Warrant: Cobb toddler’s dad researched child deaths inside vehicles

After his toddler son died after being left inside an SUV for seven hours, a Cobb County man told police he had researched children dying in hot vehicles, court documents released Saturday morning state.

Justin “Ross” Harris told police he feared his 22-month-old could be left inside a vehicle, according to search warrant affidavits obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. No information about the timing of Harris’ online searches was released. And the questions that many across the country have been asking — how did this happen and why — remain unanswered.

» Listen to Breakdown Season 2 on the Justin Ross Harris case here.

“During an interview with Justin, He stated that he recently researched, through the internet, child deaths inside vehicles and what temperature it needs to be for that to occur,” search warrants state. “Justin stated that he was fearful that this could happen.”

The search warrant affidavits released Saturday offered the first new facts released in the death of the toddler, Cooper Mills Harris, since Wednesday. However, the documents shed no details on what prompted police to arrest and charge Ross Harris with felonies so swiftly within hours of the boy’s death.

Cobb police spokesman Mike Bowman said the department would not answer any questions related to the search warrants.

“The search warrants will stand on their own as they are signed by a judge and swore to by the detective,” he told The AJC in an email.

The latest documents revealed what and where investigators searched in the hours after Cooper was pronounced dead June 18 in a shopping center parking lot. The findings and evidence cited to arrest the boy’s father were not released and may not be until a possible trial.

By law, after applying for search warrants, investigators have 10 days to conduct the searches and return the application documents to Magistrate Court. The documents released Saturday were the first search warrant affidavits released in the boy’s death. They were made public hours before Cooper’s funeral at Tuscaloosa’s University Church of Christ. The family is from Tuscaloosa.

Cooper’s death and his father’s subsequent arrest have made national headlines, sparked by a sharply divided debate over whether the felony charges were appropriate. An online petition asking DA Vic Reynolds to drop the murder charge against Harris gained more than 11,000 supporters.

That petition was closed after additional details, including results of an autopsy, were released Wednesday. The autopsy determined the manner of death was a homicide and the cause of death was hyperthermia, or overheating, Cobb police said Wednesday. The boy’s death was not simple negligence, Chief John Houser said in a letter released to the media Wednesday.

On the morning of June 18, Harris and his son left the family’s condo and drove to a Vinings Chick-fil-A, where the two had breakfast, an arrest warrant released Wednesday states. The father then put his son back in a rear-facing car seat in the middle of the backseat and drove to work, less than a mile away, the warrant states.

When Harris got to work at a nearby Home Depot corporate office shortly after 9 a.m., he left the toddler in the backseat and went inside the building, according to police. He returned to the SUV at lunchtime, when he opened the driver’s side door and put something inside. Then, Harris went back inside to work, his warrant states.

According to the documents released Saturday, Harris left work and was headed to meet friends about 4:20 p.m. June 18 when he said he realized his son was still in the backseat of the family’s Hyundai Tucson. Witnesses reported seeing Harris drive into an Akers Mill Road parking lot, stop the car and pull the boy out of the backseat.

“Oh my god what have I done,” Harris screamed, according to witnesses. Harris placed the boy on the parking lot pavement and began to administer CPR on him as witnesses gathered and also tried to help revive Cooper.

“When someone came to assist Justin he stopped providing medical attention to the child and started making calls on his cell phone,” the affidavits state.

But it was too late for Cooper, who was already dead. A distraught Harris was not cooperative with police, who handcuffed the father and put him in the back of a patrol car. Harris was taken to Cobb police headquarters for questioning, and within about five hours was arrested and charged with felony murder and child cruelty.

While detectives were questioning Harris and later his wife, other investigators were examining the SUV, the family’s condo near Marietta, a laptop and a cell phone, the search warrant applications state. The condo was also searched for papers, writings, documents, photographs and any other evidence related to the investigation, according to police. Leanna Harris was not charged and has not been named a suspect. The family has not spoken publicly since the toddler’s death.

There is no indication that police searched Harris’ office during the first night of the investigation, but additional search warrants were later sought and granted, according to the Cobb County District Attorney’s office. Additional documents are expected to be released Sunday morning.

Harris is being held without bond at the Cobb County jail. His next court appearance is scheduled for Thursday.

— Staff writers Daniel Wilco and Kelly Yamanouchi contributed to this report.

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