Antonio Lee Harris, who has a history of gun convictions and probation violations, had been charged in an armed carjacking in November and was suspected in the rape of a 12-year-old girl when a Richmond judge approved his release on bond and his placement on home electronic monitoring.
Harris, 21, is now suspected of committing two more carjackings after he let the batteries die in his GPS monitor and went “AWOL” in December, according to city officials.
It is unclear how much General District Judge David M. Hicks knew about Harris’ criminal history or whether he knew about the rape investigation when he made the bond decision. Hicks declined to comment and said it would be improper to do so on pending matters.
Richmond prosecutors declined to say whether the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office agreed to the terms of Harris’ release on bond, and it could not be determined from an examination of the court record. The defense attorney in the case also declined to comment.
“It’s still a very, very sensitive ongoing investigation,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin said Thursday. “Even though the bond matters have been concluded for now, it is part of a larger ongoing picture to hopefully produce the strongest case possible.”
Harris was arrested Sunday and charged with the carjacking of a Lyft driver on Friday night in South Richmond. Police investigators also suspect him of carrying out another carjacking in Richmond on Jan. 24, but he has not been charged in that case.
Police have been investigating whether Friday’s holdup of the Lyft driver on Berwyn Street is connected to four reports of random gunfire over the weekend about 2 miles north in the Hillside Court public housing community, including the fatal shooting on Saturday of 3-year-old Sharmar Hill Jr. as he was playing outside his home.
Before Sharmar was shot, police responded three other times to Hillside Court late Friday and early Saturday for reports of random gunfire. No one was reported injured in those incidents, but police said a vehicle and a doorway were damaged at Hillside.
Police said earlier this week that all of those incidents could be connected, but Chief William C. Smith emphasized in an interview on Thursday that investigators do not know if Harris was involved in the death of Sharmar or whether he was at the scene of the crime.
Smith said the entire police department is aware of the importance of the investigation.
“We give 100% on every single homicide,” the chief said.
He added: “A child’s death, it impacts us differently.”
Smith also called on the public to provide investigators with key information to help them solve the tragic case. Anyone with information is asked to contact police Detective J. Fultz at (804) 646-3929 or Crime Stoppers at (804) 780-1000.
A fuller picture emerged this week of Harris’ alleged activities over the past few months, before and after he was placed on home electronic monitoring. An examination of court records and interviews with city officials and law enforcement authorities has established the following timeline:
Less than two weeks before Harris was arrested and charged with the first carjacking, a Richmond detective on Nov. 10 began investigating a report that Harris had raped a 12-year-old girl, according to a police affidavit filed in Richmond Circuit Court.
The affidavit was seeking a DNA sample from Harris to compare with evidence recovered from the alleged sexual assault. Harris has not been charged in the case, and authorities are awaiting DNA results as part of their investigation.
Another police affidavit gave the following account of the Nov. 20 carjacking:
The victim said he agreed to give three people a ride in his pickup truck in exchange for heroin and that after he drove them around for about 3½ hours, he decided to drop them off.
The driver told police that his front-seat passenger had a gun and told him, “Pull over, pull over right here or I’ll shoot you.” After the driver complied with that demand, his phone was taken and the three people left in his pickup.
Later, police spotted the stolen pickup and tried to stop it. The vehicle fled and after it was abandoned, police spotted Harris walking on the street. His clothes matched the description of those worn by the armed carjacker, the affidavit said.
Harris admitted to police that he was driving the pickup when police were behind him but said he did not know he was being pursued, according to the affidavit.
Harris was charged with carjacking and felony eluding police and was granted bond on Dec. 5 and given permission to be placed on home electronic monitoring. The program is administered by the Adult Pretrial Services Division, part of the Richmond Department of Justice Services.
However, Harris was held in jail through Dec. 17 because the defendant’s mother said her son could not live with her, which initially made him ineligible for the home monitoring program.
Someone else agreed to host Harris at a home in Hillside Court that is one block from where Sharmar would be shot several weeks later, according to court papers and a city official.
A GPS device was placed on Harris’ ankle on Dec. 18. He reported as instructed the following day for a meeting at the home electronic monitoring office.
A few days later, on Christmas, staff members with Pretrial Services received a technological alert that Harris had moved outside the mandated area. Ultimately, Harris let the battery die and did not respond to staff members’ efforts to contact him, the officials said. With the battery dead, his location could no longer be tracked.
On Dec. 26, a written command known as a capias was issued ordering the Richmond police to arrest Harris because he had violated the terms of his supervision and was “AWOL.”
On Sunday, two days after the carjacking of the Lyft driver, police spotted Smith outside a nightclub in downtown Richmond and chased him on foot, Chief Smith said Thursday.
Harris got into a car and fled, leading to a vehicle pursuit, Smith said. At some point, he got out of the car and officers apprehended him.
Smith said he could not immediately say whether his officers were actively searching for Harris from Dec. 26, the day the capias was issued for his arrest, until he was captured on Sunday.
“We’re always looking for persons who have warrants,” Smith said.
The chief added that the home electronic monitoring program is a good one, but that “Mr. Harris actively worked to subvert that process.”
He said there are times “when we allow people the benefit of the doubt when maybe we shouldn’t.”
“It’s easy to say that in hindsight,” he said.
But the chief did not second-guess Judge Hicks’ decision to release Harris on bond in December.
“I know that we are, as a city and a society, trying to look at alternatives to incarceration,” he said.
Smith also pointed out that the victim in the Nov. 20 carjacking initially had been driving around with the other individuals for hours before his pickup was stolen, a fact that might have been considered by the judge when he made the bond decision.
“Everybody involved knew one another,” Smith said.
The city’s Pretrial Services division has an average of 125 to 130 individuals on home electronic monitoring at any one time, city officials said Thursday.
The officials also acknowledged that some of those suspects are charged with violent crimes, but they said they could not immediately provide a list of all the charges those suspects face.
Meanwhile, Harris appeared in court on Wednesday morning for another bond hearing, this time for the carjacking and firearm charges stemming from Friday’s holdup of the Lyft driver.
Richmond prosecutor Brooke Pettit said she argued against bond to General District Judge David E. Cheek Jr.
She told the judge that Harris had been out on home electronic monitoring and had violated those terms, indicating that he is a flight risk and danger to the community. She also told Cheek that a charge of carjacking carries a presumption against bond under Virginia law.
The judge ordered Harris to jail without bond.