The Usual Suspect 

Is Bill Harrison the victim of overzealous law enforcement? Or a man who got away with murder?

click to enlarge William "Bill" Harrison was arrested twice in 22 years for the same murder. Charges were dismissed both times.

PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY

William "Bill" Harrison was arrested twice in 22 years for the same murder. Charges were dismissed both times.

William "Bill" Harrison, gray-haired at 51 with a court-ordered electronic tracker on his ankle, looked up from his shed that evening in May to see one of his last remaining friends pull into the driveway.

The friend was excited, he could tell.

Harrison's attorney, Carrie Gerischer, had been trying to reach him, but either his prepaid phone was out of minutes or he just wasn't getting cell phone service in the rural valley west of Rolla. So she called Harrison's friend, who hopped in his car and drove twenty minutes along highways and backroads to deliver the news in person — prosecutors were dropping charges against Harrison in a 24-year-old murder case.

It wasn't joy Harrison felt, he says. More like resignation.

"I knew there was no possible way that they could have any evidence, unless it was manufactured, that I had anything to do with this," Harrison says now. "I was ready to go to trial and get this cleared up."

Phelps County prosecutors have long suspected the former mobile home repairman killed his drinking buddy, 26-year-old Jerry Wayne King, during a boozy July Fourth weekend in 1992. Proving it, however, was another matter.

In the '90s, a couple of veteran investigators had given it their best shot, arresting Harrison the day the body was found, only to have the prosecutor decide two months later that the case wasn't strong enough to take to trial.

Harrison was released from jail, but he was never cleared. In late 2013, a retired sheriff's detective was commissioned to review the cold case. He worked the file for about a year, eventually arresting Harrison on murder charges for a second time in the summer of 2014.

After two mistrials and shifting statements from witnesses, the current Phelps County prosecutor came to the same conclusion as his predecessor. He dismissed the case on May 18, the week before it was to go to trial.

Law enforcement officers claim that Harrison is the fish who keeps slipping off the hook.

"I'm convinced he killed Jerry Wayne King, and I'm disappointed that we aren't able to get justice for Jerry Wayne King and his family," Phelps County Prosecuting Attorney Brendon Fox says now. "Harrison will have to answer to his maker some day."

But Harrison and his attorney, Gerischer, say there's a simple reason no one has been able to make the case against him: He didn't do it. They claim investigators combined a few unrelated facts with rumors and statements from unreliable witnesses to pin charges on an innocent man. And they did it two times.

"I didn't think there was no way they would do this twice," says Harrison, who lost his job after each arrest. "I couldn't believe they had done it in the first place."

The accusations have ruined his life, he says. He takes pills to fight anxiety and high blood pressure. The Walmart Distribution Center where Harrison worked for a decade fired him after the most recent arrest, and Gerischer estimates he's now more than $100,000 in debt. The worst part, Harrison says, is that because there has never been a trial, the case will just hang over him forever, always there if a new investigator wants to take another shot.

"I can't handle any more of these," he says. "Physically, emotionally — I wouldn't survive."

click to enlarge In 1992, teenage siblings were hiking to Gourd Creek Cave when pools of blood led them to a dead body. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • In 1992, teenage siblings were hiking to Gourd Creek Cave when pools of blood led them to a dead body.

On the morning of July 7, 1992, a teenage brother and sister visiting the Rolla area from O'Fallon followed a gravel road around blind curves and steep declines to where it ends at the edge of a stream. Their grandfather had shown them the way to Gourd Creek Cave the night before, and they returned that Tuesday to explore.

The cave is a local secret. Four miles off the main highway and hidden away on unguarded private land, generations have sneaked in at night to drink beers along the path leading to the cave mouth. Tall trees hang overhead like the crest of a tunnel. Even in full daylight, it's shadowy and still.

The teen hikers parked at the trailhead and began to climb the rocky incline. They were less than two minutes into their hike when they stopped in horror. A large amount of blood had pooled midway up the trail.

The teens looked left and spotted another, smaller pool, and then one more just ahead. The fifteen-year-old boy's eyes scanned the ground and froze on a body lying halfway in the creek. The man was face up, tilted onto his left side. Water from the stream trickled past his bloodied head, and flies gathered at his eyes, nose and mouth.

The teens took it all in, and then they ran — racing up the road to their grandfather's house to call for help.

It was just after 8 a.m. Within an hour, Phelps County sheriff's deputies and a Missouri State Highway Patrol sergeant were combing the woods. They snapped pictures of anything that looked out of place or that was smeared with blood. A piece of carpet stained red, a cigarette filter left in one of the pools, a plastic laundry basket discarded near the body and an empty beer can sheathed in a black Harley-Davidson koozie were all photographed and packed into evidence bags.

The left side of the man's head was swollen, he had a large cut on his shoulder and there was a bullet hole behind his left ear. Detectives found his wallet lying next to him. It was still attached to his belt, empty except for a few personal papers with phone numbers for people in the small town of Cuba, about 35 miles northeast of the cave.

Investigators took careful note of footprints near the body. The gym shoe pattern came out pretty clear in the mud. The distinctive feature was a circle at the forefoot.

click to enlarge A Reebok shoe print was one of the few solid clues at the scene. - JERRY KING CASE FILE
  • JERRY KING CASE FILE
  • A Reebok shoe print was one of the few solid clues at the scene.

The case broke quickly. Using phone numbers from the wallet, investigators identified the dead man as 26-year-old Jerry Wayne King, a sawmill worker and father of two young boys, and started tracing his movements through the previous 24 hours.

Before nightfall, troopers took King's longtime drinking buddy, Bill Harrison, into custody. He was charged with first-degree murder that same night. Before Harrison was sent off to lockup, the highway patrol sergeant seized Harrison's Reeboks and added them to the evidence pile.

Bill Harrison and his friends were a work-hard, play-hard crowd back in the 1980s and 1990s. They drank. Some used drugs. They raised a little hell in Rolla and nearby small towns such as Cuba and St. James.

"Getting drunk, hanging around bragging about how great they are" is how Harrison's third ex-wife, Linda Harrison, describes it.

An old railroad town, Rolla is home of one of the nation's most respected engineering schools in the Missouri University of Science and Technology. Access to world-class outdoor activities in the Ozark Highlands, a relatively low crime rate and a town-and-gown culture have over the years landed it on lists of best small towns in America.

But it's always had a rough undercurrent of blue-collar workers who've scratched a life out of the tall forests and rocky ground. Early settlers considered naming the county seat Hardscrabble, but North Carolina transplants eventually chose Rolla as a phonetic spelling of Raleigh, according to town legend. These days, it's become something of a hideout for small-time fugitives from St. Louis who are convinced metro cops won't seek extradition beyond 100 miles for minor crimes. Rolla is 101 miles from the city.

In his twenties, Harrison ran with a crew of calloused laborers who spent their paychecks from the timber companies and sawmills on whiskey and secondhand truck engines. Linda Harrison says she told him if he and his friends were going to drink themselves stupid, he should just stay away, and he sometimes took her advice, leaving home on multi-day benders.

"He was a drunk," she says. "He was an idiot."

Harrison says he was a hard worker with a good reputation. In the 1990s, he worked for a rental company, refurbishing and repairing mobile homes. The small crew of friends he hired to help with the work often included at least one of the Faulkner boys, a rough-and-tumble bunch whose transgressions ranged from drunken driving to violence. Harrison was closest to Henry Faulkner, but he knew Whitey and Pee Wee, too. A younger half-brother, Marion "Winker" Ray, who is now serving time on assault and weapons charges, sometimes joined the crowd.

Jerry Wayne King was right in the middle. He'd dated Henry's sister Venita Faulkner for about seven years, and they had a little boy, Justin, who was six years old in 1992. (Another son, seven-year-old Stephen, lived with King's ex-wife.) King worked as a forklift driver at McGinnis Wood Products, a company in Cuba that turned out white ash bourbon barrels. But he lived for the weekend.

The drinking eventually drove a wedge between King and Venita Faulkner. He'd be gone for "two or three days at a time," she says, carousing. Her brothers might have liked to run around and hang out, but that wasn't the life she wanted.

"I just never was a partier," she says. "I had a baby to take care of."

She didn't like Harrison. She claims he tried to put the moves on her at a New Year's party. She eventually told King who, she says, told Harrison's then-wife, Linda. When Harrison learned about King's meddling, he grabbed King by the throat and threw him up against a wall, Venita Faulkner claims.

King and Harrison stopped hanging out for a while after that, but eventually made amends. Venita Faulkner says she's not sure what happened. She took their son and left King in the fall of 1991.

Not long after, prosecutors claim, Harrison and King quarreled again in what would ultimately become a motive for murder.

In early 1992, King was living with a new girlfriend in Cuba, and they were looking for a new place. They gave Harrison a $100 deposit on a mobile home but ultimately decided not to move in.

Harrison held onto the deposit since holding the trailer had cost him a month or two of rent. He says it wasn't a big issue and King understood. The two continued to hang out and drink together after the deal fell apart. But others claim Harrison was angry about the situation.

In prosecutors' version of the story, things came to a head during a long July Fourth weekend in 1992. Harrison invited his buddies over to his cabin on the Gasconade River in Maries County. Friends flowed through from Friday on into Tuesday morning. Investigators struggled to pin down all the names and times for the revolving guest list. With all the drinking and partying, Harrison says he can't quite remember either.

"It was a pretty heavy weekend," he says.

Henry Faulkner, the brother of King's ex-girlfriend, was there — probably Sunday night into Monday, based on what investigators could gather from witnesses and his previous statements. But he's varied on the timeline over the years. Now dying of alcohol-induced pancreatitis, he tells the Riverfront Times he's pretty sure it was Friday night.

Cloudy though he was on the details, Faulkner's testimony became one of the critical pieces in the case against Harrison. In an interview with the highway patrol the day after King's body was found, he suggested that the argument over the trailer had led to real animosity between Harrison and King — that, in fact, Harrison "told me that that he was going to kill Jerry King over it." Investigators would seize on that claim and make it a focal point of their case.

A third man at the cabin that weekend, John Lister, would also draw their attention. A tall, thin 29-year-old, Lister tended to keep to himself. He was a bit of a mystery to the others. He wasn't as much of a drinker as the rest of the guys, and Harrison seemed to be his only link to the crew. He brought out his kids to swim and eat at some point during the weekend, but then returned to Rolla.

The crowd had thinned by Monday night. Harrison is believed to have driven a drunken Henry Faulkner back to a brother's house and dropped him off.

Harrison, who was plenty drunk himself, then drove over to King's place in Cuba, where neighbors and coworkers from the barrel company were having a keg party. (Accounts of this sequence of events have varied. At least one investigator has said Harrison still had Faulkner with him when he arrived in Cuba.)

Witnesses, including King's girlfriend, say Harrison promised to repay the $100 if King would ride back to his place with him to get the money. That was about 10:30 p.m.

What happened next is a little less clear.

Harrison says they drove around and drank beers, eventually making it to his house at 1 a.m. He was able to mark the time because his stepdaughter was up watching television, and she told detectives she remembers him and King arriving as she waited for her next show to start.

Harrison's wife had been asleep but woke when he came in. She told investigators he kissed her goodbye and said something about needing to "take care of business" before he and King headed out the door.

Harrison says there's not much more to it than that. He claims King wanted to keep drinking, so he dropped him at a roughneck Rolla bar called the Top Hat.

"He wasn't done," Harrison says. "And I was overdone."

Harrison says he then steered his pickup over to Lister's house and woke him up between 1:30 and 2 a.m., hoping to persuade him to drive him back up to the cabin in Maries County. Lister told investigators Harrison was wasted, and he tried to persuade him to sleep it off there, but Harrison was insistent on returning to the Gasconade.

Harrison eventually won out, and Lister took the keys to the Chevy and drove them out to the cabin. They drank a few beers and ate leftover barbecue, according to Lister. Finally, about 4 or 5 a.m., they returned to town with Harrison passed out in the truck. Lister couldn't wake him, so he left him in the cab of the Chevy and went to sleep for a few hours before driving him home at 8 a.m.

This is Harrison's account, too. But prosecutors say it doesn't match what he first told investigators just before his arrest in 1992.

After the hiking teens stumbled onto King's body later that morning, it didn't take long for detectives to conclude Harrison was the last man to see King alive.

Harrison originally claimed he'd dropped King at the Top Hat about 10:30 p.m. and spent the rest of the night away from home, investigators said. When they told him his wife reported seeing him about 1 a.m. with King, he quickly altered his timeline and recalled dropping by his home early that morning, according to notes from the interrogation.

Curiously, he also admitted visiting Gourd Creek Cave recently. He claimed he and his crew had worked a job nearby a day or two before the killing, and he drove them over because some had never seen it.

An ambitious lawyer named John Beger was the Phelps County prosecuting attorney back in 1992. He looked at the case in front of him: Henry Faulkner claimed that Harrison said he was going to kill King. King was last seen alive with Harrison about 1 a.m. Hikers discovered King in a hard-to-find locale known to Harrison. And then investigators found "inconsistencies" in Harrison's timeline.

They didn't find the murder weapon — or any guns — despite a search of the cabin and Harrison's home and pickup. They also didn't have any witnesses to the killing, and the only physical evidence linking Harrison to the crime scene was a possible match between the muddy shoe prints and the Reeboks seized from Harrison after his arrest. Accent on "possible" — the shoe and prints had the same pattern down to the circle on the forefoot, but Reebok wasn't exactly an obscure brand and the sizing of the rain-soaked impressions was unclear.

But Beger decided they had a strong circumstantial case based on the timeline and statements from witnesses such as Henry Faulkner. On Wednesday, just one day after King's body was found, Beger formally charged Harrison with first-degree murder.

The case would quickly crumble. Beger says now they ran into some "evidentiary" problems in the following months. The challenges became so great, he says, he decided to dismiss the charges "without prejudice," meaning they could be refiled in the future.

Beger left office shortly after the case and went into private practice after a failed campaign for judge. The evidence was piled into boxes and filed away. Investigators turned to new cases.

Still, the murder nagged at Beger for years.

"I never did forget the case," he says, "but I was out of office and didn't have any authority."

That changed in 2010, when Beger decided to run for his old seat again. He won and reclaimed the prosecutor's office in 2011. About two years later, he called up a newly retired sheriff's detective and asked him if he'd be interested in a project. Would he mind taking a look at an old murder?

click to enlarge The murder case stayed open for years. - JERRY KING CASE FILE
  • JERRY KING CASE FILE
  • The murder case stayed open for years.

Andy Davis, a 60-year-old Army vet, jokes that he's on his third career now as the Phelps County coroner. After retiring from the military, he joined the Rolla Police Department in 1996 before migrating to the sheriff's department. He rose to become the department's top detective before he retired again in 2013.

He was off the job for about three weeks when Beger called to see if he'd take a crack at the Jerrry Wayne King murder.

"Honestly, I was chief of detectives for the sheriff's department, I didn't even know the case existed," Davis tells the RFT.

But he was interested. He called over to the prosecutor's investigators in November 2013 and started gathering the old files. With his glasses and sandy hair parted on the side, Davis looks more librarian than lawman. He says he likes to approach cases by imagining them from the perspective of a defense attorney.

"If I can defend it, then obviously it may not be the guy I'm going after," he says.

It's an effective strategy. In roughly 50 murder investigations he's pushed to an arrest, only one failed to lead to a conviction — and that was a result of factors outside his control, he says.

Davis spent the next year driving the backroads of central and southern Missouri, re-examining 21-year-old evidence and probing the hazy memories of aging boozehounds in hopes of finally uncovering what happened all those years ago.

He keyed in on three people: Bill Harrison, Henry Faulkner and John Lister.

It hadn't come out publicly in the '90s, but detectives suspected both Faulkner and Lister were involved in some way in King's death or at least knew what happened. Lister was asked (and refused) to take a polygraph test. He was even arrested six days after Harrison, on suspicion of first-degree murder in the case, and held for twenty hours in jail before he was released without charges.

As with Harrison, the evidence against Lister was circumstantial — but, viewed in a certain light, troubling. A neighbor near Gourd Creek had noticed a maroon sedan that matched Lister's car parked on the road leading to the cave about 10:30 p.m. on the last night of King's life. The neighbor talked to the driver, who matched Lister's description. The man said he was supposed to meet someone to look at a Jeep engine. But why would that put him on a dark, rural road late at night? When investigators questioned Lister about it later, he said he'd met the potential seller at a gas station and agreed to meet him that night in the middle of nowhere. He didn't know the man's name or where he lived.

"He has direct knowledge," retired Phelps County Detective Mark Williams says today of Lister. "I have no doubt."

Attempts to reach Lister were unsuccessful. He left Rolla after King was killed and eventually moved closer to his family in Douglas County, less than 50 miles north of the Arkansas border. He was arrested in March 2015 for destruction of property and criminal use of a weapon. The Douglas County Sheriff says Lister shot up two vehicles that belonged to the new boyfriend of his ex-wife or girlfriend. Lister's attorney didn't respond to a request for comment.

Davis obtained search warrants to collect DNA from Lister, Faulkner and Harrison in the spring of 2014. In the warrant application, Davis revisited Lister's strange encounter with the Gourd Creek neighbor on the night King was killed.

"It is believed Lister was waiting for Harrison and Faulkner and possibly acting as a 'look out' on a road that has extremely low traffic volume, few residences, and it dead ends at the cave," he wrote.

Faulkner voluntarily allowed him to swab his cheek. The detective served the warrant on Harrison at the Walmart Distribution Center.

As for Lister, Davis drove in March 2014 to the tiny town of Ava in Douglas County to meet him. Lister has become a federally licensed firearms dealer and a breeder of prized goats in the years since the killing. Davis found him in his workshop.

"He had just finished inseminating some of the goats and was now making a thousand custom loads of ammunition," Davis wrote in a report on the interaction.

Lister claimed he didn't remember anyone named Jerry King, anything about the murder or even what he was doing back then, 22 years earlier.

When Davis asked him for a DNA sample, Lister initially refused, saying he knew from working with the goats how easily DNA could be manipulated. He only agreed to a cheek swab when Davis showed him the search warrant.

The entire interaction lasted just fifteen minutes, and Davis left feeling Lister knew a lot more than he would ever say.

"He doesn't answer a lot of questions," Davis says. "He doesn't volunteer a lot of information. Would I have loved to have questioned him longer and get him to open up? Yeah, absolutely, but I felt I had what I needed."

Davis sent all the DNA samples off to a forensic lab, where scientists tried to match them against the evidence collected in 1992 as well as a profile for King, created in part from a sample provided by his now-grown son, Justin.

The results came back a few months later — no matches.

The investigator also sent pictures of Harrison's old tennis shoes along with the footprints from the crime scene to Reebok in hopes of comparing the two, but the company wrote back there was little it could determine all these years later.

Davis found himself facing roughly the same case investigators had in 1992. No physical evidence linked Harrison or the other men directly to the killing. He had no witnesses to the murder. No murder weapon.

He still felt strongly that the timeline and connections established through dozens of interviews continued to point to the same place.

"I just followed what I had in front of me," Davis says. "I considered Lister, and I considered Henry Faulkner and I considered, obviously, William Harrison, but everything I had turned to William Harrison."

click to enlarge William Harrison, with his wife Chiquita. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • William Harrison, with his wife Chiquita.

On August 1, 2014, Bill Harrison was in the second half of his shift at Walmart when his boss came to find him. There were some detectives here to see him.

"You need to get your lunch bucket, because I don't think you're coming back," the supervisor said.

Walking across the parking lot toward the office, Harrison felt that everyone already knew what was happening. He spotted employees from other sections of the plant as he strode forward, the humiliation and fright building with each step. Davis met him halfway, put on the handcuffs and walked him out.

The next day's headline in the Rolla Daily News read, "Rolla man charged in 22-year-old homicide."

Harrison spent the next two months in jail. When he was finally able to bail out, he had to wear an ankle monitor, hiking up the hill from his house each morning where it got a signal so he could verify his location.

He looked a decade older than his age. After a wild youth and three failed marriages, he had wed his fourth wife, Peggy "Chiquita" Harrison, in 1994 and settled into a routine of work and home life. They raised twin boys, and Harrison has become a grandfather.

He was stunned when the murder charges were refiled. He blamed Beger. The two-time Phelps County prosecutor had decided to run again for judge, and Harrison couldn't help wondering if charging him with murder had become a routine part of his campaign strategy.

"Who's going to benefit from this kind of thing?" Harrison asks. "John Beger. Coincidence? I don't think so."

Beger, though, was unopposed when he ran for judge in 2014. He notes he didn't need any publicity to win. He says he'd promised King's relatives back in 1992 he'd do everything he could to put the man who killed him in prison. That was his motivation then, and again when the case was revived, he says, though he's not surprised to hear Harrison feels aggrieved.

"Thinks he's a victim of injustice, I'm sure," Beger says.

Beger was elected in November 2014 to the state's 25th Judicial Circuit. Fox, who had worked with Beger in private practice, followed him to the prosecutor's office and was elected to succeed him as prosecuting attorney.

With an assistant prosecutor, Fox spent eighteen months working the Harrison case. They persisted through one mistrial in the fall of 2015 when they learned some of the investigation's lab reports hadn't been turned over to the defense, and a second in January when jurors were discovered to have been discussing the case against the judge's orders.

Over time, the case began to break down. Witnesses, including a Walmart coworker who had claimed Harrison had told her about killing someone, changed their testimony. Others were hard to locate. Sheriff's deputies went to subpoena one of King's former neighbors and found him hanging by his neck, apparently a victim of suicide.

And then there was Faulkner. Fox says a recent shift in his story was the "final nail in the coffin" that doomed any chance of prosecuting Harrison.

But records reviewed by the RFT show Faulkner has always been a flawed narrator. Transcripts show, in fact, that Faulkner completely reversed his description of key details during the course of an early interview with investigators, even as they seemed to be zeroing in on him as a potential suspect.

In an interrogation conducted by Missouri State Highway Patrol Sergeant Ralph Roark the day after King's body was found, Faulkner claimed Harrison was pissed at King about money for "a house trailer or something that Jerry was going to rent or something."

When Roark asked if Harrison threatened to do anything about it, Faulkner said he did not. Roark returned to this point again later. Faulkner repeated that Harrison was angry with King about the money, but Faulkner didn't tell the sergeant that Harrison was planning any violence.

Throughout the interview, Roark grilled Faulkner about where he was and what he was doing the night King was last seen alive.

"You didn't have anything to do with this, did you?" Roark asked at one point.

"No, I didn't," Faulkner told him. "No, sir, I didn't. No."

Roark asked to see the soles of Faulkner's shoes. He asked to see his hands. He told him he might need him to take a polygraph test.

"What are you so nervous for?" Roark asked after about fifteen minutes of questions.

"It, I'm just the nervous type," Faulkner replied.

The sergeant stopped the interview there and turned off the tape. Eight minutes later, he clicked on the recorder again.

This time, Faulkner remembered things much differently.

Roark: "Henry and I have talked for a couple of minutes off tape. I haven't threatened you or promised you anything, have I, Henry?"

Faulkner: "No, sir."

Roark: "You did make some statements concerning Monday night when you were with Bill Harrison and you said Bill did make some statements concerning Jerry and this hundred dollars that he was supposed to refund him. Would you go back over what you told me?"

Faulkner: "Well, just that he told me that that he was going to kill Jerry King over it."

The idea that Harrison told someone he planned to kill King over $100 became a crucial part of the prosecutors' case. With little to no physical evidence to link Harrison to the crime scene and no known witnesses to the killing, they needed to build a case on circumstantial evidence — facts jurors could use to reasonably infer things had happened as prosecutors described.

There is a classic example judges use to explain the concept to jurors. If a man walks in from outside, shaking water off an umbrella, an observer might reasonably conclude it's raining outside, even without seeing drops fall from the sky. Without Faulkner's claim that Harrison talked about killing King, prosecutors are left with a puddle of water and not much to say how it got there.

But while Faulkner's allegation might have sounded good in isolation, a good defense lawyer would surely raise the question of what happened in those "couple of minutes off tape."

Gerischer says she questioned Faulkner about those unrecorded minutes during one of the aborted trials, but he claimed he didn't remember what happened. She's never had the opportunity to ask Roark.

"It's a big deal," she says. "Any defense attorney is going to seize on that."

To the RFT, Faulkner flatly denies any involvement in the murder.

"I could hardly believe that something like that would happen to Jerry," Faulkner tells the RFT. "Jerry was a pretty good guy. Jerry never did bother anybody that I knew of."

In May 2016, a week before the trial was to begin for a third time, Fox decided the state wasn't likely to win the case against Harrison. He dismissed the charges — again without prejudice, allowing the prosecutors to refile the case in the future if they find new evidence. For now, Harrison is a free man again.

He calls attorney Gerischer his "guardian angel" after watching her battle prosecutors through three rounds of pretrial motions before the case was dismissed. But they both say it's an unsatisfactory victory, if it's a victory at all. The deep debt and massive amount of stress of the accusations cost Harrison a lot.

"Personal losses, financial losses, emotional, health — all that," he says.

Harrison says he was looking forward to the trial. After nearly a quarter-century of sideways looks and whispers in the grocery store, he wanted the opportunity to fight the allegations head on and hear a jury say he's not guilty.

"Yeah, I'm happy in a way," he says. "But what's going to stop them from doing it again? Where's my vindication?"

click to enlarge Justin King is the spitting image of his murdered father, his mother says. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • Justin King is the spitting image of his murdered father, his mother says.

Gourd Creek Cave hasn't changed much in the 24 years since Jerry King's body was found in the stream. A couple of stray beer cans and some graffiti on the cave walls are the only signs of visitors. Pigeons burst out of fissures in the cave mouth, their wings pounding like thunder in the quiet.

Mark Williams, a retired Phelps County detective who helped lead the original investigation, still recalls the scene clearly in his mind. He's long believed King was shot somewhere else and dumped in the stream. The killer probably rolled him up in the rug and then loaded his corpse into the laundry basket so he and an accomplice could carry him to the creek and roll him into the water, he says. But it's just a theory, and he's skeptical anyone will ever be able to prove it.

"The evidence just isn't there," he says. "It wasn't there then. It isn't there now. It's not going to be there unless Mr. Harrison would just suddenly have a change of heart and wake up one day and say, 'I did it.' And that's not going to happen."

Williams runs into Harrison every once in a while around Rolla. They last crossed paths a few weeks ago at a gas station outside of town.

"We chatted just a little bit, you know, just real briefly," Williams says. "I mean, what do you say?"

Rolla is a small town, and the tiny burgs scattered through the rest of Phelps County are even smaller. A milk run can bring old adversaries face to face on any given night.

King's ex-girlfriend, now Venita Robinson and married for two decades, says she has no doubt Harrison is guilty, and it terrifies her every time she runs into him. If she sees him in the grocery aisle, he'll just stare at her and smile, she says.

"I'm scared," Robinson says. "I'm scared of him."

Preparing for the new trial was hard on King's family. They wanted Harrison to go to prison, but they also had to confront old pain they'd tried to bury. King's youngest son, Justin, was six years old when his father was killed. He's now 30 with a six-year-old son of his own. He was furious to learn the case wouldn't go forward after all the heartache it had caused his family.

"They upset my mom," he says. "They upset my brother, upset everyone."

Harrison says he only wants to find some way to return to normal life. He talked to his old bosses at Walmart, he says. They wanted to hire him back, but they needed permission from corporate. That was weeks ago. He's not optimistic. He knows how this goes.

click to enlarge The death of Jerry Wayne King remains unsolved 24 years after he was found murdered in the Ozark Highlands. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • The death of Jerry Wayne King remains unsolved 24 years after he was found murdered in the Ozark Highlands.

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