How Did Joel Kirkpatrick Die? Who Killed Julie Rea’s Son?

Image Credit: ABC 30/Len Kirkpatrick

Joel Kirkpatrick was a beloved son who, at the time, was staying with his mother, Julie Rea, in Lawrenceville, Illinois. But in October 1997, the little boy was brutally stabbed to death. The events surrounding this incident and exactly what happened on that night have been a point of contention for many years.

Initially, Julie was convicted of Joel’s murder, but she was later acquitted. A serial killer also confessed to the murder, but there were inconsistencies in what he said. ABC’s ‘20/20: Julie Rea’ focuses on Julia and Joel’s story. So, if you’re curious about what happened to Joel, we’ve got you covered.

How Did Joel Kirkpatrick Die?

Joel was born to Julie Rae and Len Kirkpatrick. The couple wedded in their teens and were blessed with Joel about eleven months into their relationship. The 10-year-old was described as an intelligent and sweet kid who was always friendly. Julie’s father fondly remembered him, saying, “He was always very solicitous toward everyone around him. He wanted everybody to be happy.”

Image Credit: The New York Times Magazine/Julie Rea

Joel’s parents underwent a bitter divorce about three years before the incident. While both shared his custody, Len, who remarried, was given residential custody, and Julie had Joel during the weekends. But tragedy struck during the early hours of October 13, 1997. Julie rushed to a neighbor’s home at around 4:30 AM, claiming Joel was gone. Soon, the authorities arrived and found Joel between the bed and the wall in his bedroom. He had been stabbed 12 times with a steak knife from the kitchen.

Who Killed Joel Kirkpatrick?

Julie gave the police her version of the events. She was asleep when she heard a child scream, leading her to dart across the hallway to check on Joel. While Julie didn’t see him, she noticed someone in a ski mask that brushed past her, trying to get away. Julie chased him through the house, with the intruder eventually breaking through a glass window. They engaged in a scuffle outside, but Julie claimed that the man hit her head into the ground and walked into the woods before briefly stopping to remove his mask.

At the scene, there were no signs of forced entry, nor were there any fingerprints. While the authorities investigated the case, they couldn’t develop a viable motive for anyone to kill Joel. They believed that it was Julie was responsible. 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.”

Julie stood trial for Joel’s murder in 2002, where the prosecution claimed that bloodstain pattern evidence pointed to her guilt. There was a tiny amount of Joel’s blood found on the shirt she was wearing. However, if she were to have stabbed her son, she should have been covered in blood, which was not the case. Nevertheless, a jury found her guilty of first-degree murder, and she was sentenced to over six decades in prison.

Then, in 2003, Tommy Lynn Sells, a serial killer on death row in Texas, confessed to Joel’s murder. He talked about entering a house in the area and stabbing someone, and then having an altercation with someone else in the house. Regarding a motive, Tommy said, “A murder doesn’t always have to do with sex or any of the norms y’all may want to label me with. Maybe, someone just pissed me off, and I did not want their child to be like them. That’s cold, I understand. Maybe more than just one person is in jail for the same thing.”

In the end, Julie was found not guilty in a retrial in 2006 and was officially exonerated in 2010. Tommy was never charged with the murder and was executed in April 2014 for killing another child. Regarding how things panned out, Julie later said, “Joel still needs justice. He’s never seen a day of it. My acquittal just got us back to level ground.”

Read More: Where is Julie Rea Now?