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The State

Woman Says Officials Covered Up Abuse by Murder Suspect

She claims Vincent Brothers, accused of killing his family last year, assaulted her in 1996, but authorities protected him.

August 11, 2004|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

BAKERSFIELD — New evidence about mass murder defendant Vincent Brothers' troubled history with women contains allegations that local authorities protected the school administrator because he was considered a civic role model.

Documents released by court order show that Brothers, who is accused of killing five members of his family in what police have called the "most heinous crime" in this city's history, was repeatedly accused of intimidating and physically assaulting women as far back as 1988. In only one instance, according to information made public so far, did he serve jail time: a six-day sentence for spousal abuse in June 1988.

In the court documents, released in response to a lawsuit filed by a local newspaper, the alleged victim in a 1996 incident said police discouraged her from filing charges because Brothers was "a role model in the community."

"Are you sure you want to do this?" the investigating officer asked, according to the woman's account. The incident was outlined in a six-page document held by the Bakersfield City School District, where Brothers was a highly respected vice principal, known for helping troubled kids turn around their lives.

Brothers, 42, is in jail awaiting trial on charges of murdering his estranged wife, Joanie Harper, 39; their children, Marques, 4, Lyndsey, 2, and Marshall, 6 weeks; and Brothers' mother-in-law, longtime community activist Earnestine Harper, 70. Brothers' attorney, Kevin Little, said a court gag order prevents him from commenting on specifics of the case. But he said, "It has always been our contention that after a full and fair trial Mr. Brothers will be exonerated."

The bodies of Brothers' family members were found July 8, 2003, in the corner-lot bungalow the family shared in a modest residential neighborhood. Brothers said he was out of town visiting relatives at the time of the killings, but authorities arrested him in April after concluding his trip to Ohio was an elaborate ruse. While visiting his brother in Columbus, he rented a car and drove back to Bakersfield to commit the murders, police said.

The murders shook the closely knit African American community in Bakersfield, where both Brothers and family matriarch Earnestine Harper were respected figures. Harper had been a leader of local civil rights campaigns in a city with a sometimes troubled relationship with minorities.

The charges against Brothers carry special circumstances that could lead to the death penalty. A preliminary hearing of the case against Brothers is scheduled for Oct. 25.

Brothers has been married four times. Police documents revealed that he was convicted of misdemeanor spousal abuse on June 1, 1988, and was placed on probation and served six days in jail. He married again in January 1992. A year later, his wife filed for divorce, claiming her husband was "violent and has threatened to kill me," according to police.

The newly disclosed 1996 incident occurred when Brothers was working as a vice principal at Emerson Middle School. According to district records, a female school employee said that when she visited his home, Brothers dragged her into his bedroom, hit her and took pictures of her. She said she tried to call the police, but he yanked the phone away. She then ran out of the house and drove away.

The woman, whose identity was redacted in the report, said that on another occasion Brothers caressed her hip while she was working at the front counter of the school office. According to the documents, the woman took a leave of absence. She said the harassment from Brothers, which included threatening phone calls, created an oppressive work environment.

The records indicate the district launched an investigation into Brothers' behavior.

"He was advised very strongly that this could jeopardize his future career in education if any of these allegations were accurate," a memo stated. "Mr. Brothers denied the allegations."

There is no record that Brothers was ever disciplined. In fact, the district originally claimed it could not release the documents to the public because Brothers was not officially disciplined. The Bakersfield Californian filed suit last year to get the documents, which were finally ordered released by an appeals court.

Asked why the district did not take action against Brothers, Sherry Sabin, a district spokeswoman, said, "Those are questions we really can't respond to." The incident was a personnel matter, and therefore confidential, she said.

Brothers is on unpaid leave from his job, Sabin said.

The alleged victim in the 1996 case decided not to pursue legal action against Brothers after an investigating police officer appeared to take his side, according to the woman's account. She said the incident convinced her "she would come out the loser" if she went up against the man authorities apparently considered a respected community leader.

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