By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Ronnie Lionel Harris was playing chess in the day room of the Fairfax County jail when news broke of the Prince George's County police officer killed by an alleged car thief. Hours later, he watched footage of his son, Ronnie L. White, being taken into custody, accused of the crime.
And two days later, he was on the telephone with White's mother, Angie, when she got the call about the 19-year-old's death in his Upper Marlboro cell.
"Ronnie's dead! Ronnie's dead! Ronnie's dead!" she screamed into the receiver.
Since that day in June, Harris has reflected on the circumstances of his son's death, his shortcomings as a father and how his absence during years in prison may have helped seal his son's fate. It pains him that he missed the filled-to-capacity funeral, where a minister admonished mourners for failing to give White a strong moral foundation, a good education, support and guidance.
"I know that if I had been there for Ronnie all those years, this wouldn't have happened to him," Harris, 45, said in his first interview since White's death. "When he was with me, he was positive. He wanted to do things. We had a business together. We had plans. When he was with me, he was protected because I wouldn't have let anything happen to him. He was my son."
Harris has also been poring over details of the crime his son was accused of committing and looking for every tidbit of information about White's death by strangulation in a jail where father and son once served time simultaneously. He's also catching up with White's friends to discover as much as he can about his son's last days.
He holds himself responsible for who his son became, a teenager who had been arrested several times, beginning at age 14. He also holds responsible some of the people who he said are lining up to sue the county, including relatives who did little to raise his son while he was gone.
Last week, Harris met with Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D) to ask some questions nagging him: Why didn't police also arrest the man in the car with White when Cpl. Richard S. Findley was killed? Why has no one been held accountable for White's death in a maximum security cell apparently accessible only by prison guards?
"He issued a heartfelt sort of plea to have justice done in both cases," Ivey said. "I thought that for a guy who has had somewhat of a tough life, there was a certain eloquence about the way he expressed himself."
Harris also reached out to a reporter to tell his story. "People aren't asking the right questions, and it is my responsibility to try to clear my son's name," he said.
The story of Harris and White is a familiar one in some neighborhoods. Harris, a high school dropout who had his first tangles with the law as a teenager, and Angie White weren't married. When Ronnie was 2, Harris was arrested for armed robbery.
"You know how I got caught?" he recalled. "I had gone to California because there was an armed robbery charge for me here. But I came back because it was his birthday. I had a party for him, got him some presents. We had a good time."
Police found out he was in the District and took him into custody the day after the party. He was convicted, sentenced to 18 to 54 years and sent to the District's prison at Lorton.
Harris's sister would see him every visiting day. She often brought White with her.
"Ronnie learned how to run at Lorton," Harris said, laughing. "Angie would bring him, too. The inmates loved him. They would come in and play with him. They used to have fairs with ponies and clowns on what they called Family Day. I had a friend who always worked with the ponies. He used to just give Ronnie a pony. There would be a line of kids and two ponies, but he would let Ronnie stay on one of the ponies because he liked Ronnie so much."
When White was 11, Lorton prison was closed, and Harris was shipped to a facility in Sussex, Va., and then to prisons in Georgia, Ohio, Arizona, Colorado, Kansas and Kentucky. He was released in November 2005.
When he returned home, it took him two months to find Angie and his son, Harris recalled. Their first meeting was dinner at a seafood restaurant a stone's throw from the Laurel apartment complex where Findley was killed, he said.
"From that day forward, we were together," Harris said.
He started a delivery company, Nor Express, for "Ron spelled backwards." he said. White, who had dropped out of Laurel High School, accompanied him in delivering parcels. They got to know each other.
"We loved being together. It was a mutual feeling. He had missed me, and I had missed him," Harris said. "We bonded. He was a part of me. He would 'Daddy' this and 'Daddy' that. You could tell that he had wanted to use that word for years but couldn't because I hadn't been there."
His return didn't keep White out of trouble, however. In 2006, White was jailed in Prince George's on assault and armed robbery charges, which were later dropped. Harris went to jail on separate abduction charges but was acquitted by a jury.
"We were both in Upper Marlboro [jail] together, but we didn't know it," Harris said. "He was in 10 Block, and I was in 6 Block. Angie came to see him and saw my name when she looked him up because he would sometimes use my name as an alias. I used his name when I was on the run. When he grew up, I don't know where he learned it from, but he used my name."
White went back to jail last year after pleading guilty to gun and drug charges, and Harris was locked up in the District for a parole violation. By early 2008, both were out of jail. "He was working with me," Harris said. "He would get up early in the morning. He paid attention. He had a genuine interest in not being in the street. Ronnie didn't want to be in the street. That was just what he knew."
Harris last saw his son April 29, the day before the father was arrested with a tow truck operator who had a stolen car on his truck. Harris said he called the tow truck after his van broke down and had no part in stealing the car.
Harris was taken back to jail, this time in Fairfax, where he said he called his son frequently. During their phone conversations, Harris and White discussed expanding the company, buying a second van and doubling their workload by using White as a driver, too. Harris hoped the two would grow closer.
These days, Harris talks to his son at his grave site in Washington National Cemetery. He planted grass seed on the plot, which has partially sprouted. He adorns it with white roses, balloons and holiday decorations such as a toy for Halloween and a basket for Thanksgiving. He is saving to buy a $4,500 headstone. "It will have his picture on it," he said.
Since his release from jail three weeks ago, Harris has been living with his sister and trying to jump-start his business.
He knows that to many people his son is not a sympathetic figure, but he says he deserved due process, not death at the hands of a misguided avenger.
"Ronnie was my son, and I loved him," he said. "I don't believe he did those things. I don't believe he was driving the truck that hit Officer Findley. But even if he did, he did not deserve this. This was wrong, and I've got to do what I can for my son. That's all I can do for him now."