Desperate search for Alexandria activist

September 28, 2011

Former lightweight boxing champion Tony Suggs was scheduled to speak to inmates at the Alexandria jail, and he had asked his longtime friend and mentor for help.

Lenwood “Lenny” Harris showed up at the recreation center where Suggs works, and the two men talked about Suggs’s addiction-to-redemption story, a story he was to deliver the next day. Then Suggs stepped away briefly.

“When I came back, he was gone,” Suggs said. That was the evening of Sept. 21. Harris didn’t go home to his wife that night, didn’t show up for Suggs’s talk at the jail and hasn’t been seen since.

Police suspect foul play. Investigators released a picture of a tattooed man who used Harris’s bank card at a money machine on King Street early the next morning, hours after he disappeared. Police found Harris’s cellphone discarded on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

“We believe he is in danger,” said Ashley Hildebrandt, an Alexandria police spokeswoman.


Lenwood “Lenny” Harris (Courtesy of Jason Felder)

Friends and relatives are conducting search parties and passing out fliers with Harris’s picture. A candlelight vigil drew hundreds; a reward fund has reached $3,700. Some friends are wearing T-shirts with Harris’s image and the words, “Have you seen my friend?”

His absence is acutely felt in the community where he was raised. Harris, a popular civic activist and businessman, is a longtime fixture at Alexandria community meetings. He often speaks for the underprivileged and is a regular at city recreation centers, where he leads children in outdoor activities and helps them find tutors.

“People don’t just vanish into thin air,” said Alicia Hughes, an Alexandria City Council member and a friend of Harris’s. “No one has seen him or heard from him. It’s quite bizarre.”

Surveillance video from the Charles Houston Recreation Center shows Harris checking his phone while talking to Suggs about 9 p.m., according to people familiar with the video’s contents. He then walked out, those people said, got into his car and headed toward the bridge. Police identified the car as a light blue 1994 Toyota Corolla with the Virginia license plate XKG-8385.

Police said Harris, who stands 6-foot-1, weighs 210 pounds and has dark hair and brown eyes, was wearing a gray sweat top and gray sweat pants when he was last seen.

During their conversation at the recreation center, Suggs said, the men discussed the challenges of helping young people but also agreed that they remained passionate about the work.

Harris left without saying goodbye, Suggs said. “Normally he would say, ‘I’m outta here; I’m gone,’ ” Suggs said. He said Harris seemed “a little worried.”

“He wasn’t talkative or joking,” Suggs said of Harris, his close friend and his sponsor in drug treatment programs. “Usually we’re real playful, talking junk to each other.”

Harris’ wife, Deborah Harris, said she has been sticking close to friends and her phone in recent days, praying for good news.

“I have no idea where he could be,” Deborah Harris said. “I can’t even fathom someone hurting him.”

The couple have a daughter and live in the Del Ray house in which Lenwood Harris was raised. They were just back from a vacation in Aruba, where they celebrated his 53rd birthday and their 19th wedding anniversary. Harris had recently landed a lucrative contract for his pest-control business, Deborah Harris said, and their lives were going smoothly.

Harris, who made an unsuccessful run for City Council in 2007, is known in Alexandria as a fighter for those in need. He co-founded the nonprofit Operation H.O.P.E. Inc., which offers tutoring, mentoring and career development.

Jason Felder, who has been friends with Harris for more than three decades, said Harris has an energy and optimism that is contagious.

“There’s no way that if you encounter him you would not be endeared to him,” Felder said.

Felder and others close to Harris wonder whether his disappearance might be connected to his outreach work. Did someone Harris was trying to help do something to harm him?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Felder said.

Deborah Harris said she remains hopeful that her husband will return.

“We hope the next gathering will be a party,” she said.

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