The case of a Clermont chaplain killed in December by a man he tried to help was closed Tuesday with a guilty plea, though much of the reasoning behind the murder of Frank Harris Jr. may forever remain unexplained.
Harris’ family was in White County Superior Court to see William Joseph "Joey" Dyer plead guilty to one count of malice murder and receive the mandatory sentence of life in prison, White County District Attorney Stan Gunter said. Dyer admitted stabbing Harris, then running the victim over with his own car, after Harris gave him a ride from Hall County to Cleveland.
Dyer, 20, will be eligible for parole in 30 years.
Gunter said Dyer’s apparent motivation in the murder was robbery, but added, "it’s a little hard to read from the facts exactly what his motivation was."
A co-defendant in the case, Dyer’s live-in girlfriend Jennifer Lineberger, pleaded guilty to theft by taking, tampering with evidence and giving false statements. Lineberger, 29, initially had been charged with murder. The murder charge was dropped by prosecutors in Tuesday’s plea agreement, with Lineberger receiving a negotiated sentence of 10 years, with three years to serve in prison and the remainder on probation, Gunter said.
A third defendant in the case, Amber Ruark, has not entered a plea. Ruark, 25, has pending charges of obstruction, tampering with evidence and theft by receiving in connection with the case.
Harris, a 44-year-old married father of three, was chaplain for Gainesville’s Compassionate Hospice for nearly two years and also served as a part-time youth minister at Pendergrass Baptist Church.
Gunter said on the night of Dec. 1, Harris picked up Dyer and Lineberger, who were hitchhiking at a Shell station on U.S. 129 in Hall County near the White County line. Harris had never met the couple before, Gunter said.
Harris called his wife at about 7:30 p.m. to let her know he was giving the couple a ride. He drove Dyer and Lineberger some 20 miles to Laurel Ridge apartments, a cluster of low-income homes off Campbell Road about two miles from downtown Cleveland.
After arriving, Dyer went inside his apartment, retrieved a knife, returned to the car and stabbed Harris. Harris ran from the car and Dyer got in the driver’s seat, chased after Harris in the car and ran over him. Harris was struck by the car on an embankment outside a nearby vacant home and died from crushing injuries.
Later that night, Harris’ wife called authorities to report him missing and his body was found at about 4 a.m. the following day.
The car, a 2009 Toyota Corolla, was found abandoned near Clermont. In addition to murder, the couple was charged with taking Harris’ car, keys, wallet and laptop computer. Lineberger also was charged with possessing the narcotic Percocet without a prescription.
Gunter said Harris’ family had an opportunity to address Judge Murphy Miller prior to sentencing with victim impact statements. He was unsure whether Dyer made any statement to the court.
Gunter confirmed that the death penalty had remained a possibility in the case, though he had not filed formal notice of intent to seek it. Dyer may have accepted the negotiated plea offered by prosecutors to avoid the possibility of a death sentence, Gunter acknowledged.
"That is a conclusion you could make," Gunter said.
"It was a very senseless act, and I think justice has been served by this plea," he said.