Sells has been the subject of various documentaries and academic papers for 20-odd years. In the 1970s Sells was one of the most prolific serial killers in America. Robert Hare, a former criminal profiler for the FBI has ranked Sells at the highest level of “evil” on his Psychopathy Checklist, being 22. Sells’ sadistic crimes knew no boundaries where his victims were concerned. He slaughtered infants, children, teenagers, adults and the elderly. He used knives, garrotes, a baseball bat, and guns. He used the bat on a woman who bumped into him on the street and neglected to apologize. He raped and ravaged innocent people simply because he could. All Sells needed was opportunity and his victim’s fates were horribly sealed.
Sells and his fraternal sister, Tammy Lynn were born June 28, 1964 in Kingsport Tennesse. His mother had two boys before Sells and three more would follow. Guess Nina Sells never heard of birth control. The question of paternity followed Sells, although an insurance agent named William Sells was listed as his father on birth documents. However it was more likely that a used car salesman named Joe Lovins was his real father. Lovins bailed Sells out of a financial debt, and in return, Sells agreed to claim the children as his own in an insurance scam. I’d love to see that family reunion. At 18 months old Tammy Lynn died of meningitis. At the age of five, Sells was sent to live with Nina’s aunt, Bonnie Walpole, Since Nina Sells seldom visited her son, Walpole offered to adopt him. Furious at the suggestion, Nina retrieved her son, an unfortunate development for the little boy.
At the age of eight, a man named Clark Willis began grooming Sells for a sexual relationship. Nina allowed her son to spend time with him. He took little Sells on day trips, and lavished gifts and cash on the child. Nina was happy to have Sells out of her hair and she allowed Sells to sleep at Willis’ home with increasing frequency. The man would later be identified as a pedophile who molested boys, including Sells, for years before he was caught.
Nina disciplined Sells in a brutal manner. She used coat hangers and belts to beat him for any reason. It took little provocation to enrage her and only seldom did Granny and Grandpa intervene. Nina’s neglect extended to other aspects of Sells’ life. He drank alcohol with his grandpa at age 7. He smoked ditch-weed marijuana at age 10. He crawled into bed naked with his grandma at age 13, and he was forced to undergo a mental examination when he tried to rape Nina. By age 14 Nina threw her son out of the house and he began the life of a drifter, train-hopping and stealing as a way of life. Sells would remain a drifter for the following 20 years as he committed a string of hate-filled, brutal serial murders. Eventually the press dubbed him the “Cross-Country Killer.”
Sells killed “with no apparent motive and no common pattern,” making it very difficult for police to realize that the multitude of “coast to coast” murders were committed by one man, or even that the killings were related. Sells was a sexual predator. Many of his crimes included rape and sexual mutilation, and most of his murders began as sexual assaults. Sells’ sexual predatory urges intensified over time, as adolescent girls and petite women became his victims. Sells was a sexual psychopath who raped and murdered women and girls.
From 1978 to 1999, Sells crisscrossed the country by hopping freight cars, 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. Sells raped and stabbed a pregnant woman to death, and in so doing, caused the woman to go into labour. Even as she lay dying, she was giving birth to her infant. Sells also killed the child. Later in interviews, Sells claimed he killed children because he “didn’t want them to go through what I went through,” referring to his traumatic childhood. His perspective, as a psychopath, makes sense: the egocentric psychopath is centered only on himself, unable to conceive of others as anything other than his/her extension. However the psychopath is unable to feel true empathy for his victim, making Sells’ claim of concern for his child victims a mere ruse.
Upon his arrest 20 years after his killing spree began, Sells happily confessed to the murders, occasionally fabricating killings that never happened. In videotaped confessions, Sells displayed no remorse and seemed quite pleased with himself as he demonstrated to police how he entered victim’s residences. After several years in prison Sells presented a very different facade to Stefan Goquoight, a world-renowned expert on serial killers. During his interview with Sells, the serial killer weeps, “I can’t get rid of [the killings] they’re in my head.” He tells Goquoight that the faces of the victims come back to him. “The faces, the screams, the terror, the pain, the smells, the sight of blood. I’ve done some real bad things and I live with it every day.”
Yet moments later he places blame on his victims: “if you have a hotel room and you leave the door wide open and someone walks in and steals your camera, is that your fault too?” Sells explains his morbid logic using the example of a murder of a young woman he committed in an unkempt park in Kentucky. “If there hadn’t been that opportunity then I wouldn’t have took it but there was the opportunity and I seen it and I took it.” Had the town’s mayor cut down the park’s bushes, “there would have been no hiding place for him.” The mayor will most definitely have to address the issue in his next campaign. When asked about the number of victims he claimed his response has typically been “I didn’t make a notch on my gun belt like they did in the Old West. I figure 5 or 6 a year for 20 years. Multiply that up.”
Sells claims he did his first killing at 15. It was a 7-year-old boy. “It was like a shot of dope. It’s like a heroin addict when you do that first shot, you want another one and another one.” He spoke of that “rush”, the same feeling as if he had been using “dope” to a number of interviewers. Goquoight later stated that even with a window between himself and Sells, he sensed Sells was tightly wound and “ready to go off any minute.”
By 1987 Sells was, in fact, a heavy drinker and drug-user. He preferred heroin but he took just about any drug he could ingest or inhale—crank, coke, acid, meth. He worked a few days or stole something of value, then used his earnings to buy drugs and get high. He was often in a daze although this certainly didn’t account for the murders. It was a 10-year-old little girl named Krystal Surles who brought him down. Sells’ botched attempt to murder Krystal by slitting her throat. The child survived and was able to identify him from a line-up.
Psychologist Dr. Frederick Gary Mears eventually presented court testimony for the State wherein he stated:
- (1) Sells was “off the scale” in terms of the likelihood of future violence
- (2) His last murder victim, Kaylene Harris, 13, autopsy revealed postmortem wounds consistent with intentional mutilation
- (3) the nature of Kaylene’s non-fatal wounds suggested Sells derived pleasure from the murder
- (4) Sells qualified as an antisocial personality
- (5) Sells displayed a cavalier attitude during his videotaped confessions
- (6) his narrative re-enactment indicated a lack of emotion and indifference to death
- (7) Sells displayed no remorse for Kaylene;s murder
- (8) past behavior is the best predictor for future conduct
- (9) Sells’s criminal history demonstrated an escalation in violence over several years
Sells feigns remorse during his interview with Goqouight, attempting but unable to shed tears as he discusses his victims. His flat, pale blue eyes remain dry. His pity, if there is any, is for himself. Sells was put to death in Livingston Prison, Texas by the state of Texas in 2014.