A married Georgia man charged with murder last month after leaving his 22-month-old son in a hot car all day was “sexting” with a 17-year-old girl while his son was in the car, authorities revealed Thursday.
Justin Ross Harris, a 33-year-old Marieatta resident, told cops he left his son Cooper in his car while he was at work at Home Depot’s corporate offices on June 18. But days later, cops said there was much more to the case than a tragic accident, and a judge ruled Thursday that there was probable cause to try Harris with felony murder.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Harris & His Wife Searched for Information About How Long it Would Take for a Person to Die in a Car
Search warrants obtained by investigators say Harris had researched how hot it needed to be inside a car for a child to die, claiming he was afraid this could happen to his son. WSB-TV reported that Justin Ross Harris’ wife searched for the same information online. You can read the contents of the search warrants here:
CNN reported that the couple was having financial problems and had taken out two insurance policies on Cooper: one for $25,000 and one for $2,000. According to People, Ross Harris left instructions for his family on how to file the claims needed to get the money from the life insurance claims on Cooper.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,Harris and his wife were renting a condo in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, but were hoping to buy a home for themselves and Cooper. Joe Saini, the couple’s landlord, called them, “very, very nice” people, saying:
Everything was going right for this couple. They wanted to buy a house so they could have some space for their child to run around the backyard.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Harris worked as an online software engineer and IT developer for The Home Depot. He’s held that position since June 2012. Harris is a graduate of the University of Alabama, where he studied information management systems.
2. Harris Sent a Photo of His Erect Penis to a Teen Girl While Cooper Was in the Car
The lead detective in the case against Harris painted a shocking picture in a pre-trial hearing Thursday of a man cheating on his wife, dreaming of a “child-free life” and repeatedly sending naked photos of himself to other women, including a shot of his erect penis that he sent to a teenage girl while Cooper was in the car.
Stoddard: Harris was sexting with 6 women and sent photos of his erect penis while child was in car. #HotCarDeath
— Victor Blackwell CNN (@VictorCNN) July 3, 2014
Harris’ attorney, Maddox Kilgore, objected to the detective’s testimony about the sexting on the grounds that it was irrelevant to Cooper’s death, but the objection was overruled.
Harris’ Twitter account also showed he tweeted about creating a “snooze button” for babies, according to The Daily Mail.
3. A Veteran Cop Said the Case ‘Shocks My Conscience as a Police Officer, Father & Grandfather’
What authorities initially painted as an accident has developed into a shocking case complete with allegations that Harris and his wife plotted to kill Cooper.
Two days after Cooper’s death — as the investigation was picking up steam — veteran Cobb County Police Sergeant Dana 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.
Pierce also made a statement that contradicts what reports originally included about the timeline of the incident. He said:
I cannot confirm that the child, as originally reported, was in the car at 9 a.m.
Pierce’s comments differ starkly from those made the day of Cooper’s death by District Attorney Vic Reynolds, who told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
It’s just a terrible, God-awful situation. I can’t imagine, I can’t fathom what any parent would be going through at this stage. It’s the type of case that affects the community.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports Harris and his son had gone to Chik-fil-A for breakfast just hours before Cooper died. The restaurant is less than a mile away from Harris’ office.
According to WSB-TV, a toxicology report run on Cooper Harris came back negative.
4. Harris Had to Be Restrained at the Scene & Yelled ‘F*ck You at a Cop
Dale Hamilton, who witnessed Harris realizing he left son Cooper in his car after work, told WGCL-TV Harris had to be restrained by cops when he realized nothing more could be done for his son. He told WSB-TV:
He kept saying, ‘What have I done? What have I done?’ And that’s all that I could ascertain that he was saying
Police said Harris made a phone call after discovering his son was dead, but did not call 911. When an officer told him to get off his phone, Harris yelled “F*ck you!” before being handcuffed, CNN reported.
According to WGCL-TV, temperatures in Atlanta hit highs of 90 degrees the day Cooper died. The station reports temperatures inside a hot car could reach 130 to 140 degrees within a few hours.
5. A Petition to Get the Charges Dropped Has More than 11,000 Signatures
When Cooper’s death was still being painted as an accident, Harris’ arrest initially ignited a debate over the consequences of leaving a child unattended and prompted an outpouring of support for Harris and his wife, Leanna.
A petition on Change.org to get the charges dropped has more than 11,000 signatures.
The petition reads, in part:
This is a horrible accident. The father loved his son immensely. These were very loving parents who are devastated. Justin already has to live with a punishment worse than death. Sending what’s left of his family in to bankruptcy to defend him against these charges is only bringing more hardship to a family that will never recover from the loss of a child.
Some of the commenters on this post either knew Harris and his family personally or worked with him. One commenter on this post, Matt Colson, described Harris as “loved by many” and assured readers the truth will be revealed. He made these comments on June 20, the same day police spoke to CNN saying new information surfaced in the investigation. Colson wrote:
Ross Harris is an exceptional human being as I know him. He is a very old friend that I once attended church, football games, and parties with. We do not keep in constant touch now but sporadically keep up. Ross is a man a God and he is loved by many. I am not using this to cast evidence on the tragedy. Mistakes happen…bad choices happen…even nefarious acts can happen and all by good people. The truth will come out here…it will. In the mean time, I thought it important to speak for my friend and just let any readers know that the man I know is a good man. I ask that you keep him and his family in your prayers and thoughts.
In a follow-up interview with Heavy, Colson, a welder in Tuscaloosa, said he considered Harris a good friend and called him “one of the nicest people I have ever met.” He said:
You’re not going to find someone who has a different opinion of Ross than I do. … Regardless of what comes out, everyone that Ross knows is going to be touched by this.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this post misidentified Justin Ross Harris as Justin Ross Taylor.