Deep regret: Family, convict speak for first time in woman’s death

FNM illustration: Sharna Johnson, Argen Duncan Tommy Willis pled guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Elizabeth Kelton two months after his arrest, but withdrew his plea the following year, telling the court he was innocent.

By Sharna Johnson: Freedom New Mexico

Editor’s note: Background for this story was compiled from court records, news archives and interviews with law enforcement and family members.

After the crime scene tape was long gone, a young woman laid to rest, the dust settled in the courtrooms and the case etched in the law books, two men remain; one seeking redemption, the other the strength to forgive — their lives forever connected and irrevocably changed.

In the nearly 16 years that have passed since his beautiful, strong-willed, often funny and generous daughter died a brutal death while away at college, Sonny Kelton has processed almost every emotion imaginable. But the one he clings to more than any other is forgiveness.

And, as her killer prepares to walk out of prison a free man, the 61-year-old retired Hobbs oil worker is resolute in that forgiveness. He prays the man who snuffed out his youngest child’s life will succeed in doing something good with his new life outside prison walls.

Tommy Wayne Willis Sr. is expected to be paroled April 30 after serving almost two-thirds of a 28-year sentence for the 1993 slaying of Catherine “Elizabeth” Kelton.

The 21-year-old Eastern New Mexico University sophomore was found drowned and strangled in the bathtub of her Portales duplex, the result, police said, of a robbery gone wrong.

The road to a conviction was long and the legal battle convoluted, but Willis eventually accepted a plea agreement.

And with a history of good behavior during his incarceration, Willis is within days of satisfying his obligation to the state.

He’s spent much of his time behind bars taking college classes and participating in inmate outreach and mentoring programs

Once a promising athlete in his final year of college well on his way to becoming a youth sports coach, Willis is now 37, a father of two, and hopes to become a drug and alcohol counselor so he can reach troubled youth and adults and show them there is a better way to live.

Breaking their silence for the first time since Elizabeth’s death, Kelton and Willis both spoke to the CNJ about the last 16 years of their lives, what those years have meant to them, their families and their hopes for the future as they anticipate the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.