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Tuesday, May 14, 2013 02:38 pm

Telling time

Key witness testifies

A key witness testified Tuesday in the murder trial of Christopher Harris, and if the jury believes Ronald Frakes, the defense faces tough odds.

Frakes, who has lived in the tiny town of Beason for nearly a quarter century, was up late the night the Gee family died. He works the third shift at a Kroger’s in Lincoln, and it was the last night of his vacation. He was trying to re-acclimate his body to odd hours.

“I’m watching TV and I hear the exhaust of a vehicle go by that I’ve never heard before – I know what goes by my house,” Frakes testified.

“You considered that unusual?” asked Logan County state’s attorney Jonathan Wright.

“Yes,” Frakes answered. “Even the dog looked at me. I immediately looked at my watch.”

It was midnight. A couple of minutes passed and Frakes heard the vehicle again.

“That time it pissed me off,” Frakes said. “That’s when I looked at my dog and said ‘We’re going outside.’ The second time really drew my attention -- I knew the vehicle didn’t belong here.”

Frakes had done this before. When he notices a strange vehicle, he goes outside and stands near the road so that he is obvious to the driver, he testified Tuesday. This time, standing in his driveway, Frakes looked toward the loud exhaust noise and saw a pickup truck on a nearby street. It turned onto the street where he lives, just a block or so away, but headed away from his home. He waited a minute or two, then heard the truck again. It was on his street, headed toward him.

“I watched the vehicle approach me,” Frakes told the jury. “I stayed out of sight of the driver until I knew it was going to come right by me. It passed College Street. When I knew it was going to pass the alley and go past my house that’s when I took a big step toward the street.”

At that point, Frakes testified, he was two or three feet from the edge of the road.

“Anybody driving by should have been able to see me standing there,” Frakes said. “That was my intent -- I’ve done that before. It went right on by. It was a grey, primered Ford Ranger truck.”

Frakes could see two people in the truck, but couldn’t tell who they were or even whether they were male or female. He saw what looked like exhaust pipes coming up vertically from the pickup’s bed. He walked across the street and peered across soybean fields toward the Gee home on Route 10 that heads north out of town, watching for the truck.

“I wanted to make sure it was going to leave town,” Frakes said.

Between gaps in trees, Frakes saw the truck head north on the main drag through town. He saw it go as far as the Gee’s neighbor, directly south of the home where five people were found dead hours later, beaten to death with a tire iron. He never saw headlights or taillights going north into the hinterland.

“I told myself that vehicle must belong over there somewhere,” Frakes testified.

So he took his dog inside. And checked his watch. It was 12:15 a.m., he said under oath, and with no skin in the game.

The Gees were alive at 12:42 a.m. – that’s when Raymond “Rick” Gee last sent a message via his BlackBerry. Harris, who was driving a primer-grey Ford Ranger pickup truck that night, says that the massacre was over when he arrived at the Gee home, looking to score pot. Dillen Constant, the defense says, had killed his family, then attacked Harris, who killed the 14-year-old  in self defense but didn’t call the cops.

But how could that be, if Frakes, who lives not much further than a football field from the Gees, saw Harris’ truck headed toward the Gee home a half-hour before Rick Gee sent a message via his BlackBerry.

Not surprisingly, defense counsel Peter Naylor focused on Frakes’ memory. How, Naylor asked, did you know that it was a Ford Ranger?

“It’s squared-off –it was a Ford Ranger,” Frakes said.

Why, then, did you tell police in the days after the slayings, before anyone had been arrested, that it was either a Ford or a Chevy?

“I wasn’t quite sure,” Frakes replied. “I had to think about it. The more you think, the more you can remember.”

Then Naylor showed the witness a chrome weight-holding rack, commonly used in gyms, that had been in the bed of Harris’ truck that night – sticking upward, it was, apparently, the thing that had prompted Frakes to tell police that a ramshackle pickup truck had exhaust pipes sticking upward from the bed, like some kind of amphibious assault vehicle from World War II .

“You recognize this?” Naylor asked.

“Never seen it before,” Frakes answered.

From the defense table, Daniel Fultz, one of Harris’ lawyers, cracked a quick smile, obviously encouraged that a witness who was no more than three feet from the road when he saw the truck pass could not recognize the weight rack in the pickup’s bed. Or say whether it was a Ford or Chevy when questioned by police the day the bodies were discovered. The question now, at least for the defense, is whether Frakes could tell time.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.


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