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SIOUX CITY — Family members say that Lawrence Douglas Harris Sr. was an attentive stepfather, and that there were no signs he was involved in strange rituals or any other disturbing behavior.

But on Sunday, Harris, 25, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the ritual slayings of his  stepdaughters, Kendra Suing, 10, and Alysha Suing, 8. He told police they died while he was casting a spell that “had gone bad.”

The last thing the girls’ mother, Marla Harris, 32, said her husband told her in the interview room at the police department was, “he was doing it to protect my son,” The Des Moines Register reported Wednesday in a copyrighted story.

“He said he was trying to help us,” Marla Harris told The Register, adding that he described himself as a pagan and practiced spells to keep those around him healthy and happy

Harris is being held in the Woodbury County jail under $2 million bond.

Marla Harris said her husband had drug problems but had overcome them.

She said Harris told her about his religious beliefs, but that she told him to “keep it out of the house.”

“What he was doing is against my religion,” Marla Harris said. “I told him, ‘You take it elsewhere.’ ”

She said that her husband did not introduce her to anyone else who shared his beliefs and that he kept his religion to himself.

She knew about a spell book he kept in their bedroom, but she said he kept it on a high shelf, out of reach of the children. She said that one day she noticed an addition of a Church of Satan listing in a shared e-mail address book.

“I asked him about it, and he said he was just writing back and forth with them,” she said.

“He said something went wrong,” Mrs. Harris said. “He said he must’ve said the wrong thing. After the ritual, he didn’t remember anything that happened.

“I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said he blacked out.”

The girls themselves may have provided a hint last summer that peculiar things were taking place in the Harris home at 1420 Nebraska St., according to a Sioux City minister.

Cary Gordon, an associate pastor at Cornerstone World Outreach, said the sisters, who attended the church’s Club Genesis for at-risk children, bombarded a bus driver with questions after a summer lesson about the sinfulness of practicing witchcraft.

“The kids were pelting our bus captain with questions constantly, all the way home, about that issue, why is it wrong,” he said. “Our bus captain got the creepy feeling that they obviously had a lot of weird stuff going on in their house.”

Cornerstone World Outreach’s youth Center is dedicated to the memory of Leticia Aguilar and her five children who were murdered in Sioux City by Adam Moss in August 2001.

After that lesson, Gordon said, the girls didn’t return to the program until the year’s final session in November. He met their mother, Marla Harris, 32, for the first time Monday at the house where Kendra’s and Alysha’s bodies were found strangled and stabbed after firefighters responded to an anonymous call about a fire at the house Sunday afternoon.

“She was obviously in shock. She was shaking and beside herself as any parent would be,” he said of Marla Harris.

She was at work at a center for people with mental disabilities when the killings occurred.

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The household included two other children, a 13-year-old sibling of Kendra and Alysha who is a registered sex offender, and Lawrence Harris’ 3-year-old son. Neither was home at the time of the killings, relatives said.

According to state records, the juvenile was convicted on June 4, 2007, of second-degree criminal sexual conduct in a location outside of Iowa. It indicates the victim of the crime was a girl 13 or younger.

Relatives said Marla met and married Lawrence Harris about two years ago while she lived in Minnesota. Authorities in Sauk Centre, Minn., responded to two or three minor incidents at the family’s home there, police Chief James Metcalf said. The family moved to Sioux City, Marla Harris’ hometown, in April, according to relatives. Police there said they had not had any contact with Lawrence Harris before Sunday.

Dean Stroman of Sioux City, Marla Harris’ brother, said she kept in touch with her family while she was in Minnesota. Lawrence Harris had always seemed like “an all right guy” who was attentive to the children, Stroman said. His brother-in-law never said anything about witchcraft.

“(He) took real good care of the kids,” Stroman said. “If he wasn’t working, he was always there with them.”

Joe Suing of St. Helena, Neb., the girls’ paternal grandfather, said he met Lawrence Harris only once and didn’t know much about the couple’s relationship. He said Lawrence Harris kept to himself. “I remember him being out at my mom’s and dad’s house one time and I tried talking to him, and it was like you could see right off the bat that he didn’t want to talk to nobody.”

Marla Harris, his former daughter-in-law, was friendly, Joe Suing said. “I’ve never heard her really holler or scream or cuss at the kids or nothing. She always gives me a hug when we say our good-byes.”

The girls’ father, Craig Suing, lives in Springfield, Ill.

Sioux City Journal reporters Dolly A. Butz, Travis Coleman and Molly Montag compiled much of this report. The Journal, like the Globe Gazette, is a Lee Enterprises newspaper.

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