When a popular Charlotte-area teacher and coach died suddenly this month, the entire school community mourned his loss. Someone painted a large rock outside Union Academy Charter School in his honor, scrawling “<3 YOU COACH” in big blue letters. Union Academy officials declared that his motto, “All Love ... No Fear,” would be “forever a part of who we are.”
Then came a shocking revelation. A sheriff across the state announced at a Wednesday news conference that Barney Dale Harris, a beloved presence at the Monroe, N.C., high school since 2017, had been killed in a gun battle while trying to steal drugs and cash from a Mexican drug cartel.
Authorities found the body of Harris, 40, who taught Spanish and coached varsity men’s basketball and track at Union Academy, inside a mobile home in Green Level, N.C., on April 8. He was wearing a bulletproof vest that failed to save his life during what Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson likened to “an old Western shootout.”
In its aftermath, 30 shell casings littered the interior and exterior of the residence and three nearby mobile homes were scarred with bullet holes. Deputies also found a second man, reportedly a cartel drug runner living in the trailer that operated as a “stash house,” shot execution style.
“Let me say this. Many, many times you don’t really know a person,” Johnson told local television station ABC 11. “And this is probably one of those examples.”
BREAKING NEWS: A Union county teacher and coach has been killed in a shootout with a Mexican drug cartel. Authorities said Barney Harris had "another side that most people didn’t see -- one that was involved in the dangerous and deadly drug world." pic.twitter.com/b8WwLNrnun— Mikaya Thurmond (@WRALMikaya) April 14, 2021
Harris’s wife of 21 years could not be reached for comment on Thursday. Union Academy Charter School representatives, meanwhile, didn’t immediately return a phone call from The Washington Post.
The teacher and coach appeared to have had at least two run-ins with law enforcement in recent months. In August, prosecutors in New Hanover County, N.C., hit him with a misdemeanor weapons charge related to carrying a concealed weapon. A month later, a man with his name and date of birth received a misdemeanor drug possession citation in Oklahoma after a state trooper allegedly found a plastic container with marijuana residue inside a car he was driving.
In the encounter that would lead to his death, Harris and his brother-in-law, 32-year-old Steven Alexander Stewart Jr. of Wadesboro, N.C., allegedly plotted to rob the drug runner who lived in the mobile home about two hours from Charlotte. The pair had been following cartel members to try to determine where they kept their money, Johnson said.
“I can tell you the Interstate 85 and Interstate 40 corridor has really caused Alamance County to be a great place to deposit their drugs and ship them elsewhere into N.C.,” the sheriff said, adding that authorities had seized a growing amount of cocaine and drug money in recent months.
Investigators believe Harris arrived at the trailer while the alleged drug runner who lived there, 18-year-old Alonso Beltran Lara, wasn’t home. The teacher, dressed in a bulletproof vest, face covering and gloves, went inside to wait for him.
It’s not clear how exactly the violence unfolded. But just before 1 a.m., multiple 911 calls came in from mobile home park residents reporting gunshots in the area. None of the residents were injured, but as the bullets flew, they punctured a handful of homes. One projectile hit a power box, knocking out a trailer’s electricity. People were “totally scared to death,” Johnson said.
Deputies arrived to find Harris dead in a bedroom, still in his bulletproof vest. Lara’s hands and feet were bound and he had been shot twice in the back of the head, the sheriff said. He was alive but grievously injured; he later died at a hospital. Authorities did not disclose who fired the shots that killed him.
Johnson said the trailer appeared to have been “ransacked.” During an hours-long search of the crime scene, he said, investigators uncovered a kilogram of cocaine and $7,000 in cash.
Camera footage revealed several vehicles, including one that led them to Stewart. Three days after the shootout, deputies showed up at his home, where they discovered guns and “related objects that were tied to the crime scene,” Johnson said.
Stewart was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and possession of a firearm by a felon. He is being held without bond.
News of the events that led to Harris’s death had an immediate impact in the community where he lived and worked. Union Academy Charter School appears to have removed his page on its website, where he had written about his excitement for “a great year with great students.” A cached version of the page added that he served as a freshman adviser and welcomed “the bright minds and endless growth opportunities!!!” It also boasted about his wife and three children.
Before the news conference where the sheriff said that Harris was leading a double life, his family had shared their grief with local station WSOC-TV. His wife said she was heartbroken but found comfort in knowing he had done “everything God wanted him to, and God wanted him back home.”
An online fundraiser set up to honor “the Life and Legacy of Barney Dale Harris” and support his loved ones stopped taking donations at some point between Wednesday and Thursday, frozen at $23,005.
The mayhem inside the mobile home remains under investigation, with the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Mexican authorities reportedly having played a role. A warrant has been issued for a second man who lived in the trailer, and the district attorney said he expects additional charges and arrests.
The sheriff, meanwhile, warned that the violence might not be over.
“To this day, I’ll tell you right now as sheriff, I’m still worried about some retaliation,” Johnson said. “Because the Mexican cartel, they don’t forget. They’re going to pay somebody back somewhere.”