Metropolis: Wednesday, May 1, 2003
Not-So-Open Records

Hill County went quiet when a senator’s son\r\ngot arrested.


Even for a guy who makes his living getting trampled and crushed, Christopher James Harris Jr. was not having a good day on March 20. But then, neither was anyone he ran into.

Harris and his wife of a year and a half quarreled that morning after he told her that he wanted a divorce. Arlington police got involved after his wife showed up with a knot on the back of her head. When Harris turned up at his mother’s property in rural Hill County a few hours later, she called the police. And after the dustup that ensued once law enforcement arrived, Harris was accused of assaulting one officer, threatening to kill another, and wrecking a police truck.

Talk about going from bad to worse. That’s a lot of trouble for any one man — even one who told police he rides bucking horses for a living. The arrest might have passed unnoticed were it not for the fact that a) Harris is the namesake son of State Sen. Chris Harris of Arlington, b) the domestic violence case was dropped after his wife recanted, and c) the sheriff’s department in Hill County, the locus of his most serious problems, has only reluctantly released even sketchy details about the incident.

If nothing else, the case illustrates that observance of the public’s right to know just exactly what the government is doing sometimes hinges not on law, but on geography.

Harris, meanwhile, has spent the last five weeks in the Hill County jail, apparently unable to post the $100,000-plus bail set for him. The 26-year-old nonetheless had the scratch to retain a well-connected and respected lawyer, former State Sen. Robert J. Glasgow. His Stephenville-based law office advertises itself as the firm hired by other lawyers who need legal help and boasts on its web site about not-guilty verdicts it has won in murder, child indecency, and sex assault cases.

Glasgow, who served in the Texas Senate with Harris’ father during the early 1990s, said the son is not receiving any special treatment. Harris was arrested on six charges ranging from criminal mischief to assaulting a public servant. But Glasgow said it is far from clear what charges Harris may eventually face.

“I’m not sure what they’re going to attempt to try to charge him with,’’ he said. “I don’t think they’ve decided yet.’’ He declined, however, to discuss details of the case, saying he did “not have authority from Chris Jr. or his family to talk about it.’’

The lawyer isn’t the only one not talking. Harris’ father did not respond to a request through his senate office for comment. And Hill County officials not only won’t discuss the case but have refused to release information that other city and county law enforcement agencies consider public.

Fort Worth Weekly requested copies of the Hill County offense reports about the incident. But the records initially provided had more blank spaces than actual information. When the Weekly asked last week for a narrative description of what happened — the “detailed description of the offense’’ that the courts and the Texas attorney general have said is public record — officials still balked.

Captain Coy West said he couldn’t release additional information because he was concerned “this is going to be a get-sued deal.’’ He referred questions about the arrest of the veteran lawmaker’s son to County Attorney Mark Pratt and District Attorney Dan Dent.

Dent — who, as the county’s top prosecutor, would be in charge of presenting evidence to a grand jury and possibly trying Harris — said the sheriff’s decision to withhold information was understandable. “I’m not surprised,’’ he said. “That’s something I wouldn’t give defense attorneys.’’

Pratt, however, reviewed the law and persuaded the sheriff to crack the door just a little wider on what happened. On Monday, a fax arrived from the sheriff’s department revealing allegations that Harris struck his mother “in the forehead with his [own] forehead,’’ threatened “to kill Capt. West and his whole family,’’ struck another deputy in the ribs, and finally caused the deputy to wreck a police pickup by “placing his foot in the steering wheel and causing the driver to lose control.’’ If it sounds like there might be pieces missing from this story, that could be due to the distinct possibility that there are pieces missing from this story.

Hill County’s version of what the public is entitled to know about a case involving six separate charges differs from how such requests for information are handled an hour’s drive up the road in Arlington, where young Harris’ troubles began.

Arlington police, queried about their encounter with Harris, promptly released much of what they had — including a detailed narrative that clearly explained what happened during the morning of March 20.

Responding to a call about a car wreck, police found a “visibly upset and crying’’ Stephanie Harris, wife of Chris Jr. She told police that she and Chris had been arguing and “that he wanted a divorce and for her to get out.’’ Police said Stephanie had a knot on the back of her head from where she said “she had been hit with a lamp by her husband.’’

Detective Ben Lopez was assigned to investigate the case as potential domestic violence. But when Lopez interviewed Stephanie four days after the incident, she changed her story, police said.

“She said after she calmed down she realized that the lamp she thought Chris hit her with had possibly fallen off the piece of furniture it was on and hit her. She said the lamp was not broken and she thinks it would have broken if Chris had hit her with it,’’ Lopez wrote in a report. “Stephanie told me she does not want to pursue any charges against Chris and she now thinks Chris did not hit her with the lamp.’’

In an interview with the Weekly, Stephanie Harris said she never told police that her husband had struck her with a lamp. She said she ran off the road and struck a neighbor’s fence while looking for her cell phone as she was driving away from the house after the argument.

The Arlington report also quotes her as saying that Chris’ family was trying to get him “into some kind of rehab.’’ When asked about that in an interview, Stephanie said “the real issue is he is bipolar and was off his medication.’’

Chris, meanwhile, left Arlington and headed toward his parents’ property north of Hillsboro, a quaint town of about 8,000 in Hill County. Once there, Stephanie said, Chris argued with his mother, who then called the police because he had a gun and she was “worried about him.’’ Documents released by the Hill County sheriff’s department make no mention of a gun.

So what happens next? Might the six cases against Harris in Hill County evaporate like the one in Arlington? Officials said that even if his mother refuses to testify against him, they’ll still have the testimony of police officers Harris is accused of injuring or threatening.

And district attorney Dent says “who he is or who he is not wouldn’t make any difference’’ in how the case is handled.

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