BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – Students at Fremont Elementary School knew Vincent Brothers as the tall vice principal who would sometimes join them on the basketball court. Adults knew him as a family man and mentor.
Prosecutors, however, say he killed his estranged wife, Joanie Harper, their three young children and his 70-year-old mother-in-law, who were found shot and stabbed to death in their home on July 8, 2003.
Brothers, the sole suspect in the vicious slayings, was arrested nine months later and charged with five counts of first-degree murder.
Opening statements are scheduled for Wednesday in a trial in which the 44-year-old former school administrator could face the death penalty if convicted.
Brothers has pleaded not guilty, saying he was out of town at the time of the slayings. But prosecutors say he staged that trip, a last-minute visit to a brother in Ohio, to create an elaborate alibi.
Brothers started out as a substitute teacher in the city's schools in 1987. He quickly rose through the ranks to become vice principal of the grammar school by 1995.
"Brothers' former stature in the community makes this exceptional," said Joseph Hoffmann, a death penalty expert at Indiana University School of Law, Bloomington. "That's a significant hurdle for the prosecution to overcome."
Brothers appears to have had tumultuous relationships with women. Harper was his third wife; his first two marriages ended in divorce. In 1990, the year his first marriage ended, Brothers was convicted of spousal abuse, according to police. The second marriage lasted only a few months and was described in court filings as "turbulent."
Brothers and Harper married in January 2000, divorced, and later remarried. Their three children, Marques, Lyndsey and Marshall, were 4, 2, and 6 weeks at the time of the slayings. The fifth victim was Harper's 70-year-old mother, Ernestine Harper.
Defense attorneys have recently suggested in court filings that others were responsible for the murders, but they did not elaborate.
According to Deputy District Attorney Lisa Green, Brothers' trip out of town involved flying to Columbus, Ohio, then renting a car and driving back to Bakersfield to kill his family. The car's odometer showed he had driven 5,400 miles, police said.
Jury selection dragged on for weeks, mainly due to the intense publicity surrounding the case, while a gag order has prevented attorneys from discussing the case with the media. The two sides have filed close to 150 motions, according to court clerks, and the trial itself could last months.
The list of potential witnesses, filling 10, single-spaced pages, reads like a list of who's who of Bakersfield, including school administrators, clergymen and fire officials.
Defense attorney Michael Gardina emphasized that point in a December motion that sought unsuccessfully to move the trial to Los Angeles.
"The death of the Harper Family was a Kern County experience," he wrote. "There is no chance of a fair trial here."