LIVINGSTON, TEXAS - The door opens and Texas Department of Criminal Justice Death Row Inmate No. 999367 enters the stark white room.
The heavy door slams closed, and Tommy Lynn Sells, back against the door and arms behind him, bends awkwardly at the knees while a slot in the door is opened to remove his handcuffs.
Standing up, he fills the small room as he takes a step to the chair behind the glass.
Dressed in prison-issue all-whites with short brown hair, his hazel eyes framed with wire-rimmed glasses, he takes a seat, and with a tattoo-laden arm reaches for the phone. He has a seemingly shy smile on his face.
The smile seems at odds with all that has been written about him and much that he has to say about himself. Sells ranks at the top of forensic psychiatrist Michael Stone's "Most Evil" scale, alongside other notorious serial killers as John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer.
But behind the glass in the visiting area of the Allan B. Polunsky Unit, the prison where Texas houses death row inmates, his affect is slightly dull, perhaps from the medication that allows him to "to sit here and talk without screaming," but he has a genial demeanor.
A welfare check in the late fall of 1987 brought deputies to the Ina home of the Dardeen family. Police found Elaine Dardeen, 30, and her young son, Peter, brutally murdered. An infant girl born during the attack on her mother suffered a similar fate within minutes of birth. A day later, the body of Keith Dardeen - shot, his body mutilated - was found in a field near Rend Lake College, about a mile from the family's residence.
"I can't swear I'll give you the answers that you want, but I'll try," Sells says.
Although he says he can't remember half of the murders he's committed, Sells admits to the Dardeen killings.
"I know people got their doubts," he said.
Sells, 45, is alleged to have killed dozens of people, including the Dardeens, but what put him on the course to that deadly collision in Ina started when he was a child, he said.
Born in Oakland, Calif., Sells was raised in Missouri, spending time in St. Louis and the Bootheel. He doesn't believe he was born with bad intent.
‘A dark soul'
"But we'll never know because no one ever tried to help me. When your mother gives you to a pedophile, where's the help? And what in the right mind mother lets her 7-year-old boy sleep at a single man's house for years and think it's a healthy, OK thing? Between (ages) 7 and 14 replays over and over and over in my mind. It don't quit.
"The pain don't stop. It's still there. I can't sleep a whole night without waking up with it. My mind is like a mirror, and somebody's taken a hammer to it," he said. "Seems like after 7, I just became numb. I became a dark soul. I think every time I've kilt someone I've kilt that person (his abuser)."
He took to the streets, where he said he committed his first murder at age 15.
"That's when I learned how to survive on my own, hand to mouth.
"Stealing. Anywhere a ride was going I was heading that way. Might be in Illinois today and Oklahoma tomorrow," he said.
‘Hell broke loose'
His drifting into Southern Illinois in November 1987 brought him to encounter Keith Dardeen at a Mount Vernon truck stop.
"I was just passing through. I had stopped off at that truck stop before, and I rode the trains through there before," he said.
Dardeen invited him back to Ina for a meal, but instead of dinner, he said, Dardeen made sexual advances toward him, a claim police dismiss as justification for the unjustifiable.
"Then some bogus s--- happened, right? And then I left, and then I came back and did a little watching and waited for the right time," Sells said. "And then all hell broke loose."
He said he killed Dardeen first, and then went back for the family for reasons he can't explain.
"I don't have an answer for you. I can't answer it. If you've never been that pissed then it's hard to ... you know. One of the Texas Rangers said it was due to self-preservation because she (Elaine Dardeen) knew who I was, but I don't think that was part of it," he said. "I was just so pissed off that I took it to the maximum limit.
"Rage don't have a stop button."
Even when the victim is a child?
"Let's understand this. Murder is murder. If I murdered you, would you not want the same justice that the police officer gets if a police officer is murdered? Capital murder for them, just regular murder for you," he said. "That's crap. If you murder a newborn or a 90-year-old, murder's murder. You can't classify, say one is worse than the other."
His memory of the murders - all of his murders, he says - is foggy.
"I don't even remember half the murders I done. I think one of the things helped me to survive all my life even with all the sexual molestation and beatings and when something happens I stop thinking about it.
It's over. And, and, and that's like with a lot of my crimes. Once it's over, I stopped believing I was part of it," he said. "Because they say I've done some pretty gross stuff, and some of it I can say, ‘Yeah, I remember some of that, but some of it I'm not so sure.' And there's been so many. How do you tell one from another?"
‘Texas'll kill me'
"They say there's no physical evidence tying me to Dardeens, but there wasn't for any of them because they wasn't looking for me. I moved. I was always a transient. If you wanna believe different, I ain't gonna argue the case. Texas'll kill me first."
If Texas authorities would let him, he said, he would meet with Keith Dardeen's mother, Joeann, but he isn't sure he could give her the peace she needs.
"Joeann wants to talk to me. If she wants to come here and talk to me, scream at me, yell, kick me, hit me, she should have that right," he said. "But sorry ain't gonna cut it. So what is there to say? I could tell her sorry every day the rest of my life. It's not going to stop her pain, and one thing I do know about is pain, and it don't go away. I don't know if I understand forgiveness. I don't think so."
Sells said police missed opportunities to stop his cross-country death march.
"I coulda been stopped several times. I was arrested with the blood on me from the Kentucky case (the murder of a 13-year-old girl), and all they did was put me in the drunk tank and let me out the next day.
"Wasn't six hours and I was back out on the street," he said. "With blood on me. How close does that get to stopping me?"
Life on death row is harsh, and his visitors are few and far between, he said.
"I have family but haven't talked to them for years. No friends. I don't want none. If I seeked it I probably could find it, but it's something I don't want. I don't want to be bothered with people no more. It's best I leave them alone, and they leave me alone. No conflict and when there's no conflict nobody's getting hurt. Me or them," he said.
Still, he is at ease in prison, where he has spent a total of about 19 years.
"I know how to do time in here. I don't know how to do time out there.
"This environment I understand; your world I don't. I don't get your world. It screws my head up trying to figure it out."
‘Plug her in'
Sells' case remains tied up in the federal appeals process.
"I don't care about it. It's their gig, not mine. I don't have enough room in my head to deal with all that. I really don't have much say in none of it. And I really don't care. I don't know enough about it to care or want to care. Killing me ain't going to hurt me, God, I wish ...," he said without completing the sentence.
"Got no date. I've had a date, but it was withdrew. I've come to peace with myself in the last 10 years. If somebody has demons because of me they need to let that go because Texas gonna take care of what needs to be done. And if Texas doesn't get satisfaction, then I'm sure there's another state waiting in line. Plug her in"
He scoffs at the notion that the death penalty is just as much a deterrent to crime as it is a punishment.
"They think death is the ultimate punishment, but death is not. It's living with this every day is the ultimate punishment.
"With what I've done. It don't go away. What's happened to me don't go away; what I've done don't go away. It twists my mind. Every day I wake up with it, I go to bed with it. As I say, death is a welcome relief," he said.
"If me being killed is what you want, I'm OK with it. You're not going to hurt my feelings, and I'm not going to put up a fuss to save my own life because in my opinion, I think it's not worth saving. When I was 7 years old they didn't think I was worth saving so how I am ‘sposed to think any different?"
Sells reserves some of his harshest criticism for God.
"I have a lot of issues with God. Here's my biggest: He wasn't there when I was 7 years old screaming out to him asking this dude to stop doing everything he did to me, and I lived through that hell for years. So I'm not saying there's a God up there who's going to protect me or you because in my view there's just not," he said.
"Supposed to be such love and there's not. If they want to believe when I die and there's a welcome committee for me when I get to hell, then that's what they can believe. But I just don't quite see it that way. I believe I'll be back to bite somebody else in the a-- sooner or later."