It's every mother's worst nightmare, her little boy’s murdered – and she’s blamed.
The terrified scream pierced the silent house at 4am, and Julie Rae-Harper bolted upright in bed. Then she heard it again. Coming from her son Joel’s room. It was October 13 1997.
Julie scrambled through the darkness to her little boy’s room. But his bed was empty.
A masked man pounced out of the shadows and attacked her. Julie, 28, managed to fight off the intruder. Then she chased him into the back garden and fell to the ground, before he kicked her in the head and disappeared.
‘Joel’s gone!’ she sobbed, banging on her neighbour’s door. ‘He’s been kidnapped.’ But it turned out her only child had never left the house. His body was found down the side of the bed.
He’d been stabbed 13 times with a steak knife from their kitchen. But who would murder an innocent child?
Heartbroken, Julie moved away from Lawrenceville, Illinois. ‘What if the masked man comes back for me?’ she panicked, planting thorny rose bushes under each window. Getting a guard dog.
A year after the murder, she went on a blind date with a lawyer. They fell in love, got married.
But then on 12 October 2000 – almost three years to the day after the murder – Julie Rae-Harper was arrested and charged.
During the trial in 2002, her ex-husband gave damning evidence, describing her as volatile and unstable.
The jury found Julie Rae-Harper guilty of first-degree murder. She was sentenced to 65 years in prison. But that didn’t stop her protesting her innocence.
Two years later, she made a desperate plea on TV. Crime writer Diane Fanning saw the show.
She was writing a book on Tommy Lynn Sells, a serial killer who was on Death Row in Texas. He’d stabbed a 13-year-old girl in 1999. Sells had a history of killing people with items from their own home.
So Diane thought Julie’s story about the masked intruder plausible.
She mentioned the case to Sells in a letter – and he wrote back with details of the murder that Fanning hadn’t told him.
Was this a confession?
When he was interviewed on TV, Sells claimed that he’d meant to kill the mother of a young boy who’d been rude to him in a shop that afternoon. But he’d got the wrong boy.
‘This is one of my murders…I just went into a dark room and started cutting, or stabbing,’ he said. ‘Then I hear someone. When I see the woman, I was like, maybe I didn’t kill the right kid.’ Fleming published the confession in her book.
Julie’s case went to appeal and her conviction was thrown out on a technicality. A retrial was ordered.
In 2006, she went to court for the second time to prove her innocence.
The prosecution branded Sells’ confession ‘fantasy’.
But Julie’s lawyer argued that Julie would have been covered in blood if she’d stabbed Joel.
The jury agreed and acquitted her. After nine hellish years, justice had finally prevailed.
By Rachel Tompkins