A former girlfriend of James P. Harris testified Friday that he told her he had “killed a guy” and cut off the victim’s head with a guitar string.
Bobbie Williams, 29, also testified during Harris’ preliminary hearing in Osage County District Court that Harris kept the victim’s head in a bag and “he talked to it”, and kept a voodoo doll with a photo of the victim taped to it in a bedroom of a residence they shared in Topeka.
Harris, 29, is charged with one count of first degree murder for the killing of 49-year-old James E. Gerety. Prosecutors allege that Harris killed Gerety sometime between March 3, 2011, and April 20, 2011.
Gerety’s death was discovered after Shirley Johnson, who lives in rural Carbondale, found a part of a skull while searching for mushrooms near her residence in March 2012.
Johnson testified Friday about finding the skull, saying she saw it lying on the ground and thought it was a soccer ball. She said she put the object in a bag and took it to her house, where she lives with Jeff Harris, who is James Harris’ father. Johnson said she showed it to Jeff Harris who called 911 to report it. Johnson said law enforcement officers arrived and searched the property for 10 hours.
Other testimony indicated James Harris had previously lived at the rural Carbondale residence where the skull was found. Harris’ address was listed on west 118th Street, Carbondale, when he booked into the Osage County Jail on March 3 after being transferred from a federal correctional institution at Texarkana, Texas.
Another witness, Julie Wyant, testified that Harris had told her he had killed someone.
Questioned by Jacqie Spradling, of the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office, Wyant said she had known Harris about 10 years and that he had gone to school with her son.
Spradling asked if Harris had ever talked to Wyant “about something disturbing,” and Wyant said he had.
“He said he murdered somebody and put his body on my property and the head somewhere else,” Wyant said.
Wyant said Harris had told her about the killing in October 2011 and two or three weeks later she went to the police with the information.
Asked why she waited to tell the police, Wyant said, “It was running around in my mind and I didn’t know what to do with the information.”
With Spradling asking for more details about Wyant’s conversation with Harris, Wyant said she had asked if Harris thought he would be “found out.”
“He said the person had no teeth and fingerprints had been taken off of his fingers,” Wyant said.
Topeka Police Detective Brian Hill testified that during the investigation of Gerety’s disappearance, he had questioned Bobbie Williams in April 2012 about her involvement with the defendant.
The detective said Williams had told him that while she was staying at James Harris’ house, Harris had told her about killing Gerety.
“He told her he had cut off his head with a guitar string,” Hill said.
Hill testified that Williams had told him Harris was into voodoo and “one time James had a bag that he said contained James Gerety’s head.
“James told her he liked to keep it close to talk to it,” Hill said.
Hill said Williams also told him that Harris had killed Gerety in an upstairs room in a house on Tyler Street in Topeka, then later disposed of the body by putting it into a barrel and using a substance “to break it down.”
The detective said Williams later pointed out a spot in Osage County where Harris told her Gerety had been buried, which Hill described as a campsite “by [Harris’] father’s house.” Gerety’s body has not been found.
Harris’ attorney James Campbell quizzed Hill about the use of methamphetamine by some of the people interviewed during the investigation of Gerety’s disappearance. Hill said methamphetamine “was a common connection to James and everybody in the house.”
Williams took the stand and offered disjointed testimony as she was questioned by Osage County Attorney Brandon Jones. Williams said that she lived with Harris in the spring of 2011 at 15th and Tyler streets in Topeka; later she said she had also lived with Harris for a month at his father’s residence in Osage County.
Asked what Harris had told her about Gerety, Williams said, “He said that he killed a guy.”
When Jones asked how Gerety was killed, Williams responded, “Yeah, he killed him.”
Pressed by Jones for an answer, Williams said, “He said he cut off his head with a guitar string.”
When Jones further asked Williams to explain the manner of death, Williams said, “OK, if you really want to know.”
At that point in the hearing, Campbell asked for an attorneys’ conference with Osage County Magistrate Judge Taylor Wine, who agreed to an immediate competency hearing for Williams.
Campbell then questioned Williams about drug use and if she had taken any type of substance that could impair her memory. Williams denied using methamphetamine or marijuana, but said she was taking medication for depression.
Wine said he found the witness to be competent based on her answers to Campbell’s questions.
Jones again questioned Williams about the manner of Gerety’s death, and she said Harris had “shot him in the stomach … put him in a barrel.
“He said he buried it,” Williams said.
Williams said she had never met Gerety and only knew him by the name that Harris called the “voodoo doll hanging from the ceiling.” She said Harris called the doll “Bob on the hill”, “poor Jimbo” and “poor Jimbo Bolinsky”.
After further questioning by Jones, Williams, who was repeatedly reminded by the judge to speak into the microphone and speak louder, blurted out, “I saw a human head. He talked to it.”
Williams testified that on one occasion Harris had told her he had moved the body. She said he returned home “dirty and sweaty.” She said he kept a bag of items including a guitar string, machete and a shotgun.
Questioned by Campbell, Williams repeatedly told him that she didn’t know the answer to his questions or didn’t understand why he was asking the questions, and the judge repeatedly reminded her that she was required to answer the questions.
“It’s not really important, because it’s after the fact,” Williams said when asked how long she knew Harris and when she had met him.
Williams became agitated when Campbell questioned her about the voodoo doll and who knew about it.
When Williams said “they refer to the doll as Bob on the hill,” Campbell asked who “they” were.
Williams said, “Friends. Anyone around there knew it was Bob on the hill.”
Williams denied that she knew the names of any of the other people at the home, but identified one as a cousin of Harris.
Campbell pressed for a description of the doll and when Williams answered with a profanity, the judge halted the proceedings for a contempt hearing. Wine then found Williams in contempt and fined her $100.
When Campbell again asked about the time frame of Williams’ relationship with Harris, she said the last time she saw Harris was “a couple days before he got arrested,” and that Harris had come to her home in Topeka to kill James Cox, whom she identified as her husband.
She said had she lived with Harris until “he sent me to his cousin’s.” Campbell asked her if she was “still not very happy” about that and she agreed she was not.
When Campbell questioned Williams on her testimony about seeing the victim’s head, she denied seeing it. When asked if she had talked to detective Hill about the head, she said she hadn’t.
Williams refused to answer more questions and Wine threatened to jail her for contempt.
Campbell asked about time she spent with Harris at the rural Carbondale residence and Williams said, “We’d go there to shoot things, just out in the backyard.”
The court later heard testimony from two forensics scientists who told how Gerety’s identity was confirmed with DNA testing of the skull.
No more witnesses were called after Campbell announced the defense would stipulate that deputies had retrieved a portion of a skull, the skull had been identified as Gerety’s, and that a person would die with that part of the skull removed. Jones agreed to the stipulations, adding a stipulation that James Gerety is deceased, and then said the prosecution had completed its case.
Campbell called no witnesses for the defense.
Wine made an immediate ruling, saying the state had met its obligation to show probable cause to believe that Harris had committed the crime. The judge then ordered Harris to be bound over for arraignment before Osage County Chief Judge Phillip M. Fromme at 3 p.m. on March 31.
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