Investigating Innocence: new leads point to serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells in Rodney Lincoln case


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The family of Rodney Lincoln, 69, waits nervously for the gift they have been longing for--- a wait that has lasted more than 32 years.

Lincoln had been convicted in 1983 of a brutal murder based on junk science and the eyewitness testimony of a seven year old girl, a surviving victim of a brutal stabbing that left the child traumatized. According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions. Over 70 percent of the DNA exonerations in the U.S. involve eyewitness misidentification.

On the morning of April 27, 1982, St. Louis awoke to one of the most shocking and disturbing crime scenes in memory. A family member was the first to discover the bodies. JoAnn Tate, a 35 year-old single mother of two girls, ages four and seven, was found lying face down on her bedroom floor inside the ground floor apartment across from Hyde Park in St. Louis, a few blocks from the Mississippi River. She died of multiple stab wounds from a knife from her own kitchen.

Her daughters Melissa, 7, and half-sister, Renee, 4, were found drenched in blood and barely breathing. Renee’s throat had been cut. Melissa had deep stab wounds to her chest, and there was another stab wound below her vaginal area. Melissa also had defensive wounds. Both girls miraculously survived.

The attack occurred around 4 a.m. according to upstairs neighbors who reported being awakened by thumping and banging noises coming from the apartment below.

At the crime scene, investigators found trace evidence. A pubic hair was found on a child’s blue blanket on the bed where Melissa was assaulted. A forensic scientist from the Missouri State Police crime lab performed microscopic comparison of the pubic hair with those pulled from Lincoln’s body after he was arrested. The jury was told it matched Rodney Lincoln, sharing “similar” characteristics.

The Midwest Innocence Project, based in Kansas City, won a seven year court battle to have DNA testing finally performed on evidence that was “the lynchpin” of the State’s conviction of Rodney Lincoln in 1983, according to Laura O’ Sullivan, the attorney who argued the case.

Mitochondrial DNA testing is now regarded as the most reliable scientific method for comparing hair evidence. In 2009, the American Academy of Sciences reported that mitochondrial DNA has exonerated a number of individuals who had been wrongfully convicted based upon testimony involving microscopic hair comparisons, a form of forensic evidence that is now regarded as junk science.

On Nov. 3, 2010, Rodney Lincoln’s DNA was eliminated as the source of the pubic hair found at the crime scene, based on mitochondrial DNA testing. It would take another three holiday seasons before Rodney Lincoln would have his day in court.

On Christmas Eve 2013, Circuit Judge R. R. Vannoy issued a ruling that for the Lincoln family read like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. She disagreed, and said the true “lynchpin” of the case was the eyewitness testimony of the seven year old child. “While the photo spread may have been improper and suggestive” [when she first identified Mr. Lincoln], said the judge, she found it significant that the child never wavered in pointing the finger at the accused when she identified him in a subsequent line-up, and in court.

Kay Lincoln, 45, was 13 years old on May 23, 1982, when her father was arrested for the murder of Joann Tate, a woman he dated eight months before his arrest. He was grilling in the backyard as Kay watched police approach him. He agreed to go with them to answer “a few questions”. That was his last day as a free man.

Monday thru Friday, Kay works as a civil servant for the federal government, but every other waking hour is spent on the job that matters most to her: the work she does to free her father. She has become a true detective in her own right.

“I have been investigating my Dad’s case for a long time now. When I read about Tommy Lynn Sells, my blood literally ran cold,” said Kay.

She recently landed on the website of Investigating Innocence, a national project I started in January 2013, and read my affidavit to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board detailing the crimes of serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells. The affidavit detailed my investigation of a 1987 wrongful conviction case in which I identified Tommy Lynn Sells as the person responsible for the brutal murders of Dyke and Karen Rhoads, a newlywed couple, stabbed to death as they lay sleeping in their beds at 4 a.m. on July 5, 1986, in Paris, IL.

Lawmakers in Illinois cited this case when they abolished the death penalty in March of 2011. Randy Steidl and Herbert Whitlock had been wrongfully convicted of the murders. Steidl received a death sentence. Although both men are now free and have been compensated for their time in prison, they still have not received a final pardon that would expunge the arrest from their records.

Sells had been living in St. Louis in 1986, when he committed the Paris murders. He was only 22 years old. He claimed to have committed his first murder when he was only 16. He was finally caught for a 1999 New Year’s Eve murder in the border town of Del Rio, TX. As in many of his other crimes, Sells entered the home in Del Rio at 4 a.m., grabbed a knife from the kitchen and killed 13 year-old Kaylene Harris. A second child survived having her throat slit and was able to provide a description of the killer that led to Sells’ arrest. Before he stopped cooperating with Texas Rangers, Sells claimed to have committed more than 70 murders over a 20 year span of time.

Tommy Lynn Sells attending his brother's wedding in St. Louis June 14, 1986, three years after the murder of Carla Tate.

This picture of Sells was taken in St. Louis on June 14, 1986, at his brother's wedding. This was three years after the murder of Carla Tate.

“That was the first thing that jumped out at me was the fact that Sells killed his other victims at 4 a.m.,” said Kay.

In the Paris murder a large butcher knife was found in the kitchen sink that had been used to kill the newlywed couple. “That caught my attention. When I read that they were killed with a knife from their own kitchen and the killer washed off the knife in the kitchen sink. The victim in my Dad’s case recounted seeing the man who attacked her doing the same thing,” said Kay.

“As I continued to read, there was one fact that I found so similar to my Dad’s case, I found myself literally trembling.”

That was a November 1987 crime Sells committed in Ina, IL, not far from St. Louis. The victim, Ruby Dardeen, was sexually assaulted with an inanimate object, a baseball bat, which was found protruding from her vagina. Her son Peter, 3, was found dead beside his mother’s body. Seven months pregnant, she had given birth during the assault. All three were bludgeoned to death. Authorities in Illinois corroborated Sells’ March 2000 confession to the murders of the Dardeen family, based on his knowledge of details of the scene that only the killer would have known.

“When I read what he did to Ruby Dardeen, I started crying. I had to stop reading it and collect myself,” said Kay. After reading the affidavit, she felt this could be the person who had killed JoAnn Tate.

First responders were shocked at the brutality and deviance of JoAnn Tate’s murder. A broom handle was shoved into the mother's rectum as she lay face down on the floor gasping her last breaths. It was a sick, twisted killer who did this.

After the Tate murder, Melissa, from her bed in a hospital ICU room, described the horror of what happened. Sleeping in her mother’s room, she was awakened by her mother's scream. Her mother called out the man’s name, "Bill." The man told Melissa to go to another room. He shut the door, removed her clothes and then took off his own clothes. He covered her body with his body and began stabbing. The knife’s blade plunged into the child’s skin between her vagina and rectum, slicing her open.

Melissa said she recognized “Bill” as the man her mother met in the park across the street from their home. He had come by the house on Sunday, two days before the crime, driving a white Volkswagen. He helped repair her mother’s car and said his name was "Bill". Tommy Lynn Sells was 17 years old when this murder occurred. Bill was his father’s name.

A 17 year-old neighbor, who spent a lot of time visiting JoAnn, was briefly investigated as a potential suspect. He was eventually cleared.

Melissa spent several weeks in intensive care, recovering from her injuries. Nearly a month after the attack, Melissa provided a description to a sketch artist. When it was broadcast on the news, the brother of JoAnn Tate went to the station and told police that the sketch vaguely resembled an old boyfriend his sister dated.

Police combed through the victims’ address book and found a phone number to a man named “Rod”, which led police to Rodney Lincoln. He met JoAnn Tate in a bar and they briefly dated, ending the relationship eight months before the crime. There was no evidence to suggest they parted on bad terms.

“No one could ever tell me what motive my father had for killing JoAnn Tate, but Sells didn’t seem to need one,” said Kay.

A police detective showed Melissa a photo of their suspect. By the time the interview ended, she identified Rodney Lincoln as the man who killed her mother.

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Lincoln’s first trial resulted in a hung jury, as five of the jurors expressed doubts about the State’s case, troubled by the inconsistencies in Melissa’s identification. Two months later, Lincoln was re-tried. Facing the death penalty, he was convicted, but jurors voted to spare his life, another sign they may have harbored residual doubt. The prosecutor was able to overcome those doubts by pointing to "science" that "corroborated" Melissa’s testimony. The forensic scientist who compared Lincoln’s pubic hair with that of the one found on the blue blanket testified that they were similar.

Tommy Lynn Sells is not available to be interviewed because the State of Texas executed him on April 3, 2014. We recently interviewed Sells’ brother, who confirmed that Tommy Lynn Sells was living in St. Louis at the time JoAnn Tate was killed. This evidence proves a major element---that Sells had the opportunity to commit the murder of JoAnn Tate.

Another fact discovered by this interview was that in April 1982, Sells was working at CMW Automotive in St Louis, a company owned by his family that repaired and sold used Volkswagens. A major lead in the case was that white Volkswagen that Melissa saw “Bill” driving the day before he murdered her mother. Police detectives asked Rodney Lincoln, if he had ever owned a white Volkswagen. The detective’s report stated, Lincoln “does not have a white Volkswagen and has never had one.”

Sells’ maternal brother agreed to provide a buccal swab for the purpose of mitochondrial DNA testing. All male siblings born from the same mother share the same mitochondrial DNA profile, which they inherit from the mother. The DNA results did not match Sells---more disappointing news for Kay Lincoln that was delivered two days before Christmas. The pubic hair could be an artifact unrelated to the crime. So the investigation continues to determine if Sells ever drove a white Volkswagen at the time JoAnn Tate was murdered.

The son of Rodney Lincoln, who also bears his father’s name, told KSDK TV, “The day he comes home is going to be Holiday.” No matter when that day comes.

Bill Clutter is a private investigator in Louisville, KY. He recently started a new not-for-profit national organization called Investigating Innocence, based in Springfield, IL. The organization enlists the help of private investigators to investigate inmate claims of actual innocence. Volunteers are encouraged to assist with this investigation. Contact: billclutter@email.com. For more information about the organization go to www.investigatinginnocence.org

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