It was May 14, the day after Mother’s Day, and Tanika Wilson saw her 16-year-old son off to school. But when Dawnta Harris didn’t arrive, his mother panicked.
He had been in trouble and was on home release and electronic monitoring in Baltimore City over stolen-car charges after a stay at a secure juvenile detention center, his mother said.
For more than a week, Wilson tried to help authorities find Harris, she said, giving them his cellphone number, school contacts, an address 20 minutes from their West Baltimore home where she knew he hung out with new acquaintances she didn’t like.
Until early Tuesday, when her only son called collect from jail and told her he was being charged as an adult.
Minutes earlier, she had heard on the news that a 16-year-old had been arrested and charged as an adult with murder in the death of a Baltimore County police officer who had been mowed down in a stolen Jeep.
“My heart dropped,” Wilson said.
“My son is not a killer. He’s not a violent type of person,” Wilson said. “He’s scared. He’s afraid.”
Harris was the first of four teens now charged as adults with murder in the death of Officer Amy Caprio. The others are 15, 16 and 17.
Caprio arrived Monday morning in the Perry Hall area after a neighbor’s 911 call about a Jeep that appeared suspicious and then a burglary at a nearby home, police have said.
Harris, prosecutors said in court filings, told a detective he was in the driver’s seat of the Jeep waiting for the others when he saw the officer and tried to flee, with Caprio following. On a cul-de-sac, she left her vehicle and ordered him out of the Jeep, Harris and witnesses said, according to the court filings.
He partially opened his door, but then closed it, the court files state, and drove at Caprio, hitting her. During the encounter she fired a shot, police officials later said, and a bullet hole was found in the Jeep windshield.
Caprio, who had been on the county force for nearly four years, died of her injuries.
Attorney J. Wyndal Gordon, who volunteered to represent Harris, said the teen was “in survival mode” because he feared more gunshots could be coming.
“This was an accident,” he said during a news conference Thursday.
Sitting Wednesday in the office of one Gordon, Wilson agreed to speak publicly for the first time about her son.
Gordon would not allow her to comment on the pending case.
“No one can escape the tragedy that a life was lost. That is not lost on the mother nor myself,” Gordon said.
“We want people to hold off on prejudgment,” Gordon said. “We look forward to challenging a lot of the evidence that has been presented,” he said.
Police officials have said Caprio’s body-worn camera was working during the encounter. Attorney Warren Brown, who also is representing Harris, demanded Thursday that officials release footage from Caprio’s body camera. He said he and Gordon, who have not yet seen the footage, believe “a lot of misconceptions” about the case would be put to rest by a public release.
The state’s attorney for Baltimore County had said Tuesday that he was recommending police not publicly release the video in order to avoid tainting potential jurors should the case go to trial. Scott Shellenberger, the state’s attorney in the county, was asked about releasing the video to the public during a news conference and said “I feel strongly that all defendants have a right to a fair jury trial,” and that a replaying of the video “over and over again” could have an effect on people who might someday be called for jury duty in the case.
Wilson talked about the months she said she spent asking for more help from juvenile authorities and programs to help control and guide her son, even asking, she said, to have his home detention revoked to get him off the streets before the streets swallowed him.
“I didn’t want my son hurt, locked up, dead or anything,” she said. “But the courts weren’t taking this seriously.”
In recent months, she said, he was in and out of court on stolen-car cases but no violent crimes. And she was at his hearings so often that after a year she was taken off full-time work as a housekeeper in a Baltimore hospital and converted to part-time as needed, she said, because she kept having to call off to be at court. “I would sit there time and time again, each time pleading with the judge to help me,” she said.
Her pleas, she said, included asking for his detention. “I was with the state even though this was my son,” she said.
“I begged with the court for help,” she said. “I wanted them to send him to a program where he could earn his GED, somewhere out of this city,” Wilson said.
At a Baltimore County news conference Tuesday, authorities confirmed Wilson was working with authorities to locate her son in the week before the fatal exchange in Perry Hall and had called them to say her son had gone missing from his monitoring. Sam J. Abed, Maryland’s secretary of juvenile services, said Wilson contacted court services to tell them that Harris had not shown up for school and shared contacts and spots to look for him.
Harris had been arrested April 17 and was housed in a secure detention center until a May 10 hearing at which a judge ordered him released on electronic monitoring, Abed said at the news conference. After Harris’s release, Abed said his compliance with conditions of his release “were poor” and the office requested a hearing on May 18 to revoke his home detention. But that hearing was continued to another date, Abed said.
And on the day after Mother’s Day, Harris went missing.
Wilson said she repeatedly asked why authorities did not simply use her son’s electronic monitoring bracelet to track him. She said she was told that the bracelet did not have GPS capabilities but rather had a chip to alert authorities whenever he was away from an electronic monitoring box in their home.
The changes she saw in her son, she said, started in the weeks before his 16th birthday early this year. And they worsened and included car thefts, she said, after he started hanging with a crowd of teens who lived in East Baltimore, catching a bus to meet them.
“I didn’t know these teens. I didn’t know their families. I would go there looking for him. I would post on Facebook trying to find him. I was frantic,” said Wilson, 33, a single mother who also has a 4-year-old daughter.
Wilson said her son did not get involved in crime in West Baltimore where they lived because “too many people here know me and they know him. He knew he wouldn’t be able to act out like that here,” she said.
Rachel Chason contributed to this report.