Amid lurid tales of sexual escapades and stomach-wrenching photographs of battered bodies, the prosecution dropped two potential bombshells Thursday in the murder trial of Christopher Harris.
Perhaps the most important one came late in the day when Natalie Klien, who had engaged in threesomes with Raymond “Rick” Gee and his wife Ruth, testified that she had been flirting with the couple via online instant messages for at least five hours before the Gees and three of their children were beaten to death with a tire iron. Like the Gees, Klien lived in Beason, a tiny town about 40 miles northeast of Springfield.
As nightfall deepened on Sept. 20, 2009, Klien repeatedly sent instant messages to the Gees, telling them when her own four children had fallen asleep. The Gees, who had four kids in their house, responded in kind. They sounded eager.
“Got three down and one to go,” Klien wrote in a message to Ruth Gee that was answered by Rick at 10:21 p.m.
“Won’t be long here now,” he responded.
Whatever tryst might have been in the making never happened.
“Damn, I’m starving, lol, and there’s nothing to eat in this house,” Klien wrote at 12:37 a.m. on Sept. 21, 2009.
“Hmm, that sucks when that happens,” Rick Gee wrote back five minutes later. And that was the last that Klien heard from the Gees.
Klien immediately flirted back, writing “Yes it does,” but got no response. At 1:04 a.m., she sent another message, telling the Gees that if she didn’t stop smoking marijuana, she would “end up eating some weird foods in weird combinations.” Still nothing.
“You still alive over there?” she wrote at 1:45 a.m.
Ironies side, the timing of Rick Gee’s final message to Klien could prove critical.
During opening statements, Logan County state’s attorney Jonathan Wright told the jury a witness will testify that he saw a truck that looked just like Harris’ pickup pass his house in Beason around midnight, heading toward the Gee home on the north edge of a town with 200 residents. The witness lived close enough to the Gees that he could see the road that goes past their home and then into farmland. Given the lateness of the hour and the truck’s loud exhaust, the witness looked across bean fields to see where the truck might be headed. He never saw it leave town.
The defense says that the massacre was over when Harris dropped by the Gee home in search of marijuana. Harris, his lawyers say, will tell the jury that he killed Dillen Constant, Ruth Gee’s 14-year-old son, but in self defense -- Dillen, the defense claims, had killed his family with a tire iron, then attacked the defendant who had arrived unexpectedly. But that could prove a tough story to sell if Rick and Ruth Gee were alive at 12: 42 a.m. and a witness says that Harris was a minute away from their home at midnight.
If nothing else, Klien’s testimony and computer records established a definitive start to a timeline of tragedy. The defense must now convince jurors that the witness who saw the truck must have been mistaken, either in his identification of the vehicle or the time that he saw it.
Klien fought hard on Thursday when the defense painted the Gees as swingers who bedded couples from throughout Illinois and other states. During opening statements, defense attorney Peter Naylor told jurors that the Gees had sex with others in a locked bedroom while their children were in the home. The assertion is central to the defense’s claim that a rotten home life contributed to Dillen’s violent tendencies that culminated in murder.
Under questioning by the defense, Klien appeared emotional and wiped her eyes as she acknowledged that she had engaged in sex with the Gees in their home, but after children were asleep. Her longtime boyfriend had also had sex with her and Ruth Gee, Klien said, and she had maintained a one-on-one sexual relationship with Ruth Gee, who was also intimate with her boyfriend while no one else was present. There were, she said, no foursomes, but everyone –she, her boyfriend and the Gees – knew what was going on.
When defense attorney Daniel Fultz asked if she had personal knowledge of the Gees having sex with any other people, Klien said yes. Where did the Gees meet these other people, Fultz inquired. At that point, assistant attorney general Steve Nate objected, saying that the question was beyond the scope of the state’s direct examination. Circuit court Judge Scott Drazewski overruled. Klien is deaf and needed an interpreter to communicate in court. Rather than forcing her and the interpreter to come back to court when the defense presents its case, Klien should answer now, the judge decided.
“Do you have personal knowledge of Rick and Ruth Gee having sexual relationships with other people?” Fultz asked again.
“No comment,” replied Klien.
At that point, the judge sent the jury out of the courtroom. The witness, he observed, had given inconsistent answers, first saying that she had personal knowledge of the Gees swinging with people aside from her, then saying “no comment.” Fultz told the court that she had told investigators shortly after the killings that the Gees had engaged in relations with people from throughout Illinois and four other states. After the judge reminded her that she was under oath and told her that she could go to jail if she refused to answer questions, Klien agreed to play by the rules, and the jury was brought back into the courtroom.
Under questioning from Fultz, Klien again said that she had personal knowledge that the Gees had engaged in sexual relations with people aside from herself and her longtime boyfriend.
“And how would they meet these people, if you know?” Fultz asked.
“I can’t remember,” Klien responded.
“Ma’am, do you recall telling investigators that you knew people coming from all around Illinois and other states?” Fultz continued over objections from the state.
“It’s been three years,” Klien answered. “I don’t remember everything that I said.”
“Do you recall telling investigators you met some of these couples?” Fultz pressed.
“I might have,” Klien said. “I don’t recall.”
Gruesome wounds and forensic realities
Aside from faulty memories and tales of unconventional sex, testimony Thursday centered on awful photographs.
With the jury out of the courtroom, the defense objected to the jury seeing a picture of 16-year-old Justina Constant, Ruth Gee’s daughter and Rick Gee’s stepdaughter, found stomach down on her bed, with what was left of her head dangling over the side of the mattress and oriented toward the floor puddled with brain matter.
“It is, in my opinion, one of the most gruesome photographs that has arisen from this incident,” Fultz told the judge, who ruled that the jury would see it.
It isn’t a case of shock value, argued assistant attorney general Michael Atterberry, one of three prosecutors in the case against Harris. The state, he says, has a blood-spatter expert who will testify that the killer’s legs would have been sprayed with blood due to the location of his targets on or close to the floor. And Justina’s head qualified.
“There was no blood spatter on Dillen Constant’s lower extremities,” Atterberry told the judge. “Whoever hit Justina would have had blood spatter on their lower extremities.”
Michael Oyer, a former crime scene investigator for Illinois State Police, subsequently broke down a photograph of Dillen, found in a fetal position in his parents’ bedroom, for the jury. The youth was clad only in shorts.
“There are some small spatter marks, just a few, on the front of the legs,” Oyer testified.
Dillen had more blood on the backs of his legs, Oyer said. It will be up to an expert to tell the jury whether the few spatter marks on the front of Dillen’s legs were inconsequential or the telltale marks of a killer. But the prosecution clearly telegraphed that Dillen should have had substantially more blood on the fronts of his legs if he had killed his family with a tire iron, bashing heads repeatedly while his siblings, mother and stepfather lay helpless on the floor.
The bodies of Dillen and his mother Ruth had been moved, Oyer testified. Gouges on walls and a door were obvious, as if they had been struck by something.
"There were numerous defects throughout the residence," Oyer testified. If those marks were made during life-or-death struggles, the damaged walls and door could help bolster the defense's case that Harris, who had few if any injuries in the days after the slayings, could not have been the killer, who could be expected to at least have scraped a knuckle while swinging a tire iron within the tiny home.
Photographs of the dead were awful enough, but not, perhaps, as disturbing as pictures of Tabitha Gee, the three-year-old daughter of Ruth and Rick who somehow survived the attack.
Tabitha was the youngest in the house where her mother, stepfather, half-sister Justina, half-brother Dillen and brother Austin, 11, died. She survived more than 14 hours before the deaths were discovered.
One juror covered his eyes with a hand and looked away, toward the back of the courtroom, when the prosecution displayed a photograph of Tabitha lying on her back in a hospital bed, with Shirley Temple hair and a gaping hole from a tire iron in her forehead. There was another gash above an ear. Her rescuers found her in a t-shirt emblazoned with the word “smile.”
Someone with such serious injuries isn’t supposed to be moved without a head-to-toe assessment of their condition, but paramedics ignored protocol. On the stand, they referred to her as “Tabitha,” not a patient, or a subject or a female victim in the detached tone of someone who has seen it all.
“With her injuries, I had (to make) the decision at that time to immediately take her out (of the house),” testified paramedic Chad Letterle. “At that time, I picked her up.”
Overcome with emotion, he could go on no longer.
“Take your time,” the judge said.
After nearly a minute, Letterle composed himself and resumed testimony in a much softer voice.
“At that time, I picked her up and carried her out the way I came, to the front door, the exact path I came in,” Letterle said. “With the injuries she had, I scooped her up in my arms.”
Letterle and fellow paramedic Steve Siltman rushed to a hospital in Lincoln, where they picked up a nurse, then, with a helicopter dispatched, they sped north toward Peoria and a trauma center equipped to deal with Tabitha’s massive injuries. The chopper met them en route at Tremont, about 30 miles north of Lincoln and 15 miles from Peoria. Tabitha groaned when paramedics seeking a response touched her feet and chest. But she could not talk.
“We were very concerned about brain injury, about neck and spinal injuries,” Siltman testified. “She’s frightened. She doesn’t know what’s going on. We don’t know whether it’s a brain injury or she just doesn’t want to talk to strangers.”
Doctors removed, then replaced, a section of Tabitha’s skull to allow her brain to swell. She was released from the hospital after less than two months. Testimony on her remarkable recovery is expected later in the trial.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org