Sunday, May 12, 2013 10:54 am
If the shoe fits
Testimony centers on footwear
Christopher Harris wasn’t much good at covering his tracks.
But he was a cool customer, according to Robert Michael Jennings, a retired special agent with Illinois State Police who interrogated Harris on Sept. 30, 2009, nine days after Raymond “Rick” Gee, his wife Ruth and three of their children were found beaten to death with a tire iron in their home in the tiny town of Beason.
When Jennings found Harris for a chat, he was at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, visiting Tabitha Gee with Nicole Gee, his ex-wife, the mother of his newborn son and the adult daughter of Rick Gee, the special agent testified Friday in Harris’ murder trial. Tabitha, the sole survivor of the attack and just three years old, had somehow survived a tire iron blow to her forehead and another to the side of her head.
No big deal, Jennings told Harris – your fingerprints were in the house, which isn’t surprising given your closeness to the family. We just need to ask you a few questions. Then Jennings asked to see the bottom of one of Harris’ K-Swiss tennis shoes in a hospital elevator. The tread matched bloody shoe prints found in the house, Jennings testified. What kind of vehicle do you drive? Pickup, painted primer grey, Harris answered.
After having dinner in Peoria, Jennings and Harris drove to Nicole Gee’s home in Beason, just a few blocks from the scene of the massacre, to take a look at the truck, which bore a striking resemblance to the vehicle a Beason resident had seen cruising past his house the night of the killings. Investigators relieved Harris of his shoes. He did not appear concerned, Jennings testified.
“He was very calm –disarming, in his demeanor,” Jennings testified. “He didn’t seem to be nervous. He actually threw me off as far as my experience in dealing with people who display outward signs of guilt.”
Once at the Logan County sheriff’s office, Jennings took Harris to an interview room and turned on a video camera. The jury on Friday saw the tape.
“How old are those shoes?” Jennings asked.
“Let’s see,” Harris responded. “I got them, like, Tuesday.”
“Where’d you buy them?”
“Decatur – Penney’s or something,” answered Harris, who now admits that he was in the house that night the Gees died but acted in self-defense in killing Dillen Constant, Ruth’s 14-year-old son who the defense says killed his family, then tried to kill the defendant who had dropped by unexpectedly. Harris never said so until he was charged with first-degree murder.
Jennings suggested that the killings might have been the work of someone who panicked, or perhaps a psychopath.
“There ain’t nobody like that in Beason,” Harris replied. “Nobody I know of.”
Perhaps it was random, suggested the man who would be arrested the next day. The Gees lived on the very edge of town – maybe it was a bad-luck case of the killer picking the first place he saw.
“That’s a possibility,” Jennings allowed. “We look at all possibilities.
The agent gave Harris a business card.
“I want you to call me if you hear anything,” Jennings told Harris, who looked and sounded as unperturbed as someone shopping for groceries. “First of all, I appreciate you being very calm. I appreciate you being cooperative. There’s some forensic evidence that says, ‘We’ve got to eliminate this guy.’ Your fingerprints are in the house – that’s understandable, you’ve been there many times. Now, it’s much more serious. Your shoes are an exact match with the shoes in that house.”
“Impossible,” Harris responded in an even tone. “These shoes don’t have any blood on them.”
“Put yourself in my shoes: Would you like me to dig any deeper?” Jennings shot back. “I think you need to hear your rights. Right now, I want to know about the shoes, where you bought them. I want to know every goddamn thing about those shoes. We’re going to dig.”
After reading Harris his Miranda rights, Jennings resumed.
“It’s the exact same foot print.”
“What about size?” Harris asked.
“You showed me those shoes on the elevator, I about shit,” Jennings continued.
“I’ll tell you right now, those aren’t my footprints – I guarantee it,” Harris said.
Wasn’t there a scuffle, asked the family friend turned suspect, who had no marks on his body save for a healed-over blister on his right hand just below his index finger that investigators photographed after his arrest the next day. Shouldn’t the killer be injured or missing some hair?
“We’re going to go over, one more time, Sunday night (when the Gees were killed),” Jennings said. “I’ll tell you right now: We don’t have anything else – the shoes, the truck, the footprints.”
“I ain’t worried about it,” Harris responded.
The questioning turned to Harris’ departure from his ex-wife Nicole. The couple had divorced in 2006, but the on-again-off-again relationship never died. Just a few weeks before the tragedy, Nicole had given birth to the couple’s son. Just a few days before the killings, Harris had walked out on her.
“She didn’t know I was leaving,” Harris told Jennings. “She’s being a bitch to me. She’s using the baby as an excuse. I’m not feeding it right, I’m not fucking her, she thinks I’m fucking Christy (a girlfriend).”
Harris had moved from his ex-wife’s house to the home of his brother Jason. The cops had visited recently, Harris told Jennings, to check out his room.
“It was the meth task force or whatever,” Harris said.
And at that point, the jury was excused and the week’s proceedings ended unexpectedly.
An edit that wasn’t
The recording aimed at giving jurors a weekend to think about how coolly and repeatedly Harris had lied to police should have been edited. The version the jurors heard was intact. There has been no indication that Harris was involved with methamphetamine, and so the part about a meth task force was, presumably, supposed to have been excised. Timing can be key, especially in trials expected to last a month, but the prosecution’s choreography was ruined less than 15 minutes into an hour-long recording.
Attorneys huddled for a minute or two, then addressed the court.
“This was no one’s fault,” said defense attorney Daniel Fultz, who acknowledged that prosecutors had offered to let him hear the recording prior to the snafu, but he had declined.
Aside from a laptop computer, nothing was stolen the night of the killings. Charges of attempted sexual assault against Justina Constant, the 16-year-old daughter of Ruth Gee, have been dropped. Prosecutors are not required to prove motive, but it never hurts. And now the jury had been handed the specter of methamphetamine, a drug known for its ability to trigger paranoia and violence.
Let’s move on, Fultz told the judge, and jurors need be told nothing about what they had just heard that they should not have heard.
“A cautionary or limiting instruction might highlight it,” Fultz said. “I don’t believe the jury would understand what was going on.”
The jury is expected to hear the edited tape, but when is not clear.
Two pairs of shoes
There was a good reason that the shoes Harris wore the night before his arrest didn’t have blood on them: They weren’t the same shoes he wore when the Gees died.
Before hearing from Jennings, jurors on Friday listened to testimony from Michael Oyer, a retired Illinois State Police crime scene investigator who described the discovery of shoes that Harris had been wearing the night of the killings. They were easy to spot from a span over Sugar Creek between the Gee house and the Armington home where the defendant was staying with his brother Jason Harris, about 25 miles north of Beason.
“I looked over the bridge and saw things in the grass,” Oyer testified.
Jason Harris may have led investigators to the shoes, which were found not far from a tire iron and a computer air card, used to access the Internet, that came from the Gees’ laptop computer. The discovery came on Oct. 6, 2009, the same day that police served a search warrant at Jason Harris’ home and found the laptop, covered in dirt and grass, in his pickup truck. It’s not clear what led police to Jason Harris, but prosecutors say that he accompanied his brother the night of the killings. The state has agreed to dismiss first-degree murder charges in exchange for his testimony. Under the deal, Jason Harris, who was facing a life in prison, will get a 20-year sentence for concealing a homicide, obstruction of justice and unlawful delivery of a controlled substance. With time off for good behavior, he will be free in six years.
Roads between the Gee household and Armington are bordered by farmland and vacant tracts. In the dark, the brothers could have thrown the shoes and tire iron most anywhere, forcing investigators with crossed fingers to comb many miles of rural roadside. Instead, they chose a bridge marked with yellow-and-black hazard signs. And they didn’t even hit the water. The shoes made it further than the tire iron into a field alongside the creek beneath the bridge, Oyer testified.
In at least one respect, the K-Swiss shoes found in the field didn’t match the ones that investigators took from the defendant the night that Jennings questioned Christopher Harris. The shoes that cops took from the defendant were size 12. The ones found in the field a week later were not. It is a difference that prosecutors have surrounded with neon.
“The size would be size 11?” Michael Atterberry, an assistant attorney general, asked when Oyer was on the stand, recounting the recovery of the shoes from the field. Yes.
During opening statements, Logan County state’s attorney Jonathan Wright had told jurors to pay attention to what the defendant said about shoes after police took his.
“He said ‘They’re going to test the shoes, aren’t they?’” Wright told the jury. “’Does size make a difference?’ Put a bookmark there.”
Did Harris try to throw investigators off by purchasing shoes that weren’t the same size as the ones he wore the night of the slayings? If he had purchased shoes that differed only in size, friends and family might not have noticed that he was wearing different shoes after the deaths, thus averting any suspicion.
The shoes found by investigators two weeks after the killings, however, had precious little blood on them. And whoever killed the Gees would have been splattered by blood on lower extremities, the prosecution says. Oyer testified there was just one drop on the shoes with well-defined edges, presumably the sort that a blood-spatter expert could analyze. Weather might have washed away evidence.
The shoes found in the field were wet, Oyer testified, and it was raining when investigators found them. It had rained heavily several times in the days after the killings, he testified. How do you know that, Fultz asked. I live about 15 miles north of the bridge, Oyer answered, and the level rose in an above-ground swimming pool in the Gees backyard between the day that the bodies were found and the day the shoes were located.
A family with issues
The Gees were far from an ordinary family living an idyllic existence in a cozy small town, and the defense on Friday hammered on that point.
In trying to convince the jury that the defendant walked in on a massacre that was already over, the defense says that Dillen’s penchant for violence was fueled by a dismal life at home where Rick and Ruth Gee had sex with others in a bedroom equipped with a small refrigerator stocked with snacks and alcoholic beverages. Under questioning from both sides, Oyer on Thursday and Friday provided a tour.
Investigators found marijuana and pipes in a nightstand next to Ruth and Rick’s bed. Jurors saw what looked like three bags, apparently containing marijuana, in the nightstand drawer, bolstering prior testimony and the defense’s assertion that Rick Gee sold drugs. There was also a Brillo-type pad, the sort commonly used as a filter in a crack pipe.
“Was the nightstand of such a height that it would have been accessible to children?” Fultz asked.
“Yes,” Oyer replied.
Under their bed, Ruth and Rick kept a large tub filled with DVD’s and brightly colored sex toys clearly visible from outside the clear plastic tub. During pretrial motions, the defense had said that Dillen acted out against inanimate objects, and jurors heard Oyer say that numerous dents, gouges and scratches on doors and walls “were consistent with having been kicked and punched over a period of time.” The home, he said, was messy.
The only window in Dillen’s bedroom was covered up with a sheet of fiber board, supporting what defense counsel Peter Naylor had told the jury in opening statements: Dillen, who had a history of disciplinary problems at school, had once snuck out of the house, and so windows had been nailed shut.
Dillen’s bedroom was the only one that had no blood in it or other evidence of an attacker. It did contain a Sony PlayStation 2 video game system and three Mortal Kombat games in which the player is tasked with killing characters that meet bloody ends. The defense claims that Dillen’s love for violent video games is evidence that he killed his own family.
A state police computer expert determined that three Mortal Kombat games had been saved in the system in the hours before the slayings, most recently between six and seven hours before the Gees are believed to have been killed. It wasn’t possible, the expert testified, to determine whether someone had been playing Mortal Kombat later than that but didn’t save the game.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.