Shocked church members mourn former La Plata pastor

By Bethany Rodgers
The Maryland Independent
Thursday, September 2, 2010

Shocked and grieving is how Leanne Boyer, who attends the Point Ministries in La Plata, describes her congregation's reaction to the news that its pastor had been burned to death -- allegedly by his son.

Ronald W. Harris Sr., 58, of Hughesville died Aug. 23 at a Florida hospital, one day after allegedly being doused in gasoline and set on fire by his 37-year-old son, Ronald W. Harris Jr., said Donna Wood, a spokeswoman for the Polk County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office.

According to an arrest affidavit from the sheriff's office, the elder Harris emerged from the Davenport, Fla., home that he owned engulfed in flames after an argument about "material things."

"My son did this to me," Harris told neighbors who rushed to put out the fire with a hose, the affidavit stated.

Deputies with the Polk County Sheriff's Office responded about 7:20 p.m. Aug. 22. Harris was flown to the Orlando Regional Medical Center with severe burns on 65 percent of his body, Wood said.

Ronald W. Harris Jr., who police said fled the scene but who was found nearby, initially was charged with attempted first-degree murder; the charge was changed to first-degree murder, Wood said. Harris Jr. also faces an arson charge, she said.

In Maryland, those who knew the elder Harris remembered him as more than a dedicated pastor. Church members also recalled that his influence extended beyond the pulpit.

Harris, who had been pastor at New Hope Church of God in Waldorf for about 15 years, started the Point Ministries this year after living in Florida for a short time.

Church members met Aug. 23 to mourn and share stories about the pastor.

Boyer said she had known Harris for about 11 years, first encountering him as a pastor at New Hope. His heartfelt, down-to-earth Sunday messages impressed her and other churchgoers who heard him, she said.

But Harris's influence wasn't confined to Sundays, Boyer said, adding that his friends remembered the help he gave them in times of illness, divorce and joblessness.

"He just went where he was needed," Boyer said.

Harris Jr. is being held without bond at the Polk County jail, Wood said.

According to his arrest affidavit, the younger Harris admitted to filling a glass with gasoline, splashing it in his father's face in the bathroom and then lighting him on fire.

Harris told police he was tired of his father wearing him down and being verbally abusive, and intended to kill him, saying he "should have shot him with a gun instead," the affidavit stated.

Polk County sheriff's officers have responded to the Davenport home 16 times since October 2008, mostly for reports of family disturbances involving the elder Harris and his son, Wood said. Those incidents didn't lead to any arrests, she said.

According to online court records, the younger Harris was previously charged in Charles County with second-degree assault, trespassing, theft and malicious destruction of property. He wasn't convicted in those cases, and the charges were placed on inactive dockets.

A memorial service for Harris is scheduled from 10 a.m. to noon Sunday at the Port Tobacco Players' theater in La Plata.

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