When D.C. police arrested Johnny Ray Harris during a bank robbery May 8, he told them that he had robbed five Washington banks and tried to rob two others in the last two months -- all to support his heroin habit, investigators say.
The next day, Harris appeared in D.C. Superior Court for a bond hearing. Judge Gladys Kessler released him on personal recognizance, and ordered him to enter the city's drug abuse program and do something for his habit.
Within a week of his release, police say, Harris robbed one bank and tried to rob another.
Last Monday, the day he was supposed to appear in court for another hearing, Harris allegedly tried to rob the American Security Bank branch at 3500 Georgia Ave. NW. A teller refused to honor his note and he left.
Two days later, he allegedly gave a note to a teller at the American Security branch office at 3839 Minnesota Ave. NE and walked out with an undisclosed amount of money.
Harris, 26, still is not enrolled in the drug abuse program. Instead, he is a fugitive who police say should be considered armed and dangerous.
"Who is going to be responsible if he kills somebody?" asked Detective William Wagner, who said Harris was seen with a handgun during at least two robberies.
"It's like hitting your head against the wall," said Wagner. "We finally lock him up after two months, and they turn around and let him go. Now we've got to start all over again," Wagner said. "It's frustrating."
Kessler said in an interview that she does not recall the Harris case. Court records show that she released Harris without requiring him to post a bond when he appeared before her May 9.
"I must have handled 50 cases" that day, Kessler said.
When Harris appeared before her, only one charge had been filed against him -- attempted robbery of the American Security Bank branch at 822 East Capitol St. NE, the bank in which he was arrested.
It is standard procedure for prosecutors to file only one charge at the time of the arrest and postpone bringing other charges until the defendant is indicted by a grand jury.
However, prosecutors are permitted to tell the judge at the bond hearing about other possible charges that might be filed.
Kessler said she does not recall whether the prosecutor told her that Harris had stated involvement in other bank robberies or attempted robberies.
Detective Charles Dunn said that when he turned the case over to the U.S. attorney's office on May 9, he told officials that Harris was a suspect in the other six cases and that he had a drug problem. Dunn said he placed into the court file a copy of Harris's statement.
Robert W. Ogren, principal assistant U.S. attorney, said the usual procedure in such cases would be to ask the judge to require the defendant to post a cash bond.
He said yesterday that prosecutors are trying to find out what happened in the case, but had been unable over the weekend to reach the assistant U.S. attorney who handled the Harris case.
"The guy obviously should not have been released," Ogren said. "The question is whether we did all we could have done" to try to keep him in custody.
Robert H. Haas, the lawyer who represented Harris at the hearing, said the prosecutor did not ask the judge to impose a cash bond. He said the prosecutor also did not mention Harris' alleged involvement in the other cases.
"I was a little surprised myself that a greater effort wasn't made [by the prosecutor] to have a money bond imposed," Haas said. "I suppose speaking in defense of the government . . . it can be pretty hectic in there. It may not necessarily have been the fault of the prosecutor in the courtroom."
Before setting bond, Kessler said, she always reads the background report prepared by the Pretrial Services Agency, a court unit that makes bond recommendations to judges after interviewing defendants, checking their community ties and possible previous criminal records.
The pretrial agency report on Harris said that he had four previous convictions, the most recent being for robbery in 1975, and that he had been paroled from prison March 11.
The report also noted that he was a lifelong Washington resident who lived with his mother at 2300 Hartford St. SE, apartment 102, that he had a heroin problem, and that he was unemployed.
The agency suggested that a hearing be held to determine whether his release would pose a threat to community safety. Haas said not such request was made.
The agency also recommended that Harris be released on personal recognizance with the requirements that he report to his parole officer immediately and that he enroll in the District's drug abuse program. Kessler agreed, and so ordered.
Pretrial Services officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.
In the District, the vast majority of defendants are released before trial and most of them are released on personal recognizance.
Although Harris was charged with a federal offense, he appeared in Superior Court for his initial bond hearing because it occurred on a Saturday. Magistrates in U.S. District Court do not normally hold bond hearings on the weekends, and instead Superior Court judges sit in for them.
Detective Wagner said police have linked Harris to the nine cases through eyewitnesses, by matching Harris handwriting to the handwriting on notes given to the tellers, through hidden bank camera photos of Harris inside some of the banks as well as Harris's statements to police.
Wagner said that Harris told officers that he became addicted after he was paroled from prison and began sampling the strong Iranian heroin that has flowed into the District in recent months.
While being questioned at police headquarters, Harris "threw up . . . [and] had withdrawals," Wagner said.
"He was robbing two banks a day just to get money to support his habit," Wagner said.
On May 8, the day Harris was arrested, police said he first held up the Columbia First Federal Savings and Loan Association office at 730 11th St. NW. about noon.
Twenty minutes later, police said, Harris tried to rob the American Security office on East Capitol and was arrested inside the bank before he could get away.
When police searched him, officers said they found $5,000 -- the same amount of money that had been taken in the Columbia Federal holdup less than an hour earlier.