One family has waited a decade. Another five years. The Joint Homicide Task Force says a confession by Sean Vincent Gillis solves the murders of Ann Bryan and Hardee Schmidt. 81-year-old Ann was stabbed more than 50 homes in her inside her residence at the exclusive retirement home, St. James Place on Lee Drive back in March of 1994.
Hardee was abducted while jogging in the Perkins Road/Quail Run area on May 30, 1999. Her body was dumped into a St. James Parish bayou back in May of 1999. Gillis now has additional charges of first degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and stalking in the Hardee Schmidt case and first degree murder in the Ann Bryan case.
The arrest affidavit sheds new light on both crimes. It says that in May of 1999, Gillis saw Hardee jogging in the south Baton Rouge area and then spent the following three weeks driving around the area looking for her. It was about 5:30 in Sunday morning, May 30, 1999 when Gillis was driving on Quail Run Drive and first saw Hardee jogging. The affidavit says he hit her with his vehicle and knocked her into a ditch. It says Gillis got out of his vehicle armed with heavy duty wire plastic wrap, placed the wrap around her neck and pulled it tight. Gillis then forced her into his vehicle, drove to a park in the Highland Road area, removed her clothes and sexually assaulted her.
The affidavit says Gillis then placed her dead, naked body into the trunk of his vehicle and drove to his house. According to that affidavit, Gillis waited until the next day to drive to Highway 61 in St. James Parish and dump Hardee's body into a bayou. Her body was found June 1st--two days after her murder.
In the murder of Ann Bryan, the arrest affidavit says Gillis told detectives details that had never been released to the public, including the weapon which was used to repeatedly stab the elderly woman. Gillis told detectives that he planned to rape Ann but she began to scream when he touched her. Detectives say Gillis told them he cut Ann's throat to stop her from screaming.
Gillis is now officially charged with the murders of five women. Sources tell 9-News he has confessed to eight. While authorities won't talk about any specific cases, Lieuntenant Colonel Greg Phares says investigators will continue to look into the possibility of Gillis's involvement in other unsolved murders in the Baton Rouge Metro and surrounding areas. Both Phares and Baton Rouge Police Chief Pat Englade say the investigation will not be limited and they will go back as far as they can to determine exactly how many murders are linked to Gillis.
It was early Thursday morning, when Gillis was booked into the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. He is now 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 was arrested at his home on Burgin Road around 1:20 a.m. Thursday morning. Authorities say he did not resist arrest and agreed to a DNA swabbing. At around 7:00 a.m., authorities say Gillis confessed to the murders.
The arrest affidavit says a unique kind of tire led officers to Gillis. They say they found the tracks of those tires in the area near Ben Hur where the body of Donna Bennett Johnston was found. The State Police Crime Lab was able to take that tire track and determine the brand, model and type of tire. Then, investigators learned that this type of tire was only manufactured for a three-year period ending in 2003. They say that particular type of tire had only been purchased 90 times in the Baton Rouge area.
"When you split a piece of firewood, the first few blows might make a tiny little crack and it begins to break wide open. That tire track was the first little crack. The work of the State Police Crime Lab laid it open. Investigators swabbed Sean Gillis and the State Police Crime Lab matched his DNA," said Lieutenant Colonel Greg Phares, with the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office.
On that same date, detectives came into contact with Gillis and found that he normally operates a vehicle equipped with the matching tires. Detectives questioned Gillis and say he admitted that his vehicle was at the scene where Donna's body was found. He says he was there six days before authorities recovered her body. The affidavit also says Gillis had an eight year relationship with Johnnie Mae Williams and that she was inside his vehicle about 30 days before authorities found her body.
The affidavit says Gillis told authorities they would probably find a lot of evidence of blood in his car and blamed that on a health-related condition of his common-law wife, Terri. 9 News spoke with Terri, who said Gillis confessed to her at 7 a.m. She told WAFB's Avery Davidson that detectives kicked in their door around 1 a.m. and sent a concussion grenade inside. She says they were both taken into custody and questioned and calls Gillis "a teddy bear" and a "normal person."
"The door got kicked in and they threw the little bomb in here and got us up and took us downtown," says Terri, "And I saw a ton of sheriff's deputies assaulting the house across the street."
Late Thursday afternoon investigators began taking pictures and collecting evidence from Gillis' home, including a small white car and grey minivan from the scene. Investigators say Terri does not ever remember bleeding in Gillis' vehicle.
Gillis Confesses To Several Murders, Investigators Still Probing For More
Sources tell 9 News, Gillis has confessed to investigators about other murders. According to our sources, since detectives arrested the accused serial killer, Sean Gillis has made seven taped confessions to detectives concerning women's murders. When asked about other murders, sources tell us Gillis told investigators, quote -- "If you show me photos, I may be able to remember more."
At 9:12 a.m., Gillis agreed to a DNA test. Joanie Wilson, with the State Police Crime Lab tested the sample and reported that Gillis' DNA matched the suspect in the cases of Katherine Hall and Donna Bennett Johnson. Then, the FBI Crime Lab compared the sample to one taken in the murder of Johnnie Mae Williams. They say it matched the suspect in that murder as well.
Katherine was slain in January 1999 and Johnnie Mae was killed in October, 2003. Donna's body was found February 27th. All three women were strangled.
Victims' Family and Friends Grateful
Family and friends of at least two of the women Sean Gillis is accused of killing were on hand for Thursday's news conference. Throughout this investigation they felt as though these murders would be lost at the bottom of the priority list -- getting little or no attention because of the "high-risk" lifestyles their loved ones chose to live. They no longer feel that way.
The cousin of Johnnie Mae Williams, Kamilla Fair, says she figured no one would ever be arrested for her murder. She says, "They never gave up and they continued to keep looking even when we thought nobody was doing anything, but I really appreciate their efforts and their hard work and their time."
The victim's daughter, Lauren Williams, also expressed gratitude that her mother's case was not lost in the wake kicked up by the Derrick Todd Lee case. She also talked about something done to her mother that might connect other area murders to suspect Sean Vincent Gillis and the charge of ritualistic acts filed againt him.
"He had cut her in certain spots, behind her legs, under her chest," explained Williams. "Who would want to cut a dead body? She suffered enough. I did not appreciate that at all."
Elaina Branzaru, a friend of Donna Bennet Johnston, has championed her cause and wanted to thank the Task Force for giving Johnston's case the same attention as anyone elses, no matter what her lifestyle had been.