Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Tommy Lynn Sells

Murder Interrupted

By Christmas 1989, Tommy Sells was a doped-out shell. He stumbled into Rawlings, Wyo., and on January 12, 1990, crossed paths with a young couple who needed tires for their truck. Sells accommodated them by stealing a truck, removing the tires and selling them at a deep discount.

He scored with his profit, then hid out near railroad tracks, planning to jump a freight. A cop happened to see his wobbly run toward a train and arrested Sells for public intoxication. He was carrying incidental items from the stolen truck, so cops brought theft charges that led to a 16-month prison term.

But Sells had a difficult time going cold turkey off narcotics while in jail. He was having anxiety attacks and hallucinations. (Among other things, he was carrying on conversations with his awful collection of splotchy, self-inflicted tattoos, according to author Fanning.)

A jail shrink ordered mental tests, and Sells was diagnosed with a psychiatry textbook's worth of personality disorders, addictions, depressions and psychoses. Medications stabilized Sells, and he did his time without incident.

A free man a year after he was arrested, Sells hit the road again, returning to his bloody work.

In September 1991, Sells told authorities, he killed Margaret McClain and her daughter, Pamela, in Charleston, W. Va. Eight months later in the same city, he attacked a 20-year-old woman who took him home and offered him bags of food and clothing after she found Sells on a street corner begging. He raped and stabbed the woman, but she managed to wrest the knife from Sells and slash him repeatedly, inflicting 23 wounds on her assailant.

Sells picked up a piano stool and beat the woman into submission, leaving her for dead. But she survived.

The woman helped identify Sells, who had become a familiar face around downtown Charleston, often holding a sign that read, "Hungry. Will Work for Food."

Sells pleaded guilty to malicious wounding, and a rape charge was dropped. He was sentenced in June 1993 to two to 10 years in West Virginia state prison. Two things happened during his four years behind bars: He got married, and he was diagnosed as bipolar.

Stephanie Mahaney, victim
Stephanie Mahaney, victim

Released in May 1997, Sells moved to Tennessee with his new bride, Nora Price. But the marriage was not blissful. Sells abandoned the woman again and again, as the peripatetic murderer set off on more cross-country travels. For example, he has claimed blame for the October 1997 strangulation death of Stephanie Mahaney, 13, whose remains were found in a pond west of Springfield, Mo.

In the latter months of 1997, Sells hooked up with the Heart of America carnival. He operated the Ferris wheel and drove the truck that hauled it from town to town.

In late February 1998, the carnival put down stakes for an eight-day stop in Del Rio, Texas, a border town of 35,000 on the Rio Grande just below the Amistad Reservoir dam. There he met a lonely local woman, Jessica Levrie, 28, the mother of four young children.

She was enraptured. Sells went away with the carnival, but she lured him back just days later. He moved into her trailer on March 31, just a few days before his wife, Nora, was giving birth to his son in Jonesboro, Ark. (She gave the child up for adoption.)

Sells took a job maintaining and selling used cars at Amigo Auto Sales in Del Rio. He and Levrie married in October 1998, although the license was invalid because he had never bothered to divorce Nora. No matter. Sells cut his beard, trimmed his mullet and wore a rented tux for the big event in Del Rio.

She gave him a used pickup truck as a wedding gift. He gave her a lifetime of nightmares.


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