The murder of 9-year-old Mary Bea Perez; South Texas Crime Stories, Episode 4

The 9-year-old was just one of the victims of Tommy Lynn Sells, a cold-blooded serial killer.

South Texas Crime Stories Episode 4: The Murder of Mary Bea Perez (Copyright 2022 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

SAN ANTONIO – A beloved tradition turned into a terrible tragedy.

“It’s never going to go away because every year Fiesta comes, we remember my daughter,” Patricia Guerrero said in a 2019 interview.

A 9-year-old girl was taken from Market Square in broad daylight.

“She disappeared on the 18th and then a week later she was found,” Guerrero said.

The disappearance

April 18th, 1999, was a Sunday, 9-year-old Mary Bea Perez was at Market Square with her family celebrating Fiesta when tragedy struck.

Perez was gone in an instant, seemingly snatched away out of thin air.

What nobody knew at the time, a monster was among them.

A frantic search started right away to find the young girl.

The city came together to look for her.

It only took a week for Perez to be found, only she’d never make it home again.

Perez’s body was dumped along Alazan Creek near an underpass on Interstate 35 and Laredo, the child was strangled.

It’s a reality Perez’s mom still struggled with 20 years after her murder.

“I just tell parents I never thought it would happen to me, so you never know. Take care of your children in Fiesta and Market,” Guerrero said in 2019.

SAPD searched endlessly for Perez’s killer, they left no stone unturned.

Unfortunately, they didn’t find any answers.

A killer emerges

That is until a monster appeared 150 miles west of San Antonio in Del Rio on New Year’s Eve.

Kaylene “Katy” Harris, 13-years-old, and Krystal Surles, 10-years-old, were sleeping at Harris’ family’s home.

Surles took the top bunk and Harris slept in the bottom, what should have been a peaceful night’s sleep became anything but.

Surles woke up to a scream, a man was in the room stabbing Harris over and over again.

Just as he was about to leave the room, he turned his knife to Surles, slicing her throat.

Miraculously, Surles survived and was able to get help before being life-flighted to University Hospital in San Antonio.

Harris didn’t survive but Surles was able to describe the man who attacked them.

Days later, Tommy Lynn Sells was under arrest, but this was just the tip of the iceberg for the cold-blooded serial killer.

Sells admitted to committing murders for years across the country, police were able to connect him to at least 20 murders; Mary Bea Perez is on his list of victims.

In 1999, Sells was handed a life sentence for Perez’s murder and the death sentence for Harris’ murder.

Sells’ lawyers tried to delay his execution but were unsuccessful. He died by lethal injection in Huntsville without any final words.

After taking away precious days for so many families, Sells took his last breath on April 3, 2014, a day Perez’s mom was there for.

“I never thought I would have to go, witness, something like that. It’s giving me problems. I don’t think there’s no closure,” Guerrero said.

Every year on the anniversary of her death, Mary Bea Perez’s family gathers at the site her body was found. They decorate her grave and lay flowers each year on All Souls Day.

Tommy Lynn Sells claims to have murdered up to 70 people. He said his first murder was committed at the age of 15.

Below is a timeline of some of the murders Sells has claimed he has committed.

  • July 1985 - Beat to death 28-year-old Ena Cordt and her 4-year-old son Rory in Missouri. No charges were ever filed.
  • May 1987 - Murder of Suzanne Korcz disappeared and was presumed dead in New York. Her remains were found in 1995 and Sells confessed to this murder after he was captured.
  • Nov. 17, 1987 - Murders of four members of the Dardeen family in Illinois. He confessed but was never charged and his story about the murders changed a few times.
  • Oct. 13, 1997 - Murder of 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick in Illinois.
  • Nov. 18, 1997 - Murder of 13-year-old Stephanie Mahaney in Missouri. He confessed but was never charged and again changed his story about details of the murder.
  • April 18, 1999 - Murder of 9-year-old Mary Beatrice Perez in San Antonio.
  • May 23, 1999 - Murder and sexual assault of 14-year-old Haley McHone in Kentucky. He was charged with murder, rape, and kidnapping.
  • Dec. 31, 1999 - Murder of Kaylene Jo “Katy” Harris in Del Rio and slit the throat of 10-year-old Krystal Surles.

Find more episodes on the South Texas Crime Stories page.

About the Authors:

Erica Hernandez is an Emmy award-winning journalist with 15 years of experience in the broadcast news business. Erica has covered a wide array of stories all over Central and South Texas. She's currently the court reporter and cohost of the podcast Texas Crime Stories.

Leigh Waldman is a news reporter at KSAT 12. She joined the station in 2021. Leigh comes to San Antonio from the Midwest after spending time at a station in Omaha, NE. After two winters there, she knew it was time to come home to Texas. When Leigh is not at work, she enjoys eating, playing with her dogs and spending time with family.