Dead Boy’s Devoted Daddy

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Jusitn Harris

Peter was a friend of my husband.  They were both educators. They coached soccer together for several years. So imagine my shock when checking the cop logs at the Oregon State Police office one morning I came across Peter’s name.

He’d been issued a ticket for a felony violation. A sex act with a minor. I obtained the details from a reluctant Lieutenant. He knew Peter, too.

Seems an officer happened upon Peter at a beach down along the Columbia River. There was a used condom and a 14-year-old girl. The girl was from the town in which I now live. Peter met her online, in one of those chat rooms. He swore she told him she was 18. She swore she told him she was 18.

One look at the victim in the courtroom and I knew that nobody, especially not someone who worked as an educator would ever mistake her for being 18. She looked every bit like the pudgy pubescent girl she was.

Contrast that to Peter’s wife. Not drop-dead gorgeous, but an attractive, slender woman who had a pleasing smile and engaging personality. A nurse who was also well-liked, well-respected.

And then there was their daughter to consider. She was close in age to the victim. A standout soccer player herself.

“Think of my family,” Peter pleaded when I called to inform him that the newspaper would be running a story about his violation, and to ask if he had any response.

“That’s exactly what you should have been doing,” I said.

Peter got off easy. He should have been charged with statutory rape. If he had not been so well-regarded in the community prior, he probably would have been. But you know how these things go in a small town. Peter claimed he had never actually had sex with the girl. He had been unable to “perform”, he said. The victim supported his claim.

He did lose his teaching license. He now lives in North Carolina. I don’t know if he and his wife are still together, but she rallied beside her man, the way some women do.

I learned a lot about people from that one case. I learned that when someone we identify with commits a wrongdoing we will circle the wagons. Educators who I had known for years treated me as if I had  been the perpetrator.

They quit speaking to me. They wrote me nasty emails. They called the editor at the paper and protested. They claimed we went looking for salacious news stories to discredit the respectable.

They did not at any point rally around the victim.

Instead they defended their peer.

I was honestly gob-smacked by their behavior. Working the cop beat taught me a lot of things about human nature. Mostly it taught me not to be surprised by the level of deviancy to which people, even good people, will stumble.

Or dive.

So when the news broke that a loving, devoted father had been arrested for leaving his toddler son in a vehicle on a hot Georgia day, I knew enough to not immediately suspect the cops of ill-will. I knew there was probably something the cops knew that the rest of us didn’t.

Children do die in hot cars nearly every summer. In 2013, forty-four children died of heatstrokes after being left in hot cars. It’s a tragedy. A terrible, terrible accident that devastates families. Investigations are conducted in these cases, and unless a parent has a history of neglect, or abuse, rarely are arrests made. The general consensus among law enforcement and the courts being that any parent who truly accidentally causes the death of a child in this manner will spend a lifetime suffering. That does not appear to be the case with the dad from Georgia.

Justin Ross Harris, 33, of Marietta, who is charged with murder, was in an unhappy marriage and wanted a “child-free life,” said Cobb County Det. Phil Stoddard.

Harris had $25,000 worth of life insurance out on his son. There had been searches on computers he had access to, inquiring about how long it took for a pet to die in a hot car. Harris took his son to breakfast then drove less than a mile to work at Home Depot, then insisted that he “forgot’ to take his son to the daycare, leaving the child instead to suffocate to death.

Now we learn that Harris had been sexting with several women the day 22-month-old Cooper died. Exchanging nude photos  with several women, including a 17-year old girl.

When law enforcement denied Harris the privilege of attending his son’s funeral, his home church supported him. An online protest was signed by 12,000 petitioners.

At Cooper’s funeral, a pastor rebuked the courts for being impersonal, for keeping Harris in jail, denying him bond and the ability to attend his son’s funeral. A children’s pastor testified that Harris was a loving, devoted father.  Not surprisingly, Harris’s church community rose up in defense of him. His wife said she wasn’t angry at God for letting her son die.

Good to know.

God is usually the last one to get an “out” anytime there’s a tragedy. Or, it appears in Cooper’s case, a murder.

All this leaves me wondering, is it really compassion for the victim that compels us to rise up in defense of the all-too-often-guilty, or is it simply more of our usual bent toward self-righteous indignation?

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Karen Spears Zacharias

Author. Gold Star Daughter. Trump will never be my president.

11 Comments

Lynette Vann

about 3 years ago

The first guy was just fired from a church in Memphis. He was a music teacher at Hope Presbyterian. There were no details. How sad that a man would throw their whole life away for a quick romp with a young girl.

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Karen Spears Zacharias

about 3 years ago

Which first guy?

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Faye Bryant

about 3 years ago

I'm reading your book about Karly Sheehan. What a hard story for you! I wonder if we somehow think that the bad, the evil, of those who have done these things will rub off on us so we deny that they could have done them. Like denying our parent is suffering with dementia or our child is dealing with addiction, we deny that there is a problem until it smacks us in the face.

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Karen Spears Zacharias

about 3 years ago

Faye, it was indeed a hard story to write but Karly's spirit encouraged me. I wrote that book mostly while at the Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts. Every night I would walk down the pier to watch the sunset and sometimes I would speak with David Sheehan. It was during that time that David found and fell in love with Liz, who is everything Sarah was not. So while it was hard, my memory of writing the story was influenced in a large degree by the beauty that surrounded me. Reminding me that beauty is one of God's character traits. Karly moves that story forward. I know she is at work saving others like her. As to the Harris case, I think it is like I said in the Karly story, we tend to think of child abuse as something the poor and uneducated do. Not the upper-middle class or wealthy and educated.

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Gwen Boone

about 3 years ago

I hate to say it, but I can definitely relate to the points you made in your blog post. I personally can relate. and not in a good way. People support the perpetrator, not the victim all too often. Brothers, fathers... it's pathetic. In this case, I hope that this 'father' will be found guilty of murdering his son, and get all the consequences he has coming for him. And even that will be too good for him.

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Karen Spears Zacharias

about 3 years ago

I am sorry that you can relate at all, Gwen.

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Ann Hite

about 3 years ago

You know my friend this happened a mile down the road from us. They are now talking about charging the mother too. They suspect she could have had knowledge of his plan.

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Karen Spears Zacharias

about 3 years ago

If they suspect that there is some underlying reason why they suspect it. They don't just do it on the basis of a "gut" feeling. They have some evidence that has prompted that.

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Steve T.

about 3 years ago

Not to minimize the concern for unborn children and the deep struggles of pregnant women in terrible circumstances but I often wonder why many good church folks don't seem to dredge up the same level of outrage regarding the protection and safety of children beyond the womb as they do about children inside the womb. Perhaps we forget that Jesus has a thing or two to say about his concern for the running-around-in-the-world kids. Believe he said something about mill stones and deep ponds. Believe he also uttered something about when we by-pass the little ones who have no voice, it is Jesus himself whom we have refused. One might think us church folk would take note of such things. Just saying.

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Karen Spears Zacharias

about 3 years ago

Steve: Yes, I have often mused the same. But I would take it one step further - it isn't only people within the church. People outside the church are equally as duplicitous in their concerns when it comes to the matter of abused children. I may be jaded after writing Karly Sheehan's story but it was disturbing to see how quick professionals were to be dismissive of glaring evidence of abuse. How swiftly a few well-planted lies from Karly's mother dissuaded them from doing their jobs - investigating the allegations. So, perhaps, we are right back to where we started - the issue of human nature and the lies we tell ourselves.

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James Williams

about 3 years ago

Steve, I have a problem with your comment, because you are (a) saying that pro-lifers are full of rage; (b) forgetting that killing the unborn is legal, while killing the already-born is not. Yes, you see a lot of folks putting a ton of effort into making abortion legal, and yes, that effort exceeds that of people who are vocal about post-born kids being murdered. But you are not seeing that the former group is trying to make something that is currently legal into something that is not supported by law. There already is a law against murdering kids who have been born. To remark that you don't see the same level of emotion, outrage, or activity between people unhappy with either of those types of deaths is ridiculous.

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