Bloodbath in Beason
Murder trial begins in 2009 killings
Logan County state’s attorney Jonathan Wright was raging.
With trial scheduled to start in just three weeks, defense attorney Daniel Fultz had tainted the jury pool by granting an interview to a television news reporter, Wright told the judge as the defense attorney buried his head in his hands, as though deep in thought or despair.
The defense’s conduct was egregious, outrageous – a monumental blow to the chances for a fair trial in one of the biggest murder cases in central Illinois history, Wright thundered during the pretrial hearing in early April.
The prosecutor urged that the trial, already moved once from Lincoln to Peoria, be moved again, and if that wasn’t possible, then postponed until August or September. Perhaps by then, Wright suggested, memories of Fultz’s interview would have faded in the minds of prospective jurors.
The stakes could hardly be higher.
The defendant, Christopher Harris, stands accused of murdering Rick and Ruth Gee and three of four children who were in the tiny home in the miniscule burg of Beason, 10 miles east of Lincoln, population 200 or so, during the early hours of Sept. 21, 2009. Only the youngest person in the house, Tabitha Gee, then just three years old, survived. The murder weapon? A tire iron. It is difficult to imagine a more gruesome blood bath.
Since the slayings, police and prosecutors had said virtually nothing about the case outside the courtroom. And now, here was the defense, blabbing to the press.
Fortunately, Wright said, someone alerted the prosecution to the interview that had aired on the 10 p.m. news. Prosecutors, he said, had been working late and might otherwise never have learned about the expose that was broadcast over the course of two nights.
Prosecutors had been working late.
As Circuit Court Judge Scott Drazewski listened impassively, Fultz acknowledged that he had screwed up by discussing what evidence would be presented at the upcoming trial.
“What happened was wrong and it shouldn’t have happened,” Fultz said in a quiet tone. “I apologize to the court and I apologize to the state. … There are some days when you feel like you can’t do anything right, and for me, this is one of those days.”
“If they need more time, just ask for more time,” Fultz said.
If Wright was on fire before, Fultz had just thrown gasoline. Irresponsible! Disingenuous! Not ready for trial? Nothing could be further from the truth, insisted the state’s attorney – a lawyer who had just suggested a continuance after saying that his team had been burning midnight oil. And on this day, Wright lost.
Proceedings would be neither moved nor postponed, decreed the judge, who had nary a word of criticism for Fultz. So the long-awaited trial in a mass killing now nearly four years old begins this week. And what may on first glance seem a slam-dunk for the prosecution could prove a difficult haul.
A quiet family in a quiet town
What happened in Beason the night that Christopher Harris and his younger brother Jason paid a visit to the Gee family was a chapter straight out of Helter Skelter.
“I can tell you that one individual lost the entire top of her head,” Fultz told the judge during a Monday hearing in an unsuccessful bid to show crime-scene photos to prospective jurors to determine whether they can render a fair verdict despite the horror.
The killings were quiet.
Tom Ramlow, who lives across the street from the Gee home, slept through the massacre in the house on the northern edge of town where he has lived for 33 years. He now locks his doors, even during the day, which he had never done before.
The slayings have made Beason, 40 miles northeast of Springfield, infamous.
“I go to Chicago – everyone knows where Beason is now,” Ramlow said.
The Gee family lived in their home on the northern edge of town about six years, says Ramlow, who considered them good people, even though they kept to themselves and he never got to know them very well. The yard was kept neat, he says, and they were quiet.
Ruth and Raymond “Rick” Gee married in 1997. Rick Gee was a contractor who owned his own construction company. They had two children together, Tabitha and Austin, and Ruth’s two children by a prior relationship, Justina and Dillen, also lived in the small house that has been boarded up. Playground equipment and a large above-ground swimming pool, now falling apart, takes up most of the backyard; a Chevrolet Lumina minivan with tags that expired in 2008 is parked in the front driveway. At 16, Justina was the oldest child in the home. Her brother, Dillen, was 14, Austin was 11. Tabitha, who somehow survived a blow from a tire iron to her head, was 3.
Christopher Harris, 34, was convicted of felony theft in 1999 and had previously been convicted of shoplifting, writing a bad check and possessing marijuana. The 1999 theft conviction, a decade before the killings, was his last brush with the law aside from traffic tickets. He had an on-again-off-again relationship with his ex-wife, Nicole Gee, Rick Gee’s daughter, who filed for divorce in 2006 on the grounds of mental cruelty but made a handwritten notation in a standard form stating that there had also been “some” physical cruelty. She did not elaborate. She has said that she doesn’t believe that Harris killed her relatives and defended him on her Myspace.com page, writing that he had never been violent toward her or the two children she had with him, one born less than a month before the Gees died.
Ramlow, the neighbor, says that he believes that the defendant is guilty as charged. Call it gut feel, he says, and the conclusion is understandable. After all, if Harris is innocent and acknowledges being at the house and seeing the carnage, why didn’t he call police?
“I’m sure drugs had something to do with it,” Ramlow says.
Who else but a drug-crazed maniac would kill five people with a tire iron?, Ramlow figures. Apparently without sufficient evidence, prosecutors on Tuesday dropped charges of attempted sexual assault on Justina. Nothing aside from a laptop computer was stolen.
Drugs did play a role in the killings, according to the defense, but to what extent will be the jury’s call. Christopher Harris admits that he and his brother went to the Gee home to score marijuana, and prosecutors say that the brothers had been drinking, smoking pot and using cocaine before they arrived.
If Christopher Harris wasn’t the killer, then who? Harris says that everyone was dead before he arrived except for Tabitha, a toddler who posed no threat, and Dillen. Dillen, the defense says, killed his family, and the defendant in turn killed him in a life-or-death confrontation. It is not necessarily a surprising defense. Someone, after all, murdered the family, and pinning it on someone who is dead avoids the potentially problematic matter of calling the alternative killer to the stand.
“I think it’s pretty clear we’re all-in with this defense,” Fultz said during an April 19 pre-trial hearing. “We don’t have an alternative defense.”
Growing pains or murderous rage?
Dillen, the defense says, was a troubled teenager with a taste for violent video games that may have fueled his propensity to hurt people. He also had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and Harris’ attorneys have subpoenaed pharmacies for prescription records.
If jurors don’t dismiss it as a red herring, the ADHD issue could prove a two-edged sword for the defense.
Some drugs commonly used to treat the disorder can cause irritability, but prosecutors say that any argument that side effects of medication could have triggered violence is moot because Dillen hadn’t been prescribed drugs to treat ADHD for two years. However, ADHD can cause impulsive behavior, so the defense could still argue that the absence of drugs suggests an untreated disorder that might have made the teenager more prone to violence.
Dillen certainly had plenty of disciplinary issues.
Dillen Constant’s history of problems at school dates to kindergarten, according to Harris’ lawyers, who subpoenaed school disciplinary records for the last three years of the teenager’s life. There were approximately 250 incidents, according to the defense.
“No doubt he acted out in school,” allowed assistant attorney general Steven Nate at an April 19 hearing. He is one of three prosecutors, including two from the state attorney general’s office, who are handling the case against Harris.
During the last three years of his life, Dillen’s teachers and other school officials wrote him up for everything from slapping fellow students to throwing rocks to kicking someone in the crotch to spraying Lysol on a classmate to slashing seats on a school bus with a stolen razor knife. “I can’t wait until this stupid school blows up,” he once said after he didn’t do well on a test, prompting school officials to call police. On another occasion, he elbowed a student in the face hard enough to break his target’s glasses and bloody his nose.
Dillen Constant’s bad behavior didn’t stop outside the schoolhouse, Harris’ lawyers say. The defense wants to introduce testimony from Harris’ daughter, who says that she saw Dillen pull a knife on his older sister, Justina. He also once put his younger brother, Austin, in a headlock while in a swimming pool, then forced the boy’s head under water repeatedly and forcefully enough that eyewitnesses feared he was trying to drown the boy.
“He is a violent person,” Fultz said during the April 19 hearing.
Prosecutors have fought to exclude such testimony, dismissing Dillen’s misbehavior as horseplay or the acts of an immature boy who wanted attention. When he made threats, he didn’t act on them, prosecutors say, and there is no evidence that he ever seriously hurt anyone.
“This is a juvenile,” Nate told the judge during the April 19 hearing. “We’re not dealing with an adult here.”
Just how many instances of Dillen’s misbehavior the jury will hear isn’t clear, but Judge Drazewski has opened the door for more than a dozen examples aimed at showing the boy had violent impulses that could have reached the extreme.
The judge on Monday sided with prosecutors and ruled that the jury will not be allowed to hear that Ruth Gee in 2007 told a therapist for her son that she feared that Dillen would either seriously hurt himself or someone else. The statement contained no specific threat, noted the judge, who decided that it was made so long before the killings that the jury shouldn’t hear about it. Within the past week, Rick Gee’s mother told state investigators that her son was also concerned about Dillen.
“(She) told the state that Rick told her if they didn’t get Dillen under control, they would all wake up dead one day,” Fultz told the judge on Monday.
It’s not clear when that statement was made, and prosecutors say that jurors should not be allowed to know about it. The judge hasn’t ruled.
But prosecutors have more than Dillen’s temper and medical history to worry about.
Forensics could prove key
Ten days passed between the killings and Christopher Harris’ arrest. During that period, authorities had told the public to look for a gray pickup truck driven by someone who might well have been injured during the struggle.
But Harris had no injuries, according to the defense. While he didn’t call police to report the deaths, he didn’t hide, either. Indeed, he attended the funeral of the family that was buried together. And while police pulled over gray pickups and descended on the tiny town looking for clues, Harris after the killings parked his gray pickup at the Beason home of his ex-wife, Nicole Gee, just a few blocks from the crime scene.
If prosecutors are right, it was close combat -- and five against one. No one, the defense has suggested, could kill five people with a tire iron inside a tiny home and walk away without a scratch. One body was found in a hall about three feet wide. Nicole Gee, who is expected to testify for the defense, said shortly after Harris was arrested that police got the wrong man. In a posting on her Myspace.com page days after police deemed the case solved, she wrote that her ex-husband had been set up.
“(T)here is hard solid evidence of all 6 of them fighting for there (sic) lives and chris had not even the slightest nik (sic) on his body anywhere,” Nicole Gee wrote. “He had been by our side through all this in every possible way and now they took him from us too.”
While there has been little sign of physical evidence against Christopher Harris, investigators did find a potential clue under Rick Gee’s fingernails: DNA that the defense says came from Dillen.
So what?, prosecutors said at the April 19 proceedings.
“This was his dad,” Nate argued. “He lives in the same house. Dillen Constant had no scratch marks on his body.”
There are plenty of ways that Dillen’s DNA could have gotten under his stepfather’s fingernails, Fultz countered, none of them easy.
“Dillen had, I believe, over 100 wounds to his body,” said Fultz in winning the argument to admit the DNA evidence. “He was cut. He was beaten. … It takes some effort to force DNA under fingernails. It doesn’t just happen.”
With an apparent lack of forensic evidence pointing to the defendant, prosecutors are left with witnesses with issues and a defendant who didn’t call police.
Defendant will testify
The only eyewitness to the slaughter aside from Tabitha Gee is Jason Harris, the defendant’s brother, who is also charged with murder and is expected to testify for the prosecution.
There is no indication what sort of deal, if any, prosecutors have offered Jason Harris in exchange for his testimony, but he has baggage beyond accusations that he burned his brother’s clothing after the killings and hid a laptop computer stolen from the Gee home.
In 2007, Jason Harris pleaded guilty to perjury. His courtroom fibs five years ago were laughable. Jailed in connection with a juvenile offense unspecified in Logan County sheriff’s records, Harris, then 19, told a judge that he had an infant son, in hopes he would be released. He also said that he had not had any contact with law enforcement during the previous three years. Both tales were easily proven false, and so Jason Harris was convicted of lying under oath, a conviction that the jury must weigh when determining his truthfulness in the murder case.
The defense didn’t sound concerned during the April 19 hearing when Nate said that Jason Harris saw his brother pursue Dillen and strike him with a tire iron when the boy came out of the house.
“That’s one of about 13 versions of what Jason Harris said happened that night,” Fultz said.
Also expected to testify against Christopher Harris is at least one jailhouse informant, Ty Cline, who was convicted of first-degree murder in the 2009 killing of a two-year-old boy who died after a beating. Cline, who was babysitting the child, is serving a 30-year sentence. He will, presumably, tell jurors that the defendant confessed or at least revealed knowledge of the killings that only the culprit could know.
Jailhouse informants almost always want something in exchange for their testimony – after all, snitching is generally frowned upon by fellow inmates. What Cline might be seeking isn’t clear, but his wish list could be limited because jailhouse informants who have already been sentenced are not eligible for sentence reductions. And a witness who can’t get a deal for less time in jail might be more credible than one angling for freedom.
“I know that most prosecutors would much rather have a snitch testify after he’s been convicted and sentenced,” said Steven Beckett, a University of Illinois law professor who also practices criminal law.
Cline is no ordinary child killer. Facing 60 years, he professed his innocence during sentencing proceedings last year, not usually a good idea in a legal system that rewards contrition and remorse. He got 30 years from a Logan County judge who praised Cline’s moral character and said that he was “no different than any other man walking down the street in Lincoln.”
The defense will argue that any damning statements Harris might have made about the case to fellow inmates were rooted in information that he got from his first attorney in the case, Patrick “Tim” Timoney, a Springfield attorney who works as a public defender in Logan County.
In a letter to the court, Timoney said that he could not testify without a waiver of attorney-client privilege from the defendant, which would allow prosecutors to ask the Harris’ former attorney anything they wish, a potentially dangerous situation for the defense. Any incriminating statements, including a confession, that Harris made to his ex-lawyer would be fair game. However, Drazewski has ruled that Timoney must take the stand without a waiver but can only answer general questions, such as whether he shared information gleaned from discovery with Harris. He cannot say what information, exactly, he gave to the defendant, and he cannot say what Harris told him.
It was, potentially, an important victory for the defense. If jailhouse informants testify that Harris confessed, or knew details of the case that had not been made public, jurors will be allowed to know that Harris, via his lawyer, had a way of knowing things that only the killer could know, without being the killer himself. And prosecutors could be hamstrung. For instance, Harris could tell the jury that Timoney told him how many times a victim was struck and he passed that on to a cellmate, but prosecutors cannot verify the truth by questioning Timoney.
Harris will take the stand, his lawyers promise. And he will have a lot of explaining to do.
If he’s innocent, why didn’t he call police? Or show any outward sign that he had stumbled onto a scene of unspeakable violence? Or do anything to help Tabitha, the toddler who survived? Or admit that he had been at the house when police initially questioned him, the first time just two days after the deaths, the second time one week later and just one day before finding his bloody palm print on the premises and placing him under arrest?
Anything less than a first-degree murder conviction would be a victory for Harris and a defeat for prosecutors in a sparsely populated county where elected officials have discussed issuing a bond to pay for Harris’ attorneys and other trial costs. The county hopes that permit fees for wind farms will help defray the expense, and so wind turbines that dot the county’s farmland are, in a sense, a visual reminder of the tragedy.
In a system built on reasonable doubt, a single holdout juror could force another trial. A conviction on second-degree murder could bring just 10 years in prison instead of a lifetime behind bars.
Prosecutors say they’re ready.
“This trial needs to happen, it needs to come to a conclusion,” Wright, the state’s attorney, told the court last month during his unsuccessful argument for either a change of venue or a continuance. “The people are prepared to proceed to trial on April 29, 2013.”
Opening statements are expected on Monday.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.