Abuser slipped past police

Detectives suspected molester choked boy weeks before killing

October 07, 2006|By Gus G. Sentementes, Annie Linskey and Julie Bykowicz | Gus G. Sentementes, Annie Linskey and Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporters

About three weeks before 11-year-old Irvin J. Harris was stabbed to death, Baltimore police suspected that a convicted child sex offender might have choked the boy and threatened to kill him.

But the extent of the police follow-up to the July 4 choking at the Inner Harbor consisted of one phone call, to a cell number that did not work, police acknowledged yesterday.

"We wish everybody, not just us, we wish everybody had done more," said Col. Fred H. Bealefeld III, chief of detectives. "Do you think that detective - in light of this horrible crime - do you think he's not thinking about how he could have done more? Of course. Everybody is thinking that."

The sex offender, Melvin Lorenzo Jones Jr., 52, is charged with first-degree murder in Irvin's death July 28. Jones pleaded guilty in 1990 to sexually abusing a 4-year-old girl in his family, and in 2002 he admitted having repeated sexual contact with a teenage boy.

This week, police also charged Irvin's mother, Shanda R. Harris, with reckless endangerment and four counts of a charge similar to criminal neglect, alleging that she failed to protect her son from a man she knew was a registered child sex offender.

Jones, who is scheduled for trial in January on the murder charge, is not charged with molesting Irvin. But other children in the Harris family told police they saw the two in bed together, according to a statement of probable cause in Shanda Harris' case.

A judge at the Central Booking and Intake Center cut Harris' bail in half yesterday, to $50,000. Her attorney said at the hearing that she is a recovering heroin addict on methadone and that she tried to kill herself in 2002.

Questions about the July 4 incident - and how thoroughly police investigated and followed up - re-emerged because of the charges against Irvin's mother. Charging documents in Harris' case say she "actually knew of Melvin Jones' status as a sex offender ... and knowing this still let him go to the Inner Harbor with Jones."

After that incident, however, police joined the boy's mother on a growing list of people who knew or suspected that Jones had a history of molesting children - and were aware that Jones was in contact with Irvin.

"If a known sex offender is commiting a violent act and threatening to kill the young child, urgent action was required," said Mitchell Y. Mirviss, a Baltimore attorney who has monitored child welfare systems and represented abused and neglected children since the 1980s. "That's the end of any reasonable debate on the issue."

According to a police incident report obtained yesterday by The Sun, officers learned Jones' full name and approximate age the night of July 4.

About a week later, after a standard review of reports, the choking incident was upgraded from a common assault to an aggravated assault, Bealefeld said. A Central District detective was assigned to the case.

The incident report states that Irvin told police Jones had put his hands around his neck and squeezed while saying, "I'll kill you."

Bealefeld said the detective researched the suspect and knew that a man by that name was a registered child sex offender.

The detective had a picture of Jones in his case file and planned to show it to Irvin and his mother as part of a photo array, Bealefeld said.

Typically, police need a victim to cooperate and make an identification before an arrest warrant can be issued, Bealefeld said.

The detective made a call to a cell phone number that Shanda Harris had given to police on July 4, but he did not go to the Harris house on Lawnview Avenue, Bealefeld said.

Bealefeld said there was nothing to prevent the detective, whom he did not identify, from visiting the house, but he noted that district detectives have large caseloads that include violent crimes.

"The detective did try," Bealefeld said. "Did we succeed in our effort? No, we did not. We did not succeed in our effort to locate and follow up."

Mirviss said Irvin's death "could have been prevented and should have been prevented."

"This child was at grave risk, and only the police at that point could have saved him," he said. "It's a shocking set of facts."

Bealefeld said the boy's mother told the officer who took the initial report July 4 that she knew Jones and that she would follow up and press charges against him.

But the mother never did.

At her bail review hearing yesterday, Harris wore a pink prison jumpsuit, and her hands were cuffed. She appeared calm, but when the judge ordered a suicide evaluation, she yelled in disgust: "I'm not going to kill myself."

Harris has been unemployed for a year, has an 11th-grade education and has been using methadone to treat a heroin addiction for two years, according to a pretrial services employee.

Jones befriended the Harris family in fall 2002, shortly after his prison release, Shanda Harris has told The Sun. Harris said she had been dating Jones' brother.

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