Ordinary. That’s how Peter Lillelid Heier describes his life as a 20-something. It’s full, despite a tremendous loss.
“Quite frankly, few people have the courage or motivation to ask why, but of course, that’s what puts me apart from most other people, my story,” Peter said.
The Lillelid Murders:
His story begins on April 6, 1997. Then 2-year-old Peter, his 6-year-old sister, Tabitha, and their parents, Vidar and Delfina Lillelid, were heading home to Knoxville from a Jehovah’s Witness workshop in Johnson City.
They pulled into a rest stop in Greene County. A chance meeting with six young people from Kentucky, ranging in age from 14 to 20, proved deadly. They kidnapped the family, forced them to drive their van to a remote gravel road to steal it, lined them up along a ditch and gunned them down.
Peter, shot twice, was the sole survivor. He said when he was rushed to the emergency room, no one knew his identity so doctors wrote his name down as John Doe.
Peter said he remembers "not a single bit" from that night 25 years ago.
Two days after the shooting, law enforcement tracked down the killers in the stolen van at the Arizona-Mexico border crossing.
They were extradited to Greene County where an angry mob was waiting. They shouted at the suspects as they walked into the jail.
Meanwhile, Peter’s aunt, Vidar’s sister, Randi Heier, and her husband, Odd, traveled from Sweden to care for the toddler who lost an eye and suffered permanent neurological damage. They returned home with Peter and eventually adopted him.
More on the case is available in our YouTube playlist:
Growing Up in Sweden:
In 2007, 10 years after the shooting, WBIR traveled overseas to see how Peter had adjusted to his new life 4,000 miles away from East Tennessee.
He said his adoptive parents never shielded him from the tragic truth.
“I have always known about it and always had age-appropriate information about it. In a way, I have never been traumatized by the knowledge of it, as strange as it may sound," he said.
Peter shared a jarring moment when he was 4 or 5 years old riding in a car when his adoptive father, Odd, quickly swerved.
“Apparently, they said it made me absolutely inconsolable. They suspect that it was something that was somehow related to what happened on that day in April,” Peter said.
Returning to the US:
Now, two decades later, Peter chooses to look forward, not back.
In 2019, Peter made the decision to move to the United States to work in the IT field.
In 2020, he got married. He and his wife, Caitlin, have settled in Samford, Connecticut, about 45 minutes away from New York City.
Caitlin said she was deeply moved when she learned of the shooting, which, to this day, impacts Peter.
The gunshot to his back left him with permanent neurological damage. He mostly uses a wheelchair and walking sticks to get around, but the couple stays on the move.
They recently traveled to Sweden to see family and are planning a trip to Knoxville. In fact, Peter has made regular visits over the years.
“It’s my birth town, Knoxville. I know some people there. It makes for a good place to visit, seeing the folks and just having a good time," he said.
During one trip, Peter reunited with the Knoxville police officer who kept watch at the door of his hospital room in the days following the shooting.
Despite all he lost, Peter gives little thought to the crime or the criminals who are now in their 40s serving life sentences.
Photos: 6 convicted of the 1997 Lillelid murders
He has nothing to say to them. His message is to the people of East Tennessee and beyond.
“Thank you, thank you for everything you did. It played out very well in the end, as well as it could have," Peter said.