Joel Kirkpatrick was only 10 years old when he was stabbed to death inside the home he shared with his mother in 1997. His mother, Julie Rea, was convicted of the murder, although she maintained her story of an intruder breaking into the home. Years later, Rea would prove her claims of being an innocent woman after a true crime fan’s help and a serial killer’s confession.
Joel Kilpatrick was the beloved son of Julie Rae and Len Kirkpatrick. They married young and remained together until Joel was about 7 years old. When the couple decided to end their marriage, they went through a bitter divorce that ended with Len getting custody of Joel through the week and Julie on the weekends.
In the very early morning hours of October 13, 1997, Julie was awakened to the screams of her son and went to check on him. When Julie got to Joel’s room, he was not there. At that moment she claims to have seen a man jump toward her and run out of the house. Thinking her son had been abducted, Julie chased after the man and followed him outside into the yard. After a brief struggle, the man pulled his mask off and walked away, according to Julie.
Frantically, Julie ran to the neighbor’s house and pounded on the door. She told the neighbor that someone had come and taken Joey and that she needed help. When authorities arrived, they found Joel in his bedroom, between the bed and the wall. He had been stabbed 12 times with a kitchen knife that was taken from inside the home.
After investigating the crime scene, authorities began to question Julie’s story. They were unable to find any proof of forced entry, no fingerprints and no other viable motive for anyone to want to kill Joey. Julie became their prime suspect and in 2000 she was officially charged with the murder of her only child. In 2002, a jury found Julie guilty of murder based on the small amount of blood that was found on the back of her shirt. She was sentenced to 65 years in prison.
The prosecutor said, “To believe her, you would have to believe that this assailant came into her home in the middle of the night in dark clothes, hiding his identity by the use of a mask, for the sole purpose of killing a 10-year-old boy. And after he had accomplished his result, he pulled off the mask to reveal his identity to her. Nonsense.”
After watching an episode of 20/20 featuring Julie in 2002, a crime writer named Diane Fanning became interested in her case. Fanning had been working on a book about a serial killer named Tommy Lynn Sells, and she found some striking similarities. She had been exchanging letters with the murderer and decided to ask him about Joel. Sells confessed he was the one that had killed Joel and that there were “a lot of people in jail for his crimes”. She put the information she gained from Sells into her book, hoping it would gain the right person’s attention.
In 2003, Sells was interviewed by authorities and gave graphic details about his crime. Julie was granted another trial in 2006 and she was found not guilty.
Sells was never formally charged with Joel’s murder. He was executed in Texas in 2014 through lethal injection for other crimes.