Justin Ross Harris, 33, known to his friends as Ross, worked as a web developer for Home Depot. He earned $61,200 per year and hoped to advance in the company to become a vice president. Leanna Harris, 30, was a licensed dietitian who often worked out of her home. The family had all the trappings of an upwardly mobile middle-class family: a nice home, late-model vehicles and the latest computers and phones. They even had a small terrier dog.
And then there was their son, Cooper. A cute 22-month-old toddler, he was known for his wide eyes and sunny disposition.
“He was a little chatterbox sometimes,” says a parishioner at Stonebridge Church, where the Harrises have attended services for the past two years. “He loved to talk to anyone, always with a huge smile on his face. He had every nursery worker wrapped around his little finger.”
But the image of the perfect family was shattered when Cooper died in a hot car on June 18, leading to Ross’s arrest for murder and child cruelty. Damning evidence began to come out daily: his explicit texts to women as his son lay dying, the insurance policies on the boy and Ross’s web searches about suffocation in a hot car. Ross has pleaded not guilty to all charges and remains in jail without bond. His attorney, Maddox Kilgore, calls Cooper’s death a “tragic accident.”
“We were shocked,” says the church friend. “I’m still not sure that I believe everything they’re saying about him, because they really seemed to love that boy.”
They Wanted More Children
If Leanna had her way, Cooper would not be an only child, according to the church friend, who says as recently as last winter, Leanna told her she wanted more kids.
“She told me that she wanted an even number of kids, so each kid would have someone to play with,” says the friend. “She said that she ideally wanted two boys and two girls, but whatever happened would happen.”
But somewhere along the line, the plans changed.
“I think it was in May when she told me that ‘now is not the time for more kids,’ ” says the friend. “I didn’t press her to find out what had changed.”
Still, Leanna was an active volunteer in the church nursery.
“She was great with kids,” says the friend. “She had a way with them. That’s why this all comes as a surprise.”
He Was Socially Awkward
During a probable cause hearing on July 3, prosecutors painted Ross Harris as an unfaithful husband who felt trapped by his family, noting that he used the app Kik to exchange explicit photos with several women. Friends tell PEOPLE that his fascination with online chats went back for years.
“He was socially awkward,” says college friend Brett Wagner. “He was deep into chatting online, even back in college. He wasn’t great around women in person, but he was pretty witty online.”
Adds another college pal: “He always had a ton of computers, hard drives, all that, in his bedroom. He played online games and chatted with people all the time. That was his thing. But he was single when I knew him best. Single guys always use the web to find girls.”
The Latest Developments
Police have remained mum about some of the investigation details, although a team of detectives are poring over his online history, Detective Phil Stoddard said in the probable cause hearing.
“We’ve only just scratched the surface,” said Stoddard.
On Wednesday, police returned to the parking lot where Cooper died, parking the family’s Hyundai SUV in the same spot that it had been parked on June 18. They put Cooper’s rear-facing car seat in the vehicle and started testing everything from temperature to the odor inside the car.
Those who knew the Harrises are still processing the odd interactions between Ross and Leanna after Cooper’s death.
When Leanna arrived at the police station, Ross became emotional, according to Stoddard.
“It was all about him,” Stoddard said. ” ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me. Why am I being punished for this?’ It was all very one-sided. He talked about losing his job and said, ‘What are we going to do? I’ll be charged with a felony.’ ”
According to Stoddard, Leanna later asked her husband, “Did you say too much?” (Leanna has not been charged with any crime.)
The testimony came as a surprise to the church friend.
“I would have imagined that they would have been more about Cooper than themselves,” she says. “It’s all so twisted. I can’t make sense of it.”