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Live to Tell: Krystal's Courage

Produced by Chris Young

This broadcast is dedicated to CBS News Correspondent Harold Dow, who reported on this story for a decade.

What if someone wants you dead but you live to tell?

It has been 10 years since the night 10-year-old Krystal Surles' throat was slashed after witnessing her friend's murder. In her unflinching account, Krystal recalls the events of that awful night, her incredible journey to recovery and a secret she kept from the public for years. It was her will to survive that ultimately brought a serial killer to justice.

This is her experience. In her words.

Marque Surles | Krystal's sister: December 1999, I was in first grade. My older sister, Krystal, and I were staying with friends in Del Rio, Texas, waiting for my family in Kansas to move there with us.

I was 7. And my older sister, Krystal, was 10. And we were just moving down to Del Rio, Texas, to start a new life with our family. I remember my sister as being kind of bossy and... the age difference was big. And we just didn't get along very well. We stayed at the Harris family's house. And they had a big family. The oldest son, Sean. Then, Justin, Laurie and Katy.

They lived kind of out in the desert. Like, there wasn't a lot of people close to them. It was off in the middle of nowhere.

I was sleeping directly across the hallway from the room Krystal and Katy were sleeping in. I was gonna sleep on the floor next to the bed, but they didn't want me in there, and I was made to leave.

When I couldn't sleep in the room, I was so mad. And I remember I just laid in bed for, like, two hours just fuming. I was just so mad. I wanted to be in that room.

I woke up to the sun coming through the window. And I sat up and I saw a lady standing in my room that I didn't know. And she just handed me a pair of shorts and a purple tank top and said, "Put this on. We got to go."

Directly, maybe five steps away from my door, was just a stream of blood. It looked like somebody was stumbling, was holding onto things. There was blood on the wall, and just - it was everywhere. And then, there was more outside. I just remember seeing it all the way down the front steps and just off into the street.

I knew somebody was hurt. I saw the blood. I could see everybody crying. Everybody was frantic. I just wanted to know what was going on.

Pam Surles | Marque and Krystal's mother: On Dec. 31, 1999, I had a phone call at close to 6:00 in the morning... as I was preparing to move from Kansas to Texas.

It was Val Verde emergency room asking me for my permission to Life Flight Krystal. She had been attacked. And I said, "Absolutely. Life Flight her. Where?" And they said, "San Antonio." I didn't know anything except that Krystal had had her throat cut.

If I looked her in her eyes, I would know if she was gonna make it.


Johnny Allen | Texas Ranger: I first received the phone call regarding this attack and homicide at 5:30 a.m. on Dec. 31 (1999).

When I walked into the crime scene, which was identified as the Harris residence, there was a bedroom, which I learned two small girls were sleeping in. On the floor was a deceased young girl. The crime scene was extremely bloody. The murder victim was identified as 13-year-old Kaylene Harris, who normally went by Katy.

Katy Harris was a very popular, 13-year-old, beautiful young girl, who had everything in the world goin' for her. Well liked by her fellow students- a young girl, who fought very bravely for her life.

We knew a 10-year-old girl had survived, Krystal Surles. At that point in time, we didn't know the extent of her injuries. And that was our only hope as far as any surviving witness.

Pam: When I got in her room, I saw this little girl with all of these tubes. And one of the machines was breathing for her.

She looked like this baby in this humongous bed. And I looked her in her eyes and I said, "Are you OK, angel? Mommy's here." I knew that a guy had slit her windpipe and nicked her vocal chords. And then she kept asking me, "Is Katy OK? Is Katy OK?" And I couldn't tell her... I couldn't tell her anything.

"It hurt and all, but I think that Katy - she helped me through with everything. Her soul came up and like - stayed with me," Krystal told reporters at a press conference.

Krystal: As soon as I woke up from surgery, I was ready to talk. And my mom was like "Krystal, we have to wait till the police get there, the detectives, and things like that."

Johnny Allen: When we initially walked into the room, we told Krystal who we were. And at that point in time, I assured Krystal that we are goin' to arrest the subject or person or persons who did this to her. And I at that point in time, I was hopin' I could back that up.

Pam: I felt like it was her story, and when she was ready and comfortable, she would tell me what she wanted to tell me about it.

Krystal: We went to bed kinda late. But I remember I woke up to like a scream. I was on the top bunk of the bed and I just popped my head up a little bit. And I was looking around. I never sat up fully or anything. But the light was on, so I could see. I could see at the end of the bed - this scary guy.

He had scruffy hair - long, dark, curly hair, and a big, scary, long bushy beard that, you know, just took over his whole face. And then, his eyes were just dark and, and mean. But then, I - I saw that Katy had blood on her, and that he had a knife in his hand. ...He had a knife across her throat, and his hand on her mouth. And he just cut her throat, and she fell to the ground.

He still didn't notice I was in the room. And he was getting ready to leave. He opened the door, almost had the light off, looked one last time, and - and he saw me looking at him.

I was trying to scoot to the right side of the bed, 'cause he was on the left. He just reached over and cut my throat.

And then, I just remember laying there and the light turning off, and I heard the door shut. And so, I got on my hands and knees and I was crawling across the floor in the bedroom. And I came across Katy on the floor. She was kinda making a gasping noise, or maybe she was choking. But then I was trying to comfort her. I laid next to her... rubbin' her back and - and that's when I realized I couldn't talk 'cause all I wanted to say was, "Everything's gonna be OK. Everything's gonna be OK." But I couldn't... And then, I mean, as soon as she stopped making those noises, I had this feeling, you know, "get outta here. Get up. Come on, go. Don't lay here. Go."

It was dark outside. I was in my pajamas, no shoes, nothing. And I just decided - I saw a light in the distance. I was like, that's my goal. That's where I need to be... I just got on the road and walked really slow to that light... Really, all I could think about was just, "get to this house, just get to this house, just get to this house." And I just banged on their door, and I hear a gentleman. He's like, 'Who's there, who's there,' you know? I can't - and I can't talk. So I'm just banging as hard as I can on the door. And then, he opens the door.

Marque: I wouldn't have made it like Krystal did. I am lucky to not be in that room, and I'm lucky to have an amazing sister that could handle being in that room. I wouldn't have made it like Krystal did.

Johnny Allen: We had a forensic artist that was stationed in Midland, Texas, at the time. She was contacted and was flown to San Antonio and ultimately brought to University Hospital.

Krystal: I couldn't get the picture out of my head. And it amazes me how good that they sketched it compared to how he really looked at the time; because it was so perfect.

Johnny Allen: We entered Krystal's room - woke her up. And I explained to Krystal - I told Krystal, "We have a photo lineup... And if you see the man that was in that residence that did this to y'all, please put your finger on him."

Krystal took the photo lineup and, she began - you could see her eyes movin' from one individual photograph to the next. And then you could see that she came back and, and focused in on one photograph. And I was standin' beside her when she did this. And Krystal took her right index finger and put it on the photograph of Tommy Lynn Sells.

Tommy Lynn Sells, at that point in time, became our number one suspect.


Johnny Allen: Once we received a positive identification from Krystal, we turned around and headed back toward Del Rio, which is a two-and-a-half hour drive from San Antonio. The Val Verde County Sheriff's Office had handled Tommy Lynn Sells before on some accusations that were made there in Del Rio against him.

When we got to Tommy Lynn Sells' residence, it was approximately 5:30 in the mornin'. We knocked on the door. It was opened. We went right on in and were met near the front doorway by Tommy Lynn Sells. His comment was "I'm glad I finally got caught - I was tired of doing this." And then we told him he was under arrest for murder.

The murder weapon was an 11-inch butcher knife. It had been sharpened throughout the years so many times that it was such a thin blade and it was recovered beyond his residence in the brush where he had told us he had discarded the knife.

Pam: I remember the phone ringing in the hospital room, and me answering it, and them telling me that they had caught Tommy Lynn Sells. And I remember turning to Krystal and telling her, and she was, like, "Yeah." But, at that point, it wasn't about him, it was about Krystal.

We would take walks in the morning and the afternoon, and Krystal was walking along with her IV and stopped to get a drink of water...The water fountain, of course, they are kind of shiny, and that's the first time that she saw her neck, was in the water fountain. And so, then I knew she wanted to get to a mirror and I got her to a mirror, and she cried for a little bit, but she knew that it would get better. I think that it brought back some of what she was going through.

Krystal: She was like, "Krystal, it happened, there is nothing we can do now, but look you're here, and he's caught, and then think, if this would have never happened he would still be out there, who would he be hurting right now." I'm just lucky. People say I'm brave and everything. No, I'm just lucky.

Johnny Allen: Once Tommy Lynn Sells was taken to the Val Verde County Sheriff's Office he was very willing to cooperate with us. Confessions were obtained from him as well as his agreement to do a walk through of the crime scene.

Ranger: You doing this walk though of your own free will?

Tommy Lynn Sells: Oh Yeah.

Ranger: OK

Johnny Allen: I thought this very - to be very odd. Here, this guy is under arrest for murder and attempted murder and his willing to cooperate with us to basically nail the nail in his coffin.

Tommy Lynn Sells: I walked over here to the edge of the house...

Johnny Allen: Low and behold, a window was left open that night, which allowed access a lot easier.

Tommy Lynn Sells: Then I came over here, there was a little girl sleeping here and I stood here for a minute. Then I looked in here, there were two girls sleeping in here.

Johnny Allen: He explained which - where the girls were lyin'. He explained - he walked over to the bottom bunk where Katy was lyin'.

Tommy Lynn Sells: I cut her bra off, and I cut the side of her... (motions to be cutting underwear) whatever she was wearing. Then I stabbed her here... and then she jumped back... then I (motions slicing throat)... Then I walked over here (moves to top bunk) and I went like this (demonstrates slashing Krystal's neck).

Johnny Allen: We feel like the motive in this murder and [the] attack on Krystal was sexual assault. We did find out that Sells was associated and friends with the Harris family. And - we feel like he specifically targeted Katy.

It's frightening that Sells had also made a comment that he actually thought about killing the six people that - that were in the trailer.

Pam: One of the things that the Rangers offered for me to kinda get a better idea of what Krystal had gone through, to hopefully help her more in the recovery, is to get to go through the crime scene and see, with my own eyes, what actually had happened.

When I saw the crime scene, I literally felt like my legs were gonna fall out from underneath me. The blood (crying), there was so much blood everywhere. And it was all Krystal's except for that one area where Katy was, where she laid and died. The little handprints (crying) of my daughter's, I just can't even describe the helpless feeling that I felt. But, I needed to go through that so I knew her every step, so that I could better be there for her in the long run.

Johnny Allen: Following Tommy's arrest and on the way to jail, he was pretty quiet. And what kind of took us back more than anything was his comment, "I guess you wanna know about the other murders."

Harold Dow, "48 Hours" correspondent: I asked the Rangers if could sit in on that interrogation, not knowing what their answer would be. But I'm a smart enough journalist to know that in all the years I've worked in the news business, I never sat in on an interrogation. And I guess it's a reporter's instinct to ask for things that they normally can't have.

Johnny Allen: You know, in all my years of investigations, I've never allowed journalists in the same room with suspects. But we knew at this point in time that - that we could use assistance in gettin' his story out nationwide - in hopes of findin' other victims who possibly could have survived.

Harold Dow: I sat in that interrogation room for hours, listening to Tommy Lynn Sells go from state to state to state, talking about the people he killed - the men he killed, the women he killed, the children he killed.

That's when I realized, we were dealing with a serial killer - a cold-blooded serial killer.

Tommy Lynn Sells: My daddy told me a long time ago, "Dead men tell no tales..." I remember that to this day.

Johnny Allen: We spent the next nine months with Sells on additional homicides that he claimed to have committed. In the months and months that we spent with Sells we have confirmed he has committed 22 total murders.

Harold Dow: I mean, you know, you cover a story like this, I have to tell you, if you have children, you place your children in - in their situation, they were helpless. They were sleeping. They were totally vulnerable. And you've got this deranged killer climbing through the window with a knife. That knife was the ugliest looking knife I've ever seen in my life. I don't think it gets any scarier than that.

People were happy to know that this man was no longer gonna be in society. This man was no longer gonna be able to kill men, women, and children again.

Krystal: Going back to Kansas was a relief. But at the same time, I knew that I had to eventually go back to Texas and testify in front of him. But you know, I was ready. I felt ready to do it. I wanted to.


Harold Dow: The trial took place nine months after the murder. And the headline here was that 11-year-old Krystal Surles was gonna be the key witness, the star witness for the prosecution. We knew that it was gonna be explosive. We knew that it was gonna be emotional, particularly for Krystal Surles, because she had never seen Tommy Lynn Sells since the night that he came to that house and slashed her throat. And she didn't know how she was going to react.

Johnny Allen: Several days prior to the trial, Krystal was introduced to my two young daughters simply because I thought it might be a way for Krystal to put her mind at ease and take her away from what she was going to have to go through. And she stayed with us at our residence. And what made things even harder is that she would wake up during the middle of the night and sit up in bed screaming, knowing that she was having nightmares about it.

Tommy Lynn Sells: And I walked over here and I cut this one...

Harold Dow: Tommy's defense attorney, he knew that he had a killer, that he was representing a killer. And his only strategy was to try to keep Tommy Lynn Sells off of death row.

Krystal: I felt fine to know that I had to eventually see him, because I felt like he couldn't conquer me, y'know. He had his chance, and he obviously, y'know, didn't do what he wanted, and, and now look at him. He was gonna be in that trial room because of me. And I liked feeling that power. I just had such a mindset that this is what I wanted to do, um, and this is what I had to do. I put my thoughts towards Katy, like, this is for Katy. This, she deserves this.

The day I had to testify I, y'know, I woke up - "I can do this, I can do this." I said, "Mom, don't cry! Please don't cry. If I see you in the crowd bawling, you're gonna distract me, y'know, you're gonna make me upset. Please don't."

And then when they called me down I was like I'm ready, I'm ready. And they, y'know, said, "Do you want to walk by him?" You could either walk by him or just walk through this door and get on, um, the stand. And I said I wanna walk by him. I'm not scared of him.

Harold Dow: To see her walk into that courtroom with her chest out as she took the witness stand....she was there for business...and...she did it.

Krystal: Cuz his hand was over her mouth.

Fred Hernandez | District Attorney
: Whose hand was over her mouth?

: (pointing) His hand.

Krystal: But when I got up there and then had to talk. That's when my nerves came. I had to point him out and look at him and say, "That Guy!"

Fred Hernandez: The man with the blue jacket and the glasses?

Krystal: Yes.

Krystal: That's whenever I realized "That Guy" is right there.
Fred Hernandez: Now Krystal if you need for me to stop at some point in time I'll stop.
Krystal: I tried not to focus any attention on him, though after, I just had to point him out. He was makin' me nervous. He was shaking his leg and wouldn't even look up at me or anything.

It was just really overwhelming at that point. My emotions took over and I couldn't answer any more questions.

Pam: When I seen Krystal break down on that stand, I wanted to run up there so bad and hug her and tell her it's gonna be OK. But I had made that promise to her the night before that I would not break down no matter what. I would not break down. And it was the hardest thing I'd ever done in my entire life.

Krystal: They had to do a recess for 15 minutes and pull me aside. They just pulled me to the back room, my mom ran back there, my y'know, my attorney and everybody was just back there saying, "Krystal you're almost done. You can do it, you can do it." I wiped my tears and I went right back out there and I was...I was on it. I did it.

I had to walk in front of the jury and point out my scar and I had to, y'know, lay on this table... show how I popped my head up.

Johnny Allen: Out of this whole experience with Sells, that was probably the most difficult to sit there and have to listen to. Because you realized just exactly what she had to go through, what she had to do to try and survive.

Fred Hernandez: Could you tell us why you had your hands up close to your neck?

: Because I saw what he did to Katy and I was scared he was gonna do it to me.

Harold Dow: I think Garcia, the defense attorney, was taken with Krystal Surles. After Krystal testified, he was smart enough not to try to cross-examine her in a vigorous fashion.

Victor Garcia | Defense Attorney: You're a brave young woman. Thank you. No more questions.
Krystal: For him to just say, "I don't have any questions for you," I was like, "Really? Y'know. OK. Really? You don't want to ask anything?" Even his attorney just made me feel good about the whole situation, like, even though he had to be there to defend him, that he was still on my side.

As soon as I stepped off the stand I felt so good. And relieved, very relieved. Just, pressure off my shoulders, I got through this. I'm fine, y'know. And we're gonna find out what's gonna happen to him...soon.

Harold Dow: The jurors went out to deliberate. Umm, it was. I dunno. It was kind of an eerie feeling for a lot of people who were close to this trial, because no one thought it would be long... but no one thought it would be as short as it was either when they came back with the verdict. It was an hour and 10 minutes. They came back. The jury walked into that courtroom and announced to the court that they had found Tommy Lynn Sells guilty. There was silence in the courtroom. And then there was relief.

When the verdict came in, after the verdict came in, the only question was whether Tommy Lynn Sells would receive life in prison or whether Tommy Lynn Sells would be put to death.

We didn't know it at the time, and even up to and even after the trial, we didn't know that Krystal was keeping a lot inside. She had a secret. And um, and we wouldn't find out until much later what it was.

Pam: There's not a doubt in my mind that Krystal has lost a lot. if not most of, her childhood. She really has been a survivor her whole entire life. With more than just Tommy Lynn Sells.

I don't think that this tragedy would have turned out the way it did unless she was brought up the way she was.

Mark Surles | Krystal's father: Because it made her think, it made her strong. And when the tragedy happened, she knew what to do.


Mark: Before it all really happened, Pam and I - we started using drugs. Before we knew it, we were on a huge rollercoaster ride. The drugs just kind of took over. We were getting into little bits of trouble here and there with the law. We were really fighting, really bad.

Pam: I wanted a family. I wanted a normal life. I didn't want the drugs and everything that comes with that lifestyle. So I filed for divorce.

Mark: She just up and moved away. She got cleaned up. In the meantime, I had the girls; some tough times there. Krystal was amazing. She just, from age 6, 7, she was the mom. She took care of everybody.

Krystal: My dad would sleep for days at times. Um, and I had to take care of my little sisters. I ... me being in second grade, they're younger than me, they were babies. Um, changing my sisters' diapers or feeding them, um, getting them to bed and getting myself up for school in the morning. I was kind of, I - I - I say it as a joke, but it's true: I was the stinky kid in class. I mean, I was late to school every day. I didn't really ever have time to take a shower, I never wore matching clothes, I walked to school. You never saw my parents or my sisters or anything. I was just the random girl at school.

Marque: Way before the attack I just remember Krystal taking care of me. She was there always. She was the backbone in our family for a really long time. She was the strong one and she was little.

Amber: Krystal took on the mother, the father, the everything role. She did everything for our family. She always did everything. She cleaned the house and cooked for us and she always cared about us more than she cared for herself.

Krystal: When she got clean, my mom decided to take us girls with her and she came and picked us up from my dad. And um, at that point my dad was still choosing to do the things that he, y'know, was doing before.

Mark: I couldn't quit usin'. I couldn't quit dealing.

Krystal: I became mad at my dad. Like, '"You're choosing this over us? This doesn't make any sense, y'know. Do you not love us?"

Mark: I remember for a couple weeks, just listenin' to the other kids outside that they played with. They were comin' over askin' for 'em. I had to tell them they were gone.

Krystal: We were gone for quite some time. And in that time frame he got caught for what he was doing.

Marque: When my dad went to prison, I just remember she was mad at him for a really long time and she stopped - she stopped taking his calls. And she was just angry, because she felt 'Why can't you be here, Dad? Why can't you help me?' And he couldn't and it made her mad.

Krystal: Whenever, y'know, the attack happened and I knew that my dad couldn't come. It devastated me. I wanted him to be there just like my mom was. But I knew that he couldn't be. Eventually, as years went on, people were curious, like, 'Oh yeah. y'know, where was your dad?' Steppin' back out of the situation and it's kinda like, 'Well, he wasn't there."

Mark: I was in Ada County Jail. I'd been there about three months. I got a visit at 10 a.m. which is not visiting time... I remember walking down the hall and at the end of the hall I could see my mom and my sister

I sat down and my mom proceeds to tell me that Krystal had been attacked. I - I just can't express the emotions. They just started pouring out. It's probably a good thing I was locked up. Cuz I'd have killed that son of a bitch.

Johnny Allen: Tommy Lynn Sells was convicted of capital murder. And then, the state went into phase two of this capital murder trial.

Krystal: Well, we're shooting for the death penalty. Y'know. That's what we want for him to get. And then we're like, is that really what we want? Y'know we're not the type of people to ever wish death upon anybody.

Harold Dow: The judge gave the case to the jury, the jury went out and deliberated. And within a few hours they came back in. And they decided to give Tommy Lynn Sells the death penalty.

Krystal: He has done his fair share where he deserves it, but it took me a long time to realize that. I've never been the type of person to feel good about something so bad. Y'know, it was weird. It was very awkward.

Johnny Allen: Certainly the jury was not aware of the gruesome details and all the other homicides that Sells has committed. And, it's almost as if when he received that death penalty, he's gettin' the death penalty for all the other homicides he's committed. I thought he received exactly what he deserved. I mean, Sells is - is an animal inside a human body.

Pam: It was time for us to get back to everything as normal as possible. We had lost that...but that's what we were fighting to get back.

Marque: I believed in Krystal from the beginning. I knew she went through her phases. I knew she was sad. But I knew - I knew her. And I knew she would come through it. There was no doubt in my mind. There was no doubt in my parents' minds. Krystal was gonna come through this because that's who Krystal was.

Krystal: My mom and my two younger sisters and me all slept in the same bed, um, probably for like two years. And, er, I slept not very good. They would be sleeping and it'd be like five in the morning and I'm still awake just with my eyes open. I'm not necessarily scared, but I'm thinking, if somebody comes in this window I'm gonna go out this window. If somebody comes in this door I'm going to go out this way. I just had, like, a game plan. And another weird thing was that I, whenever my family was sleeping, I would feel them just to make sure that they were alive, just breathing.

Mark: When the incident happened with Krystal, it was like a slap in the face. So that was the door that opened up that just said, it just woke me up and said, "Do you love your kids or not?"

Krystal: He was in jail for three years. I honestly started forgiving him whenever he got out. He was on the right path and I was very proud of him. Um, he came, y'know, to my graduation.

Mark: Our relationship today is kind of a struggle. She's 20 now. I feel like she's still a kid. And since I was locked up for a while, y'know, I haven't been there as... to be a dad. So now I think I'm overdoing it. I need to back off a little bit. But we're doing better. Every day we do better.

Krystal: He's making up for it. He is. Slowly, but surely, everything's coming together. And I'm just lucky that I have this second opportunity, or we both do, to, um, y'know, become father and daughter again.

Marque: She's proud of herself, but she just finds it hard to be happy about what she's done when Katy's dead. I mean, no matter if she puts this man away, no matter if he's put to death, no matter what anything, Katy's still dead. And Krystal has done everything she can, but she can't change that.

Krystal: Of course I think about Katy. I think about, y'know, if she was here, would we still be friends? What would she be doing? Maybe what would we be doing? But in the same sense, I try not to think about it too much. It would make things too hard.

Johnny Allen: I think about this case basically 10 years after the fact simply because I drive by this crime scene almost daily. I have to pass by it going to my ranch. And there's not one time I probably don't look over there and look at that window that Sells climbed through.

Pam: It's such a beautiful thing to see her with her sisters. Even today she still is like a mother to them.

Marque: After the attack, we became way closer. It makes you realize what you have and how fast you can lose it. And I will never, ever say bye to my sister mad. I will never say goodnight to her mad. And I'll never ever be mad at her again. [Tearing up]

Krystal: I don't ever think about Tommy Lynn Sells. I don't ever - ever give him the time of day. He's...he's dead to me. It just [tearing up] it makes me really thankful...that's what he did. He didn't ever bring me down at all...and these are happy tears...I'm just glad to be here.

Krystal's story stayed with Harold Dow for the rest of his life.

"Once you cover a story like this, it becomes a part of you. The people become a part of you," Dow said. "I've never met a youngster that brave before in my life."

"I could consider him part of my family, part of that tight knit group, I guess you could say," Krystal said of Dow.

"They said to me that I helped them through this. No, they helped me get through it, because they were so strong together," Dow continued. "Extraordinary people. And I think there's a bond that'll be there for the rest of our lives."

Harold Dow died suddenly on Aug. 21, 2010, at age 62.
He loved people... and people loved him.

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