She was just trying to escape with her life.
“I just wanted to get away and I did not realize I had stabbed him,” Witherspoon told “20/20.” “And it was very, very, very hard to know that I had the ability to hurt someone that way.”
The man who had attacked her was Tommy Lynn Sells, a notorious serial killer who has confessed to killing at least 50 people during his murderous trip that spans three decades.
Most of his victims did not survive his attack. Witherspoon is believed to be only one of two known survivors.
He had killed before when he attacked Witherspoon, and he did not think that this then 19-year-old woman would fight back with so much force.
Witherspoon speaks publicly about the attack for the first time in an interview with “20/20”, which will be broadcast on Friday 12 November at 21.00 ET.
“I always felt that if something like this ever happened to me, I would probably just faint. I just wanted to- I would faint and die. I would not fight, but I found out I was someone else,” he said. she.
Witherspoon said she was going to her friend’s apartment on May 13, 1992 in Charleston, West Virginia, when she noticed a younger man under the bridge with a sign asking for food and showing her a picture of his wife and children.
She said she felt sympathy for him and decided to give him food and clothes from her friend’s apartment. She asked him to wait outside while she collected food from the pantry. That man was Tommy Lynn Sells.
Fabienne Witherspoon was 19 years old when she said she was attacked by a man who turned out to be serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells. (Kanawha County Prosecutor’s Office)
“And I suppose while I was doing that, he had come into the house and had been given a knife,” Witherspoon said.
Witherspoon said Sells had retrieved the knife from the kitchen, locked the door and came up behind her. They were alone in the apartment and she said he asked her to do what he said and he would not hurt her. Initially, Witherspoon complied. She said he led her to the bathroom with the knife still in his hand.
“I was just thinking, ‘Okay, I’m going through this. I’m going through this, and then he’s going, and then everything’s going to be fine.’ But then it got to the point that I panicked and looked out through the shower, “Witherspoon said.
Fabienne Witherspoon was able to repel the attacker and injure him in the process. (Kanawha County Prosecutor’s Office)
Witherspoon said Sells told her he would rape her, and it was here she decided she wanted to fight back.
“He had pushed me up towards where the toilet was and I saw the back of the toilet was a ceramic duck,” Witherspoon said. “So I grabbed another and I think in my head, ‘In the movies, if you get hit in the head with something, they faint. They lose consciousness.’ So I picked up the second one and I started repeatedly hitting him over the head with the second one … and he was still standing. “
In this fight, Witherspoon said she managed to get the knife away from Sells and stabbed him repeatedly. An injured Sells grabbed a piano stool and struck Witherspoon with force in her head.
“And then … I felt something fall down over my head,” she said. “And that’s the last thing I remember until I got to when the police and the ambulance were out front.”
Sells tried to escape, but his injuries got him into the intensive care unit and into police custody. Witherspoon sustained significant injuries, including a hole in his head and an incision in his hand that required surgery.
Tommy Lynn Sells on an undated photo. (Texas Department of Criminal Justice via AP)
Following this attack, Sells entered into an appeal agreement on charges of malicious wounding and served five years in prison. At the time, law enforcement did not know that Sells was a serial killer who would strike again, and Witherspoon could do no more by his short sentence.
“I felt it was my fault that he only got five years,” Witherspoon said. “I have read … that after he had his meeting with me, he would never be stuck in the situation again where he could be in danger of being injured, so he turned to smaller people or children after that. “
On October 13, 1997, just four months after his release from prison, 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick was murdered in his bedroom in Lawrenceville, Illinois, in the middle of the night.
The boy’s mother, Julie Rea, said the scream woke her up. She said she ran to her son’s bedroom and came across an uninvited guest with a ski mask on and no sign of Joel. Rea said she struggled with the uninvited guest all the way to the backyard, where he gave her backhand and went out into the night. The murder weapon, a steak knife drawn from Rea’s kitchen, was left on the floor outside Joel’s bedroom. Rea told police she believed Joel had been kidnapped, but when officers arrived at the house, they found the boy dead on the other side of his bed.
Investigators could not find evidence of the fight that Rea described at the scene. Nothing had been stolen, the house was neat, and there was no sign of coercion, according to investigators working on the case.
Rea, who has always maintained her innocence, was the primary suspect for years. She was indicted on first-degree murder charges in 2000. Prosecutors provided overwhelming evidence focusing on Rea’s ex-husband’s testimony, which determined Rea’s motive for a bitter custody battle and the fact that Rea had Joel’s blood on her clothes that night. . Rea’s defense claimed that Joel’s blood was transferred to her clothes during her fight with the uninvited guest.
“Why would a mother kill her child? We do not know,” said Ed Parkinson, who accused the case. “We do know, however, that there was a long battle over custody of Joel … and she did not like her ex-husband so much that whether it was to punish him or whether it was in her own twisted way, she thought “that Joel would be better off than growing up with her ex-husband.”
During Rea’s trial, her public defender advised her not to testify.
“[My attorney] told me absolutely not to do it, “Rea told” 20/20 “in a 2002 interview.” I argued with him about it … and he says, ‘No, no. Our experts have said that Parkinson’s will … use everything you say and try to twist it. “
Julie Rea-Harper on an undated photo. (Illinois Department of Corrections via AP)
One of the witnesses her lawyer called to testify was her good friend, Dawn Hanzel.
“I was asked to testify in Julie’s first trial … [to show] that she had invited me to spend the night there, and why would she invite me to stay there if she had planned to kill Joel? It made no sense at all, “Hanzel said.
But Rea was convicted of killing his son and sentenced to 65 years in prison. Shortly after her conviction, Rea sat down for an interview with “20/20” in which she told her side of the story – something she was not given a chance to do during the trial.
“The last person in the world I would hurt is my son,” Rea said in the 2002 interview. “My son knows I would never have hurt him.”
Joel Kirkpatrick is seen here in this undated family photo. (Len Kirkpatrick)
Sitting at home and watching Rea’s “20/20” interview was Diane Fanning, a crime writer who was finishing a book about Sells. At the time, Sells was on the verge of death for the murder of 13-year-old Katy Harris in Texas.
Fanning said she was surprised by the prosecutor’s claim that an uninvited guest would not break into a house with the intent to kill and not carry a murder weapon, as Sells had done so on more than one occasion. Fanning then wrote Sells a letter in which he told him about the prosecutor’s comments.
“I did not tell him the name of the prosecutor, the name of the case, the city where it took place, the time it took place, nothing in that direction,” Fanning said in an interview with “20/20.” “Tommy replied by writing, ‘About the woman who claimed someone broke into her house, it was like that … Maybe the 13th?’ I was shocked because that was exactly where that crime took place. “
Part of a letter Diane Fanning said she received from serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells. (Diane Fanning)
“As I read that letter, my hands began to shake,” Fanning said. “I felt I had justice in my hands and I had to do something.”
Fanning said she came in contact with a Texas Ranger who knew Sells well, and based on his letter, she thought Sells might have killed the little boy.
In 2003, Sells was interviewed by police and made a detailed confession to having killed a boy and described how a woman tried to fight him.
According to Bill Clutter, an investigator with the Illinois Innocence Project, Sells remembered details of Joel Kirkpatrick’s murder that he would not have known unless he was there.
“There had been confirmatory evidence to place [Sells] in Lawrenceville, “said Fanning.” When I found out, I believed 100% not only in Julie Rae Harper’s innocence, but in Tommy Lynn Sells’ guilt. “
Diane Fanning is seen here during her interview with “20/20.”
Meanwhile, Rea had been in jail for two years when an appeals court decided to overturn her sentence due to a technicality. But the prosecution decided to try the case again.
Rea, armed with a new defense team through the Center on Wrongful Convictions, used Sells ‘confession on audio tape in her second trial in 2006. The prosecution, which has always claimed that Rea killed her son, claimed that Sells’ confession was a fabrication.
She was found not guilty and the state of Illinois gave her a certificate of innocence.
“I just felt like Joel was right there with me and he was just so happy,” Rea said after hearing the verdict. “It was incredible.”
Since her release, Rea has become a lawyer working with organizations that help women who feel they have been wrongfully convicted and are struggling to prove their innocence.
Sells was never formally charged with the murder of Joel. He was executed in Texas in 2014 through lethal injection.
While Rea was fighting her legal battles, Witherspoon also discovered that her assault was committed years earlier by a serial killer.
Fabienne Witherspoon is seen here during her interview with “20/20.”
“It was a lot to take in,” Witherspoon said. “And then I kind of wanted to start over,” Wow. You survived. You survived a serial killer. You survived someone who did all these things, “and the more I found out the horrible things he did. For people, the more I owed a survivor and lived with the fact that he started killing children more often after me.”
Since then, Witherspoon feels that if she had fought harder to keep Sells in jail, Joel might have been saved.
“There’s a lot of guilt and I know I’ve talked to a lot of people and they say I should not feel that way,” Witherspoon said. “I’ve even had people call me a hero, but I do not feel like a hero.”
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