Friday, August 3, 2012

Blood Oath Murder

Missing

It is no secret that the Pacific Northwest region of the United States has had at least its share of violent crime perpetrated by some of the most vicious killers in the country’s history. Some say the incessant rain and gray, overcast sky bring out the worst in people. Others cite the vast, dense forests that enshroud the numerous mountain ranges, evoking a Twin Peaks ambiance that some believe brings out murderous tendencies, perhaps in part because the layout of the land provides ample hiding places where one could easily dispose of a body with confidence that it would not be easily found. The cases are indeed numerous, and the case of Sherry Harlan serves as an exemplary case—with the one exception that it was, thankfully, solved more quickly than many of those that came before it.
U.S. map with Everett, Washington locator. Inset: Typical forest view in the Pacific Northwest.
U.S. map with Everett, Washington locator. Inset: Typical forest view in the Pacific Northwest.
The first clue that something may have gone terribly wrong in the life of Everett, Wash., resident Harlan, 35, was when she failed to show up for work at the JCPenney store at Alderwood Mall in Lynnwood, south of Everett, several days in a row in early January 2010. It was not like her to not show up for work without calling her supervisor. Sherry was known for being reliable and punctual. By Tuesday, January 5, her coworkers became so worried that one of them went to her apartment, located in the 11600 block of Highway 99, where she lived alone, to check on her.
Sherry Harlan
Sherry Harlan
A coworker contacted one of Sherry’s neighbors at the apartment complex, and a maintenance man let the neighbor into Sherry’s apartment while her coworker waited outside. Once inside, the neighbor discovered that the kitchen linoleum and been pulled up from the floor, and portions of carpet and padding had been removed. The neighbor said that the apartment reeked of an “overwhelming smell of bleach,” and that Sherry’s dog, Roscoe, and his crate were missing. Her car, a 1989 blue-gray Nissan Sentra with Washington plates was also missing from the complex’s parking lot. Fearing the worst, the neighbor and the coworker called the local police and reported Sherry missing, and waited for Snohomish County Sheriff’s deputies to arrive.
Following a preliminary inquiry, the deputies cordoned off the apartment and secured it overnight.

The Next Day

The following morning, investigators obtained a search warrant, and Sherry Harlan’s small apartment was scoured for clues by detectives from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department and technicians from the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, according to Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Rebecca Hover.
Rebecca Hover
Rebecca Hover
“Right away we knew it was very unusual,” Hover said.
Although police were not saying much at first, the neighbor who went with Sherry’s coworker to her apartment the previous evening said that the state of the apartment was clearly suspicious.
“Torn up carpet, torn up linoleum, bleach everywhere,” the neighbor said. “It’s like the whole place was turned into a war zone, like it was done in a real hurry.”
The neighbor also said that he and his wife had seen an unfamiliar man hanging around Sherry’s apartment, possibly about the time she disappeared—which investigators had not yet been able to pinpoint.
As they worked throughout the day collecting evidence from Sherry’s apartment, it became clearer to everyone involved that her disappearance was indeed suspicious. Investigators found a bloody shoe print on a T-shirt, bolstering theories that there had been foul play. The print had a distinctive zig-zag pattern, and detectives hoped that they could match it after a suspect had been identified.
Detectives also found blood in several locations of the apartment, along with other human tissue, and confirmed earlier suspicions that someone had tried to sanitize the unit with bleach. In addition to determining that approximately 18 square feet of carpet had been removed, detectives noted that there were several cuts in a futon mattress. All indications were that a violent struggle had occurred recently in Sherry’s apartment.

The Ex-Boyfriend

Eric Christensen
Eric Christensen
In cases such as this, in which a person has disappeared under suspicious circumstances and seems to have been a victim of foul play, the spouse, lover, or ex-boyfriend is always the first person police look at with interest. In this case, it turned out that it was the ex-boyfriend that the police had under their microscope, primarily because Sherry Harlan’s neighbors reported hearing a noisy and possibly violent altercation between a man and a woman in Sherry’s apartment on Saturday, January 2, 2010, four days before Sherry was reported missing. The disturbance consisted of considerable screaming and yelling. Witnesses told detectives they saw someone who matched the description of her ex-boyfriend at the apartment, a man police soon identified as 40-year-old Eric James Christensen of Gold Bar, Wash. A friend told investigators that Christensen had helped Sherry move into the apartment about a week earlier, just after Christmas.
As the inquiry into the missing woman intensified, another neighbor told detectives that Sherry’s ex-boyfriend had previously beaten “her to a bloody pulp,” and that Sherry had been afraid to break up with Christensen out of fear that he might kill her.
“This is what she was afraid of,” a friend said. “She said she was afraid he would hurt her if she broke up with him.”
One of the neighbors reported having seen Christensen on the day of the loud argument, lurking next to Sherry’s car. Her dog, Roscoe, had been tied inside the car on the driver’s side. The car’s trunk was also open. When the neighbor had asked about Sherry’s whereabouts, Christensen had reportedly replied that he did not know where she was but acknowledged that it was Sherry’s dog inside her car.
Extending their investigation into Gold Bar, with assistance from the local police, the Snohomish County authorities wanted to speak with Christensen more than ever. As they closed in on him, a witness in Gold Bar reported that Christensen had been seen with Sherry’s dog in his possession. Later, detectives reported that Christensen had said that Sherry “didn’t need the dog anymore.”
Checking phone records, detectives learned that the last call Sherry had received had been at 8 a.m. on Saturday, January 2, 2010, and that the call had come from Christensen’s residence.
Police acknowledged that they were not any closer to finding Sherry Harlan or her dog, but were hopeful that the outlook would change after they had a chance to interview Christensen.

Sex Offender

Snohomish County Sheriff’s detectives soon learned that Eric Christensen was a convicted felon and a Level 1 sex offender. He had been convicted in Oregon in the 1990s for first-degree sexual abuse. Additionally, Christensen had convictions for rape, assault, forgery, theft and domestic violence. In the assault case, Christensen had reportedly served 12 years in prison for firing shots at an ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend while they waited at a Seattle bus stop. At that time, he reportedly told detectives that he was following a tradition of his Scottish ancestors and had been “on a blood run” when the assault occurred.
Eric Christensen
Eric Christensen
“People shoot people where I come from and a girlfriend cheats on you,” Christensen told police at one point. “I missed because the sights to the rifle were off.”
When they found him on Wednesday, January 6, 2010, they noted that Christensen had a number of wounds on his body that may have been caused by fighting: numerous scratches on his face, forearms, lower back and shoulder, which they believed were inflicted by someone trying to fight him off. He also appeared to have a stab wound on his right knee.
He did not deny having argued with Sherry, and said that he may have lost a fingernail during the altercation. When investigators asked him how he had received his injuries, he claimed that he had been attacked by “Mexicans” after leaving Sherry’s apartment. Christensen told detectives that he did not know Sherry’s whereabouts or those of her car or her dog. He said that he had not seen her since they fought the previous Saturday.
The next day, detectives arrested Christensen for failing to register as a sex offender and placed him in the Snohomish County Jail. It bought them some time during which they did not have to be concerned about him fleeing, and they obtained a warrant to search his apartment.
During the search of Christensen’s apartment, detectives confiscated a pair of basketball shoes—the sole pattern matched the bloody shoeprint they found on the T-shirt in Sherry’s apartment. They also found a pair of blood-soaked jeans that someone had attempted to clean with bleach.
As far as the investigators were concerned, they had sufficient evidence at that point to continue holding their suspect. They explained to a Snohomish County judge that they believed Sherry Harlan was a homicide victim and they asked the judge to keep Christensen in jail on initial charges of second-degree murder, even though they had not yet found Sherry’s body.

Sherry

Sherry’s friends described her as a small woman who laughed loudly. She was also said to be kind, generous, selfless, loyal and loving, as well as overly-trusting of men.
Sherry Harlan
Sherry Harlan
“She was too trusting of [men],” a friend said. “She had a history of meeting men in the oddest places and getting hurt…she didn’t think she could live without a man…she was a magnet for the wrong type.”
According to friends and acquaintances, Sherry had met Christensen the previous summer on a social-networking site.
“She fell for him hard and fast,” said a friend. “She looked at him as if he was the best thing in her life and the best thing that was ever going to happen to her.”
Christensen, the cops learned, had been sent back to jail in Snohomish County in September 2009 for possession of a dangerous weapon. Sherry had apparently told a neighbor prior to Christensen’s release from jail in December that he had told her wanted to move in with her, but that she was against the idea. The neighbor told police that Christensen was “controlling, possessive and obsessed” with Sherry. He watched her constantly and shadowed her when she took Roscoe for walks. The neighbor reportedly advised Sherry to “get rid of him;” and, although a part of her wanted to do so, she was unable to bring herself to end the relationship. Later, Sherry decided that she would end her relationship with Christensen, but, for reasons that remain unclear, she changed her mind and took him back when he was released from jail in December 2009. Some speculated that her fear of him had caused her to reconsider ending the relationship.
“We’re all just heartbroken,” said a friend. “My wife and I both told her she needed to learn to live and be happy without a man before she could be happy with a man…unfortunately, she never got to that point.”
According to another neighbor, Sherry had reportedly told her landlady as well as a friend at work “to keep an eye on her” because “she didn’t know what was going to happen to her.”
“She didn’t say boyfriend or husband or whatever, but she was afraid of something,” the neighbor recalled. “You could see it in her eyes.”
“He stressed her out,” said another friend. “She told me herself that she was afraid of him. He broke her car. He broke her cell phone. He shot her dog in the eye with a BB gun.”
Christensen also supposedly had a shoulder injury and was on disability; he did not have a job.

Burned-Out Car and Body Parts

On Thursday, January 7, 2010, a burned-out car belonging to Sherry Harlan was found in an area near Reiter Pit, approximately two-and-a-half miles up Reiter Road, not far from the community of Gold Bar and near U.S. Highway 2. According to Snohomish County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Rebecca Hover, the car contained the partial remains of a human body. It was eventually revealed that the “partial” remains had consisted of a human head. A knife was also found inside the vehicle. Although everyone suspected they had discovered what had become of Sherry Harlan, the human remains were collected by the county medical examiner’s office where positive identification would be attempted using DNA technology. A short time later there was no longer any doubt, if there had been any to begin with—the head in Sherry’s torched car was positively identified as Sherry Harlan.
Two days after the discovery of Sherry’s burned-out car, a friend of Eric Christensen contacted police. In a shocking revelation, he reported that he had helped Christensen, at Christensen’s request, dispose of Sherry’s dismembered body. After being offered full immunity from prosecution for his role as an accomplice—provided that he had not participated in the act of murder and would testify truthfully at Christensen’s trial—he agreed to show the police where Christensen had discarded most of Sherry’s body parts. Some of the body parts, it turned out, had been discarded in the woods of east Snohomish County like mere rubbish, while other body parts had been buried. Some of Sherry’s body parts had been placed in plastic bags, and thrown into the brush and over embankments. Some of her body parts were never found.

Candlelight Vigil

On Saturday, January 10, 2010, approximately 80 relatives, friends, acquaintances and coworkers of Sherry Harlan held a candlelight vigil at the Alderwood JCPenney store where Sherry had worked since 2007.
“She had a wonderful, wonderful laugh,” a relative said. “Once you got her started, it became infectious.”
Candlelight Vigil for Sherry
Candlelight Vigil for Sherry
Many of those present shared fond memories they had of the slain woman, and at times the vigil seemed like a true celebration of Sherry’s life. It was apparent that she was greatly missed by many people.
“Every day we worked together we’d try to see who we could shock with our laughs, snorting and honking and other strange noises,” recalled a coworker.
“She had the curliest hair,” said another coworker. “She lit up the room, she lit up the area, and she lit up my job.”
“She was always there for me, every day I came to work,” said yet another friend and coworker.
“Sherry loved life,” said her mother, Cheryl Thomas. “She was happy-go-lucky. She loved shopping, and in particular for clothes. Her eyes always sparkled when she was happy. She really enjoyed her coworkers at JCPenney, and being with her friends.”

Blood Oath

According to police and prosecution documents, Sherry Harlan was stabbed at least four times by Christensen. Police alleged that he used a knife from her apartment to kill her on January 2, 2010, the morning of the noisy altercation heard by Sherry’s neighbors.
At one point, Christensen talked to the detectives and told them that he and Sherry were both followers of the Wiccan religion and that Sherry had taken a “blood oath” with him to break off a relationship with another man that she had begun while Christensen was in prison. He said that the alleged blood oath had been witnessed by another person, over the telephone, the same person who had assisted him in disposing of Sherry’s body. He allegedly told investigators that “breaking the blood oath” would “make Harlan a warlock, literally an evil traitor.” According to Snohomish County senior deputy prosecutor Craig Matheson, the so-called blood oath had occurred in December 2009.
Craig Matheson
Craig Matheson
Other Wiccans were adamant that Christensen’s actions were not condoned by the religion, and many questioned whether he was actually a Wiccan.
Matheson contended that the murder was not related to the Wiccan religion, despite Christensen’s claims.
“This is about control,” Matheson said. “This is about this guy marking his territory, and woe be to Sherry Harlan if she goes against that oath…Christensen has a well-documented criminal history of offending against former girlfriends.”
According to Matheson, Christensen described the blood oath “as a ceremony where you promise to do various things or not do various things” and the vow is sealed by pricking a finger, collecting some blood and burning it with incense.
“That blood is part of sealing the deal,” Matheson said, his statement based on what Christensen had allegedly told police. “They do their various incantations, make the oath and purify the circle. According to Christensen, back in ancient times if you break the blood oath, the penalty…could be death.”
Matheson further stated that he had been reading about the Wiccan religion since Christensen’s statements to police, and he had not found anything in the literature indicating that Sherry’s gruesome dismemberment was in any way related to the religion. He concluded that the dismemberment had merely been Christensen’s effort to dispose of Sherry’s body.

Sugar Daddy

In reality, the motive for Sherry’s murder appeared to be Christensen’s jealousy of Sherry’s having been seeing another man in his absence. The jealousy turned into a rage after Christensen saw a text message from the other man on Sherry’s telephone. The other man, who became known as Sherry’s “sugar daddy” by Christensen and his circle of friends, had helped Sherry financially. He had apparently assisted her financially with the new apartment, and continued to provide her with money. He also had purchased expensive gifts for her, including a flat screen television and a laptop computer. Christensen’s jealousy spiraled as he learned additional details of Sherry’s relationship with her “sugar daddy,” until the relationship had become a “toxic environment,” according to Matheson, leading to the blood oath.
Sherry Harlan
Sherry Harlan
The situation apparently came to a head on the morning of January 2, 2010, according to Matheson and court documents. Sherry had been texting with her “sugar daddy,” and had complained of feeling sick to her stomach. The man reportedly had responded to her by giving her advice, and had sent one message in which he joked, “See what two men does for you? Too much stress (LOL).”
According to Matheson, Christensen had gone to the store that morning to purchase medication for Sherry’s stomach ailment. When he returned, Sherry was in the shower and Christensen took advantage of the opportunity to search the text messages on her cell phone, which was when he saw the aforementioned message from the other man. Christensen was apparently angered because she and the other man had been laughing about her relationship with the two men. The message, according to Matheson, had led to Sherry’s death because, in Christensen’s mind, she had broken her blood oath to break off the relationship with the other man.

Trial

Eric Christensen
Eric Christensen
At Christensen’s trial, which began in late May 2010, additional details about Sherry Harlan’s gruesome slaying were revealed. It was publicly revealed that Christensen had removed her sexual organs and her left breast, and had made attempts to pull her heart out of her chest. It was also revealed that he had positioned her head on the front seat of her car and had placed the murder weapon, a knife, next to it before setting the car on fire. Matheson alleged that such actions by the defendant provided insight into his thoughts at the time he killed Sherry, and have some type of meaning in Christensen’s mind. Matheson asserted that Christensen, in a jealous rage upon learning of Sherry’s continued involvement with the other man, had felt he had little choice about killing Sherry. Matheson also said that the killing was planned.
“Why would he walk from the bedroom to the kitchen to get a knife unless he was planning to kill her?” Matheson asked rhetorically at trial. “There is no reasonable explanation other than that was the plan.”
There was little argument from the defense that Christensen had not killed Sherry. However, Christensen’s attorney, Kathleen Kyle, said that he killed Sherry in a rage, and that there had been no forethought prior to the killing.
“It was not calculated or precise,” Kyle averred.
Kyle also maintained that Christensen’s actions after the murder were not planned, but were instead a “sadly pragmatic way for a desperate man to cover up a terrible crime.”
Jurors were shown a store surveillance video that depicted Christensen driving Sherry’s car and purchasing cleaning items.
On Friday, June 4, 2010, the jury agreed with the prosecution’s case and swiftly convicted Christensen of first-degree murder after deliberating about three hours. After the verdict was read, Christensen laughed loudly as he was led out of the courtroom in shackles, and continued laughing, cackling as some witnesses described it, as his guards returned him to jail to await sentencing.
On Friday, June 18, 2010, Christensen was sentenced to 37 ½ years in prison, the judge telling Christensen that he had committed “a barbaric act.”

1 comment:

  1. Yeah he was on his way to kill me and my girlfriend his ex when the cops found him.

    ReplyDelete