- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2000

DEL RIO, Texas Texas authorities are investigating a suspected serial killer's claims that he has murdered people in several states.
But investigators say they are sorting through the 35-year-old drifter's confessions "a little piece at a time" in an attempt to avoid the embarrassment stemming from a similar case in the early 1980s.
For almost two years beginning in 1983, a task force of the vaunted Texas Rangers listened as Florida drifter Henry Lee Lucas confessed to so many murders they couldn't accurately count them.
By 1985 a total of 214 murders had been attributed to Lucas on his word alone with no corroborative evidence. When reporters proved that Lucas could not have physically committed more than 100 of those murders, the Texas Rangers task force folded in embarrassment and disarray. The confessions stopped.
Val Verde County Sheriff's Lt. Larry Pope told The Washington Times last week they won't make the same mistakes with the current confessor, Tommy Lynn Sells.
"That's the first thing that popped into our minds, and everybody warned us to be very, very careful," said Lt. Pope. "And I cautioned the Rangers, 'We don't want to get in to a Henry Lee Lucas situation here.' "
Sells has been in jail here since Jan. 2, when he was arrested and charged with slashing to death a 13-year-old girl as she slept in her parents' remote home overlooking Amistad Reservoir.
Lt. Pope and other county officials declined to discuss Sells' motives, though it is said he went into great detail in his confessions to Lt. Pope three months ago.
Val Verde detectives have been working closely with two Texas Rangers to develop a timeline and to pinpoint where Sells was at various times during the past two decades.
Instead of allowing investigators to visit and show Sells crime scene photographs, maps and forensic reports, investigators here carefully scrutinize what the suspect is shown.
Lt. Pope said Sells has "remembered" more than 20 cases, adding, "We're just sorting through them a little piece at a time."
The DPS and Texas Rangers spokesperson Tom Vinger recently labeled the suspect "a killing machine," but Lt. Pope is making no such claims.
"We're not saying he did any of this stuff," Lt. Pope said. "We're just saying he's a strong suspect. If he can identify the place, if he can tell us where bodies are and how those bodies died, then we think he is a strong suspect."
Two weeks ago, Sells told police from Little Rock, Ark., that he had shot a man to death after he surprised him in a home burglary in the early 1980s.
Sells was flown to Little Rock, and local police found the house but could find no reported murder. As officers were visiting the crime scene, a neighbor walked up and said he had been the burglary victim and that when he surprised the burglar, the man had fired his gun point-blank at him.
He told police he had fallen to the ground and pretended to be dead as the burglar ran.
"So in this case he really didn't kill anybody, but he thought he had," Lt. Pope said.
The timeline already has eliminated Sells from many murder inquiries, sources here say.
Sells, who was born in Oakland, Calif., has spent much of his life in Utah, Missouri and on the run. He has served time for assault, auto theft and attempted murder in prisons from Wyoming and Missouri to West Virginia.
Released from West Virginia in 1997, he joined a carnival, which two years ago brought him to this border community. He soon married a local widow and got a job as a mechanic at a local auto company and became an avid worshiper at a local church.
In discussions with police since his arrest, he has blamed drugs and alcohol for his demise and claims he has found Jesus. That is why he has decided to confess, he recently told Sheriff D'Wayne Jernigan.
"I hope that's true," said the sheriff, "but I'm suspicious of jail-house conversions."

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