William "Bill" Harrison, gray-haired at 51 with a court-ordered electronic tracker on his ankle, looked up from his shed that evening in May to see one of his last remaining friends pull into the driveway.
The friend was excited, he could tell.
Harrison's attorney, Carrie Gerischer, had been trying to reach him, but either his prepaid phone was out of minutes or he just wasn't getting cell phone service in the rural valley west of Rolla. So she called Harrison's friend, who hopped in his car and drove twenty minutes along highways and backroads to deliver the news in person — prosecutors were dropping charges against Harrison in a 24-year-old murder case.
It wasn't joy Harrison felt, he says. More like resignation.
"I knew there was no possible way that they could have any evidence, unless it was manufactured, that I had anything to do with this," Harrison says now. "I was ready to go to trial and get this cleared up."
Phelps County prosecutors have long suspected the former mobile home repairman killed his drinking buddy, 26-year-old Jerry Wayne King, during a boozy July Fourth weekend in 1992. Proving it, however, was another matter.
In the '90s, a couple of veteran investigators had given it their best shot, arresting Harrison the day the body was found, only to have the prosecutor decide two months later that the case wasn't strong enough to take to trial.
Harrison was released from jail, but he was never cleared. In late 2013, a retired sheriff's detective was commissioned to review the cold case. He worked the file for about a year, eventually arresting Harrison on murder charges for a second time in the summer of 2014.
After two mistrials and shifting statements from witnesses, the current Phelps County prosecutor came to the same conclusion as his predecessor. He dismissed the case on May 18, the week before it was to go to trial.
Law enforcement officers claim that Harrison is the fish who keeps slipping off the hook.
"I'm convinced he killed Jerry Wayne King, and I'm disappointed that we aren't able to get justice for Jerry Wayne King and his family," Phelps County Prosecuting Attorney Brendon Fox says now. "Harrison will have to answer to his maker some day."
But Harrison and his attorney, Gerischer, say there's a simple reason no one has been able to make the case against him: He didn't do it. They claim investigators combined a few unrelated facts with rumors and statements from unreliable witnesses to pin charges on an innocent man. And they did it two times.
"I didn't think there was no way they would do this twice," says Harrison, who lost his job after each arrest. "I couldn't believe they had done it in the first place."
The accusations have ruined his life, he says. He takes pills to fight anxiety and high blood pressure. The Walmart Distribution Center where Harrison worked for a decade fired him after the most recent arrest, and Gerischer estimates he's now more than $100,000 in debt. The worst part, Harrison says, is that because there has never been a trial, the case will just hang over him forever, always there if a new investigator wants to take another shot.
"I can't handle any more of these," he says. "Physically, emotionally — I wouldn't survive."