Dad accused of leaving son in hot car was sexting day son died, police say

Los Angeles TimesJuly 3, 2014 

— The Georgia dad accused of intentionally leaving his 22-month-old son in a hot car had read articles about living a child-free life and was sexting with six women the day his son died of heat exposure, police said at a court hearing Thursday in which a judge denied bond and ordered the case to trial.

Justin Ross Harris, 33, also had two life insurance policies on his son, Cooper, and had twice watched a video about overheating deaths in cars before his son died June 18, according to police testimony given at a probable-cause hearing in Cobb County. After a more than a two-hour hearing, Judge Frank Cox found that prosecutors had presented enough evidence to try Harris for murder and second-degree child cruelty.

Harris’ attorney argued that his client had simply gotten distracted, and that prosecutors had only brought up the sexting to “publicly shame” Harris, who is married. Two of Harris’ friends and his brother testified that he seemed to be a loving father, but none of them said they had known about Harris’ sexual dalliances.

“We plan to show he wanted to lead a child-free life,” Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring told the judge in the case. “He’s got this whole second life he’s living with alternate personalities and alternate personas” with his sexual activities online.

Cobb County Police Detective Phil Stoddard, who is in charge of the investigation, testified that he also thinks Harris may have committed sexual exploitation of a minor by sending a photo of his penis to a 16- or 17-year-old girl who had sent him pictures of her breasts.

Officials said he had also watched videos on Reddit of people getting killed, had searched for Georgia laws on the age of consent and had searched for “how to survive prison.”

Harris left his son, Cooper, in an SUV in the parking lot at his workplace at Home Depot at 9:25 a.m. on a day when the temperature reached the upper 80s, police said.

Harris left work at 4:15 p.m. – apparently to go watch “22 Jump Street” with friends – and while driving to the theater, brought his car to a screeching halt near a strip mall and pulled his son’s body out of the car, apparently in distress after discovering what he’d done.

“He seemed upset, his behavior was considered erratic, he would be yelling and screaming ‘what have I done, my child is dead,' then he would stop with a blank look on his face,” Stoddard testified, summing up witnesses’ accounts.

But during Thursday’s court hearing, police said that that wasn’t the first time Harris had gone back to his car since he arrived at work.

Police said surveillance video showed that after he got a ride to lunch with some friends, Harris went back to his car around mid-day to put light bulbs inside the car, where his son was strapped into a rear-facing car seat.

As Harris walked away from the car, he hesitated as another man walked by Harris’ car, police said.

Officials also raised questions about how Harris could have driven almost two miles before noticing his son’s body in the car. Police testified that Harris had not rolled down his windows after he got into his car and that they’d noticed a foul death smell in the vehicle as they examined it later.

When Harris’ wife, Leanna, arrived at the day care center in the afternoon and discovered that her son had never been dropped off there, witnesses reported that she said, “Ross must have left him in the car,” Stoddard said. When someone tried to comfort her and said there were “a thousand” reasons why he might not be at day care, “She’s like, ‘no,’ ” Stoddard testified.

Later, when police put the couple together in a police interview room, Harris got emotional, Stoddard said. “It was all about him: ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me, why am I being punished for this,’ ” Stoddard testified. “He talked about losing his job,” and said, “ ‘I'll be charged with a felony.’ ”

“She said, ‘did you say too much?’ ” Stoddard testified. Leanna Harris is not charged with a crime.

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