Prosecutors on Thursday introduced another side of Ross Harris, the Cobb County father who has insisted that he mistakenly left his toddler son inside an SUV for seven hours last month.
This Ross Harris, alleged Cobb Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring, watched an internet video demonstrating the dangers of confinement inside a hot vehicle just five days before his 22-month-old son’s death. Then, as Cooper tried to escape, scratching and clawing at the belt strap of his car seat, Harris participated in “sexting” chats online with several women, including a 17-year-old girl, Boring said.
At lunchtime, he returned to his Hyundai Tuscon, which he had backed into an end parking spot, and tossed some light bulbs he had just purchased inside, ignoring what Cobb Police Det. Phil Stoddard said was an obvious stench from the back seat. By then, Cooper was dead.
Prosecutors were relentless in assailing Harris’ credibility and character at Thursday’s probable cause hearing as they presented, for the first time, their largely circumstantial case against him. The murder charge against Harris has generated national headlines as both he and his wife, Leanna, remain under police scrutiny.
After saying very little in the two weeks following Cooper’s death, Cobb authorities made it clear they think he was intentionally killed.
That morning, surveillance footage from a Chick-fil-A where father and son stopped that morning for breakfast showed Cooper appearing “wide awake and happy,” Stoddard testified at Thursday’s probable cause hearing.
Before leaving the restaurant, Harris strapped Cooper into his rear-facing car seat and gave him a kiss. Harris told investigators that, if he and his son were ever involved in a fatal car accident, he wanted his son’s last memory to be “his daddy loved him,” Stoddard said.
Six minutes later, Harris arrived at Home Depot. While backing into his parking spot, Stoddard said there was no way he could’ve missed Cooper, whose seat was positioned in the middle of the back seat.
But Harris’ attorney, Maddox Kilgore, argued prosecutors had presented a salacious case short on relevant facts, designed to “publicly shame” his client.
“We don’t have any evidence that he knew the child was there when he went about his work that day,” Kilgore said.
Harris, charged with felony murder and second-degree cruelty to children, was denied bond by Cobb Magistrate Judge Frank Cox as prosecutors strongly hinted more charges were forthcoming.
“The investigation by Cobb police is still in progress, and much work remains,” Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds said.
Stoddard said Leanna Harris shed no tears when told of her son’s death. Just before learning of Cooper’s fate, she had arrived at his daycare facility at Home Depot’s corporate offices to pick him up.
When told no one had dropped him off that morning, she immediately responded, in front of several witnesses, that “Ross must’ve left him in the car,” Stoddard testified.
“They tried to console her, said there could be a million other reasons why Cooper wasn’t there,” the detective said. But Leanna Harris was adamant.
Later, at Cobb police headquarters, she was overheard in a loud phone conversation with her mother. Her mother, Stoddard said, kept asking her, “Why aren’t you crying? Why aren’t you reacting?”
Stoddard said she responded, “I must be in shock.”
But Stoddard said she appeared composed after being placed in a room with her husband, who had just learned of the charges against him.
“Did you say too much?” Leanna asked her husband.
Ross Harris then told his wife that when he last saw their son, “He looked peaceful. His eyes were closed. His mouth was closed.”
But according to Stoddard, Cooper’s eyes were not closed. Nor were his lips.
Leanna Harris wiped away tears as she exited the courtroom Thursday, shielded by supporters. She has not been charged in her son’s death.
Friends and family members, who packed the courtroom, emerged after three hours of testimony appearing shell-shocked. They declined interview requests, and Kilgore did not speak with reporters following the hearing.
Ross Harris’ brother, Tuscaloosa Police Sgt. Randy Michael Baygents Jr., testified that his brother “was a loving father. He loved his son very much.”
Two of Harris’ co-workers, longtime friends who went to lunch with him the day of Cooper’s death, said he acted normally that day.”Nothing stuck out, nothing was weird,” friend Alex Hall testified. Ross Harris, they said, spoke of his son all the time, “always showing him off,” Hall said.
Meanwhile, investigators say, the other Ross Harris was visiting web site that promoted a “child-free” lifestyle. Stoddard said the 33-year-old IT specialist had also Googled how to survive in prison.
“It’s obvious this man is leading two different lives,” Boring said.
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