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Slaying Victims Remembered as Suspect Returns to State

Times Staff Writers

As a foot-stomping, jubilant celebration of the lives of five slain people shook the floor of a Bakersfield church Friday night, the suspect in his family’s deaths arrived at Los Angeles International Airport.

More than 200 people crowded into the Compassion Christian Center for a 90-minute service a few blocks from the house where Joanie Harper, 39; her children Marques, 4, Lindsey, 23 months; and Marshall, 6 weeks; and Joanie’s mother, Earnestine Harper, 70, were found slain early Tuesday. While some speakers called for justice, others reminded the congregation that in the Bible, vengeance is reserved for God.

“They killed her body, but they cannot kill her soul,” said Linda Piggee, 51, Joanie Harper’s sister. “We don’t want to pass judgment on anyone; that’s God’s way.”

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She added: “All I know is this is a vicious crime. God will take care of whoever done it. I’m not puttin’ no names to it.”

Her brother, 46-year-old evangelist minister Eddie Harper of Florida, told the congregation: “This is a time of healing. This is not a time to be angry. It might appear that men are in control, but God is in control. If he can shed any light, we hope he will do just that.”

Meanwhile, Harper’s husband, Vincent Brothers, arrived at LAX from Atlanta after being briefly arrested and then released in North Carolina this week on suspicion of the slayings. He wiped away tears as he rode the escalator toward baggage claim and a throng of reporters.

“Please guys,” his lawyer Curtis Floyd, said. “He just lost his wife and children.”

On July 2, Brothers boarded the 6 a.m. shuttle bus from Bakersfield to LAX. Friends say he told his wife that he was going to visit his mother in Elizabeth City, N.C.

Harper and her children were last seen alive at church Sunday. More than 14 hours after their bodies were discovered, Brothers walked into the Elizabeth City police station with his mother.

After arresting Brothers, 41, in connection with the slayings, Bakersfield police released him, saying they did not have enough evidence to hold the elementary school vice principal.

What remains unclear is whether authorities have proof of Brothers’ whereabouts between Sunday -- when the family was last seen alive -- and Tuesday morning, when their bodies were discovered.

“The police know where he was during that period of time,” Brothers’ attorney Curtis Floyd said Friday. “If the time of death is Sunday, when do [police] believe that Mr. Brothers left Bakersfield?”

”...He wasn’t there” when they were killed, Floyd told reporters.

But he declined to say exactly where Brothers was Sunday or where he had been between July 2 and the evening of July 8. He also refused to say whether Brothers had stopped en route between Los Angeles and North Carolina.

Bakersfield police traveled to Columbus, Ohio, on Friday and were escorted to several locations by local police, said Sherry Mercurio, a Columbus Police Department representative. The Bakersfield detectives did not share any information about their inquiries, she said.

Floyd suggested that there was a key piece of evidence in Columbus, but would not elaborate.

Brothers returns home as the only suspect being considered by Bakersfield police. Local authorities call the killings one of the worst crimes in city history.

They have cited Brothers’ unwillingness to talk to them and explain his whereabouts as a cause for suspicion. In a search warrant and affidavit issued Wednesday, investigators noted that Brothers contacted the Bakersfield school district Tuesday to ask about the homicides but did not call police.

In Bakersfield’s African American community, where Brothers and the Harpers were prominent, sharply different views of Brothers’ personality have emerged in recent days.

On the one hand, Brothers is seen as a well-respected educator who was promoted from teacher to vice principal. Friends and colleagues said he is known for a firm but caring manner and love of students.

Junea Davis, 38, said she has known Brothers since the mid-1980s, when he came to California from the East Coast. Davis also worked at a local school with Joanie Harper, a campus supervisor. This spring, during Joanie’s pregnancy with the couple’s third child, Brothers took special lunches to her at school, Davis said.

“We were happy to see two young people -- African Americans -- making it,” Davis said.

She last saw the couple two weeks before the Fourth of July at the Harpers’ modest stucco house. Davis said Brothers and Joanie Harper seemed happy and were showing her plans for a bigger house they were going to build.

She was under the impression that Brothers lived there full-time and she said that she and other girlfriends of Joanie believed the couple’s January wedding in Las Vegas was a renewal of wedding vows. They did not know the couple had previously divorced and were remarrying, she said.

Joanie Harper called Davis on the Fourth of July.

“Girl, what’s going on?” she recalled Harper asking. They talked about plans for that day and Harper said she wasn’t sure what the family was going to do.

Her husband, Harper said, was out of town, Davis recalled. He planned to visit a brother, get some money from him, and then visit his mother in North Carolina.

Davis said Harper didn’t explain what the money was for and she wasn’t sure when Brothers was returning.

Davis said friends want to believe Brothers is innocent but wonder who might have killed Joanie and the children. “I’m holding on to the faith that he loved his wife and Joanie loved her husband.” Davis said.

As the police investigation continues, Brothers’ rocky romantic history has come under scrutiny. Shann Kern, a former girlfriend who has a 14-year-old daughter with Brothers, visited the Harpers the day before they were last seen alive.

Kern said in an interview that she had been engaged to Brothers years earlier but the relationship ended while she was pregnant. Kern said she had grown up with Joanie Harper in the same neighborhood, and in recent years they had maintained ties so their children would know one another.

Joanie Harper, Kern said, seemed upset during their last visit after seeing photos of Kern’s daughter’s junior high school graduation. Kern said the Harpers had been invited to the graduation, which took place in another county, and that she had expected Brothers to come but he never showed up.

Joanie grew upset after seeing the pictures, Kern said, left the house and drove away without saying goodbye.

Earnestine Harper told Kern that she and her daughter suspected Brothers had lied, saying he had tried to find the graduation but there was no ceremony.

According to Kern, Earnestine was suspicious of her son-in-law. Kern said Earnestine Harper told her that she suspected Brothers kept an apartment to meet various girlfriends.

“She said, ‘Vincent thinks we’re stupid. He thinks we don’t know,’ ” Kern said.

Court records indicate Kern was arrested in September 1988, when she was pregnant, on suspicion of assaulting Brothers. The charges were dismissed. A police report at the time indicates that Kern flagged down police after fighting with Brothers. A month later, Brothers married another woman, his first wife. The couple divorced a year later.

A second marriage ended after four years and numerous separations. That wife accused Brothers of threatening to kill her, charges that he denied.

Within months of Brothers’ marriage to Joanie Harper in January 2000, both filed for divorce. Less than two year later, the marriage ended.

On Tuesday, after news of the killings spread, Kern called Brothers’ mother in North Carolina to tell her what had happened. Brothers’ mother said her son was expected at her house by 10 p.m., Kern recalled.

Kern said she called police.

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Times staff writers Megan Garvey, Li Fellers and Olga Rodriguez contributed to this report. Cardenas and Fausset reported from Bakersfield. Hymon reported from Elizabeth City, N.C.


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