Investigators spent Thursday piecing together the grisly details of how a highly regarded Lutheran pastor and his 24-year-old daughter were murdered, but so far they cannot say why or by whom.
Ivon Harris, the genial minister of a small Chicago congregation and his daughter, Sarah, were found bound, beaten and stabbed Wednesday night in their Buffalo Grove home.
Around 8:10 p.m. Wednesday, Buffalo Grove police and firefighters were called to a fire at the two-story house in the 800 block of Saxon Place.
After firefighters put out the blaze, the two bodies were found inside.
Buffalo Grove police and Lake County Major Crime Task Force investigators spent Thursday grimly scouring the house, pulling out bags of potential evidence and engaging a pair of bloodhounds to follow a variety of scents.
The Harris family, including Ivon and Eileen, middle, son Nathan and daughter Sarah.
• Site of murders and fire
At the end of the day, though, law enforcement officials still could not shed any light as to why anyone would kill the Rev. Harris, the devoted 65-year-old pastor of a Lutheran congregation on the Northwest Side of Chicago, and Sarah Harris, a former Wheeling High School cheerleader and a recently hired teacher’s aide at a Buffalo Grove elementary school.
Investigators said they both appeared to have been beaten and stabbed to death, although autopsies are pending.
Sarah’s body was found upstairs, bound with duct tape, said Donald Meadie, assistant commander of the Lake County Major Crime Task Force. He said Ivon Harris’ body was found in the basement, bound with plastic ties used to secure electrical wiring.
Investigators don’t know if the killer or killers brought the tape and ties to the house, or if the materials were already there. They also did not say Thursday night how the fire started but said it primarily was contained to the first floor.
Buffalo Grove Police Cmdr. Steve Husak said no murder weapon had been recovered.
“We have developed numerous leads in our investigation and are pursuing them all vigorously,” Meadie said late Thursday. “We are looking at the last 24 hours of the victims’ lives and working back from there.”
Buffalo Grove police held a short press conference at 5 a.m. Thursday, which turned out to be the only one they would hold all day.
Meadie said the Lake County Major Crime Task Force team of 32 investigators and evidence technicians was asked to come in on the case by the Buffalo Grove Police Department shortly after the bodies were discovered. The house is on the Cook County side of Buffalo Grove, but the village is a member of the task force and can ask for its assistance no matter where the crime occurs.
Ivon’s wife, Nancy Eileen Harris, arrived home that evening to see smoke billowing from the house.
Husak said she tried to get into the house but the fire and smoke were too strong.
She called 911 from a cell phone, but the police who got there first were unable to enter the house because of the thick smoke, Meadie said.
Buffalo Grove resident Marlin Simon, of A-Midwest Board-up, who was preparing to board up the broken windows Thursday, said he had toured the house and found only boxes and unmade beds. It looked like “a house in transition — kids getting home from college, parents with not enough time to take care of clutter,” he said.
“But I saw no direct signs of violence — just lots of smoke damage on the first floor and kicked-out windows upstairs.”
Buffalo Grove Fire Chief Tim Sashko said the state fire marshal’s office has taken over the fire part of the investigation.
One police officer and two firefighters suffered minor injuries. All of them were treated and released, officials said.
The bodies were removed from the home between 7 and 8 a.m. Thursday and taken to the Cook County Medical Examiner for autopsy.
Officials in the medical examiner’s office said the autopsies were not completed Thursday. They did not say when they would be finished.
Detectives were checking phone records for both victims and were interviewing friends and neighbors in an effort to determine who could have a motive in the crime, Meadie said.
He also did not rule out the possibility of random violence.
“Did he walk in on something — did she — or did they both?” Meadie asked. “At this point, we do not know. So every potential possibility is on the table.”
In task force investigations, any bit of information offered by person or a record is assigned a lead number.
Detectives are assigned in pairs to follow each lead — whether it involves interviewing an individual who may have information or tracking down the source of a phone call.
Periodic meetings are held throughout the span of an investigation, usually at least three times a day, when detectives report what they have learned about each lead.
As information is shared among the detectives, some leads develop lines into other information that has been gathered while other turn into dead ends.
It is an exhaustive process, Meadie said, but one that forms the most solid paths to a suspect in a case.
“Right now, we are in the process of tracking the activities of the victims backward and identifying who they may have come into contact with,” he said. “We are aware that the family of the victims and the community at large need answers to these questions and are working to come up with the right answers.”
Husak said detectives checked records to see if the Harrises had ever called the police on a previous occasion.
“There was nothing that popped up that raised a red flag for us,” he said but did not elaborate.
Meanwhile, the Harrises also have a son, Nathan Harris, who lives in Rolling Meadows. The 31-year-old answered the door of his townhouse Thursday showing some strain, but was polite and composed.
“We hope that people keep the family in their thoughts and prayers,” he said.
At the St. Matthew Center for Health in Park Ridge, where Nancy Eileen Harris has been chaplain since February 2000, her co-workers were coping with the news quietly. The center is both a nursing home and a short-term rehabilitation facility, where she does counseling and helps both residents and family members through grief.
Now it’s she who’s in need.
“I’m sure there will be a lot of support for her,” said Gerianne Dathe, administrator of the center.
The most-recent homicide in Buffalo Grove occurred in 2003, when 61-year-old Lincolnshire resident Norman Mueller was shot to death by 75-year-old Fred Mandell of Highland Park in an apartment complex parking lot near Dundee Road. Mandell is expected to spend the rest of his life in prison.
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