April 5, 2009 in News, Region

Separation sparked murder spree

Phuong Le Associated Press
Ted Warren photo

Tammy Dettwiler, right, and her sister Penny Flansburg, left, are comforted by Dettwiler’s son, Tim Martin, center, Saturday at a trailer park near near Graham, Wash., where the bodies of five children belonging to the women’s niece Angela Harrison were discovered dead in their home Saturday afternoon. Police said they believe Harrison’s husband James killed the children before committing suicide.
(Full-size photo)

GRAHAM, Wash. — A man who fatally shot his five children and killed himself had just discovered his wife was leaving him for another man, authorities said Sunday.

The children, aged 7 to 16, were found shot to death Saturday in the family’s mobile home in Graham, 15 miles southeast of Tacoma. The father, James Harrison, was found earlier in the day, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot behind the wheel of his idling car 18 miles away in Auburn, about 30 miles south of Seattle.

The night before, the father and his eldest daughter went in search of the wife, Angela Harrison. The daughter used a GPS feature in her mother’s cell phone to find her with another man at a convenience store in Auburn, said Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff.

The woman told her husband she was not coming home, and was leaving him for the man with her at the store. The father and the daughter left, distraught, Troyer said. Sometime after the children went to sleep, he mounted a merciless attack on them, shooting each multiple times. Four died in their beds. The fifth was found in the mobile home’s bathroom, surrounded by signs of violent struggle.

“He wanted the kids dead,” Troyer said. “It wasn’t like he shot a few rounds. He shot several rounds.”

Investigators believe he then returned to the area near the convenience store looking for his wife. His body was found near the store, Troyer said.

“We think he was going to go back to kill the wife,” Troyer said. “He probably didn’t find her and realized the gravity of what he’d done and shot himself.”

Several weapons were found in the home.

Authorities have not released the names of the family, relatives identified the couple as Angela and James Harrison and the children as Maxine, Samantha, Heather, Jamie and James.

Ryan Peden, Maxine’s classmate, had said she told him Friday night that her parents had gotten into a fight and her mother had left. The father followed the mother and tried to get her to return, said Peden.

“Maxine texted me at 11 p.m. Friday. She said: “I’m tired of crying. I’m going to bed.’“’ His text to her the next day went unanswered.

Candy Johnson, Angela Harrison’s aunt, described James Harrison as a strict, controlling husband and father who didn’t allow his wife to make any decisions.

“My niece has been so controlled from the time she was young,” Johnson said, adding that James Harrison had impregnated Angela when she was 13.

“It’s unbelievable,” Johnson said. “My whole family is in shock. How does this happen? How does anyone do that?”

The father worked as a diesel mechanic, and the mother works at Wal-Mart, said another of Angela Harrison’s aunts, Penny Flansburg. Troyer, however, said he worked as a security guard at a casino.

Ron Vorak, who lives across the street from the family’s trailer at the Deer Run mobile home park, said James Harrison “wasn’t too friendly a person.”

“He was always hollering at the kids. He seemed to be strict with them.”

Harrison was put on a parenting plan by state child welfare officials in 2007 after what Troyer describes as a “minor assault” on one of the children. He agreed to the plan and the case was closed, Troyer said.

Outside the mobile home, neighbors left cards and bouquets of flowers. The yellow crime-scene tape and dozens of investigators who responded to the scene on Saturday were gone. The home’s front yard was littered with the toys of children who will never play again: unused bicycles, a swing set, a trampoline and a basketball hoop.

A few people drove slowly by the scene, a neatly kept mobile home in a quiet park nestled among towering evergreens.

“How do you make sense out of something like this?” asked Jeff Davis, superintendent of the 2,100-student Orting School District where all five children attended school.

He said school officials were making arrangements to have grief counselors available when teachers and students returned to school.

“In a small community like this, we know these kids,” Davis said. “ Teachers know the kids. All the kids know the kids.”

Davis said the eldest, Maxine Harrison, was a tenth-grader at Orting High School. Jamie was in the eighth grade and her sister Samantha in the sixth grade at Orting Middle School; and the two youngest, Heather and James, were second-graders at Orting Primary School.

One neighbor, Sheree Lund, who lives in the mobile home park, signed a community notebook left in from of the family’s house. She wrote: “God Bless the five little ones. God bring peace to Mom.”

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