Rape investigation brings to light a doctor's dark, troubled past

January 05, 1992|By Michael Ollove

When the call came last month, Shahla Sabet, a prosecutor in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., had been waiting for two years.

She had expected it since securing the conviction of a medical doctor named Leonard Harris after he was discovered in a young mother's living room with a mask over his face and a gun in one of his gloved hands.

Ms. Sabet was convinced Dr. Harris had been there that day to rape the woman. Her screams stopped him, however, and he ran off. With little likelihood of winning on a rape charge, Ms. Sabet was forced to settle for Dr. Harris' guilty plea to simple assault, and then she watched him leave the courtroom free on probation.

She sensed, however, that she had not heard the last of Dr. Leonard Charles Harris.

"I knew how dangerous he was," Ms. Sabet recalled last week. "I knew it would happen again."

The telephone call in December from the Maryland attorney general's office seemed to bear out her fears.

The Maryland prosecutor told Ms. Sabet that Dr. Harris, a 37-year-old divorced father of three young daughters, a jazz pianist and an internist, was charged with raping two Baltimore County women and with the kidnapping and attempted murder of a third. He was in the Baltimore County Detention Center, unable to raise money to post his $500,000 bond.

Predictably, his co-workers in Maryland told reporters that they couldn't square the slight, meek, courteous young professional with the criminal who allegedly had snarled at one of his rape victims, the mother of a 3-year-old, "If you make any noises, I'll shoot you and your daughter."

But then, apparently no one in Maryland -- not his colleagues, not his employers, not the Maryland medical licensing board -- knew anything about Dr. Harris' shadowy past in California.

They did not know about the assault conviction. They did not know about the prior peeping Tom convictions and how he had broken both ankles during one getaway. And they did not know about the allegation that he had drugged and sexually molested one of his patients.

That woman, now 25, said on Friday that she had been Dr. Harris' patient for two years when he came to her home in 1988 to take a blood sample. Instead, she said, he injected her with a drug that put her to sleep. When she awoke two hours later, Dr. Harris was on top of her with his pants pulled down. She was naked. She said she was too embarrassed to report the incident for several months. Still, she said, the state medical board has known of her allegation since 1989.

The Medical Board of California knew all about Dr. Harris more than two years ago, but it did not begin proceedings to remove his medical license until last June, when it declared that both the conviction and the alleged molestation were grounds to take away his medical license. Still, pending a hearing in March, Dr. Harris remains licensed to practice medicine in California.

Thomas Lazar, the deputy attorney general in California handling the Harris case, says the California medical board's "hundreds of cases" prevented it from moving against Dr. Harris sooner.

The Maryland Board of Physician Quality Assurance, on the other hand, moved rapidly. After the rape charges in Maryland brought his California past to light, the Maryland board immediately suspended his license.

Michael Compton, the acting executive director of the Maryland board, said Friday that if California authorities had lifted Dr. Harris' license, Maryland automatically would have been alerted and would have likely followed suit.

Losing his medical license, however, would not have made Dr. Harris any less of a threat.

None of the Marylanders police say were his victims were patients, or even, apparently, known to him at all.

In February and in November, Baltimore County police allege that he twice surprised women in their apartments in the Rossville area. He wore a red mesh shirt over his face and gloves on his hands and brandished a small handgun, police say. In both cases, the women were tied up and then raped.

Then, in late November, police say two women confronted a man he came out of one of their apartments. He pulled out a silver pistol and attempted to drag one of the women into her apartment but raced off in his car when a policeman arrived. After a 1 1/2 -mile chase, Dr. Harris pulled his car to a stop, and the pursuing policeman arrested him. In the car, a red mesh shirt and gloves were recovered. Back behind the apartment complex, along the path the man had run, police found a silver gun.

The man police arrested was born in Nebraska and educated at the University of Nebraska and the University of Nebraska medical school. Following his internship at an Ohio hospital, he headed to southern California where he completed his residency and then went to work at a succession of hospitals and private clinics. He was married and had three young children, although colleagues say he separated from his wife after arriving in California.

His medical supervisors described his work as competent.

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