Assistant principal arrested in connection with shooting deaths

Thursday, July 10, 2003

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. -- An elementary school assistant principal was arrested Wednesday in connection with the shooting deaths of his wife, mother-in-law and three young children in California.

The FBI and law enforcement agencies across the country had been asked to help search for Vincent Brothers, 41, after police discovered the bodies Tuesday in a Bakersfield, Calif., home.

He turned himself in to Elizabeth City police just after midnight Wednesday. "He seems upset, which anybody would be," said Sgt. Rick Pureza.

Brothers, who told authorities that he had been visiting his mother in North Carolina, was arrested hours later for "probable cause," based on witness accounts and his own actions but little direct evidence, Bakersfield police Capt. Neil Mahan said.

"Initially, it was our understanding that he was willing to provide a statement and cooperate. But all that has changed," Mahan said. "Sometimes you have to make an arrest in a case just because of the circumstances."

Mahan said that Brothers had retained a lawyer and was refusing to answer investigators' questions. He is scheduled to make his first court appearance today.

Mahan said police aren't looking for any other suspects in the slayings of Joanie Harper, 39; Harper's three children, Marques Harper, 4, Lyndsey Harper, 23 months, and Marshall Harper, 1 1/2 months; and Joanie Harper's mother, Earnestine Harper, 70. But investigators are trying to determine whether anyone else would have had a motive for the killings.

"As you pursue evidence, there are times when people have been released after they have been arrested," Mahan said. "But I'm not saying that will be the case here."

Mahan said police do not have the murder weapon, and there are no weapons registered to Brothers. He would not elaborate on any details of the crime or the investigation, including a possible motive or whether any evidence had been recovered.

Authorities were seeking a search warrant for a home in Elizabeth City, and police were searching two homes in Bakersfield. They also asked a North Carolina judge for an arrest warrant so Brothers could be formally arrested, the first step toward extraditing him to California.

Brothers' blue pickup was found Tuesday at an airport bus terminal in Bakersfield. Mahan said the truck had been there since July 2 -- four days before the family was last seen.

Mahan said Brothers, whose mother lives in North Carolina, was a possible suspect due to witness accounts and because he "is the husband in this case, is the father in this case."

Joanie Harper and Brothers were granted an annulment in September 2001 and Harper was given sole custody of Marques and Lyndsey, court records show. But relatives and friends said the couple stayed involved in each other's lives and even lived together at times. It was unclear whether they had remarried.

Irma Carson, a Bakersfield City Council member and former police officer who knew Earnestine Harper and Brothers well, said violence was "out of character" for Brothers.

"I can't believe he would do away with his whole family," Carson said. "People liked him. Parents liked him. Of course, the first suspect they always look at is the husband, just because they can't find him."

A friend of Brothers', Donald Collier, was outside the Elizabeth City police station Wednesday.

"I'm here for moral support because I'm having a hard time believing he committed a crime like this," said Collier, 41, an aircraft mechanic at a U.S. Coast Guard station in Elizabeth City.

Collier said he and Brothers went to Bellport High School on Long Island together. He described Brothers as "a real mild-mannered guy" and remembered him as the class clown.

The neighborhood where the bodies were found Tuesday has a reputation for gang activity, but friends and family described the family as active in the community and very religious.

The family was last seen alive Sunday morning at church. They ordinarily attended both morning and afternoon services at the local Church of Christ, but didn't show up in the afternoon, said Darren Dixon, 22, a nephew of Earnestine Harper.

Dixon said there was no indication of violence in Harper's relationship with Brothers. "She liked him a lot. He was a very nice guy," Dixon said.

But Brothers has had a history of marital difficulties, according to court records and police.

In one earlier marriage, Brothers was convicted of spousal abuse, police said. In another, his wife filed for a restraining order in 1992, saying Brothers "is violent and has threatened to kill me."

Brothers worked at Emerson Middle School, across the street from where the victims were found, from 1989 to 1996. He started as a teacher and worked his way up to vice principal, said Michael Lingo, an assistant superintendent with the Bakersfield City School District. Since 1996, he has been an administrator at Fremont Elementary School, which has more than 1,000 students from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade.

Bakersfield Unified School District officials met with their lawyer Wednesday afternoon to decide Brothers' job status and to determine whether they would make any comments on his arrest.

Associated Press writer Brian Skoloff in Bakersfield, Calif., contributed to this report.

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