BAKERSFIELD, CALIF. — BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - Hours after he turned himself over to police in North Carolina, a respected elementary school vice principal was arrested yesterday on suspicion of murdering his ex-wife, her mother and his three small children.
Vincent Brothers, 41, faces an initial court appearance today in Elizabeth City, N.C., in the shooting deaths that Bakersfield, Calif., Police Chief Eric Matlock called the worst crime he had seen in more than three decades in law enforcement.
"This community," said Matlock, "has never experienced anything like this."
Authorities in North Carolina said Brothers walked into a police station in downtown Elizabeth City late Tuesday, the day the bodies of the five victims were discovered at their Bakersfield home. Brothers had been sought for questioning.
"He just came in and made some requests for us, and we tried to facilitate the request because of who he was," said Capt. George F. Koch, acting Elizabeth City police chief. "He was here voluntarily ... and could have left anytime."
Brothers spent the night at the police station, and Bakersfield police detectives arrived yesterday morning to interview him. He refused to answer questions, they said, but by 2:30 p.m. they had decided there was enough evidence to arrest him, according to Koch.
Bakersfield police refused to discuss the evidence against Brothers, who had a stormy relationship with his ex-wife, Joanie Harper, but was described as a conscientious, even beloved, educator.
Among the questions left unanswered were how long Brothers had been in North Carolina and whether he might have an alibi that would place him away from the crime scene at the time of the killings.
Besides Harper, 39, Brothers is accused of killing their children, Marques, 4, Lindsey, 23 months, and Marshall, 6 weeks; and Harper's mother, Earnestine Harper, 70, a respected leader in her Bakersfield community.
Their bodies, all bearing gunshot wounds, were discovered Tuesday morning by a friend who had grown concerned after not seeing the family since church services Sunday.
Authorities were waiting for autopsy results to help determine when they were killed.
Those who knew the family were reeling yesterday.
"I can't hardly believe it," said Mike Woessner, principal of Rafer Johnson Community Day School, where Joanie Harper had worked as a campus supervisor since 2000. "It's kind of like a dream."
Before coming to Rafer Johnson, she worked at Emerson Middle School and Fremont Elementary School. Brothers was vice principal at Emerson and then Fremont at the same time she worked at the schools.
"Joanie was a very quiet person, but so effective with the kids who came to us with a multitude of problems," Woessner said.
A makeshift memorial consisting of a pile of teddy bears took shape yesterday outside the house where Harper, her mother and children had lived.
Joanie Harper and Brothers were married in January 2000, but the marriage appeared to have been troubled from the start. Brothers filed for dissolution one month after the wedding; Harper filed for nullification nine months later. The marriage was nullified Sept. 26, 2001.
Still, the couple continued to be together, off and on, and friends and family members said they considered them to be married.
Ted Dixon, who is married to Joanie Harper's cousin, said he had seen her with Brothers only occasionally, but it seemed obvious that "that woman loved that man."
Dixon, his son and daughter-in-law and a few friends somberly watched on television yesterday as Bakersfield police announced Brothers' arrest.
Dixon said he was willing to give Brothers the benefit of the doubt but, "If the guy didn't do this, then who did it? And why? That's the scariest thing about all this."
Early yesterday, Bakersfield police had soft-pedaled their interest in Brothers, saying they needed to speak with him before they could eliminate him as a suspect. Capt. Neil Mahan said investigators were considering the possibility that the killings occurred during a home invasion robbery, a crime typically committed by a stranger.
But by day's end, Mahan and other police officials were sounding increasingly confident that Brothers was the killer.
"At certain stages of an investigation, you have to make certain decisions," Mahan told reporters. "We are continuing to investigate every possible lead, but we believe there was probable cause to make the arrest."
Jose Cardenas, Li Fellers and Richard Fausset are reporters for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.