SIOUX CITY — Two girls found dead in a smoke-filled house Sunday were the victims of a ritual slaying, police said Monday.
Their stepfather, Lawrence Douglas Harris Sr., 25, has been arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Kendra Suing, 10, and Alysha Suing, 8.
Police Lt. Marti Reilly said Harris had been performing “some strange ritual.” Harris told investigators he was casting a spell that “had gone bad” and the spell “could have had severe consequences,” according to Sioux City Police Chief Joe Frisbie.
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Harris is being held at the Woodbury County Jail in lieu of $2 million bond and is set to appear in court Jan. 17.
At a news conference Monday afternoon, Frisbie said Kendra and Alysha Suing were were dead before the fire and appear to have died of strangulation and stab wounds. Frisbie said an official cause of death will not be released for several days.
Sioux City Police and Fire departments responded Sunday afternoon to an anonymous report of a fire at 1420 Nebraska St. When officers arrived at the scene, Frisbie said, Harris indicated that the victims were dead in their bedrooms. Frisbie said Harris told authorities he was the only adult present at the scene. The girls’ mother, Marla Harris, also lives at the house.
“You’re talking about people casting spells, spells gone bad,” Frisbie said. “Obviously, there is a lot more going on here than a straightforward homicide.”
Frisbie said Harris also “appeared to have blood on his person” at the scene. He said the investigation is ongoing and declined to say whether Harris had confessed to the murders or whether the girls had been sexually assaulted.
Frisbie confirmed that the fire was set in the basement of the home but declined to speculate on whether it was set as part of a ritual or to cover up evidence.
“A lot of times arson is generally used to cover up other criminal activity,” Frisbie said. “I don’t know if that was his intent at this point.”
The murder is the first multiple homicide in Sioux City since the August 2001 slayings of Leticia Aguilar, her five children and businessman Ronald Fish.
On Monday afternoon, family members removed furniture from the house, which had miminal damage, and loaded it into a red pickup truck. Two pictures, of Alysha and Kendra Suing, sat on a small plastic orange and yellow picnic table on the front porch.
The Suings were students at Irving Elementary School. They transferred to the district in April from out of state, said Sioux City Community Schools Superintendent Larry Williams.
Family members said Kendra and Alysha Suing enjoyed spending time on computers, reading books and listening to music. A favorite song was “Barbie Girl.”
Joe Suing of St. Helena, Neb., whose son Craig Suing of Springfield, Ill., is the girls’ father, said he hadn’t talked to the girls in two years.
“You know, I wish I’d got to know them a little better,” Joe Suing said. “I do know that when they used to come to visit, they liked to see their grandpa when they did see him.”
He said the girls’ mother, Marla Harris, and Harris had married about a year ago but said, “I don’t know the situation, what the guy was like.”
“It makes a guy mad that they have to pick on kids,” Suing said. “If it was a grownup or somebody that had the ability to protect themselves or had a 50-50 chance, you know ….”
“I don’t think it’s really sank in for me yet,” he said.
Williams said counselors and a limited number of faculty members were informed of the deaths before school started Monday morning. He said a general announcement was made individually to each class.
“In a situation of this case, we’re almost just as concerned with the welfare of the adults that work closely with these children as we are with the children,” Williams said while fighting back tears. “There were a lot of tears this morning.”
Williams said multiple counselors were on hand throughout the school day to help students cope with the tragedy and they may be present at the elementary school today.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.