Sheriff has "mixed emotions" about plea deal with rapist/murderer Ricky Lee Harnish

Earlier today, I expressed astonishment that Ricky Lee Harnish, who's admitted to having raped and murdered teenager Holly Andrews in 1976, will likely face a sentence that maxes out at 24 years. Clear Creek Sheriff Don Krueger, in whose jurisdiction Andrews' body was found, understands this reaction -- because he's feeling something like it.

"I'm having sort of mixed emotions," he says. "It doesn't seem like that should be enough. But at 54 years of age, I don't know that it's not going to be almost a life sentence."

Krueger has been living with the Andrews case for a long time. "This is my fifteenth year as sheriff, but I was a reserve back in '76," he says. "I didn't get too involved with it back then, but we've brought it up a few times since. One of the areas we explored had to do with Henry Lee Lucas" -- a confessed serial killer who claimed Andrews as one of his victims. As time wore on, however, law enforcement agencies here and elsewhere came to believe that Lucas seriously embellished his track record.

Then, in 2005, Harnish was arrested on a drug charge, and DNA taken from him at the time matched evidence in the Andrews matter. Add his proximity to Andrews -- his parents lived near her mother's house, where she was seen shortly before her disappearance -- and the case seemed beyond solid. But Krueger says a conviction was hardly guaranteed.

"Everybody watches CSI, and they think DNA is the answer, but that's not necessarily true," he says. "You have to have other elements in order to convince a jury that this is the only way something could have happened. And this happened 33 years ago. That makes it even tougher, especially when you don't have any witnesses."

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At least Harnish's acceptance of a second-degree-murder plea removes the possibility "that he could be walking away free," Krueger says -- and it helps the Sheriff's Office from a practical standpoint, too. Personnel were gearing up for a three-week trial begining with jury selection on Friday at the same time numerous members of the small staff were dealing with having contracted swine flu.

Still, such considerations are minor in comparison to the resolution of a case that seemed fated to linger indefinitely. "At least we finally have closure," Krueger says.

If only Harnish's cell door was scheduled to stay closed for longer.

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