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Originally published April 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 6, 2009 at 7:07 AM

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Breakup ignited dad's deadly rage in Graham

The father's final hours and the circumstances behind the slayings of his five children are based on interviews with officials from the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, the state Department of Social and Health Services and dozens of relatives, neighbors and friends.

Seattle Times staff reporters

GRAHAM, Pierce County — After a heated argument with her husband, Angela Harrison, 35, sped away from their Graham-area home last week in a black Mustang. She had been gone for days when James Harrison decided Friday night that it was time to pursue his wife.

He jumped in a car with oldest daughter Maxine, 16, who tracked her mother through a cellphone global-positioning system.

They homed in on a convenience store 20 miles away in Auburn, north of the Muckleshoot Casino. James confronted his wife, who was with another man. He wanted her home. She said she wasn't coming back.

He stormed home, consulted relatives and calmed down. Maxine went to bed about 11 p.m. with her four younger siblings. She sent a classmate a text message from her cellphone: "I'm tired of crying. I'm going to bed."

Within hours, James Harrison, 34, grabbed a rifle and shot each child multiple times. Four were found in bed. One of the girls died in the bathroom after a violent struggle.

Armed with a second rifle, he returned to Auburn on Saturday morning, perhaps in hopes of finding his wife. Perhaps to kill again. Instead, sitting inside his running SUV, he turned the rifle on himself. His body was discovered about 8 a.m. by children playing in the area.

The father's final hours and the circumstances behind the slayings of his five children are based on interviews with officials from the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, the state Department of Social and Health Services and dozens of relatives, neighbors and friends.

Authorities continue to unravel the layers of a troubled marriage between a former store clerk and a casino security guard, whose home was littered with toys on the outside but inside, through the reed-thin walls of a 1,152-square-foot double-wide trailer, neighbors said they could not help but overhear furious arguments.

Sheriff's deputies have not officially released the names of the family, although relatives identified the couple and their children, Maxine, 16, a 10th-grader at Orting High School; Jamie, 14, in eighth grade; Samantha, 12, in seventh grade; and Heather, 8, and James, 7, both in the second grade.

The children were killed at close range, which may explain why neighbors did not hear shots, said Pierce County sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer.

"The theory is he went back to find her," Troyer said of James Harrison, who killed himself near the convenience store where he had confronted his wife the previous night. "I think he realized the gravity of what he did and shot himself."

Troyer said James Harrison, "distressed at losing his wife to another man," possibly would have shot and killed his wife and her companion had he found them.

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"If you can kill your kids, I guess Mom and her boyfriend wouldn't be out of the realm," Troyer said.

The mother found out about the deaths at the same time police did, Troyer said. "She's obviously in shock," he said.

Angela Harrison's cousin, Tim Martin, said he never saw signs of neglect or abuse with the children.

"They weren't a messed-up family that had a messed-up dad," said Martin, 21, of Parkland. "That's what puzzles the family. How he could do this horrific thing? They were his kids, too."

State records show that James Harrison physically abused one of his children in February 2007, according to Sherry Hill, spokeswoman for the Children's Administration at the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

Family members said Harrison, who worked at the Emerald Queen Casino near Tacoma, became enraged about an incident in school and slapped one of the children. He successfully completed parenting classes, they said.

No further incidents have been investigated, said Hill, who added that DSHS officials will review records this week and work with law-enforcement officials to determine whether there were other warning signs.

Ryan Peden, Maxine's classmate, may have been one of the last people to hear from one of the victims. He said Maxine told him Friday night that her parents had gotten into a fight and that her mother had left. Maxine said the father followed the mother and tried to get her to return, Peden said.

He received Maxine's final text message at 11 p.m. His text to her the next day went unanswered.

Neighbors at the Deer Run mobile-home park, a swath of large lots and mature trees, said the Harrison family was private, but there were signs that the children lived in fear of their father's wrath.

Carolyn Bader, a former neighbor, said her 11-year-old son played with James.

"My son would invite him into the yard, and James would say, 'I can't — I don't want to get in trouble,' " said Bader, 32.

One afternoon, James left a toy outside the Baders' house. Her son, afraid James might get in trouble, went to return it.

"He got three steps in their driveway and could hear the dad yelling," Bader said. Her son came home and got his father and father's friend to go with him back across the street, "all because he was afraid his friend would get in trouble over a toy — a toy," she said.

Kelly Vorak, who lives across the street, said the Harrisons' youngest daughter, Heather, asked another neighbor, "a grandmotherly type," to look after her cat, an orange tabby named Taz.

"The neighbor was taking care of the cat because one of the girls was afraid her dad was going to kill it," Vorak said.

Family members Sunday night said Angela Harrison was too distraught to discuss the tragedy. She met her husband and became pregnant as a teenager. However, they did not marry until 2000, state records show. No funeral arrangements have been announced.

At the home, icicle-style white Christmas lights still line the gutters. A portable basketball hoop with a rotted net stands in the front yard, next to a growing memorial of flowers, cards, stuffed animals and five yellow ribbons twisted into crosses. A trampoline and a children's swing set take up much of the backyard, where four bicycles were leaned against the chain-link fence.

At the front door, neighbors left bouquets of daffodils and silk flowers. Someone left tuna on the stoop, presumably for the orange cat that was seen crawling out of a hole in the roof.

Berens and Thompson reported from Seattle.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5614 or sjean@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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