Sean Vincent Gillis (born June 24, 1962) is an American serial killer who stalked, kidnapped, raped, murdered, and mutilated eight Louisiana women between 1994 and 2003 in the Baton Rouge Metro and surrounding areas. He was arrested without incident at his residence on Burgin Road at 1:30 a.m. on April 29, 2004. In his initial arrest, he was charged with three counts of first degree murder and three counts of ritualistic acts in the murders of 29-year-old Katherine Hall, 45-year-old Johnnie Mae Williams and 43-year-old Donna Bennett Johnston. Gillis confessed to the murders with little coercion and then informed investigators about four other women whom he had murdered.
Little is known about Gillis' early life except that he was the son of Yvonne and Norman Gillis, and was born June 24, 1962, in Baton Rouge and was raised in southern Louisiana. During his 2004 first-degree murder trial for the slaying of Donna Bennett Johnston, his mother, Yvonne, testified that her son was a good, happy kid who did well in school, had friends and was generally just a normal child. In the penalty phase of the trial, while testifying for the defense, his mother is quoted as saying:
His rap sheet began in 1980, when he was 17 years old, but only showed minor infractions and little to indicate the killer he would become. Throughout the years, he was arrested for traffic citations, DUI, possession of marijuana, and contempt of court. He would not commit his first murder until 1994. Years later, after he had been arrested and convicted for some of his murders, a friend of one of his victims wrote to him. She turned the letters over to the prosecution and some of Gillis' words made it into the news. He shows remorse and says, sometimes, he doesn't know why he committed the murders. More shocking to him, however, is the mutilation of the bodies. He says he is "pure evil" and "beyond sorry" for the murders.
Gillis once claimed he began killing because of "stress". His first murder, which he confessed to after his arrest, was of 81-year-old Ann Bryan in March 1994. He intended to rape her, but got frightened when she screamed as he touched her. To stop her screaming, Gillis slit her throat and then stabbed her 50 times. He left her body there at her residence, St. James Place; an exclusive retirement home in Baton Rouge.
In May 1999, Gillis began stalking a woman he had seen jogging in the south Baton Rouge area. He spent three weeks driving around the area looking for her. Around 5:30 a.m. on May 30, 1999, a Sunday, he saw her jogging on Quail Run Drive. Two days later the body of 52-year-old Hardee Schmidt was found in a bayou off of Highway 61 in St. James Parish. Gillis later confessed that he hit Schmidt with his car, knocking her into a ditch. He got out and placed heavy-duty wire plastic wrap tightly around her neck and forced her into the car. He drove to a park off of Highland Road and raped her. After killing her, he put her nude corpse into the trunk of his car, a white Chevy Cavalier, and left it there until dumping it two days later. Gillis would go on to kill for ten more years, the murders unconnected and his presence unknown to law enforcement.
Arrest and conviction
More attention was paid to cold cases of murdered women when Derrick Todd Lee was apprehended on May 27, 2003. When certain cases could not be linked to Lee, investigators began to wonder if another serial killer had been in operation at the same time. Though Lee began his killing in 1992, between 1994 – when Gillis began his murders – and 2003 there were two serial killers silently and secretly targeting the women in, around, and just outside the Baton Rouge area.
Donna Bennett Johnston, 43 years old, was his eighth and final victim. In February 2004 she was raped and strangled with a nylon tie wrap. After death, Gillis mutilated her body – slashing her breasts, cutting off her left nipple, gouging out a tattoo on her right thigh, and severing her left arm at the elbow. Her body was found February 27, 2004 in a drainage canal near Ben Hur Road, which is south of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
In letters exchanged between Gillis and a decade-long friend of Johnston's, Tammie Purpera, Gillis explains her murder and even shows remorse:
Tammie Purpera, who died in 2005 of complications from AIDS, turned over all of the letters to the prosecutors and they were used at Gillis' trials.
After his arrest, police found 45 digital pictures, downloaded to his computer, of Johnston's mutilated body, as well of photos of her corpse in the trunk of his car. Many other photos were found of other victims, some of which were used at his various trials for first-degree murder. In the end, Gillis brutally raped and murdered eight women. He kept body parts in his home as souvenirs and photos to stimulate him as he remembered the murders.
In April 2004, tire tracks found near the body of Donna Bennett Johnston were used to track Gillis down. The tracks were from a unique set of tires and the Louisiana State Crime Lab was able to determine the brand, model, and type of tire. They were then able to narrow it down further when they found that this particular tire was only manufactured for a three-year period, which ended in 2003. Only 90 purchases of the tire had been made in the Baton Rouge area. Soon, after obtaining a DNA swab of Gillis and matching it to evidence found on some of the victims' bodies, authorities arrested Gillis on April 29, 2004. He was charged with various crimes at different times as investigators worked to find evidence to support his confession to the other murders.
Initially, he was arrested and charged for the murders of Katherine Hall, Johnnie Mae Williams, and Donna Bennett Johnston. He stood trial for these crimes on July 21, 2008 and was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison after the jury deadlocked in the penalty phase.
The previous year, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was convicted in the killing of 36-year-old Joyce Williams. Gills is currently incarcerated in Louisiana State Penitentiary.
- Ann Bryan, aged 81, murdered March 21, 1994.
- Katherine Ann Hall, aged 29, murdered January 4, 1999.
- Hardee Schmidt, aged 52, murdered May 30, 1999.
- Joyce Williams, aged 36, murdered November 12, 1999.
- Lillian Robinson, aged 52, murdered in January 2000.
- Marilyn Nevils, aged 38, murdered in October 2000.
- Johnnie Mae Williams, aged 45, murdered in October 2003.
- Donna Bennett Johnston, aged 43, murdered February 26, 2004.
In the media
- Gillis's story was told in an episode, entitled "A Twisted Mind," of the "Devil You Know" series on Investigation Discovery.