Georgia dad in hot car death had ‘second life,’ sent explicit messages while son in vehicle

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COBB COUNTY, Ga. — Justin Ross Harris messaged six women, sending and receiving explicit texts — some including nude images — from work while his 22-month-old was dying in a hot car, a detective testified Thursday in the father’s hearing on murder and child cruelty charges.

Harris’ attorney repeatedly objected to Cobb County, Georgia, police Detective Phil Stoddard’s testimony regarding Harris sexting the women — one of whom was 17 — but the judge allowed it because it was a probable cause hearing.

In addition to the charges he faces in connection with his son’s death, Harris may be charged with felony sexual exploitation of a minor and misdemeanor illegal contact with a minor, Stoddard said.

A prosecutor insisted that the testimony helped portray the defendant’s state of mind and spoke to the negligence angle and helped establish motive, as the couple were having “intimacy problems,” according to the detective.

Police say Harris, 33, left his toddler, Cooper, strapped into a car seat under a baking sun for seven hours while he went to work. Records show that the mercury topped 92 on June 18, and police say the temperature was 88 degrees when the boy was pronounced dead in a parking lot not far from his father’s workplace.

Stoddard also recounted witnesses telling police Harris was acting erratically when he pulled into a shopping center asking for assistance with his son.

Witnesses told police they heard “squealing tires, and the vehicle came to a stop,” Cobb County police Detective Phil Stoddard testified. Harris exited the vehicle yelling, “Oh, my God, what have I done?” Stoddard said.

The 33-year-old father then stood there with a blank look on his face, the detective said. When a witness told Harris his son needed CPR, Harris went to the other side of his vehicle and made a phone call, apparently to tell someone his son was dead, a witness told police, according to Stoddard. Ross Harris never called 911, and when an officer told him to get off his phone, he refused and even said, “F*** you” before an officer took his phone and handcuffed him, the detective said.

Ross Harris later made statements that police felt were strange, including “I can’t believe this is happening to me” and “I’ll be charged with a felony,” according to Stoddard. Harris also talked about losing his job, he said.

The detective alleged that Ross Harris told police he couldn’t reach anyone on his telephone, but phone records show that Harris made three calls, and one between him and his employer lasted six minutes, Stoddard said.

Meanwhile, when the boy’s mother, Leanna Harris, arrived at a day care center to pick the boy up, employees there told her Cooper had never been dropped off, the detective said.

“Ross must have left him in the car,” she replied, according to Stoddard. Witnesses said they tried to tell her many other things could have happened, but Leanna Harris insisted that Ross Harris must have left him in the car, Stoddard said.

Ross Harris was scheduled to meet friends for a 5 p.m. movie, “22 Jump Street,” Stoddard said, but he told them he’d be late. He left work at 4:16 p.m., and it would have taken him about 10 minutes to get to the theater, the detective said.

Messages between the couple indicate that the two were having financial problems, the detective said. They had two insurance policies on Cooper, one for $2,000 and one for $25,000, Stoddard said.

The detective further told the court that he felt Ross Harris was a flight risk because he had law enforcement experience and no family in Georgia. Stoddard also expressed concern that Ross Harris had a “second life he’s living, with alternate personalities and alternate personas.”

Dozens of reporters and spectators showed up before the hearing began. They filled the courtroom, with about 20 people left to stand.

Among those in the courtroom was the toddler’s mother, who was holding another woman’s hand and appeared emotional when her husband was brought into the courtroom in an orange prison jumpsuit.

At the probable cause hearing, a judge will determine whether there’s enough evidence to support charges of murder and second-degree child cruelty against Ross Harris. If prosecutors are successful in making their case to the judge, it will proceed to a grand jury, where the district attorney will seek an indictment.

It’s possible but unlikely that Harris and his wife will testify, Isaza said.

Harris, who is being held without bail, has pleaded not guilty.

When news of the boy’s death broke, it was cast as a tragic mistake by an absentminded father. Police later indicated that evidence pointed to something more sinister and that some of the father’s statements to first responders “were not making sense,” said Sgt. Dana Pierce of the Cobb County Police Department.

According to a criminal warrant, Ross Harris placed Cooper into a rear-facing child restraint in the backseat of his Hyundai Tucson after eating breakfast at a fast-food restaurant.

The Web developer then drove to his workplace, a Home Depot corporate office about a half-mile away, according to the warrant. Normally, Harris would drop Cooper off at an on-site day care there.

The father returned to the SUV during his lunch break, opening the driver’s side door “to place an object into the vehicle,” the warrant states.

Initially, police said Ross Harris had apparently forgotten that the boy was in the backseat and didn’t remember until after he left work, at which point he pulled into a parking lot asking for assistance and wailing, “What have I done?”

Police had to restrain Ross Harris after it became clear Cooper had died, police said at first.

Though he didn’t say exactly what led police to view the case as a crime, Pierce told CNN, “I’ve been in law enforcement for 34 years. What I know about this case shocks my conscience as a police officer, a father and a grandfather.”

Among the details police have released is that Harris and his wife, Leanna, told them they conducted Internet searches on how hot a car needed to be to kill a child. Stoddard testified Thursday that Ross Harris had visited a Reddit page called “child-free” and read four articles. He also did an Internet search on how to survive in prison, Stoddard said.

Ross Harris “stated that he recently researched, through the Internet, child deaths inside vehicles and what temperature it needs to be for that to occur,” police said, adding that Harris told investigators “he was fearful that this could happen.”

During questioning, Leanna Harris “made similar statements regarding researching in car deaths and how it occurs,” police said.

The time frame for the alleged research remains unclear.

Cooper was buried Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. At his funeral, Leanna Harris said she loves her husband and stands by him.

“Am I angry with Ross?” Leanna Harris told mourners. “Absolutely not. It has never crossed my mind. Ross is and was and will be, if we have more children, a wonderful father. Ross is a wonderful daddy and leader for our household. Cooper meant the world to him.”

Carol Brown, a longtime family friend who attended the funeral, said she is not ready to convict Ross Harris, as it’s entirely possible he could have gone to his car during lunch and not seen the boy.

“He could have been distracted, but I do have questions about it,” she said.

The Cobb County Medical Examiner’s Office determined the child’s cause of death was “consistent with hyperthermia and the investigative information suggests the manner of death is homicide,” according to a Cobb County Department of Public Safety statement.

The Medical Examiner’s Office is waiting for toxicology test results before making an official ruling on the toddler’s death.

27 comments

  • Diane Purcell

    Oh he just comes across better and better as time goes on, doesn’t he? Wonder if the wife is finally mad at him now? What a shame. Some people really shouldn’t have children….or pets…or houseplants.

    • Phyllis Gordon

      I think people that do harm like this to children should be sterilized and never be able to have children at all….It should be a mandatory law….to be castrated for the man and the uterus removed for the woman

    • VictimizedNoMore

      Discovering Cooper was not at the daycare, mom’s instant conclusion, “Ross left Cooper in the car.’
      The daycare was on-site at Home Depot corporate offices. How does one forget to take their child inside their workplace daycare? Hope neither collect on Cooper’s life insurance!

  • Chucky

    And now we know the rest of the story. How in the world can this man live with himself? It sounds like his wife might have been in on it also. I wonder when they will charge her.

  • 2Cents

    that wife has stood behind him and claimed he’s innocent from day one……because she’s as guilty as he is!!

    • Anne Donaldson

      An eye for an eye! If they do go to jail, which is probable, they won’t be alive long. Child killers are not liked among the prison population. This Harris guy is probably another sociopath with no conscience. I do go along with putting them in a super hot car and see how they like it, and then leave them in there until they cook, then feed them to the lions at the zoo!

  • Ashley

    i hope both him and his wife die a horrible death!!! they killed their child for money and freedom! if you didnt want the responsibility of being a parent you should of kept your **** in your pants!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • keepourchildrensafe

    Dark secrets has come out and one has to ask, “Why”! Sounds so far he deliberately left the child in a hot car so he thought that was the only way to live his fantasy lifestyle. Sexting with young girls! Sad case all the way around. Angels protect our little children.

  • SherryB

    The wife also searched sites about hot cars and death..Lock her up as well…Why would she assume that her husband had left their son in the car IF they hadn’t talked about it previously..He could have stayed home that day, but she insisted the “Ross must have left him in the car,โ€..Now just why would she do that? She is guilty as well…

  • Clmum

    And why has the wife not been arrested? All of the presented evidence seems to indicate she was involved…

  • jennifer

    Man this is a very sad story i dont see how the father Can even sleep at night and the mom is just as guilty as him why waste the tax payers money for a trual when its clear that this was pre meditated murder he even had motive they should lock the mom and dad up for life but even if these god forsaken ppl dont get payback for what they did to this precious lil angel baby they will get whats due to them when they die and get judged they both will BURN IN HELL Sorry for going on and on but people like this really gets my blood boiling

  • Josh

    How the f can she stand by him. I mean even if this was an accident (which it clearly wasn’t), he’s still sexting with multiple other women including a high school age girl. Scum city, man!

  • Simone Gemma

    Why are you having children if your intent is to kill them? If the answer is money, either work like the rest of us, or realize life isn’t a free ride, unless you’re crossing the border. It will ALWAYS catch up to you, no matter how much pre planning one may do. The truth always comes out. I am gutted knowing that this baby boy was unable to escape and was probably crying for both Mommy & Daddy to help him. Yet they are the ones who intentionally took his precious little life.

  • Jay

    In the case of torturing a child to death like this, I say an eye for an eye. If Mom’s involved, and sounds like she is, both need to be strapped into Small adult size car seats with buckles too tight in this August’s heat for, say, 8 hours.

  • Jeanie

    Is it possible that she was a victim of domestic violence, emotional or physical? Did he threaten her with the death of Cooper? I don’t think she knew about these other women. Clearly he is very manipulative if involved with multiple women. Look at pictures of the baby. He is very small for his age. His head looks large, but really his body looks very thin. Maybe he was trying to fly this theory with her so he could get rid of son and she would perceive it as an accident because sadly, multiple children die this way every year. I think he controlled her…

  • tammy

    I know what driving in a hot car feels like without a/c and with the windows down. I have sweated coming home with so much sweat that my t-shirt and shorts were completely soaked and my hair was soaked to. The sweat was so rampid running down my face into my eyes I could hardly see to drive. The heat was over 100f. I thought I was not making it back home . I now have a/c, but I have driven in the past without it and it never seemed to bother me. That child suffered especially with no windows down. I just wonder if it cried and screamed and why someone couldn’t someone have it’s cries if it ever was conscious enough to cry. Wouldn’t it have been a miracle if someone would have passed by and heard it screams.

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