The Usual Suspect 

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

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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?"

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