20 years later, Lillelid murder case still on the minds of many

Published: Apr. 6, 2017 at 10:51 PM EDT
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It's been 20 years since the Lillelid family was murdered in East Tennessee, but many say the case still haunts them.

On April 6, 1997, the family of four pulled over at a rest area along I-81 in Greene County, Tennessee.

They approached a group of six young people (ages ranging from 14-20) who were all from the Big Sandy region of Eastern Kentucky. The Lillelid's were Jehovah's Witnesses and started to talk to the group about God.

The group of mostly teenagers was on a road trip in an old car. When they saw the Lillelid family's full-sized Dodge van, they decided to carjack and kidnap them.

They took the family to Payne Hollow Lane, north of Baileyton. Vidar Lillelid, 34, Delfina Lillelid, 28, and Tabitha Lillelid, 6, were shot to death. Peter Lillelid, 2, was also shot but he survived.

The six defendants took a deal and pleaded guilty to the murder charges. A judge sentenced them to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Steve Owens represented Dean Mullins in the case. He said he still thinks about the sentence.

"I think life without parole is way too harsh of a sentence for a teenager who has never been in trouble before and makes one horrific mistake," Owens said.

News spread quickly around Pike County, where the teens were from.

"So many people I knew when I lived there who knew people who knew these six or a couple or four of them ... while they knew their background and some of these things they later were reported to be involved with ... still, even those people who knew them were shocked," said former WYMT reporter Michael Goins.

At the University of Pikeville, Chandra Massner turned this story into a teaching lesson for her media students.

"[We examined] how it made Appalachia look," Massner said. "The fact that once again, we had negative stereotypes being reinforced."

About 12 years ago, Douglas Cavanaugh saw a documentary and it peaked his interest. Since then, he befriended Karen Howell and others while they spend time in jail. Despite living in California, he believes some of the so called 'six' should be released.

"I started studying it, researching it and I saw that a lot of the sensational stuff simply wasn't true," Cavanaugh said. "The things they were saying weren't true, a lot of lies out there, straight up lies and distortions of the truth and I thought that needed to come to light."

Recently, two defendants in the case requested their sentences be reduced. The motions are based on recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, which call mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.