Inquiry of family begins

City to see if criminal charges are possible against slain boy's kin

August 02, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ AND SUMATHI REDDY | JULIE BYKOWICZ AND SUMATHI REDDY,SUN REPORTERS

Baltimore prosecutors yesterday launched a child welfare investigation of the Harris family, saying possible charges against relatives and acquaintances of the 11-year-old boy who allegedly died at the hands of a registered sex offender could include child abuse and neglect.

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office, said the inquiry will be separate from the homicide investigation and will try to answer the question of whether there was any other criminal wrongdoing that led to the death over the weekend of Irvin J. Harris.

"If we suspect a problem, we are required under the law to report and investigate it," Burns said.

A friend of the family, Melvin L. Jones Jr., 52, has been charged with first-degree murder in Irvin's stabbing death.

What could be of key interest to prosecutors is Irvin's mother's admission that she knew Jones was a convicted sex offender, and yet continued to allow him to be around her children and grandchildren. Prosecutors said they also want to determine whether any adults outside the family knew about Jones' status as a sex offender.

Standing on the porch of her Lawnview Avenue home in Northeast Baltimore yesterday, Shanda Raynette Harris, 41, said she blamed herself for her son's death, saying she shouldn't have been so trusting.

But she also angrily said that police should have done more, given Jones' criminal record. And she said her family and friends have been supportive, insisting there is no one to blame but the man charged with the murder - a man her family has called a friend for about four years.

Bertha Reid, Irvin's grandmother, said she was suspicious of Jones because he hung out with children often.

"I told her I thought something was wrong," said Reid, 59, of Shanda Harris. "I told her when I first met him. She had a drug problem, so she couldn't see."

Irvin, who would have been a fifth-grader this fall at Collington Square School, grew up in a Baltimore family strained by violence, financial problems and drug abuse, court records and interviews show.

His mother has struggled with a longtime heroin addiction; his father has been in prison for murder since Irvin was 3 years old.

Shanda Harris has been arrested and cited about a dozen times in Baltimore, according to court records.

She was found guilty last month in District Court of petty theft and put on yearlong probation.

The judge also ordered Shanda Harris to work or attend school regularly, to allow probation agents to routinely visit her home and to continue with regular drug screening and drug treatment, court records show.

She pleaded guilty in April 1999 to a drug charge and was sentenced to five years in prison with all but a day or two suspended and three years of unsupervised probation. Several forgery, theft, open container and disorderly conduct charges over the years have been filed against her but not pursued by prosecutors, court records show.

District Court judges ordered Shanda Harris to pay her delinquent insurance bills in 2000 and her Baltimore Gas and Electric bills in 2004, court records show.

Irvin's father, Aaron Rodney Harris, 45, pleaded guilty in January 1998 in Baltimore Circuit Court to second-degree murder and using a handgun - convictions that brought him a 20-year prison sentence, court records show.

Enter Melvin Jones - a man with a history of sexual abuse who admitted to police in 2001 that he is a "pedophile who needs help."

Jones made himself an important part of the Harris family by providing free babysitting for Irvin and other young relatives. He gave the family money and became a sort of male role model, taking Irwin to the library to show him how to use a computer.

Shannon Venable, 23, who is Irvin's sister, said Jones helped financially when the family needed money but would not pay rent or bills. Shanda Harris said she is not employed. She receives disability checks, said her mother.

"If she needed help, he'd help her with it," said Venable of Harris. "He helped out a lot and did a lot of things for the kids."

Jones also bought Irvin a cell phone, family members said, and he would frequently call and text-message Irwin on the phone.

Harris said she saw a text message that Jones sent to her son recently that said, "I love you."

She said she confronted her son and Jones about it. "I cussed him out and said he can't be around my kids," said Harris. "I told my son not to be around him by himself."

Harris said Monday that she found out about a year ago from her drug treatment counselors that Jones was a registered sex offender. But she said that when she confronted him about it, he told her he had engaged in consensual touching and had not served any jail time.

Elizabeth Bartholomew, spokeswoman for the state Division of Parole and Probation, said sex offenders seek out families such as the Harrises. "They tend to prey on single mothers in particular," she said. "They justify their behavior by saying that they're doing the woman a favor by helping them out."

A homicide detective said there are no signs that Irvin was molested. The boy's body was fully clothed when it was discovered early Monday morning in the woods not far from the Belair-Edison home where the Harrises live.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Gus G. Sentementes contributed to this article.

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