On October 13, 1997, 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick was murdered and his mother Julie Rea was sentenced to 65 years in prison for his death. Julie had woken up the night of Joel’s murder to his screams and found an intruder in his room.
She said she struggled to fight with the man as he made his way into the backyard, where he then backhanded her and walked away. Joel found no sign of her son and told detectives she thought he had been kidnapped. He was actually dead on the other side of the bed. The murder weapon was a steak knife from Julie’s kitchen. Police found no sign of the struggle with the intruder she described and indicted her for murder in 2000.
After her conviction, Julie Rea did an interview with 20/20, which ultimately helped find her son’s true killer and get her out of prison. A 20/20 viewer saw similarities between Joel’s murder and the murders carried out by the subject of the true crime book she was working on. Diane Fanning was writing about serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells, who was on death row in Texas at the time for murdering a 13-year-year-old girl. He has confessed to killing at least 50 people.
One of the arguments used by prosecutors to convict Julia Rea was that murders usually bring their own murder weapon. This stuck out to her because Tommy Lynn Sells often broke into houses without a murder weapon. Diane Fanning wrote to Sells about the case without revealing key details. His response, and further details led to him confessing in 2003 to killing Joel Kirkpatrick that night in 1997.
Julia Rea was able to be exonerated, but Tommy Lynn Sells was never convicted for Joel’s murder. He was executed by lethal injection in 2014.