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Remembering the Lillelids: Young Powell family kidnapped, attacked 25 years ago after chance encounter at Tennessee rest stop

Twenty-five years later, the horror of what happened to a young family still resonates across East Tennessee.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Twenty-five years later, the horror of what happened to a young Powell family still resonates across East Tennessee.

Happily, the lone survivor of the attack on the Lillelids in 1997 has endured, thrived, and is now focused on his own life and career.

After years with relatives who took him in in Sweden, Peter Lillelid is married and living in Connecticut, according to former journalist and family friend Gina Stafford, associate vice chancellor of communications and marketing at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga.

Stafford tells WBIR that Lillelid, age 27, "has returned 'to Knoxville on a handful of occasions" and he said he expects to return again in the future:

"'I will always have a special connection to Knoxville and its folks."

It's gratifying news, considering what he, his sister, and his parents went through.

LEFT TO DIE IN A DITCH

Vidar and Delfina Lillelid, ages 34 and 28, and their 6-year-old daughter Tabitha were fatally shot on April 6, 1997. The killers also shot 2-year-old Peter twice.

Joe Risner, Natasha Cornett, Karen Howell, Dean Mullens, Crystal Sturgill, and Jason Bryant -- ranging in age from 14 to 20 -- were passing through East Tennessee after leaving their homes in eastern Kentucky. Some were friends; some had just recently met.

They had a vague notion they'd drive to New Orleans or somewhere out west but soon began having mechanical troubles with the Chevrolet they'd driven down from Kentucky.

The killers, who had two pistols, encountered the Lillelids at an Interstate 81 rest stop in Greene County as the family was heading home to Powell from a weekend religious gathering in the Tri-Cities.

A Jehovah's Witness, Vidar saw the young people and decided to strike up a conversation about their religious beliefs.

Credit: WBIR
Vidar Lillelid's grave in Bearden.

Some in the group saw an opportunity to steal the family's van. Within minutes, the Lillelids would be held at gunpoint and forced to go with the young people to a gravel road off a nearby exit in the Baileyton community.

The killers shot Vidar, Delfina, and the children in a ditch.

Prosecutors said the killers arranged the victims' bodies in the shape of a cross. They drove away in the family van, running over the adults and leaving Peter bleeding from his wounds. Tabitha died the next day.

The blue Chevy they'd driven from Kentucky? They left it behind as well.

Risner and the other five attackers made it as far as Arizona. They were arrested and eventually brought back to Greeneville to face an angry local crowd.

In Knoxville, a store hung six nooses, symbolic of how many wanted the young Kentuckians to be punished.

Some of the suspects insisted Bryant, too young to get the death penalty, was the killer. But authorities suspected more than one person played a part in the crimes. 

All six ultimately agreed to plead guilty in a deal that called for them to spend the rest of their lives in prison with no chance for parole. 

Credit: WBIR
Delfina Lillelid's grave in Bearden.

Several would later unsuccessfully challenge their sentences in the courts. Bryant argued a few years ago that it was unconstitutional for him as a juvenile to be held in prison without any chance at parole.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court turned back a challenge that would have helped Bryant's case.

Now middle-aged, all six convicts remain in Tennessee prisons, where they are to stay the rest of their lives. Bryant, the youngest, turns 40 this summer.

KIND AND GRACIOUS

Peter Lillelid, who lost an eye in the shooting, went to live and recover with family members in Sweden. He has no memory of what the six did to him and his family.

Stafford, who reported on the Lillelid case for the News Sentinel, stays in touch with him and family members to this day. Some years ago when he came through East Tennessee, she and her husband Bill visited with him.

"They were always kind and gracious in working with me as I covered various developments, from Peter, 2 at the time his parents and 6-year-old sister were killed, being adopted by his aunt and uncle in Sweden and moving to live there with them; to opening their home to me when I visited Stockholm to cover how Peter was recovering from his injuries and settling in to his new life," she told WBIR.

Stafford said April 6 "never fails to remind me of the horrific tragedy that befell the Lillelid family all because of a chance stop at an interstate rest stop. In my almost eight years as a print journalist, this is the story that moved me to tears."

Credit: Peter Lillelid
Peter Lillelid, circa about 2017.

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