The family of Cecil Elwood Harris believes that the decorated Navy flyer and retired Dominion National Bank executive was beaten by police before he was found dead Tuesday morning in a Fairfax County holding cell, the family's lawyer said yesterday.
Robert E. Manuel, who represents the family, said that relatives claim Harris was beaten and dispute the police version of the hanging. Harris, who was the Navy's second highest-ranking World War II flyer in terms of enemy planes shot down, was found hanged two hours after a magistrate refused to release him to family members.
Fairfax police spokesman Warren Carmichael said yesterday that the department is "investigating all circumstances regarding his Harris' arrest and incarceration."
Carmichael said, however, that the department had not received any complaint about use of excessive force in the incident.
Police have said that Harris, 65, hanged himself with his sweater. His body was discovered at 12:15 a.m. in a cell at the Groveton police station, about six hours after he had been arrested on a charge of drunken driving at the intersection of Rte. 1 and Mount Vernon Memorial Highway.
Police said that they had administered a breath test at the scene and it showed that Harris was presumed drunk under Virginia law. Police said they took Harris to the station on South Kings Highway after he had been checked by a rescue squad.
Manuel said the family members told him that Harris had not been drinking and was returning home in a pickup truck after feeding his daughter's horse at a stable near Woodbridge.
"There were no bottles or anything like that found in the truck," Manuel said.
The lawyer said that Harris' daughter witnessed her father's arrest and attempted to intervene, but was rebuffed by two of the five policemen on the scene. Manuel said he was uncertain if any family member actually had witnessed the alleged beating.
"I've not yet had a chance to get into all of the circumstances," said Manuel, "But one of the sons told me he called several times and attempted to get his father out, and believes he was beaten before he was found in the jail."
Harris is survived by his wife, Eva Marie Gabriel, two sons, Michael and Thomas, and two daughters, Shelby and Rebecca. Harris, a native of Faulkton, S.D., served for 27 years in the Navy. He was awarded the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals for his exploits as a fighter pilot in the Pacific during World War II. He was credited with shooting down 24 enemy aircraft.
Harris, who had headed the Navy's aviation periodicals and history staff, was a former vice president of the Dominion National Bank. He had attended the Naval Justice School and received a masters degree in education from American University.