TORONTO – Dozens of children are accidentally left behind in hot vehicles each year in Canada and the U.S., but police investigators in Georgia are digging deeper into the lives of the parents in the case of a 22-month-old toddler who overheated three weeks ago.
Bystanders, who thought it was a tragic accident, watched father Justin Ross Harris leap out of his car in a parking lot, pull out his child and yell “Oh my God, what have I done?” according to police search warrants. But as those bystanders tried to help save the child’s life, Harris started making calls on his cellphone—never calling 911.
“When someone came to assist Justin he stopped providing medical attention to the child and started making calls on his cellphone,” said one of 56 search warrants.
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Detective Phil Stoddard said Harris twice refused an officer’s request to get off the phone and was arrested when he used profanity. When interviewed at the scene, Stoddard said Harris showed no emotion. Police documents say he claimed he went to work that morning and forgot to drop the child off at daycare.
Leanna, Harris’ wife, showed up at the boy’s daycare only to be told her son was never dropped off.
“And in front of several witnesses, all of a sudden she states, ‘Ross must’ve left him in the car,’” said Stoddard during a three-hour hearing on July 3.
When speaking to her husband after the child’s death, Harris’ wife asked a peculiar question.
“She had him sit down and he starts going through this and she looks at him, and she’s like: ‘Well did you say too much?’” said Stoddard.
When asked if Leanna was a person of interest in the case, Cobb County Officer Mike Bowman told Global News she hasn’t been charged, though the investigation is far from over.
“She’s been interviewed, and the case is very active and fluid, and we have not finished it as of this point,” he said.
Search warrants detailing police interviews with the couple suggested both parents were preoccupied with child car deaths:
“Harris stated that leaving his son in a hot car was his biggest fear. According to Harris he recently viewed a television show concerning child deaths in cars. Harris also stated that he researched the issue of deaths in cars on the Internet. …and what temperature it needs to be for that to occur,” said the documents.
“[Leanna] also made a similar statement that this was her worst fear. Investigators questioned her further about this. Leanna stated specifically that her fear was that her child would be left in a hot vehicle, not the fear of losing a child.”
Other inconsistencies revealed in the police documents detail surveillance video of Harris pulling into his office parking lot the day of the incident. He pulled into a parking spot near the back of the lot, entered the office building and left at lunch time to eat with co-workers. The documents say he was dropped off at his vehicle after lunch, put a bag in the driver’s side door and returned to the building while making a call on his phone.
“During the interview with Harris the day of the incident he failed to tell the investigators that he had returned to the vehicle at lunch time to place an item into the vehicle,” said the warrant.
Stoddard said neither parent showed much emotion during the incident, and despite telling police he was happily married, evidence showed Harris was exchanging nude photographs with several women, including at least one teenager on the day his son died. (Police were not aware of any sex abuse charges as of Wednesday afternoon).
In the weeks before the boy’s death, Harris had also looked at a website that advocated against having children and had done an Internet search for “how to survive in prison,” the detective said.
Testimony and court documents revealed that Harris and his wife had two life insurance policies for their 22-month-old child, one for $2,000 and one for $25,000.
“Through the investigation Harris has made comments to family members regarding a life insurance policy that he has on Cooper and what they need to do in order to file for it,” said the police documents.
As her husband remains in jail, Leanna Harris’ behaviour is being watched by prosecutors and the public. At her son’s funeral, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted her as saying she wouldn’t bring her son back, even if she could, since “he’s in the most peaceful, wonderful place there is.”
“Ross is and was a wonderful father,” she said, according to the AJC, adding “I love you and I’m doing this for you,” to her husband, who was reportedly listening on speaker phone from jail.
The more than 200 funeral attendees applauded her statements. Leanna went on to list negative experiences her son would be spared because of his early death.
“He won’t have to suffer through the death of his (grandparents). He won’t have to suffer through the death of me and Ross.”
With files from The Associated Press