Opportunities overlooked

Chances to separate suspect from boy missed

August 02, 2006|By GUS G. SENTEMENTES AND JULIE BYKOWICZ | GUS G. SENTEMENTES AND JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTERS

A series of caretakers and others knew that a registered child sex offender had befriended the 11-year-old boy he is now charged with killing, but they repeatedly failed to take steps that could have taken the man off the streets and away from children.

Missed opportunities helped Melvin L. Jones Jr. stay out of trouble with his probation agents despite orders that he not go near children. Over the years, he regularly baby-sat Irvin J. Harris, accompanied the child and his friends to Artscape and to July 4 fireworks, and went to the boy's school.

In most cases, some officials and others who discovered Jones' predatory past did little beyond warning Irvin's mother or ordering the boy to stay away. The mother failed to heed the advice and let Jones, 52, hang out with her son.

"We wish everybody in Irvin Harris' life had done things differently," Baltimore Police Col. Fred H. Bealefeld III, chief of detectives, said at a news conference yesterday. He called the child's death "an enormous tragedy for everyone concerned."

Interviews and a review of court records and police documents show that officials had many chances to flag Jones long before police say Irvin was repeatedly stabbed behind a church near his home in Northeast Baltimore:

Irvin accused Jones of grabbing his neck and squeezing it during a dispute on July 4, according to a police report, and his mother assured a city officer that she would follow through on charges. She never did. A detective later assigned to the case could not locate the mother or Irvin, and police said he was unable to track down Jones or verify that he was the same person accused of assaulting the boy.

The principal of Collington Square School identified Jones as a registered child sex offender and banned him from the property more than a year ago, the head of the company that runs the charter school said. Police say they have no record of being notified of Jones' visits; any contact with children by Jones would have been a violation of his probation from a previous sex offense and could have landed him back in prison.

In an apparent oversight, Jones never had any sexual-offender treatment, even though a Baltimore judge made it a condition of his probation. State parole and probation agents never received that order, a state spokeswoman said. Agents tried to convince Jones he needed the treatment, but he refused it.

The victim's family acknowledged to police and to The Sun that they allowed Jones to have regular contact with the boy and his siblings - including stints as a baby sitter. Those contacts continued even after the mother read a cell phone text message from Jones telling Irvin, "I love you," the boy's mother said yesterday.

About a year ago, drug counselors who provided care for Irvin Harris' mother warned her that a child sex offender had befriended her son, the mother has said. She said she confronted Jones and ordered him to stay away from her children, but she later allowed him to stay in contact with the family.

Jones was arrested Monday and charged with first-degree murder, first- and second-degree assault, and use of a deadly weapon with intent to injure, court documents show. He was ordered held without bail yesterday.

Police believe the boy was killed Friday, but his body was found early Monday behind a church in Northeast Baltimore. The state medical examiner ruled that he died from stab wounds.

Police say Jones confessed to the crime, according to court documents, but they stopped short of alleging any sexual abuse in connection with the killing.

"At this point, the crime and the post-mortem examination does not show evidence of sexual assault," said Detective Robert F. Cherry Jr., a homicide investigator on the case. "That could change."

Defending police

Yesterday, Bealefeld resolutely defended the Police Department's handling of the July 4 incident. He said that a Department of General Services police officer encountered Irvin on the street with other children near the Inner Harbor, and the boy alleged an assault. That officer called Baltimore police.

A bike patrol officer arrived, took a report, then boarded a light rail train with Irvin and the other children and escorted them to a relative's house in Westport in South Baltimore. The officer contacted the mother, wrote up the incident as a common assault and was assured by the mother that she would seek criminal charges, Bealefeld said.

But she never did. Police officials reviewed the crime report about a week later and upgraded the incident to the more serious crime of aggravated assault, police officials said. A detective was assigned to the case, with the possibility that a warrant could be issued for Jones' arrest.

But Bealefeld said the detective could not reach Irvin or his mother or verify that the suspect was the same man listed as a sex offender on the state's registry. Bealefeld said the detective had a photo of Jones in his case file.

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