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Unsolved in Southern Illinois

Southern Illinois, like most of the Midwest, is considered a relatively safe place to live. However, murder happens everywhere. The only thing more disturbing than these heinous crimes happening is when they remain unsolved. Cold cases will always haunt communities. Two murder cases in Illinois may be linked together by an admitted serial killer, but not everyone is convinced. These are the stories of the Dardeen family and Joel Kirkpatrick.

The Dardeen Family

Russel Keith Dardeen was born in Southern Illinois in 1958. He married Ruby Elaine Cowling in 1979 in Albion, Illinois (FindaGrave). In 1984, they welcomed a son named Peter Sean Dardeen to the family. The couple, who went by Keith and Elaine, moved to Ina, Illinois in1986 after Keith found a job at the Rend Lake Water Conservatory facility (Wikipedia). Their son was their pride and joy, and family describe the couple as exceptional parents.

In 1987, Keith told his mother that the family was planning to move back to the Mt. Carmel area after several homicides and violent crimes occurred in their community. The mass murder of the Odle family by their son Tom in 1985 started a wave of violent crimes in Jefferson County. The family put their mobile home up for sale. They had other big changes coming to their family as well, Elaine was expecting the couple’s second child.

Many citizens in Jefferson County were growing uneasy as violent crimes ramped up in the late 1980s. Keith was very concerned and protective of his family. In fact, his family tells a story about a young woman knocking on the door to use the phone. She was seemingly harmless, but Keith would not allow her in the home. He was not taking any chances with his wife, son, and unborn daughter.

On November 17th, 1987, Keith Dardeen failed to show up to work. This was very uncommon for the responsible family man. His emergency contact, his mother, was notified. She tried to contact Keith and Elaine several times via telephone but did not get any responses. Joeann, Keith’s mother, grew very worried about her son and asked police to do a wellness check.

When police arrived at the mobile home in Ina, they discovered something horrifying. The dead bodies of Elaine and three-year-old Peter were tucked into the master bed. Elaine had been bound and gagged before being severely beaten with her son’s baseball bat (Wikipedia). During the attack, she had gone into labor and delivered the baby girl they planned to name Casey. Casey and Peter were also beaten to death with the baseball bat.

Keith Dardeen was nowhere to be found. The scene appeared to be cleaned up (Gauen, 2014). Since the investigators could not find Keith and there were no signs of sexual assault or robbery, the authorities suspected Keith Dardeen had murdered his family. However, those suspicions were put to rest the following day.

On November 18th, 1987, the deceased body of Keith Dardeen was found by hunters in a nearby field (Gauen, 2014). His death was brutal. He was shot three times and his genitals were severed (Gauen, 2014). His car was found in Benton, Illinois and was covered in blood. The Dardeen family had no known enemies, were not involved in drug activity, and no motive for the murders was apparent.

No one could understand why this happened and with the other crimes in the county, residents were in fear. Rumors swirled about the crimes possibly being carried out as part of satanism. The Illinois State Police helped with the investigation but were unable to uncover clues. Valuables were still in place, eliminating the possibility of robbery. Police believed that it was a deliberate act and the Dardeen family was targeted but failed to produce any suspects.

The FBI also assisted in the case, attempting to create a profile of the killer. However, they were not successful as they “found that the crime defied their typical analytical methods” (Wikipedia). The case grew cold, but one person was determined not to let the case be forgotten. Joeann Dardeen, Keith’s mother, kept the case alive and refused to give up hope. She kept the media coverage as active as possible and even fought to have television programs such as Oprah and America’s Most Wanted feature the case. Oprah refused to cover the case, but America’s Most Wanted did feature the case in 1998. No new leads were discovered.

Joel Kirkpatrick

On July 13th, 1997, ten-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick slept in his bed in Lawrenceville, Illinois. His mother, Julie Rea, slept in her nearby bedroom. Suddenly, she awoke to a blood curdling scream. Julie jumped out of bed as any mother would and went looking for her son. Instead, she found a masked intruder. She fought off the intruder, but suffered some injuries during the struggle (Sherr, Redmond, & St. John, 2007).

When police arrived, they found Julie with a bruise to her head and a gash on her arm (Sherr, Redmond, & St. John, 2007). They found Joel too, but his injuries had been fatal. The young boy had suffered multiple stab wounds to his chest. The murder weapon was also found, a steak knife from Julie’s kitchen (Rhodes, 2003). Before even leaving the emergency department that night, Julie realized she was the prime suspect.

The investigation found no signs of forced entry, no fingerprints, and no signs of robbery (Rhodes, 2003). There was no apparent motive for a stranger to kill a ten-year-old as he slept. Len Kirkpatrick, Joel’s father, was quickly eliminated as a suspect (Sherr, Redmond, & St. John, 2007). However, he gave investigators a possible motive for the crime: Joel was mostly living with his father, with Julie only seeing the boy on weekends. Len and Julie had a contentious divorce and custody battle that Julie lost. Len said, “I think it was simply a matter of ‘If I can’t have Joel, you can’t either’” (Sherr, Redmond, & St. John, 2007).

Police also doubted Julie’s version of the crime, but they couldn’t mount the case against her immediately. Julie finished her doctorate in psychology, moved away from Lawrenceville, and remarried. She was now known as Julie Rea Harper and was appearing to put her life back together after the loss of her son.

In October 2000, with mostly circumstantial evidence, Julie Rea Harper was indicted on first degree murder charges for the murder of her son Joel. During the first trial, the jury heard from Len Kirkpatrick about a bitter divorce and custody battle that Julie lost, her allegedly volatile temper and instability, and that Julie had allegedly considered aborting Joel when she was pregnant. Julie denied the allegation that she considered abortion. While it seems irrelevant, the conservative communities in Southern Illinois were adamantly pro-life. Others talked about her questionable behavior and demeanor the night of the crime (Sherr, Redmond, & St. John, 2007). They prosecution used blood stain pattern analysis that supposedly proved an intruder did not enter the home (Colloff, 2018).

Although Julie maintained her innocence, she did not testify. She was found guilty of murder and sentenced to sixty-five years in prison for the crime.


Tommy Lynn Sells

In May of 2002, ABC 20/20 aired the story of Joel Kirkpatrick (Illinois Innocence Project). True Crime writer, Diane Fanning, saw the program and was fascinated with the case as it bore similarities to the crimes of a serial killer she was corresponding with, Tommy Lynn Sells. Without giving the timeline of the crime, Diane asked Sells about the crime. His response floored her.

Tommy Lynn Sells wrote Diane Fanning back asking if the murder occurred two days before one of his known murders in Springfield, Missouri. The crime was the kidnapping and murder of Stephanie Mahaney on October 15th, 1997 (Illinois Innocence Project). Tommy Lynn Sells confessed to Fanning that he committed the murder, a confession he also shared with police officers. Diane Fanning’s book about Sells, Through the Window, was published a year later and contained details of Sell’s confession. The Illinois innocence project decided to take on Julie Rea Harper’s case given the confession of Sells.

Tommy Lynn Sells was born in June of 1964. He had a twin sister, Tammy, who died of meningitis as a toddler (Wikipedia). He lived with his aunt for a few years in Holcomb, Missouri, but went back to his mother at age five (Wikipedia). His mother, according to Sells, was abusive and consented to men sexually abusing him throughout his childhood. By the time he was sixteen, Tommy was homeless, a drop out, and frequent drug abuser.

Tommy Sells states he committed his first murder at age sixteen, although this has not been substantiated (Montaldo, 2019). In 1979, Sells claims he was burglarizing a home when the occupant caught him. He claims he shot and killed the man. Working as a carnival worker, Sells later admitted to killing two people in Arkansas before returning to St. Louis (Montaldo, 2019).

In May of 1984, Tommy went to prison for car theft on a two-year sentence, but was quickly released on parole (Montaldo, 2019). Ena Cordt and her four-year-old son Rory met Sells at a carnival in 1984 and he later beat both of them to death with a baseball bat. By September of 1984, he was back in jail due to a DUI. He was released in May of 1986 and became a transient once again. He hadn’t been caught for any murders at this point, despite committing several according to his later confessions.

Tommy Sells claimed to have committed several murders, he claimed he was unsure of exactly how many, while traveling the United States and abusing drugs. He would later claim to have murdered Stephanie Stroh of Nevada and Suzanne Korcz of New York in October of 1987. He then claimed to travel to Southern Illinois.

Tommy Lynn, after being convicted in Texas of the murder thirteen-year-old Kaylene Harris in Texas in 1999, would shock Southern Illinois by his confessions while on Texas death row. He admitted to as many as twenty-two other homicides across the United States. He claimed that In November of 1987 he was at a truck stop in Ina, Illinois. He said he met Keith Dardeen.

Tommy Lynn Sells told a few different stories in regard to the murders of the Dardeen family. He stated that he met Keith, who offered him a warm meal and invited him back to his home. He also claimed Keith propositioned him for a threesome with Elaine. Later, he said that he simply approached the for-sale trailer at random, explaining he was interested in purchasing the property. He claimed he forced Keith at gunpoint to drive the car to where his body was found where he shot and mutilated the man before returning to the trailer. He then beat Elaine and Peter to death.

Police were not able to prove Sell’s guilt, and some believe it is a false confession. His responses to some specific questions such as the seat in the car where blood would be found and the positions of the bodies were initially wrong, but he later gave the correct answers. Investigators think he may have just guessed the right answers, but Sell’s claims he forgot some details as he committed several crimes and abused drugs frequently.

The family of Keith and Elaine also have their doubts. For one, Keith was fiercely protective of his family and they do not believe he would have allowed the then twenty-two-year-old man in the house. They also state the claims he propositioned Sells for sex were completely ridiculous. Joeann Dardeen does not believe Sells was the actual perpetrator.

In 2002, Sells told author Diane Fanning that he killed a boy in Lawrenceville, Illinois on October 13th, 1997. He claimed to have broken into the home, stabbed the young boy, and then scuffled with a woman who grabbed ahold of his leg. These claims matched Julie Rea Harper’s story of the night her son Joel was murdered.

The Illinois Downstate Innocence Project worked to confirm Sell’s confession. They found a witness who placed Sell’s in the town of Lawrenceville on the day of the crime. They also found the clerk who sold him a bus ticket two days later to Nevada, where he is confirmed to have been and committed a child murder.

In October of 2003, the prison review board heard testimony from Diane Fanning and the Illinois Downstate Innocence Project in regard to the credible claim of guilt from Sells. They also heard from Alva Busch, who pointed out inconsistencies in the investigation and forensic evidence. There were also investigators who allegedly provided false testimony at Julie’s first trial as well as evidence that was suppressed from the defense.

On July 24th, 2004, Julie Rea Harper’s conviction was overturned. The prosecutors planned to retry her. This time, the trial was moved to Clinton County to avoid a bias jury pool. The evidence was presented again, with prosecutors still convinced Julie was guilty, and Julie’s defense team providing Sells as the prime suspect. Experts testified that the blood pattern analysis was inaccurate. Given the reasonable doubt, on July 26th, 2006, Julie Rea Harper was acquitted for the murder of her son Joel.

Tommy Lynn Sells confessed to over fifty murders. Some of those claims have been proven false. Many believe he claimed responsibility in order to delay his execution by promising to lead authorities to proof to close cold cases. Others believe that he is responsible for the deaths of the Dardeen family and Joel Kirkpatrick. He was executed by the State of Texas on April 3rd, 2014. He made no final statements (Montaldo, 2019).

Tommy Lynn Sells was a proven serial killer who blamed his disturbing crimes on sexual abuse and neglect as a child. Did he also kill Keith, Elaine, Peter, and Casey Dardeen? Did he kill Joel Kirkpatrick? Did Julie Rea Harper get away with murder? Does the murderer of the Dardeen family still walk the streets? These are questions that the citizens of Southern Illinois seek to find conclusive answers to. However, these questions will likely remain a mystery unless more evidence is brought forward that can either collaborate or dismiss the confessions of a serial killer.

(Top: Tommy Lynn Sells in younger years. Bottom: Sells around the time of his execution)


FindAGrave (Accessed 2021) Ruby Elaine Cowling Dardeen; Retrieved at: Ruby Elaine Cowling Dardeen (1957-1987) - Find A Grave Memorial

Joel Craig Kirkpatrick; Retrieved at: Joel Craig Kirkpatrick (1987-1997) - Find A Grave Memorial

Wikipedia (Accessed 2021) Dardeen family homicides; Retrieved at: Dardeen family homicides - Wikipedia

Tommy Lynn Sells; Retrieved at: Tommy Lynn Sells - Wikipedia

KFSV2 (2019) Heartland Unsolved: Never Forget; Retrieved at: Heartland Unsolved: Never Forget ( and Heartland Unsolved: Never Forget part 2 (

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Illinois Innocence Project (Accessed 2021) Julie Rea; Retrieved at: Julie Rea – Illinois Innocence Project - University of Illinois Springfield - UIS

Colloff, P. (2018) She was exonerated of the murder of her son. Her life is still shattered; The New York Times; Retrieved at: She Was Exonerated of the Murder of Her Son. Her Life Is Still Shattered. - The New York Times (

Rhodes, D. (2003) Who killed Joel?; Illinois Times; Retrieved at: Who Killed Joel? (

Fanning, D (2012) Joel Kirkpatrick: Anniversary of a Stolen Life; Retrieved at: Joel Kirkpatrick: Anniversary of a Stolen Life | Diane Fanning

Sherr, L., Redmond, L., & St. John, C (2007) Untangling a Murder Mystery; ABC News; Retrieved at: Untangling a Murder Mystery - ABC News (

Montaldo, C. (2019) Profiler of serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells; ThoughtCo.; Retrieved at: Profile of Serial Killer Tommy Lynn Sells (

Sherwood, R. & Effron, L. (2014) Convicted serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells executed in Texas; ABC News; Retrieved at: Convicted Serial Killer Tommy Lynn Sells Executed in Texas - ABC News (

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