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Metro Pulse A Blackened Rainbow

How do we make sense of the Lillelid murders?

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

APRIL 20, 1998: 

Prologue: April 12, 1997

People are out in the streets of Pikeville, Ky., for Hillbilly Days, but the carnival's a little strained. There's tension beneath the festiveness at the fair, the biggest party of the year in this coal-mining region. Everybody in town has heard the rumor—a bunch of vampire kids have bought up all the razor blades at Wal-Mart and are going to run through the crowds, cutting people. They're part of the same group as those kids in jail, the ones from around here who killed that family in Tennessee last week. There's going to be trouble.

The local police have stepped up their patrols. As one walks through the crowd, he says into his walkie-talkie, "Yeah, I've got my stake and my holy water." In the end, nothing happens.

Natasha Wallen Cornett has her thumbs hooked through holes in the sleeves of her white thermal shirt, which she wears beneath the navy blue jumpsuit that marks her as a resident of the Greene County Jail. It may be to keep her hands warm. It may be just an affectation, a small act of rebellion, the only kind left to her anymore. It may be so the sleeves don't roll back to expose the scars on her arms. I don't think to ask.

It's hard, in fact, to know what to ask her. She's flanked by Crystal Sturgill and Karen Howell, in identical uniforms, all of them pallid under the fluorescent hallway lights. Sturgill's somewhat frizzy hair and Howell's puffy eyes suggest they haven't been up long this morning, an observation Howell confirms. "They got us out of bed," she says, her small voice registering not so much resentment as resignation.

So here they are. Three convicted murderers. Three demonic killers, vampires, would-be anti-Christs, if you believe everything said about them in court and in news reports over the past 12 months. Three confused, angry, wounded children, if you believe their lawyers, their families, and their psychiatrists.

What they mostly seem like up close is three teenage girls. Cornett and Sturgill are 19, Howell is 18, but they could all be several years younger. They're guarded at first, but they soon relax. This is their seventh or eighth interview since they were sentenced to life in prison four days ago—on Friday the 13th—and they seem glad to talk. They make in-jokes with each other, giggle at some embarrassing detail or other (like the widespread innuendoes about Karen and Natasha's supposed lesbianism—"I don't understand what the hell that had to do with the case," Natasha says), and punch each other lightly on the shoulders. But then one of them will say something—"Please print that we're not satanists and we're not monsters"—that brings the context crashing back.

The crime is familiar by now. East Tennessee media covered it obsessively, and the state Associated Press named it the number one story of 1997. On April 6 of last year, Cornett, Howell, and Sturgill left their homes in Eastern Kentucky with three friends—Joe Risner and Dean Mullins (Howell and Cornett's boyfriends) and 14-year-old Jason Bryant. That evening, at an I-81 rest stop north of Greeneville, they kidnapped a family of Knox County Jehovah's Witnesses who were on their way home from a religious conference, drove them to a dead-end gravel road, shot all four of them—mother, father, grade-school daughter, toddler son—and took their van, leaving the adults dead and the little girl to die the next day in a hospital. Only the 2-year-old boy survived, his right eye destroyed. Two days later, the six were arrested in Arizona after trying to cross into Mexico.

In the flood of news stories that followed, the case took on near-mythic dimensions of good and evil. The victims—Vidar and Delfina Lillelid and their children, Peter and Tabitha—became an embodiment of innocence and hope, immigrants from different continents who had started a life together dedicated to their family and their faith. Their attackers assumed an aura of darkness that went beyond the horror of their crime. The first lurid physical descriptions of them, their "wild haircuts" and face piercings, were quickly joined by tales of occultism, witchcraft, and satanic rites. Most of the stories revolved around Cornett—how she was married wearing a black dress and red cape, how she cut herself and drank blood, how she signed her name backwards, "Ah-Satan". She even gave jailhouse interviews (which she now says were at the instruction of her first lawyer, who was soon dismissed by the court) claiming she was Satan's daughter.

The obvious questions about the case have been answered. Although the six have offered different versions of who did the actual shooting, all of them pleaded guilty in February to first-degree felony murder. Last month, Judge James E. Beckner sentenced each of them to three consecutive terms of life without parole, plus 25 years. Even as I talk with the three young women, Risner and Mullins have already been moved from the county jail to Brushy Mountain penitentiary.

So what do we make of them now? I've tried to answer that question for myself, with uncertain results. A crime so brutal and unmotivated, so emblematic of so many fears, has to mean something. But the fascination with the case's bizarre details tends to crowd out anything else, including history and insight.

"In this business we're always looking for an explanation, and I'm not sure there is one," says Allan S. Perry III, the lean, bearded publisher of the bi-weekly Floyd County Times, which is published in Prestonsburg, about 20 miles from where Cornett lived. Perry, a forward-thinking pro-development type, would much rather talk about prospects for new factories and new jobs in the depressed coal-mining region than about the murders that thrust the area into the international spotlight (the crime was front-page news in Norway, Vidar Lillelid's homeland). "I'm not sure you can explain why or how this happened."

I'm not sure either, but that dead-end shrug doesn't seem like enough. If there is evil in the Lillelid murders—and if evil means anything, there is—it's an evil with a genealogy. I'm not pretending the final act of this tragedy is something we can or should understand. We may even be leery of trying, because we know how quickly understanding turns into excusing in the age of Menendez. But there are things we can know here, things we should know, about what makes evil possible. Where did it come from? The literal answer—Kentucky—might not seem helpful; but it's a start.

Scene One

Before they left home, they stopped at McDonald's for lunch. Karen paid, with some of the $500 she had taken from her father's house. They were talking about going somewhere far away—New Orleans, maybe, because Natasha had been there before—and they knew Joe's Chevy Citation was too small and too old to get all six of them there. They already had the guns—one from Karen's father's cabinet and one from a friend. "Joe said we could stick somebody up for their car in a mall parking lot," Natasha said in court. "I said, what do you mean a mall? Like a K-Mart? He said, no, a big mall like they have in Lexington." They decided to look for a mall in Tennessee, since it was on the way to New Orleans.

There's a violence about U.S. Route 23 where it cuts through the hills of Pike and Floyd Counties. At 55 or 60 mph, the road feels like a brutal slash that leaves the cliffs cut open and brown with exposed shale. The road is nothing but arcing bends, and around every one is another wall of amputated rock. They blur together until it's hard to be sure you're going anywhere. Not far off the highway a parallel track carries brown rail cars laden with coal.

Wide and fast—everybody I talk to just calls it "the four-lane"—Route 23 is both a promise and a threat. It's the only way in or out, running north all the way to Michigan and south to Tennessee; an escape hatch for those who want to leave and a landing strip for the in-bound jobs and tourists local planners dream of. With an eye toward the latter, sections of the highway are named after country music singers from these parts: Dwight Yoakam, Patty Loveless, Loretta Lynn. Yoakam wrote a song about the road, about people leaving the region to look for work elsewhere. It was the highway Risner took, headed south.

"Have you ever been down Kentucky-way,
Say south of Prestonsburg,
Have you ever been up in a holler,
Or have you ever heard
A mountain man cough his life away
From diggin' that black coal in those dark mines
If you had you might just understand
The reason that they left it all behind
'Cause they'd learned readin' rightin', Route 23
To the jobs that lay waiting in those cities' factories
They didn't know that old highway
Could lead them to a world of misery"

—Dwight Yoakam, "Readin' Rightin' Route 23"

It is late January, and it's not a good time to be in Betsy Layne. The sky is gray, the ground is muddy, the hills are brown with bare trees. In a few days, it will snow.

I'm sitting in the living room of Madonna Wallen's small trailer on Floyd Pike Hollow, a narrow road that turns off of Route 23 at the Betsy Layne fire station and winds into the hills. Farther up the road is a small mining operation, the Clark Coal Company. Natasha Cornett's mother is a woman in her mid-50s with auburn hair going gray and large-frame glasses that make her eyes look like they're peering out of oblong windows. She's in an easy chair by the window; when she turns to the side, light through the blinds shows the tired lines on her face. While she talks, in quiet tones colored with hollow laughter, a brown-black poodle snuffles around her feet and occasionally leaps into her lap. Three cats patrol the room's perimeter, leaping onto the back of the couch and keeping a watchful distance from the poodle. A second dog, a black mutt, is tied up outside on a clothesline lead. He barked when I parked across the road at the local senior citizens' center, the pale creamy building where, two years ago, Natasha Wallen married Steve Cornett.

Madonna named the oldest feline Mommy Cat, even though she hasn't had kittens. Natasha named the rest. One cat is called Panda, but that's a nickname, short for Pandemonium. The third cat is Rage. The poodle is Malkavian, named after a family of vampires in a role-playing game Natasha liked (she had a Vampire: The Dark Ages score sheet in her wallet when she was arrested). And the dog outside, a 1996 Christmas present from Steve Cornett, is called Evil.

Tomorrow, Jan. 26, is Natasha's birthday.

"I blame myself for a lot of the things Natasha got herself into, her mental condition, and the whole thing," Wallen says. "You have one of those cases where you wish you could go back to the beginning and start all over again."

Greeneville, March 10-13

Nobody I talk to in the press corps at the sentencing hearing has heard of the classic Japanese film Rashomon. But I keep thinking about it. The movie recounts one event—a rape and murder in a forest—as told by four people. Each version is different from the others, and the movie suggests each could be true. At the hearing in the packed Greene County Courthouse, four defendants take the stand (only Mullins and Sturgill decline to testify). Two central versions of the story emerge: Jason Bryant's and everyone else's.

Bryant, the youngest and least articulate of the group, says he never knew what was going on during the trip and was stunned by the carjacking and the killings. He names Risner and Mullins as the shooters but can't offer many details of the crime (he says he went into shock). Cornett, Howell, and Risner all say the opposite—that Bryant was the sole shooter, emptying two handguns into the family while the others watched in varying degrees of horror. They have divergences, though; Natasha and Karen say Natasha tried to stop Jason, or at least tried to save the children; Risner says nothing about that; Risner admits he ran over the bodies as the six were fleeing in the Lillelids' van, but insists it was an accident; Karen and Natasha (and, in the jail interview, Crystal) say it was intentional and Risner was laughing as he did it.

"All we've heard about this case since it started is Natasha, Natasha, Natasha, Natasha."
—Stacy Street, attorney for Natasha Cornett, at the sentencing hearing

The Wallen family history reads like a catalog of domestic miseries.

Sexual abuse: Madonna Wallen was molested when she was four or five by a local man, a pastor at a nearby church; nobody talked about it—this was the 1940s—but her mother took her to the doctor to deal with the resulting physical trauma. Her first daughter, Velina, says she was molested for years by Madonna's second husband, Ed Wallen.

Violence: At 17, Madonna married a Pepsi Cola salesman, an abusive alcoholic named Don Adkins; Velina was born in 1960; the couple divorced in 1966, after Madonna fired a shotgun at Adkins while he advanced on the house, threatening to kill her; his wounds weren't fatal and she wasn't charged, on grounds of self-defense.

Adultery: Her second marriage ran into problems too; eventually, Madonna started having an affair with Roger Burgess, a Pikeville policeman; in 1978, she got pregnant; she knew the baby wasn't Wallen's; Natasha was born in 1979; in 1985, Madonna was diagnosed with breast cancer; it was successfully treated; around the same time, she was working for a Pikeville lawyer; she says he demanded sex from her as a condition of employment; after she quit, she sued him for sexual harassment, but the case was dismissed (he said the affair was consensual).

"The first time I ever remember trying to kill myself, I was in a crib and I tried to suffocate myself with a blanket...I remember that my mom was like yelling at me for something. She was just like, like I couldn't do anything right to her, or for her, no matter how hard I tried. It's like I couldn't make her love me. And one night it just kind of all hit me."
"How old do you think you were?"
"Um, I'd say around three or four."

—Interview with Natasha Wallen Cornett, March 17, 1998

"I never hit her with my fists," Madonna Wallen says quietly, sitting at her kitchen table. I'm back in Kentucky two weeks after the sentencing. Madonna's responding to statements Natasha made in court about her childhood. "I don't know, maybe she thought I did, but I hit her always with my hand open." She pauses. "I've hit her with a plastic ball bat, a hollow plastic ball bat, maybe throwed a few books at her, let's see...I've whipped her hard. I really have. I have whipped her too hard, I know, at times. Because she'd lose it and I'd lose it too." Crystal Sturgill says she remembers seeing Madonna hit Natasha with a Bible.

One morning in fifth grade, Natasha woke up on her own instead of at her mother's urging. The trailer was quiet. Her first thought was that her mother, who had threatened to abandon her before, was gone. She walked out of her room and down the narrow hallway to her mother's bedroom door. When she opened it, she saw Madonna Wallen naked on the bed, unconscious, with an empty bottle of pills on the floor. Natasha called her mother's former boyfriend, who came and took Madonna to the hospital. Natasha went to school, where she burst into tears in front of an uncomprehending teacher. When she got home, her mother was asleep. Natasha spent the night curled on the floor outside her mother's door.

In seventh grade, she stopped eating—first she'd skip meals for a day, then a week, then, she says, a whole month. She lost 30 pounds. Madonna had her hospitalized in Lexington. Doctors at Charter Ridge Behavioral Health System evaluated her and said she was not only anorexic but severely bipolar (or "manic depressive"). When they discharged her, they told her mother the girl still needed a lot of help, but they couldn't provide it any longer—the state's insurance would pay for only 11 days of treatment.

Scene Two

Vidar Lillelid approached the group outside the bathroom at the rest stop, carrying his young son in his arms. The blond, smiling father asked the teens if they believed in God. Natasha said no; He had never answered her prayers when she was little. While they spoke, Delfina and Tabitha Lillelid came up. Tabitha reached out her hand and offered Karen and Natasha a Hershey's kiss.

One weekend along Route 23:

Church—Satan is alive in Betsy Layne this Sunday morning. He hovers over the congregation at Betsy Layne Baptist Church; they know he's there, looking for any sign of weakness. The service is a series of testimonials and requests for prayer for family members and co-workers who have fallen under the temptor's sway. It's punctuated by karaoke-style performances from three singers accompanied by pre-recorded music. One of them, a blond-haired woman with a high, full voice, breaks down crying during the second verse of her light-rock hymn but recovers in time for the chorus. When she's done, she says apologetically, "I don't do this professionally. Satan will get you anyway he can, and I can't sing and cry at the same time. But I asked God for the strength to let me finish, and He gave it."

Wal-Mart—Bob Collins and his friends are sitting at small formica tables in the back corner of the Wal-Mart Supercenter outside Pikeville. Mostly retired coal miners and railroad men, they meet here daily to drink coffee and talk politics (Collins offhandedly mentions he's running for sheriff). They're friends of Roger Burgess, Natasha Cornett's father. He comes in here some days, when he's not feeling too poorly. "Young people around here don't have much chance," Collins says. "They don't have anything to do." The others nod. They remember the coal boom days of the '70s, when anyone could get a job and families migrated from the north—mostly Ohio—in search of work. Now many of them have moved back.

The only jobs available now, Collins observes looking around the windowless cafeteria, are the diminishing ones in the mines or behind the register of a place like this. And Wal-Mart, he notes, doesn't hire full-time. "It's all big business now," he says. Still, the men gather here because the places they used to frequent have closed down, even as the superstores and strip malls have sprung up along the four-lane. Wal-Mart is inescapable in these parts. There's another one down the road outside Prestonsburg and a third in Paintsville. The Supercenter replaced the old Pikeville Wal-Mart, which now sits empty by the highway. Cornett, Risner, et al., stopped there on their way out of town to buy an atlas. The first clue detectives at the crime scene had to the killers' point of origin was a Wal-Mart receipt in Risner's abandoned car.

Shoney's—There's an air of defiance about Tiffany Caudill as she walks into the restaurant, just off the highway between Pikeville and Betsy Layne. She's wearing jeans, workboots, and a black White Zombie T-shirt with "Say You Love Satan" emblazoned on the back. I'm conscious of suspicious stares from some of the families eating dinner around us. Tiffany says the shirt got her beat up once in a local redneck bar, where a few women told her they didn't want any "devil worshippers" hanging around.

Caudill, 21, is a friend of Natasha's. She met her on the younger girl's 15th birthday, which she recalls as the first time Natasha ever smoked a joint. She isn't a devil worshipper. (She rolls her eyes at people who don't get the joke of White Zombie's mock-satanic posturing.) But she is intensely cynical about the cultural norms of Eastern Kentucky. It's a place, she says, where people go to church on Sundays to make peace with the Lord, and then go home and make war on each other. The men work hard or not at all, and either way they don't make much. Money goes toward beer, and anger goes toward whoever's around. "That's why half the women in this town get beaten," she says, her eyebrows furrowing. "The men are taking it out on them." And, she adds darkly, it's hard to find a woman in the region who hasn't been sexually abused.

Greeneville, March 10-13:

The hearing becomes a numbing litany of failed families. Joe Risner never met his real father; Crystal Sturgill doesn't even know who her father is. Jason Bryant's father is an alcoholic; his mother abandoned the family when he was young. After Karen Howell's parents divorced because of her father's drinking, her mother had a nervous breakdown. Even Dean Mullins, who is close to both of his parents and his sister, comes from a divorced family. Howell says she was molested for five years by an uncle and a cousin.

In December 1996, Sturgill filed charges against her stepfather, Gene Blackburn, accusing him of rape. The detective investigating the case says Blackburn admitted having sex with Crystal "about 10 times." After she made the allegations, Crystal was cut off by her family, who sided with Blackburn. She ended up at Natasha Cornett's trailer for want of anywhere else to stay. In a letter home to a friend from jail, she said the only good thing about being arrested is that "my family all loves me again."

"You believe, do you not, that you as a witch, you as a lover of Satan, get special power from killing children?"
"No. And I'm not a witch."

—District Attorney General Berkeley Bell questioning Natasha Cornett

Berkeley Bell doesn't want to hear about tormented childhoods, economic depression, borderline personalities, or anything else that sounds like an excuse. The ruddy-faced district attorney general believes all six of the Lillelid defendants planned and participated in killing the family. There's no question in his mind that the murder was a satanic ritual carried to its logical terminus. He's sympathetic to the six young people's families, but he wasn't moved by any of the tears—Cornett's, Howell's, Risner's—shed at the sentencing hearing.

"They certainly didn't indicate to me at any level that they were remorseful about what they had done," he says, sitting in his fifth-floor office in the NationsBank building adjacent to the Greene County Courthouse. "They were remorseful that they were convicted of first-degree murder and that they are going to die in the penitentiary. But that's about the only level of remorse I have seen from these people."

Bell didn't set out looking for witches. But he says the evidence quickly accumulated to such an extent that it was impossible to ignore: from the upside-down cross spray-painted in Natasha's bedroom to the one she carved into Jason Bryant's left arm two nights before the killings, from her books on witchcraft to the testimony of friends about Natasha and Karen's blood rituals, everywhere Bell's investigators looked, they found occultism.

He doesn't pretend to understand the teens' exact beliefs, which he characterizes as a mish-mash of ideas cribbed from a wealth of sources. But he's sure they were the reason for the killings. And in his 16 years as D.A., he's never had a case convince him so thoroughly that there is evil—"spiritual evil"—in the world.

"That's what we're taught in our religion," he says. "But I don't know that it was ever quite driven home before as emphatically as it has been in this case."

Bell has a 3-year-old son. Every day for 10 months when he went home from work, he looked at his son and thought of Peter Lillelid.

On her 17th birthday, Natasha married Steve Cornett, a friend who had become a best friend and then a boyfriend. It lasted about six months. "I just went crazy, period," she says. She wouldn't let her husband leave home to go to work some mornings, threatening to kill herself if he did. She had stopped drinking and using all drugs, because she wanted to get pregnant. "I've always wanted a baby," she says. "I don't know if this will make sense or not, but I thought that having a baby and treating it good, doing it right, would heal my pain." "The more one knows, the less one believes."
—Proverb in fortune cookie at Peking Chinese restaurant, Route 23

Richard Gray is a gregarious guy with round, excitable eyes and a blond ponytail. I'm following him down a steep bank of scrub grass on the outskirts of Pikeville one Saturday afternoon to look at some graffiti. Gray, 32, is a student at Pikeville College and a self-styled occult hobbyist; he's not a practitioner, but he's interested in what goes on. He provided investigators in the Lillelid case with some of their information on occult activities in the area (he's still waiting to get his copy of The Satanic Bible back from them).

At the foot of the bank are openings to two parallel tunnels, wide cement box culverts as long as a football field and eight or nine feet high. When it's not raining, they stay fairly dry. They're covered, end to end, floor to ceiling, with spray-painted slogans and symbols.

"I think it's in this one," Gray says, choosing the left-hand tunnel. But as we walk it, scanning the walls in the dim sunlight that filters in from both ends, he can't find what he's looking for. "They may have painted over it," he says, frowning. Coming out the other end, we make a U-turn into the right-hand tunnel and head back. About two-thirds of the way along, just as we get into about an inch of water, Gray stops and gestures. It's still there, on the right. When Natasha Cornett was 13 or 14 years old, she came down here with a can of black spray paint and in letters two feet high scrawled the name of a popular Pat Benatar song: "Hell is for Children." It's signed, "by Natasha Ah-Satan."

Greeneville, March 10-13:

During one break in the testimony, I watch the defandants' families file out, red-eyed women and clench-jawed men, a procession of fathers who weren't and mothers who should have been. I can't help wondering if in some way they were the ones their children saw at the end of their guns. Or, if it's true that only Jason Bryant did the shooting, whether the others' failure to stop him arose in some way from the certainty that it didn't matter anyway, that this is what happens to all families in the end: they get blown apart. Describing the shooting, Natasha Cornett sobbed, "I didn't know how to stop it." For the ones who watched, maybe it was a horror made no less tragic by its inevitability, but no less inevitable by its tragedy.

Scene Three

In the Lillelids' van, Joe Risner sat in the front seat holding the 9 mm gun. Jason Bryant, Natasha Cornett, and Karen Howell were in the middle, next to Peter Lillelid in his car seat. Jason was holding the .25 caliber. Delfina and Tabitha were in back. Tabitha was crying. Delfina started singing to her. Natasha says Jason told Delfina, "You'd better shut her up!" The Lillelids tried to assure their kidnappers they could let them go without fear of repercussions. "[Delfina] said she wouldn't be able to identify any of our faces because all teenagers dress alike these days," Karen says.

"Tara" dresses a lot like Natasha Cornett and her friends. Today, she's wearing a black Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, with an upright pentagram dangling from her thin necklace. She doesn't want her real name used. Although she is "out of the broom closet" to her friends and co-workers, the 20-year-old college student is wary of letting too many people in Pike County know she's a Wiccan, a witch.

Although she goes to church occasionally and can quote Scripture, Tara's been a Wiccan for three years. She knows most people around here won't see much difference between her religion and satanism. But she says she adheres to pre-Christian pagan beliefs that don't even acknowledge Satan, much less worship him. She finds the religion liberating in all the ways her hometown's brand of Christianity is stifling. Wicca revolves around natural dichotomies: seasonal changes, light and dark, earth and spirit. It has only one commandment, the Wiccan Rede—"An ye harm none, do as ye will."

Tara estimates there are 200 or so Wiccans in the immediate vicinity, most of them solitary practitioners. Natasha Cornett, she says, wasn't one of them. She was something different, darker.

"I think Natasha liked to find your weak points and exploit them," she says. She met Cornett twice and was spooked by her. "She liked to use intimidation."

The god Natasha says she believes in is a yin-yang deity similar to the Wiccan goddess. But Tara thinks Cornett lost sight of the good in pursuit of the evil.

"In the immortal words of Kurt Cobain," Tara says, giving an ironic half-smile at the name of the dead singer, "the darkness catches you. You can run from it, but it catches you. If you completely embrace the dark side without the light, then the dark will claim you."

After Steve Cornett left her, Natasha and a friend took a road trip to try to find him in Lexington. Failing that, they ended up in New Orleans, where they lived for a month, hanging out with "gutter punks" and sleeping in abandoned houses. They did drugs, including heroin. They went to a tarot reader; the cards said Natasha was going to "do something big" with her life.

Entry from Dean Mullins' journal, six months before the murders (Mullins is describing a vision of two different lands):

"Behind me to the south, an encouraged world, a world of undisturbing peace. The happy place. The grass the prettiest green. Everyone is the perfect skin color. All the Eves had blonde [sic] hair and all the Adams had brown, the nicest brown, the color of trees.

Finally the north. What all will be here Let's see. ... [S]lowly my orbs adjust to the macabre. The scene of sickening growth of incomprehensible corpses. The life blood dried from their leathery skin covered skeletons. Nothing could prepare my weak mind for this vision of horror...The bodies rest upon each other, stacks and stacks of crimson colored and dirt. If all the world saw this, what wouldn't they feel, think. I don't believe a totally stable frame could inherit such wisdom...What is it, what truth should I see in this, I must see truth to make a decision on this crossroad. Why rule a kingdom, a world of my own if it is destroyed and there is no life, no one to rule. But also, why envelop a world where everything is bewilderment and a blackened rainbow absorbs the obvious. But there still remains the orgy of decomposed bodies. What shalt be my fate if I take forth there. Will I join them, or rule them; but what is there to rule. What? Fuck this! Fuck it! Why must I decide!? I can't! I have not the power of such a choice. Fuck!"

The word "Gothic" is mostly a fashion statement these days. It means dark clothing, black lipstick, chains on jeans, and the doom-ridden music of bands like Marilyn Manson and Tool. (One Knoxville club has a regular "Goth Night.") Tara offers a definition: "The whole idea behind Goth, in my opinion, is embracing your darker side and recognizing it."

She's not far off from the more subtle analysis offered in a recent book, Nightmare on Main Street, by University of Virginia literature professor Mark Edmundson. Tracing Gothic thought to its roots in 18th and 19th century literature (Edgar Allan Poe was kind of a high priest of Gothic), Edmundson suggests its core ideas—that we are haunted by pasts we can't escape, that there is no hope for redemption—have come to define our culture. He sees the effects of Gothic thought in everything from Freudian psychobabble to slasher films. (Vampires, who are both haunter and haunted, are very Gothic.) Edmundson isn't an alarmist, exactly; he notes violent crime, for example, is actually down, even as obsession with it is up. But he wonders about the cultural impact of so much determined, or pre-determined, darkness: "[I]n a culture of Gothic...there is no love to mitigate the drive to domination, not even a conception of love that can adequately counter the Gothic myth that all is haunted and that death inevitably wins out."

Scene Four

After the shootings, Natasha says, Jason jumped into passenger seat of the Lillelids' van. He and Risner were laughing. Karen says Jason fiddled with the stereo. "He said, 'I've gotta hear some Marilyn Manson.'" The stereo wouldn't work.

Jason Bryant is nervous. His fingers twitch, and he looks around the small, empty jail conference room worriedly, his large brown eyes never resting anywhere for more than a few seconds. His face is pocked with acne. His left forearm still shows the reddened scar of the inverted cross Cornett cut into it.

The only thing everybody—everybody but Bryant—agrees on about what happened at Payne Hollow Road is that this muscular boy shot the Lillelids. (Bell, of course, thinks all six pulled the triggers; Judge Beckner, in sentencing Bryant, also opined there were other shooters, but Bryant was the only one he said he was sure of.) By Howell's testimony, Jason's the one who walked up to Tabitha Lillelid while the 6-year-old was screaming over her mother's fallen body, put a gun to the girl's blond head, and fired. Crystal Sturgill calls him "a monster."

In person, he's wary. He talks about another reporter he spoke to who he thinks tried to "twist my words around." In court, he was the only one to testify who didn't cry on the stand, which he knows hurt him in public opinion. But that's how he was brought up, he insists.

"We was basically raised up that you show emotion, you're weak," he says. He repeats a line his lawyer used repeatedly, about how he and his siblings had to "raise ourselves" in a home with an alcoholic father and an absent mother. That this is an inappropriate use of that cliché—which usually describes people rising above adversity, not fostering it—obviously doesn't occur to him.

I start to ask what it's like to wake up every morning and realize he's in jail, but Bryant anticipates the question and misunderstands it. "Every morning when I wake up, I grab my right eye," he says, clamping his hand to his face to demonstrate. He said the same thing in court, to illustrate his trauma at seeing Vidar Lillelid shot in the head. The motion looked oddly mechanical on the stand; it seems even moreso close-up.

The only times Bryant's eyes relax are when he talks about playing football or fixing cars. He had fantasies of playing for Notre Dame ("ever since I saw that movie Rudy!"), although this 15-year-old with a third-grade reading level admits it might have been a stretch.

He'll be in a juvenile center for the next three years, and then he'll transfer to a regular prison. He says he'll spend the time lifting weights, so he'll "be ready" when that time comes.

At the end of the interview, Bryant says he has one message he wants to convey to his peers; he wants "to get the word out." Again, there's the sense of a rehearsed moment. "Stay off of drugs, and watch your friends," he says solemnly. Then he repeats it.

March 25, 1998:

The blue phone on the wall in Madonna Wallen's kitchen rings. She answers it, listens for a moment, and presses a button to accept a collect call. It's Natasha calling from the Prison for Women in Nashville. She likes it there, Madonna says, at least better than the Greeneville jail. She and Karen are cellmates, and they can take classes and move around during the day. But Natasha's not happy now. A money order her mother sent her hasn't gotten there yet. Natasha thinks she did it wrong and wants her to send another.

Madonna's voice stiffens, due either to the presence of visitors or the tone of Natasha's voice or both. "I know I'm not the one stuck in there with nothing, but I can only do so much," she says into the phone, methodically turning a purple cigarette lighter in her left hand. After about 15 strained minutes, Natasha ends the call abruptly. Madonna hangs up and says with a sigh, "You just heard me talking to manic-depressive Natasha."

Natasha Cornett was born with a hole in her heart. When she was 16 months old, she went back to the hospital for surgery to heal the birth defect. She says her earliest memory is of that hospital room, of being alone there, with the surgical scar itching.

When she was five or so, her mother worked in an Army surplus store. Madonna Wallen used to dress her daughter up in camouflage outfits, complete with army boots. The little girl loved it. She also loved knives—Swiss Army knives, hunting knives. It was hard for her mother to keep them away from her.

When Natasha first started cutting herself, it was on her ankles. Later, she moved to her arms. When she was arrested, she had slash marks running from her wrists past her elbows. There were razor blades in the Lillelids' van.

Madonna Wallen remembers buying a denim dress for Natasha when she was young. The girl loved it and wore it to school. But its low neck showed Natasha's surgery scar, and another student made fun of her. She never wore it again. In prison, Madonna says, she wears longsleeve shirts so no one will ask her about the marks on her arms. I think of thumbs hooked through sleeve-holes.


A week after my interview with Cornett, Howell, and Sturgill, I'm back in Greene County to spend a day going through the mountain of red folders that makes up the case file. Leaving around 2:30 p.m. to head to another appointment, I start the car and turn on the radio. The news comes on. The first story is from Arkansas. The details are sketchy, but it appears two boys, 11 and 13, have just opened fire on a field full of middle school students. An undetermined number are dead.

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