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Thursday, June 6, 2013 10:28 pm

Guilty as charged

How Christopher Harris got caught


A Logan County sheriff’s deputy escorts Christopher Harris into the courthouse during a pre-trial proceeding in April.

Christopher Harris couldn’t have asked for better breaks.

Not even a ninja could expect to slay five people with a tire iron and walk away without a scratch, especially not in a cracker-box house the size of the Gee home in Beason. Mortal combat in a three-foot-wide hallway? You’d expect at least a scraped knuckle.

He had an accomplice he could trust in his brother, who helped him burn his clothes and kept his mouth shut. And even if the brother took an oath and testified against him, who would believe a man with a perjury conviction?

Forensic evidence was in his favor. DNA? None of his was found amid the bodies and blood. Fingerprints? Sure, but so what? He’d been in the house countless times. It would have been surprising if his fingerprints weren’t there.

Harris had the cops fooled, at least at first, even after police noticed his pickup truck outside the home of Nicole Gee, his ex-wife and relative of the murder victims, parked on the street just a few blocks from yellow tape still fluttering in the fall air while crime scene investigators went about their grim business. The truck was a close match to the truck a neighbor saw on Sept. 21, 2009, headed toward the Gees. But the first detective to interrogate Harris wasn’t convinced that this was the guy.

But Harris was the guy, as a jury decided last week in convicting him on five counts of first-degree murder for slaying the Gee family with a tire iron and one count of battery for beating three-year-old Tabitha Gee and leaving her for dead. Even then, it took nearly five hours of deliberations in a case that had all the markings of a slam dunk when the trial began.

So how did Harris go from a killer with so much in his favor to a convicted murderer who, barring a successful appeal, will spend the rest of his life in prison? It is a familiar reason to anyone with experience in the criminal justice system.

Christopher Harris got caught because he was careless, then stupid.

An unlikely killer

Christopher Harris wasn’t a usual suspect.

He’d known the Gees for nearly half of his life, having taken up with Nicole Gee while still in high school. He got along well with the family by his own testimony that went unrebutted by prosecutors who surely would have told jurors about any bad blood had any existed.

Harris considered Rick Gee a friend and father figure. The two worked in construction together and shared countless bowls of marijuana over the years. Harris played ball with the kids and was in the home on a near daily basis while living nearby with Nicole Gee, Rick’s adult daughter who divorced him in 2006 but never ended the relationship. She gave birth to Harris’ son less than two months before the tragedy.

Harris had no history of violence, just a 1999 theft conviction and a few piddling arrests for marijuana possession and shoplifting, none recent.

There is never a good reason to bash two adults and three kids to death with a tire iron, but in this case, there wasn’t even a bad reason. Prosecutors could only hint at motives.

Harris wasn’t in the running for Logan County Father of the Year. He had walked out on Nicole, leaving her alone with their infant son and nine-year-old daughter, just a few days before the killings. Money was tight, but Harris philandered and worked sporadically, doing odd jobs when he wasn’t on the schedule as a part-time cook at Steak ’n Shake in Lincoln. He’d been out drinking with his brother Jason for hours before pulling up to the Gee home sometime between midnight and 1 a.m.

Did Rick Gee give him a talking-to that night, tell his drunken ex-son-in-law that it was time to grow up? Gee and his wife had been flirting online with a woman who lived just a few minutes away – the messages sent back and forth suggested a tryst in the making. Did Gee snap at Harris because his plans for an escapade had been sidetracked by an unexpected late-night visitor who came in search of pot?

Something set Harris off, but prosecutors could only hint at motives, suggesting that things went sideways after the defendant went to the house in search of sex from 16-year-old Justina Constant, found dead on her bed. After all, they noted, Harris had been looking for female companionship, attempting to contact three different women before heading to Beason.

But it is a creaky motive at best, bolstered mainly by testimony from his brother, who lied repeatedly to police and, in the end, proved more sideshow than star witness.

Since the killings, Jason Harris’ story had morphed from we were never there to my brother, armed with a tire iron, went inside to have sex with Justina and went nuts after Dillen, Justina’s 14-year-old brother, asked what he was hiding behind his back. Jurors heard yet another version: Harris, his brother said, went to the home to talk to Justina and brought a tire iron along, which left jurors to connect dots and conclude that the defendant had sought sex from Justina and pulled a tire iron when he didn’t get it – even though Nicole was just a few blocks away.

Prosecutors didn’t take Jason’s story to the bank, dismissing a charge of attempted sexual assault prior to jury selection. One juror said afterward that nothing Jason said was believable on its own, and Logan County state’s attorney Jonathan Wright said that he believed that prosecutors could have won a conviction even without testimony from Jason, who had been charged with murder but made a deal in exchange for a 20-year sentence on lesser charges. He’ll be free in a little more than six years with time off for good behavior.

Prosecutors during trial emphasized that Harris was high and on the make that night. Wright noted that the defendant during his first interrogation by detectives one day before his arrest suggested that drugs or sex sparked an unknown killer.

“Maybe it was a Freudian slip,” Wright said in the courtroom corridor after the verdict.

Harris was a smoke-every-day pothead. He handled his liquor well, according to Justin Montgomery, a friend who testified that Harris was “very docile” and kept to himself when drinking.

“I don’t know anybody who would say that he’s a violent person or rowdy by any means,” Montgomery told the jury. “I would say that anybody who knows him on a…personal level would say that he’s a great guy, cares a lot about his family.”

Assistant attorney general Steven Nate had just one question on cross examination.

“Been around him when he’s consumed cocaine?”

“I don’t believe so,” Montgomery answered.

Toting trial exhibits on a cart and the defendant’s courtroom attire in a plastic bag, defense attorneys Peter Naylor, left, and Daniel Fultz, right, leave the courthouse.

Harris had snorted cocaine before going to the Gee home, but it was a miniscule amount, scored free-of-charge from John Williams, his brother’s boss, who testified that he had put barely a pinch, perhaps a half-gram, in Jason’s hand when the brothers paid a brief visit to his home.

Williams testified that he is no drug dealer and preferred to keep cocaine for his own use rather than give it to anyone. A half-gram of cocaine is half the amount of powder contained in a paper packet of artificial sweetener commonly used to flavor a single cup of coffee.

The brothers split the cocaine in the course of several hours – Williams said it was dusk when the brothers visited, the Gees were killed after midnight. Neither Williams nor Jason noticed anything unusual about the cocaine. Harris, by his own testimony, had used cocaine in the past.

Did such a small amount of a drug trigger unspeakable violence in a man with a reputation for mellowness?

It seems hard to believe.

Covering tracks

Once the deed was done, Harris made one mistake after another.

The first was neglecting to clean up after himself, particularly in the master bathroom where the body of Austin Gee, 11, was found.

The “aha” moment for investigators came when they matched Harris’ palm print to a bloody print found on the master bathroom counter above Austin’s body. One swipe with a towel would have eliminated the evidence.

Footprints would also seem a simple matter. A towel would have taken care of prints found on the bathroom linoleum. At least one bloody print with discernible tread from Harris’ shoes was found on carpet – a few rubs, perhaps some poured vinegar or bleach or window cleaner, and there would have been nothing left for investigators. Since Harris was a frequent guest in the home, he didn’t have to worry about DNA or fingerprints that weren’t in blood. And he had plenty of time after the crime.

No one may ever know what sparked Christopher Harris’ murderous rampage, but Logan County state’s attorney Jonathan Wright guesses that he was fueled by lust and drugs.
The Gees were killed sometime after 12:42 a.m., when Rick Gee last sent an online message. The Gees’ laptop went from plugged-in to battery power at 1:14 a.m., indicating the time that Harris took the computer after killing the family. The family lived on the very edge of the tiny town, the home bordered on two sides by farmland. What neighbors they had were not close and, apparently, fast asleep.

Randy Miller, a friend, testified that he drove past the house at 1:30 a.m. or a little thereafter and was surprised to see the lights out. That would have given Harris 15 or 20 minutes to wipe the bathroom floor and counter, maybe pour a little bleach on the carpet elsewhere in the house, then skedaddle.

Instead, Harris snatched the laptop, which he feared was connected to a webcam that could have captured everything, and sped away. He went from having every advantage to making every possible mistake.

The country-roads route from the Gee home to Jason’s house in Armington, where the killer was staying, is bordered by farmland as well as overgrown fields. There are a few wooded embankments. In short, plenty of places for Harris to have tossed his shoes, the tire iron and other incriminating evidence. Instead, he chose a well-marked bridge over a tiny creek near his brother’s home, and he didn’t even hit the water.

It was such an obvious spot that police found it on their own by driving between the Gee home and the brother’s house and checking out likely spots for a stupid criminal to dump evidence. Sure, enough, there were the shoes and tire iron, lying in a pasture near the creek. Michael Oyer, a former crime scene investigator for Illinois State Police who is now retired, testified that he spotted the evidence from the bridge.

What Harris did with the laptop was even dumber. He stashed it in a cornfield, then retrieved it after the corn was harvested, eliminating stalks that had concealed the computer. Instead of then dumping the computer in the Illinois River or throwing it down a mineshaft or putting it in a trash bin or burying it, he made the same mistake again: He put it in another cornfield. Compounding the blunder, he trusted his brother Jason to retrieve the computer and hide it after discovering that the second cornfield was due for harvest.

Jason, hardly a criminal mastermind, took his time with the computer. Apparently unaware that police like to search abodes of murder suspects, Jason never got around to taking the computer out of his pickup truck. Five days after Harris’ arrest, police armed with a search warrant found the computer in the truck’s bed, and just like that, Jason, too, landed in jail. He was a witness who had been there that bloody night, cornered, and in a position to finger his brother.

One of the most damning pieces of evidence was a photograph of Harris with his paramour Kristy Moore the day after the killings, before the battered bodies were found. Regardless of forensics, the picture of Harris smiling and kissing came across as evidence of a psychopath unfazed by the sight of unimaginable gore – whether he killed these people or, as he claimed, merely stumbled across a massacre, jurors instantly knew that this was a man capable of the incapable.

Harris also didn’t do himself any favors by talking to detectives. Recorded interviews of him talking to police are nothing short of chilling. Special agent Robert Michael Jennings of the state police, who is now retired, testified that Harris had fooled him early on, and jurors could see for themselves how that could happen in recordings of Harris jawing with the detective, arms folded and legs crossed, the picture of innocence.

Harris guaranteed that footprints found in the house weren’t his, and he happily surrendered his shoes, which he had bought after the murders in one size larger than the ones he had worn the night of the killings.

“Awesome,” he responded when Jennings assured him that police would test the shoes.

By then, it was only a question of time and straightforward police work.

It was a simple matter for police to check store records and discover that Harris had purchased two pairs of shoes, one size 11 a few days before the killings  and another in size 12 immediately afterward – given that Nicole had been with him when he bought the first pair, he had to buy the same brand and model or risk raising flags in her mind. Within hours of taking Harris’ prints the night of his interview with Jennings, police had matched his palm with the bloody print found in the bathroom above Austin Gee’s body.

Watching a recording of the police interview, you would never know that Harris was a day away from a lifetime behind bars as Jennings told him that investigators would check out his story about where he’d been the night of the slayings.

“So far, it fits,” said the detective, who gave Harris a card and told him to call if he heard or thought of anything who might help police. “Unless you’re a total pathological liar, you’re not the guy.”

“I’m not even capable – I couldn’t kill nobody,” the murderer coolly assured the cop who would arrest him the next day.

Sentencing is scheduled for July 19, but it is a formality, given that Illinois law mandates life without parole for murderers who kill more than one person. Harris, both hands folded in front of him, bowed his head when the verdict was announced and rarely looked up during the remainder of the brief court session last Friday. He looked disappointed and a bit shocked.

He shouldn’t have been. He had only himself to blame.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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