LINCOLN, Ill. (AP) -- An Illinois man was charged with first-degree murder Friday in the slayings of five members of his ex-wife's family, while his stepmother defended him as a gentle man not capable of the crime.
"There is no way he did this. I think he's being used as a scapegoat," stepmother Debbie Harris of Lincoln told The Associated Press.
Christopher Harris, 30, was arrested Thursday in the bludgeoning deaths of the Gee family in the tiny town of Beason last month. He was charged Friday with five counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder and could face the death penalty if convicted.
Jason Harris, Harris' 22-year-old brother, said he saw his brother on the day the bodies were discovered and that he was acting normally, with no sign he'd been involved in a violent incident.
"My brother is innocent -- 100 percent," he said, calling the accusations "mind-boggling."
Harris was divorced several years ago from Nicole Gee, whose father, his wife and three of their children were killed. Harris and Gee had reconciled, intended to marry again and recently had a second child together, Debbie Harris said.
Harris has been working as a cook at a Steak 'n Shake in Lincoln while also studying architecture at Lincoln College, where he got A and B grades, his stepmother said. In his free time, he enjoyed taking his family boating on area rivers and lakes, she said.
"He is mild mannered with a good sense of humor," she said, adding her stepson was never prone to violence. "That was not in his nature."
But in court records from the couple's 2006 divorce, Nicole Gee accused Harris of "mostly verbal abuse, some physical." And a judge granted them a divorce on grounds of Harris' "extreme and repeated mental cruelty."
Raymond "Rick" Gee, 46, and Ruth Gee, 39, were found dead in their home Sept. 21 with their children, 16-year-old Justina Constant, 14-year-old Dillen Constant and 11-year-old Austin Gee. Police have said they were killed by blunt force trauma preceded by a "violent struggle." A 3-year-old daughter was found alive but seriously injured.
Debbie Harris said her stepson had a good relationship with the Gees, frequently dropping off his own children for the day.
"There is no motive here," she said. "There was no reason. This is why we are in shock."
Police not only searched Harris' home, Debbie Harris said, they also search hers and the home of Jason Harris -- testing bathtubs and cars for traces of blood.
"Everything's come up empty-handed," she said. "Nothing adds up."
Authorities have offered few details about Harris' arrest, including a possible motive.
Friday, Harris appeared in Logan County court in black-and-white striped prison garb and replied "yes, sir" twice to questions from Judge Thomas Harris, who ordered Harris held without bail. Harris is set to appear in court again Tuesday.
He sat through Friday's hearing with his head bowed and quietly sobbing. Public defender Patrick Timoney said he expected Harris to plead not guilty.
Logan County Sheriff Steven Nichols has said officers recovered a gray pickup truck they had been seeking after it was spotted in Beason around the time of the killings. A truck matching the description of the one authorities sought was parked outside Nicole Gee's house for days after the slayings.
Debbie Harris said authorities removed her stepson's truck in the middle of this week.
After the killings, local police initially warned area residents to take extra precautions, such as making sure to lock their doors at night. Rev. Dayle Badman, pastor of the United Methodist Church in Beason, said some residents felt relieved by the arrest.
"I'm just glad that something has transpired and maybe we can begin to put this to rest," Badman said. She said older people had been especially worried and the arrest "may allay some of their fears."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)