Killing ignites turmoil

Suspicions over inquiry, family feud follow death of former councilman Harris

November 01, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Six weeks after former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. was gunned down outside a Northeast Baltimore nightclub, his family and supporters are growing impatient with the pace of the investigation. But they are taking divergent paths in their quest for answers, sparking a bitter family dispute that went public this week.

Harris' widow, Annette, appeared at City Hall on Monday in support of a City Council resolution calling on police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III to give an update on the investigation. She chose her words carefully but urged transparency.

"My husband was serious about Baltimore, and I just want that same attitude to be reflected in them finding the murderers of my husband," she told reporters. "I will continue to search and to encourage those who know what happened to come forward and do the right thing."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions about the death of former Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. incorrectly reported that a launch party was planned for Sylvia Harris' charitable foundation at the Senator Theater today. Management of the Senator said there is no such event.
The Sun regrets the error.

Three nights later, Harris' mother and two of his siblings nodded in approval as a radio host and activist whipped up a small crowd at a West Baltimore church with thunderous proclamations that the Police Department was covering up key aspects of the crime and was not treating it as seriously as it should.

Sylvia Harris, the former councilman's mother, closed her eyes and rocked back and forth as she listened. Outside, her car had a sign affixed to the rear window that read, "Who really murdered my child?" She said police have not communicated with her since the day after Harris' death.

"What took place on Sept. 20 is more than what they're telling you to believe," said Daren Muhammad, the activist who recently linked up with the family. "It's more than what you think when they say this was a robbery gone bad and only one person was killed. So we've still got a lot of questions that have yet to be answered."

The stark contrast in tone was deliberate. Some members of Harris' family believe they are being ignored - by the Police Department, by supporters, and by his widow and children - and have begun speaking out, demanding that they be acknowledged.

That division has also sparked a feud over how to honor the councilman's legacy. Both factions are raising money to increase the amount offered as a reward for tips in the case, and both have started charitable foundations in his memory. Sylvia Harris, who has a launch party at the Senator Theatre tomorrow afternoon for her foundation, accused her son's wife of threatening business owners and individuals who want to help her efforts.

"It's as if he doesn't have a mother - the Police Department is not the only one that has not has considered the fact that he has a mother who is grieving," she said.

Frank M. Conaway, the city Circuit Court clerk, said that after donating to the mother's foundation, he received a call from Annette Harris telling him that all charitable contributions should be directed toward her foundation. Conaway said he doesn't know what to do.

"We're all after the same thing, and that's the perpetrators of the crime," Conaway said in an interview. "I don't want to be part of a family feud."

Harris, who lost a bid for City Council president in 2006, was fatally shot Sept. 20 outside the New Haven Lounge, a jazz club whose owner, Keith Covington, said Harris had stopped by to borrow a corkscrew. Police and Covington say a group of men ambushed them and robbed the club, shooting Harris as he fled.

The case was dubbed a "red ball," a high priority that received a team of several detectives approved for unlimited overtime to pursue leads. Police have released surveillance footage from the shopping center and a photo of a mask believed to have been worn by one of the suspects. But Bealefeld has said that the department has received virtually no tips from the community.

Annette Harris has denounced Muhammad and his approach, describing it in an interview as "not sanctioned by myself and my children," but she did not respond to a request for comment on accusations lodged by Harris' mother and siblings. Harris' wife has established the Ken Harris Memorial Fund, which she said will in part help pay for their son's college tuition. She describes it as "the official and only financial arrangement designed to honor her husband." Sylvia Harris, meanwhile, registered the Ken Harris Foundation Inc. with the state four days after his funeral, according to records.

"My brother would be flipping over in his grave, because he'd never expect this," said Harris' sister, Naomi Conaway, who is not related to the court clerk.

Clarence Mitchell IV, who hosts a radio show on WBAL and recently had Annette Harris on air, said many of his show's callers have questions about the perceived inconsistencies in the case.

"The biggest thing seems to be a lack of a sense of urgency within the department to deal with this case," Mitchell said. "When you have a former city councilman murdered, the perception of that demands a public redress. Let people know where [the investigation] is. Many people feel right now that this is a cold case."

Police spokesman Sterling Clifford said investigators have released the information that is available and are chasing down all leads.

"It has been a month, but the reality of homicide investigations is that very rarely do homicide cases get put down in a matter of days or even weeks," he said. "Detectives have to do enough work to achieve not just an arrest but a conviction."

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