Through the Window: The Terrifying True Story of Cross-Country Killer Tommy Lynn Sells

Through the Window: The Terrifying True Story of Cross-Country Killer Tommy Lynn Sells

by Diane Fanning

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Ten-Year-Old Krystal Surles Watched In Horror
As Her Best Friend Was Murdered At The Hands Of An Intruder.

Then with cold-blooded precision he brought a twelve-inch boning knife to Krystal's throat. With a single, violent slash, he severed her windpipe and left her for dead. Miraculously, she survived and would lead authorities to the arrest of 35-year-old Tommy Lynn Sells, a former truck driver, carnival worker, and cross-country drifter...

He Aspired To Become "The Worst Serial Killer Of All Time."

With no apparent motive and no common pattern to his inconceivable bloodshed, the elusive Sells had carved his way across the country for two decades slaughtering women, men, transients, entire families, teenagers, and even infants with ghoulish abandon.

Through The Window is more than an investigation into a crime spree that stunned a nation. It's an utterly terrifying plunge into the unfathomable dark mind of a serial killer, and the heart-wrenching story of the brave child who finally brought him to justice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429904131
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/01/2007
Series: St. Martin's True Crime Library Series
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 116,829
File size: 379 KB

About the Author

Diane Fanning is the author of the Edgar Award finalist Written in Blood: A True Story of Murder and a Deadly 16-Year-Old Secret That Tore a Family Apart. Her other works of true crime include the best-selling Mommy's Little Girl, A Poisoned Passion, The Pastor's Wife, and Gone Forever. She has been featured on 48 Hours, 20/20, Court TV and the Discovery Channel, and has been interviewed on dozens of radio stations coast to coast. Before becoming a nonfiction writer, Fanning worked in advertising, and she earned more than 70 Addy Awards. She lives in New Braunfels, Texas.

DIANE FANNING is the author of the Edgar Award finalist Written in Blood: A True Story of Murder and a Deadly 16-Year-Old Secret That Tore a Family Apart, as well as several other true-crime books (available from St. Martin’s) and the Secret City mystery series. She lives in Bedford, Virginia.

Read an Excerpt

Through the Window

By Diane Fanning

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2003 Diane Fanning
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0413-1


A chill teased the air across South Texas in the early morning hours of December 31, 1999. In less than twenty hours, thousands would light fireworks to herald the coming of a new century, the promise of a new beginning. Just west of Del Rio, on the Guajia Bay, nothing so remarkable heralded the departure of one young life and the end of innocence for another.

Down a dark, narrow road, the six inhabitants of a double-wide mobile home were fast asleep at 4:30 A.M. The man outside the residence first tried to trip the lock on the back door with his knife blade, but failed. The family dog started barking in the pen. He let the black rottweiler smell his hand and patted him on the head until the animal was quiet. He removed the screen from the window above the air conditioner and pushed up on the sash, but the latch lock was drawn, holding the pane in place.

He moved on panther feet to the front of the house. The window to 14-year-old Justin Harris' room was raised to the welcome coolness of a mild December. Outside, the open window was an invitation to the man lurking in the shadows. He removed that screen and set it off to the side. Beneath his makeshift entryway, a large metal tub rested. He stepped up on its edge, unaware that in the dark water below his foot, two ill-tempered snapping turtles waited for him to slip. From his perch, he pushed the sash up a bit farther until he created an opening large enough for entry. Carefully, he threw one leg up over the windowsill and into the room. He paused, his ears tuned to catch the slightest noise. He hoisted the other leg into the room and eased himself down to the floor.

Justin, blind from birth, thought one of the girls was messing with him again, and said, "Will you all stop coming into my room?" then went back to sleep.

The intruder walked into the next bedroom and struck his lighter. There was a very small girl sleeping on the bed, 7-year-old Marque Surles. Her heart-shaped face looked even more innocent in repose than it did by day — nose smooshed in the pillow, delicate eyelashes feathered on its case. Her body curled up in a loose, comfortable ball. He stared at her in the flickering light. Then, he turned away.

He walked down the hall to the other end of the trailer. Spinning the ridged wheel on his lighter again, he saw a woman, Crystal Harris, and a young girl, 12-year-old Lori Harris, fast asleep. He touched the woman on the leg. She did not stir. He looked down at her long hair splayed across the pillow, at the curves of her body undulating beneath the covers. He shook his head and stepped away.

He went back down the hall to explore the one remaining bedroom. Stepping across the threshold, all he heard was the quiet flow of breath from the two occupants in the room. He inhaled a heady smell: part sweaty child, part air freshener, part blooming female adolescence.

He pulled the door closed behind him. In the top bunk, 10-year-old Krystal Surles stirred, and he froze in his tracks. No thread of light penetrated the room. He was unable to identify the source of the noise. His right hand squeezed the knife handle until it left a deep impression on his palm. In two steps, he was leaning over 13-year-old Kaylene "Katy" Harris on the lower level of the bed. "Wake up," he hissed into her ear. He lay down next to her and held one hand to her trembling throat while his other hand wielded a hideous twelve-inch boning knife.

"What are you doing here?"

Without responding, he slit her shorts. He cut her panties. He sliced her bra in two. Then he returned the knife to the terrified child's throat while his free hand danced across her small body. She jerked free, tumbling out of bed on the side that was closest to the wall.

She shouted, "Go get Mama!" as she surged toward the door. But he was already there blocking her escape. His knife stabbed, drawing first blood.

"Look, you cut me."

He flipped on the light and looked at the fresh wound on her arm, and pulled her toward him. Above, Krystal awoke with a start, peering through the slats of the bunk. First she saw Katy; a hairy hand was clasped over her friend's mouth. Then, her worst nightmare came true: she saw him — the monster under the bed lived! He stood behind Katy, holding a wicked-looking knife to her throat. As the 13-year-old struggled, Krystal looked in her eyes. She received an urgent message that was as loud and clear as if spoken: "Do not move."

Without warning, the knife sliced. A helpless Krystal watched as a long red streak of blood raced across Katy's neck. The knife pulled back and cut again, deepening the wound. The 13-year-old twisted away, clutched at a poster on the wall and pulled it down with her. She fell to the floor, gagging, choking, gasping for air as she drowned in a profusion of her own blood. He leaned over her, stabbing her stomach, her chest, her arms until he was certain he had completed what he had begun.

The intruder then turned to the top bunk where he saw Krystal for the first time.

"I'll be quiet. I promise. I won't say nothing. I'm not making a noise. It's Katy, not me," she begged.

In response, the silent stranger brought the menacing knife toward her throat. Her jerking hands flew up to that vulnerable part of her small eighty-pound frame in a valiant attempt to defend it from assault. "Please don't hurt me," she whimpered.

He answered her pathetic plea with a cold command: "Move your hands." When she did not comply, he brushed them away and brought the boning knife across her throat with sufficient violence to slice her windpipe in two. Krystal uttered not a sound. She lay motionless, smelling the acrid scent of blood and the pungent odor of her own fear. She fought back the urge to flee, instinct warning her that any sign of life would ensure instant death. The bearded, long-haired nightmare turned off the bedroom lights and left the room.

Still, Krystal did not move. Her heart pounded with anxiety, dreading that the man would return. When she could bear it no longer, she got out of the bed on the side next to the wall. She pushed on the window there, but could not open it. Feeling her way with her hands, she moved to the end of the bed, identified her suitcase by touch and stumbled over the limp, bloody body of her best friend. Without thinking, Krystal lay down next to her. She patted the other girl's leg with pitiful tenderness, hoping she could make the horrible noises stop. Katy showed no sign of receiving the comfort her desperate friend wanted to impart. Her body, ravaged by sixteen stab wounds and two severe lacerations, was unable to respond.

Krystal thought she heard a car start and drive away in the distance. She felt her way to the bedroom door, banging her toes hard into the ladder to the bunk bed that had fallen in her path. She moved it out of the way and exited the room. Help was just down the hall, but she did not know it. Her thoughts were consumed by brilliant images of red and the gut-wrenching sounds of a dying friend. Believing her attacker had killed everyone else in the house, she fled the horror, out into the naked night.


A quarter-mile down the desolate road, Herb Betz woke to his alarm clock at 4:45 A.M. He'd planned to get up early and watch the first New Year's celebration of the millennium live from New Zealand at 5. He awoke, changed his mind, switched off his alarm and went back to sleep.

Outside, in plaid boxers, a tee shirt and socks, Krystal stumbled down the narrow tar-and-gravel road. There were no streetlights. There was no moon. The road dipped and turned through rough countryside covered in cactus and stunted shrubs, inhabited by snakes, rabbits, tarantulas and scorpions.

She stepped onto the front porch of the nearest trailer. Then she remembered that Terry Harris had had a dispute with this neighbor and ordered them all not to go to that home.

She turned around without knocking and trudged farther up the road to the white trailer with green and brown trim, the home of Herb and Marlene Betz. She pressed the cranky, unreliable doorbell and waited. Her knees wobbled. Her head spun. Her train of thought had only one refrain: "Please, God, don't let me die. Please, God, don't let me die." Herb glanced at the clock. It was 4:58 A.M. He pulled on a pair of pants, wondering who could be at his door at this hour. Krystal leaned on the button again. By the time Herb reached the front door, the pounding of a knocking fist echoed through the trailer.

"Who's there?"

She tried to speak. Impossible. Tears of frustration and fear pooled in her eyes. She wanted to scream. Instead, she fell on the doorbell again. Herb flipped on the porch light and peered out the door's peephole. He saw a young girl with a bent head. He opened the door to a horrifying sight. Krystal raised her chin and pointed to her throat. He saw both ends of her severed windpipe protruding from her neck. A thick clot of blood, more than three inches wide, was hanging from her gaping wound to the middle of her chest. Her clothes were saturated with blood. She swayed in the glow of the porch light.

He opened the door and led her into the still-dark house. "Marlene, take care of this little girl. I need to call 9-1-1."

Marlene stood in the doorway of the bedroom. She switched on the kitchen light. An intense image of red branded itself on the surface of Marlene's eyes. "My God. My God. What happened to you?"

For a second, Herb froze, unable to remember how to dial 9-1-1. Then he stabbed in the numbers. As soon as he heard the answering click, he blurted, "I have a little girl ..." He glanced at the pathetic form desperately clinging to life. He thought of his own grandchildren. He could not utter the word "dying." "She's covered in blood. I need an ambulance. I need police. Please hurry."

Krystal mimed a writing pen. Marlene stepped into the kitchen area for a pen and pad of paper. Herb hung up the phone.

When they both turned back to Krystal, she had lain down on the kitchen floor. She told them later that she was worried she would get blood on their "nice carpet."

Marlene handed the pen and paper to Krystal. Herb knelt by her side. He held her hand. He stroked her hair, trying to get it out of the blood caked on her face.

The young girl scrawled: "The Harrises are hurt."

"An ambulance is coming," Herb responded.

"Where do you live?" Marlene asked.

"Kansas," she wrote.

"Who did this to you?"

"This guy," scratched across the paper.

Marlene wanted to ask more, but stopped. Krystal looked so frail, so close to death.

The phone rang and Marlene grabbed it, giving directions to the dispatcher.

Krystal wrote, "Tell them to hurry."

Still on the phone, Marlene relayed a message to Herb. "They say you need to stop the bleeding."

He pulled a kitchen towel out of a drawer and moved it toward Krystal's throat. Showing the first break in her calm demeanor, Krystal frantically waved it away. She knew the towel would cover her windpipe and cut off her only supply of air.

Marlene hung up the phone and opened the blinds on the window facing out to the lake and to the highway. Just then, an ambulance and a sheriff's vehicle raced past their turnoff, lights flashing, sirens shrieking.

Marlene jerked the phone off the wall and dialed 9-1-1. "Tell them to turn around. They drove right by."

The dispatcher told her to go out to the highway and flag them down. Marlene knew she could never get out that far in time. So, she picked up the flashlight and, standing on the porch, streaked its beam across the sky. She swung it back and forth, until she saw the emergency vehicles race past in the opposite direction, back up, then turn off and drive through the stone arch leading to Guajia Bay.

Krystal wrote, "Will I live?"

Herb bent down, kissed her on the forehead and said, "Everything will be all right." But he did not believe it. He felt certain that he was watching her die on his vinyl floor. He turned away to hide his tears. Krystal's body began shaking with escalating violence.

AT 5:12 A.M., the wailing whine of the approaching sirens halted at the Betzes' door. Emergency medical personnel entered first, racing to the side of the wounded child. Deputies Manuel Pena and Ramiro Reyes were right on their heels. They were not prepared for what they found. They'd thought dispatcher Jim Saavedra had sent them to the Betz home in reference to a young girl involved in a motor vehicle accident. The girl was reported to have a cut in her neck area. It was a far more traumatic wound than they had anticipated.

After talking to paramedic Lori Martinez, the deputies told the dispatcher that the girl was bleeding very heavily and was going into convulsions. "There is a cut to the front of her neck and a lot of blood on her shirt and on the floor of the kitchen."

Herb took the deputies out on his porch and, pointing to the Harris home, told them that more people were hurt there. The night was so dark, the house on the hill was not visible. The men jumped into their car and drove off to face the unknown a quarter mile away.

The emergency medical attendants attempted to insert a trach down Krystal's throat, but she gagged and was unable to breathe. They stabilized her as best they could and loaded her into the ambulance.

A courageous child clutched at a tenuous thread of life as she was whisked to the heliport at the local hospital and airlifted to University Hospital in San Antonio.


AT the Harris home, Pena and Reyes explored the perimeter of the double-wide trailer overlooking Lake Amistad. They avoided the growling rottweiler, but gave even wider berth to the fenced-in alligator in the backyard. They noted a damaged window blind, and that the front door was ajar eight to ten inches.

Del Rio police officers Fred Knoll and Charles Saints, their back-up, arrived, and the four men entered, opening the screen door and carefully pushing the unlocked front door open. Shining their flashlights inside, they saw living room walls decorated with African weapons and masks. In the kitchen beyond, festive Christmas accessories sparkled in the beam of the searching lights. Reyes shouted, "Sheriff's office!" three times.

Within seconds, Crystal Harris and her daughter, Lori, emerged from the west-end bedroom to confront the men in her home. Simultaneously, Pena and Reyes fired a question at her.

"Is everyone okay?"

"Is anyone on the east side of the residence?"

Pointing toward that end of the house, Crystal said, "My other daughter is in her room. What's going on?" Tears streamed down her face.

Deputies Pena and Reyes and Officer Saints left the living room to search the home. Officer Knoll remained there attempting to calm Crystal, but she demanded answers that he just did not have. She protectively clutched Lori to her side and mindlessly ran her hands over her daughter's hair. The tension etched furrows in her face.

* * *

WHEN Pena turned on the light in Katy's bedroom, they saw her sprawled on the floor. Blood oozed from her lifeless form. Brilliant red spatter covered all four walls. Stains marred the bedding and etched themselves into the frame on both the upper and lower bunks of the bed.

Katy was nude from the waist down. The cut in her neck gaped and her windpipe stuck out obscenely. Her pink shorts and panties lay on the floor by the door. Deputy Pena could not find a pulse. Officer Saints checked, too, ruefully shaking his head at his failure to find one.

Checking another room, they found Justin, Crystal's blind son. The perpetrator had entered this house through the open window in his room. Justin was unharmed.

In the next bedroom, they found 7-year-old Marque Surles, adrift in bliss, unaware of the fragility of her life that night.

When the officers stepped across the threshold of the master bedroom door, they heard stealthy sounds of movement. Their hands automatically hefted their guns. Carefully, one arm stretched toward the light switch, flicked it on and revealed the secrets of the room. All six eyes riveted on the source of the noise — a small zoo of caged snakes, including a few rattlesnakes whose raised tails now added back-up percussion to the sandpaper slither of many coiling bodies. Keeping their distance from the reptiles, they checked the room thoroughly, finding no one.

They sealed Katy's bedroom and called dispatch to request the presence of Lieutenants Skelton, Pope and Sun-derland. Pena reported, "I've got a DOA, and need a justice of the peace, too."

EMS attendants Dexter Tooke, Susie Jo Chow and Jack Howley raced into the house and checked on Katy. Dexter cut her shirt to attach three pads with leads to monitor her heart. It was a useless attempt.

Hearing the activity on the scanner, Texas Ranger Johnny Allen called Pope and offered his assistance. Pope told him that he wasn't exactly sure what he had on his hands, but he'd be glad to have some help.

CRYSTAL, Lori and Justin were escorted from the house and into patrol units outside. Little Marque Surles was left in bed asleep, dreaming sweet dreams while she still could.


Excerpted from Through the Window by Diane Fanning. Copyright © 2003 Diane Fanning. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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