14, who was blind. The boy was roused awake, but he thought the noise was his siblings horsing around.
Justin called out, "Will y'all stop coming into my room!"
The man moved out of Justin's room to the next bedroom. He opened the door and flicked a flame to his cigarette lighter. There slept a Harris family friend, Marque Surles, 7. In the master bedroom, he flicked his lighter again and found Crystal Harris asleep with her daughter Lori, 12.
Finally, in the fourth bedroom he found what he was looking for.
In the bottom rack of a bunk bed lay Kaylene "Katy" Harris, 13.
The man lay down beside the girl and nudged her awake.
She looked at him sleepily and said, "What are you doing here?"
The man held a hand over her mouth and menaced Katy with the knife.
He drew the blade down her body and deftly sliced off her shorts, panties and bra, as if he'd done that sort of thing before.
When the man began fondling her, Katy wiggled free, stood up and screamed, "Go get mama!"
Only then did the intruder realize that a second girl, Krystal Surles, 10 years old and 80 pounds, was asleep on the top bunk.
The man poked his knife at Katy and turned on the bedroom light. Seeing blood, the girl said, "You cut me!"
The intruder moved in behind Katy.
As Krystal watched, the man dragged the blade of his knife across Katy's throat once, and then repeated the motion a second time.
"She just fell," said Krystal. "And then she started making really bad noises, like she was gagging for air but couldn't get any because of the blood."
The man continued his knife work after Katy collapsed. A coroner would catalogue 16 stab wounds, three of which went all the way through her body, in addition to the two gashes to the throat.
The intruder moved toward Krystal Surles.
"I told him, 'I'll be quiet. I promise. I won't say anything. It's Katy making the noise,'" she would later say.
But the intruder showed no mercy.
"He reached over and cut my throat," she said. "I just lay there and pretended I was dead. If he knew I was alive, he would come back and kill me for sure."
The assailant switched off the light and walked out, leaving through the front door. After a minute, Krystal heard a car start and drive off. She put a hand to her throat and ran outdoors. Assuming that everyone in the house had been killed, she made her way to a neighbor's house a quarter-mile away.
There, retiree Herb Betz was up early to watch TV coverage of the arrival of the millennium in Australia. He heard a door knock and peered through the peephole. There stood Krystal Surles in a T-shirt, boxer shorts and socks. She was awash in blood.
The child was unable to speak. The knife had severed her windpipe and grazed the sheathing of her carotid artery. She had come within a millimeter of Katy Harris' fate.
"Her little eyes were saying to me, 'Help me,'" Betz told Texas journalist John MacCormack.
Betz dialed 911. As she lay waiting for help, Krystal asked for writing instruments, and she penned three brief notes:
- "The Harrises are hurt."
- "Tell them to hurry."
- "Will I live?"
Betz said, "I kissed her on the forehead and told her several times she'd be all right. I didn't believe it. I thought she'd die on my kitchen floor."
Medical rescuers found the girl in shock, her body convulsing.
She was raced to a Del Rio hospital, and then flown by helicopter to University Hospital in San Antonio, where surgeons worked for hours to repair the damage done by the five-inch cut across her throat.
Back at the Guajia Bay subdivision, rescuers found Katy Harris dead, although the others in the house were unharmed.