In 1997, the Lillelid family was returning from a Tennessee Jehovah’s Witnesses convention and headed for their home in Knoxville. That’s when they encountered the six young Kentuckians at a rest stop.
Natasha Cornett and the others, ranging in age from 14 to 20, had left Pikesville, Kentucky, for New Orleans. Along the way, they had stolen two pistols. Now, they would make a fateful decision.
Witnesses reported seeing the group in conversation with the Lillelids. It was shortly thereafter that they forced the family at gunpoint to drive them in their van to a more remote location, where they killed the father and his wife and their six-year-old daughter. A younger son was also shot but survived. He was left blind in one eye and permanently disabled.
Two days later, the six individuals were taken into custody in Arizona while trying to flee across the Mexican border in the Lillelid vehicle. All of the perpetrators had difficult childhoods and lived on the edge of the law.
A high school dropout raised in poverty by a single mother, Natasha Wallen suffered from both bipolar disorder and anorexia. She wed Stephen Cornett on her 17th birthday, but the marriage broke up after just a few months.
By the time the murders occurred, Cornett was 18 and deep into the Goth subculture, wearing all black and listening to dark, brooding music. Starting in her early teen years, she was abusing drugs and alcohol and practicing self-mutilation. Other bored and unhappy Pikeville youth saw her as a sort of leader. So when she felt ready to take off, escape the poverty, and make a new life in New Orleans, it was easy for her to find travel companions. They were Edward Dean Mullins, 19; Joseph Lance Risner, 20; Crystal R. Sturgill, 18; Jason Blake Bryant, 14; and Karen R. Howell, 17.
During their sentencing hearing, Cornett and her codefendants, Risner and Howell, testified that Bryant had fired all of the shots. But Bryant claimed that it was Risner and Mullins and that they tried to force him to take the blame as the group was fleeing the scene.
When asked what her involvement had been, Cornett said, “I didn’t know what was transpiring until it was too late. And when I did figure out what was happening, I tried my best to prevent it.”
She said she had a “gut feeling” that something bad was about to happen when Risner said he wanted to talk with the elder Lillelid about his religious beliefs.
“That just brought up red flags, because Joe was not a religious man,” she testified. “I tried to convince that that we should just leave and get on our way. Every step that he took, I was there trying to prevent it.”
Cornett stated that she tried to intercede with Risner and Bryant. “I got in between Jason and the family to where the gun was pointed at me and tried to convince him to not do that,” she said. “I begged and I pleaded for what seemed like an eternity for him to stop. When I discovered that there was no stopping him, I begged for at least the children to be saved. He told me that if I didn’t move, he would shoot me.
“I don’t think I would have moved anyway until he promised and swore to me that he would not harm the children. That’s when I moved. I didn’t think that I could do anything to prevent it if I was dead.
“I thought I had more of an opportunity to convince him not to do anything if I got out of his way to where he could calm down.”
In March 1998, the six defendants were convicted and sentenced to prison for life with no chance for parole. It was never determined which of them bore the greatest blame for the murders.
Natasha Cornett pleaded guilty to all charges against her to avoid a possible death sentence. She’s currently serving a sentence of life without parole at Luttrell Correctional Center near Memphis.
Since being imprisoned, Cornett has earned her GED and a certification in cosmetology. She has also served as a mentor for other inmates.
But on August 24, 2001, she was alleged to have assisted death row inmate Christa Pike in an attack on fellow prisoner Patricia Jones. The victim was nearly strangled her to death with a shoelace after the three women were placed in a holding cell together during a fire alarm. The Department of Corrections believed that Cornett was involved, but investigators found insufficient evidence to support bringing charges against her. Pike was subsequently found guilty of attempted murder.