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Friday, April 13th, 2007

Harris pleads guilty in woman's death

By Margie Wuebker

A neatly lettered cross and a bouquet of red flowers mark a wooded area along Lo. . .

SIDNEY - Christopher Lee Harris showed no emotion as he entered Shelby County Common Pleas Court on Thursday afternoon and pleaded guilty to the April 5 kidnapping, rape and murder of an elderly Fort Loramie woman.
Shackled and garbed in orange jail attire, the 32-year-old Sidney man looked briefly at people filling the gallery before turning away. Family members of his victim, 84-year-old Victoria M. Eilerman, sat together in the heavily guarded courtroom with Shelby County Sheriff Kevin O'Leary and Fort Loramie Police Chief Steve Schaffner keeping other spectators at arm's length.
Judge James Stevenson explained grand jurors earlier in the day returned a three-count indictment charging the defendant with aggravated murder, kidnapping and rape.
Harris made no statement except to respond to questions from the judge. He softly said "guilty," as the only other sound in the courtroom was the snapping of camera shutters.
Stevenson faces four choices when it comes to sentencing for aggravated murder, an unspecified felony. The options include life imprisonment without parole and life imprisonment with parole after 20, 25 or 35 years. He also faces a fine of up to $25,000 plus restitution. Shelby County Prosecutor Ralph Bauer intends to request life imprisonment without parole and a sexually-oriented offender classification for the defendant.
Kidnapping and rape, both first-degree felony charges, each carry maximum sentences of 10 years in prison and $20,000 fines. The judge also must decide whether the sentences are served consecutively one after another or concurrently.
No sentencing date has been set pending completion of a presentence investigation. Bauer expects the proceeding to take place in approximately four weeks with the Eilerman family likely making statements in court.
Stevenson ordered Harris to be held without bond during the interim, explaining he represents a "significant threat" to the public.
Family members filed into an anteroom without comment before Harris was led away. No one else was permitted to leave until a sheriff's van transporting the prisoner left the courthouse grounds. He remains incarcerated away from the rest of the jail population due to security concerns.
Television and newspaper reporters encircled the prosecutor as he left the courtroom, asking about the agreement to drop the death penalty in exchange for Harris' cooperation in helping authorities recover the body.
"The real reason was to get closure for the family - to locate the body so they can have closure," he said. "The Eilermans are good Shelby County folks. They are a tight-knit family, a wonderful group of people who don't deserve something like this."
Bauer admitted authorities have been criticized for agreeing to a plea bargain that took the death penalty off the table, but added the Eilermans were notified before authorities accepted the deal.
"Most everybody understands what we've done and why it was done," he said with conviction. "The people here understand."
The prosecutor declined to comment on Harris' criminal past, which dates back to 1989 when at the age of 14 he confessed to holding a 4-year-old boy under water after the youngster called him names. Little Russell "Rusty" Romine died the following day when life support equipment was disconnected.
In 1996, Harris was sentenced to six years in prison after knocking a Sidney woman down and stealing her purse. A burglary case, which stemmed from a November 2006 incident at a neighbor's home, had been set for a trial commencing Thursday.
The negotiated agreement, hammered out by law enforcement, public defenders and the prosecutors in the hours following Harris' April 6 arrest, also specifies any pending charges be dropped negating the scheduled trial.
Meanwhile, Piqua Police and Miami County Sheriff's deputies continue to investigate Harris as a suspect in two robberies in May and September of last year. An elderly couple returned home in one incident to discover a man in their home. The intruder struggled with the man and forced the woman into a car trunk before fleeing in another vehicle.
Christy Brandenburg, Harris' former girlfriend, was not present in the courtroom for the Thursday arraignment. Later standing outside her Maywood Place home, she struggled to retain composure while speaking about the "monster" she once loved.
"I had no idea he was capable of anything like this," she said. "I can no longer go into my bedroom knowing the rape occurred there on the floor. This house is no longer a home to me or my children."
Harris abducted Eilerman from her state Route 705 home, stuffed her in the trunk of his girlfriend's car and then drove to the Sidney residence where the rape occurred. Later, he put the elderly woman back into the trunk and drove to a wooded area where the murder occurred. He struck her in the back of the head and covered the body with branches.
Brandenburg said Harris seemed upset the evening of April 5. She believed the reason was either his decision to quit work at Freshway Foods the previous day or heavy drinking. He arose early the next morning and took her other car to dispose of the body.
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