The man accused of strangling a Devon woman who was house sitting in Chester Springs told police he was angry with the victim because she had ended their relationship, according to an arrest affidavit in the case, and later admitted killing her.
Randall R. Harner, 49, of Girardville, Schuylkill County, was taken into custody on Sunday at the scene of the homicide, an expensive home on South Chester Springs Road in West Vincent. Police said Harner asked repeatedly about the woman's condition as he sat in a police cruiser outside the home.
"How is she?" he asked when later taken to the Upper Uwchlan Police Department for questioning. "Did I hurt her bad?"
If the allegations against Harner prove true, it would not be the first time that he was involved in violent disputes with women who broke off with him -- with the circumstances surrounding one episode "eerily similar" to the allegations in the homicide, according to Harner's former attorney.
In 2006, he broke into the home of a former girlfriend in Westtown after driving his car through a fence on the property, and trashed her bedroom. Harner was heavily intoxicated at the time, and police found him passed out in a room at the house.
In 2005, while going through a divorce, he threatened to kill his estranged wife and was taken into custody by state police after telling a co-worker he was on his way to see her at her house in Malvern with a loaded rifle. A few months before, he had punched a man who was visiting his wife.
Both women afterwards won protection from abuse orders from Harner prohibiting him from having contact with them because of his actions.
Deborah French, 52, of Devon was found lying dead on the floor of the house in the 2600 block of South Chester Springs Road north of Eagle Farms Road by police about 9:45 p.m. Sunday, officers having been called there for a report of a child in distress.
Investigating officers said she had visible wounds to the neck and that there was blood on the floor around her. The bikini top she was wearing had been torn off, and glass was scattered around her body from a broken door, which Harner allegedly forced open. Police said there were clear indications that a struggle had taken place between French and her attacker.
First Assistant District Attorney Patrick Carmody, who responded to the scene after officers discovered the crime, said that an autopsy performed on Monday confirmed that French had been strangled to death.
Carmody said that French had been house sitting for the homeowners, who she was apparently friends with. He did not know how long she had been staying there, but said the homeowners had been on vacation.
French was working part-time at Bryn Mawr Hospital as a clerical registrar in the hospital's emergency department, according to a spokeswoman.
Frieda Schmidt, media relations manager for Main Line Health, said that French had worked at Bryn Mawr since May 2007. "We are just very saddened by this news," she said Tuesday. "It is very tragic. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family."
According to the arrest affidavit prepared by Chester County Detective Sal Canzoneri, the West Vincent officer who first responded to the call at the house found a 1992 Dodge sedan registered to Harner parked at the bottom of the driveway when he arrived. The car engine was still warm, and the officer noticed a bottle of vodka on the front seat and clothing and pillows in the rear.
Approaching the house, the officers saw a man looking out a front window, who then disappeared in the house. The officer found French lying inside a side door on the first floor, unresponsive.
Police said Harner then came out of the house from a rear door and stood in the yard. When officers took him into custody, they found blood on his clothes and body, and a bungee cord in his pants pocket. They also found a hammer on the front walkway near the front door, which Harner had apparently used to smash the glass and gain entry.
French was pronounced dead at the scene.
According to the affidavit, while Harner was sitting in a police cruiser waiting to be taken from the scene he asked an East Pikeland officer approximately 20 times over the course of 25 minutes whether French was hurt badly.
Harner told the officer that French was his girlfriend and that he had gotten angry with her and that they fought when she told him she wanted him to move out of her home in Devon. He accused her of cheating on him, the officer said.
In an interview early Monday morning, Detective Dave Sassa of the county detectives informed Harner that French was dead and told him that police believed he had killed her.
"I did," he responded, according to the affidavit.
Harner is charged with homicide, first and second degree murder, aggravated assault, possessing instruments of crime, burglary and criminal trespass. He is being held in Chester County Prison without bail.
Harner's preliminary hearing in front of District Magisterial Judge James DeAngelo of North Coventry is set for Aug. 28.
The news of his arrest came as a shock to Thomas Ramsay, the criminal defense attorney who represented Harner after his arrest in January 2006 for the break-in in Westtown.
Ramsay, who said he had not yet been hired to represent Harner in the homicide, said he had not seen Harner for some time. "I was saddened to his picture on the front page this morning," he said in an interview Tuesday. The events described, he said, were "eerily similar to the case I worked with him on."
In that, Harner on Jan. 5, 2006 drove his Chrysler LeBaron through the back fence of his ex-girlfriend's home on East Pleasant Grove Road. When officers arrived at the scene, they found numerous beer cans and vodka bottles in the car.
Inside, they found that a computer had been broken, the woman's four-poster bed broken, and clothing strewn around the room. Harner was found passed out on the sofa, too intoxicated to wake up.
He was arrested and released on bail, but a few nights later attempted to break into the woman's home again. He was apparently too drunk to succeed, and fell off a bench he had used to stand on to get in through a window, police reports indicate.
In her application for a protective order against him, the woman said she had broken up with him the previous July but that he had repeatedly called her on the phones and harassed her, sent her abusive e-mails and was seen driving by her home on several occasions.
Harner pleaded guilty to burglary in front of Judge Thomas Gavin in July 2006, and was sentenced to five to 23 months in prison and seven years probation for the crimes.
At the time, Harner was ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation, but had not done so as of January 2007.
Harner was married to the former Karen McCarthy for several years until their split in 2004.
In the November 2005 incident which led her to take out a restraining order against him, police were called by a former co-worker of Harner's who told them Harner, who was living with his family in Schuylkill County at the time, said his car broke down on the Pennsylvania Turnpike while he was driving to his estranged wife's home in Malvern. He said he had a .22 caliber rifle with him.
Police later found him intoxicated and had him involuntarily committed to Brandywine Hospital, although he was later released.
His wife told authorities that Harner had physically assaulted her regularly during their marriage, and that he had telephoned her in February 2005 and threatened her. "I'm going to dance on your grave," she said he told her.