Beloved but haunted by mistakes, Bates and Harris share similarities

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Eric Harris and Robert Bates couldn’t be more different, right?

Harris was born in Compton, Calif., and moved to Detroit before winding up in the Tulsa area.

Bates was born in Kansas City, but was adopted by a Tulsa family before he was a year old.

Harris “grew up hard,” according to his brother, Andre. Their father was in and out of prison, and as Andre described it, Eric inherited some of his father’s most unfavorable traits.

“He knew the hustle,” Andre told me once. “He would always go back to the hustle.”

Bates knew hustle, too, though not in the same way as Andre would describe Eric’s money-making ventures.

Bates became a police officer in the 1960s, but left the Tulsa Police Department after a year. He said he was taking college classes at night and his wife complained she never saw him. Before long, he was a millionaire insurance mogul, according to his pre-sentence investigation.

Eric was poor and black. He lived in north Tulsa, an area of the city seemingly ignored by development. Before his conviction, Bates lived in a large sandstone home in south Tulsa, a place of rapid growth and development.

In this undated photo provided by Smolen, Smolen & Roytman, PLLC, Eric Harris, right, poses with his brother Andre. Prosecutors charged Robert Bates, a reserve sheriff's deputy, with manslaughter Monday, April 13, 2015, in the death of Eric Harris who was fatally shot April 2 as he lay on the ground at the officer's feet a shooting that was certain to raise questions about the use of volunteer officers to supplement full-time police. (Courtesy of Andre Harris/Smolen, Smolen & Roytman, PLLC via AP)
Eric Harris, right, poses with his brother Andre. Courtesy.

They were worlds apart, until those worlds collided April 2, 2015, outside a north Tulsa Dollar General store. You know the story: Harris sold a gun to an undercover deputy, and other deputies quickly arrived to arrest the former convict.

Harris fled. Deputies chased, and at the end, as blood trickled out from under Harris’ right arm, Bates stood over the wounded man. The reserve deputy’s .357 revolver briefly lay at his feet. Bates had dropped the weapon, and it was quickly scooped up by another deputy.

“I shot him,” Bates said. “I’m sorry.”

Each man had witnesses testify during Tuesday’s four-hour sentencing hearing: Harris’ longtime girlfriend and 17-year-old son testified on his behalf. Bates’ wife Charlotte and two deputies he accompanied on task force raids testified for him.

To listen to that testimony, there wasn’t as much difference between the two men as you’d think.

They both were described as loving, and caring. They were described as the center of their families’ worlds. They were both depicted as generous, giving men.

Their families both worry they’ll be forever defined by their mistakes, rather than their good deeds.

Harris’ witnesses went first. Cathy Fraley, his longtime girlfriend and mother of his son, testified she was smitten with Harris when they first met through a mutual friend in the 90s, when she was a student at OU.

“Eric had a saying, ‘If I have it, then you have it,’” she said. “He was so funny, and so generous.”

She told a story of a time Eric, who had found a job working construction, came home in a pair of ratty shoes, not the nice work boots he wore when he left home. She said she asked Harris what happened, and he told her that a coworker had lamented not having a nice pair of boots.

Cathy Fraley was one of two people to give victim impact statements about the death of Eric Harris. DYLAN GOFORTH / The Frontier
Cathy Fraley was one of two people to give victim impact statements about the death of Eric Harris.
DYLAN GOFORTH / The Frontier

“I have more shoes,” she said Harris told her. “But those were the only shoes he had.”

“You know,” she told Assistant District Attorney Kevin Gray, “the moon doesn’t shine on its own, but it reflects light from the sun. I was able to shine because Eric brought that light to my life.”

Eric’s son Aidan, a tall, soft-spoken teenager, just graduated from high school in Tennessee, where he lives with his mother, Cathy. On Tuesday, Aidan testified that his dad told him repeatedly to “be kind to everyone.”

“He was someone who wanted everyone treated fairly,” Aidan said. “No one was more than anyone else, and no one was less.”

In the last 14 months since the Harris shooting, Bates has been portrayed in the media as a “pay to play cop,” someone who used his wealth and close relationship with former sheriff Stanley Glanz to gain access to high-profile assignments at the sheriff’s office. Glanz’s relationship with Bates ultimately led to his downfall and indictment on two misdemeanor counts, including withholding a report about Bates.

Aidan Fraley, 17, said his father, Eric Harris, taught him to respect others and not to make the mistakes he had made. DYLAN GOFORTH / The Frontier
Aidan Fraley, 17, said his father, Eric Harris, taught him to respect others and not to make the mistakes he had made. DYLAN GOFORTH / The Frontier

Bates’ family has pushed back against that assessment, calling him a loving family man who by force of will made himself a millionaire insurance executive.

“I am appalled” at the way Bates has been portrayed, his wife Charlotte said Tuesday.

She testified about how two years ago she awoke to see her husband putting his sheriff’s office uniform on after a violent tornado touched down in Sand Springs, killing one person and destroying dozens of mobile homes. He told her he needed to do whatever he could to help.

She told a story of how Bates, on his boat in Florida, pulled a Cuban refugee from a raft, then visited him in the hospital. Charlotte said he once bought food, clothes, and rented an apartment for a young, homeless mother.

Deputy Lance Ramsey, who said he served on more than 100 raids with Bates, told a story about how he was coaching a little league baseball team, but didn’t have money to buy equipment for the kids. Bates, he testified, asked him how much he needed, then wrote a check on the spot.

Critics may say Bates’ behavior in that case was likely motivated by his desire to serve on the drug task force. He also donated cars and expensive equipment to the sheriff’s office that was used by the task force, leading to the “pay to play” label.

However other instances in which Bates reportedly helped people had no apparent connection to his law enforcement duties.

Charlotte
Charlotte Bates. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Bates, Charlotte said, was a good man with no prior criminal record who had been defined by the accidental Harris shooting. In court Tuesday, she pleaded with District Judge Bill Musseman that her husband’s conviction and sentencing would forever define him, and she asked Musseman for leniency to preserve at least a piece of his legacy.

Cathy Fraley said she was afraid that attempts by Clark Brewster, Bates’ attorney, to paint Harris as a violent, drug-abusing, out-of-control ex-convict would always impact how people thought of her son’s father.

“He made mistakes,” Fraley said of Harris, “but Eric paid consequences.”

“He is grieving and he has suffered,” Charlotte said of Bates. “He has suffered like no man I’ve ever seen … He will lose everything. He doesn’t deserve that.”

The question of what Bates and Harris deserved was an integral part of the last 14 months.

Harris’ decision to sell drugs and illegal weapons, and to flee from deputies, surely played a part in what happened that day, but did that mean he deserved to be shot?

Bates apparently had a lifetime of service to the community, and his age and declining health have his supporters worried he’ll die while incarcerated. But does that mean it’s OK to wipe away his crime?

Can we think of Harris the victim without thinking of Harris the criminal? Can we think of Bates the convicted criminal without thinking of Bates the family man?

After Bates was sentenced Tuesday, a white-haired woman left the courtroom, walked up to the row of photographers and clapped in their faces, “Yay! The criminal won.”

But no one won. Harris is dead; his family will never see him again. Bates is headed for prison and his family may never see him again outside of that setting if, as his doctor predicted, his health fails.

When Brewster asked Musseman to sentence Bates to house arrest, community service, or some combination of the two, he said he believed there was a sentencing option that would make the judge happy, while also avoiding incarceration.

“No sentence will make me happy,” Musseman replied. And two families left the courtroom without a person they loved.

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