Was Eric Harris a dangerous man 'prepared to die' as TCSO officials claimed in the wake of his death at the hands of Bob Bates? His family shares his story, and hopes to find meaning in his death.
Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part series on the shooting death of Eric Harris and the resignation of Sheriff Stanley Glanz.
The suspect’s cheeks are pressed into the asphalt, a deputy’s knee driving into the back of his neck to hold him down.
When the shot rings out, he’s already been forced to his stomach.
This is the point where Bob Bates, 73, tagging along as a volunteer reserve deputy, matter-of-factly announces: “I shot him, I shot him. I’m sorry.”
Bates is the only one who sounds calm among the men captured on video by sunglass cameras at the scene. A wealthy benefactor to the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office and close friend of Sheriff Stanley Glanz, Bates is also the one who paid for those glasses.
Bates’ relationship with Glanz and the department is so ingrained that a number of the young deputies reportedly refer to him as “Dad.”
He has paid for some of their vacations, departmental toys and gained unprecedented access to duties not usually bestowed upon a reserve officer in his 70s. Bates was allowed the unusual position of going on undercover stings with the department’s Violent Crimes Task Force.
Reserve deputies are required to log more than 400 hours of training and typically draw routine duties such as patrolling the Tulsa State Fair midway. Bates did neither.
The county outfitted his personal vehicle with emergency lights and a radio, enabling him to pull over motorists.
Officers who complained about Bates’ lack of training and his renegade ways were told by then-Undersheriff Tim Albin: “This is a shit sandwich and you’ll just have to eat it but not acquire a taste for it.”
That was nearly six years before the morning of April 2, 2015, when an undercover TCSO officer purchased a gun stashed in a backpack that suspect Eric Harris brought into an unmarked truck. Officials had said the deal was part of a drug sting, but there were no drugs exchanged.
An autopsy later revealed Harris, an ex-convict who’d battled addiction most of his life, had meth in his system when he was fatally shot.
Harris was no amateur, however, so he brought a lookout to the parking lot that day. The video shows a thin, young white woman taking off before several undercover cars roll up, sirens blaring.
In his white T-shirt and basketball shorts, Harris flees from the parking lot of the Dollar General store in north Tulsa. He makes it about a block before he’s tackled by deputies, including Michael Huckeby and Joseph Byars.
Harris is already subdued on the ground when Bates emerges from a black SUV and shouts “Taser! Taser!”
Sheriff’s officials said after the shooting that Bates already had his gun in his hand when he left the truck. He later claimed he meant to grab the yellow stun gun strapped to his chest but instead pulls the trigger on his laser-sighted .357 revolver — not a department-issued gun — and shoots Harris.
The bullet pierces Harris in the right armpit and he starts to bleed.
Harris gasps for breath and repeatedly says, “He shot me!”
One of the amped-up deputies pinning him down screams: “Motherfucker, you hear me? You shouldn’t have fucking ran!”
“Oh he shot me, I didn’t do shit! He shot me man!”
“You didn’t do shit? You didn’t do shit? You hear me?”
“I’m losing my breath,” Harris gasps.
Byars responds: “Fuck your breath.”
This is the point at which Eric Harris began to die; when the “shit sandwich” served at the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office was suddenly under a spotlight and the public chose not to acquire a taste for it.
Eric Harris had often been his own worst enemy in life.
While Harris ran afoul of the law over nearly three decades, the state of Oklahoma alternated between showing him mercy and throwing the book at him.
He first went to prison at 19, for stealing his lawyer’s car. This was back in 1989, when Stanley Glanz first became sheriff of Tulsa County.
His brother, Andre Harris, recalled that Eric was actually only 17 when he went to prison. He had forged his ID to buy cigarettes, Andre Harris said.
Eric Harris was released early from his three-year sentence for unauthorized use of a car, but then sent back to prison when he failed to report to a probation officer. The state charged him with escape, and he returned to prison until 1992.
As he picked up more charges over the years, his sentences got longer: He picked up five- and seven- year prison stints for larceny and knowingly concealing stolen property.
In many ways, Andre Harris said, Eric was their father’s son. They were raised in Compton and Watts, and their father was a big-time drug dealer who died while serving time in prison.
Eric Harris was also incarcerated when their father died.
“He was too much like his father,” Andre Harris said. “He still had that hustle in him from doing 15 years in prison.”
Eric may have been a hustler, but he was not a violent man, his brother said.
“You have a real good heart,” Andre Harris said he would remind his brother.
Andre Harris said he spent four years in prison and learned quickly he never wanted to return, eventually becoming a preacher. His brother couldn’t leave the life — or drugs — behind.
Cathy Fraley was Eric Harris’ longtime girlfriend and mother of their 17-year-old son, Aiden. The two met when Fraley was a student at the University of Oklahoma.
They were an unlikely pair: the wholesome Southern girl who wanted to be a teacher and a funny, streetwise young man who grew up in Compton and Detroit.
She was pregnant with her first son when she met Harris, who was just a friend at first. After the two became more serious, Fraley was thrilled to learn she was pregnant with his child.
The happy times didn’t last long.
“He ended up getting hooked on drugs. … I said Eric I can’t be around that. I’ve got two babies.”
Harris moved to Tulsa to live with his mom, but couldn’t shake the grip of addiction.
In 1999, he was sentenced to 25 years for his most serious crime: He pleaded guilty to robbing a convenience store clerk, taking his wallet while wielding a tire iron.
A police report says he struck the convenience store clerk with the tire iron, but no assault charge was filed. The gas station filed an insurance claim for property damaged during the robbery that included glass doors and boxes of cigars and condoms.
As part of Harris’s sentence, he was supposed to receive drug treatment while in prison. It’s unclear whether he received treatment but what is clear: He still battled addiction.
By this time Fraley was a kindergarten teacher living in Nashville. After his release from prison, Harris came to visit as promised for Aiden’s 12th birthday.
Though he returned to Tulsa and his demons, Harris stayed in close touch with Fraley and his sons. (He considered her first son, Trey, to be his own.)
“He was so proud of me. He would even send me father’s day cards. … He would always talk to the boys about, ‘Make sure you respect your mom.’”
Black lives matter
Harris’ killing came at a time in 2015 when an intense national spotlight was focused on several police shootings of unarmed black men.
Two days after Harris was killed, a Charleston, S.C., police officer shot Walter Scott eight times in the back as the 50-year-old ran from the officer. Police initially claimed Scott had run off with officer Michael Slager’s stun gun.
But cell phone video footage from a bystander proved that story wasn’t true, and Slager was charged with murder as a result. Scott was originally pulled over for a broken brake light.
Ten days after Harris was shot, Baltimore police arrested Freddie Gray and placed him in restraints in a police van and then drove around the city.
Gray was arrested and thrown in a police van, which stopped “so that paperwork could be completed,” according to the Baltimore Sun. Police said Gray was placed in leg irons and put back in the wagon, but witnesses questioned whether he was beaten at some point during transport. An ambulance was called after Gray arrived at a police station, and he died a week later at a local hospital, of a severe spinal injury.
In connection with Gray’s death, six police officers were charged on various counts of manslaughter, assault, second-degree murder and misconduct in office. Several trials were put on hold after Officer William G. Porter’s ended in a mistrial. Another officer’s is set to begin in May.
In late 2014, Eric Garner died in Staten Island, N.Y., after a police officer put him in a chokehold as he gasped “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” Police initially approached Garner on suspicion of selling cigarettes without a tax stamp. Protests erupted in New York over Garner’s death, which resulted in no criminal charges. One officer was later charged with failing to supervise, an internal charge.
A few months before that death in 2014, Ferguson, Mo., erupted in weeks of violent protests after a police officer shot an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown. A clerk told police Brown had stolen cigarillos from a convenience store.
Each of those deaths sparked protests in those communities. “Black lives matter!” was a common sight on hand-scribbled signs and homemade T-shirts.
It was a reaction, a rally cry. The message many saw in the deaths of Harris, Gray, Scott, Garner and Brown was this: In the eyes of law enforcement, their lives were disposable.
Harris’ death also sparked protests in Tulsa, but they were far more peaceful than in other cities.
We The People Oklahoma, led by local activist Marq Lewis with a megaphone and his #GlanzGottaGo T-shirts, organized protests in the months that followed Eric Harris’ death.
Andre Harris was frequently among the crowd, speaking on behalf of his late brother.
Billy McKelvey, a former Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office captain who left under pressure, told The Frontier in an exclusive interview that he credits Harris’ brother, Andre, with setting the right tone in Tulsa.
Andre Harris repeatedly told reporters he didn’t believe the shooting was racially motivated, though he was unflinching in his criticism of the sheriff’s office and its lack of supervision over Bates and the reserve program.
“I think the world of Andre, I really do,” McKelvey said. “He’s a recovering addict and a convicted felon. Guess what my brother is? A recovering addict and a convicted felon. My brother.”
Immediately after Eric Harris’ death, officials at the Tulsa County Sheriff’s office portrayed him publicly as a “bad guy” who was “prepared to die that day.”
Andre Harris told The Frontier he found it odd to see his brother portrayed as some “big-time criminal” by parties who have since been criminally charged themselves, booted out of office and accused of cronyism.
“Eric Harris was an African-American who got caught up in the game at a very low level,” Andre Harris said.
The drug task force saw his brother as “easy, low hanging fruit,” he said.
But when the shooting occurred, the sheriff’s office went into coverup mode, he said.
“Within 45 minutes of Eric getting killed, this was supposed to be over with. This was supposed to be a done deal.
“Everything that they thought was about to be simple and easy is about to be the hardest worst thing that they’ve ever imagined… This is just a perfect situation to bring down the sheriff and shine a light on the darkness,” Andre Harris said.
The last time Fraley saw her son’s father was in October 2014, less than six months before his death. The two were driving to downtown Nashville when a hip-hop song that Harris loved came on the radio.
“He had me pull the car over so he could get out of the car and dance. It didn’t surprise me because that was how silly he was.”
Harris’ death has been a devastating blow for Fraley, who wishes people could see him as she saw him.
“You’ve taken my kids’ father from them. I know that he might not have meant anything to you … but that was my heart and I know he had problems, I know he did. You don’t give up on somebody because they have a drug problem.”
Harris’ family can’t understand why Bob Bates was allowed to continue on the drug task force after supervisors expressed concerns about his lack of training. They were also shocked that Bates had pulled his gun and pointed his Taser at a handcuffed man only two weeks before Harris was shot.
Fraley said she doesn’t condone any of Eric’s illegal actions, “But if Eric is such a hardened criminal, if this man Eric is so critical that you have to take him down, why would you put some reserve deputies like that on him that weren’t even trained?”
Fraley said it was ironic that Harris survived growing up in the streets of Compton, Calif., and Detroit before he was shot to death in Tulsa.
She pointed out that Harris “didn’t get killed by somebody who was in a gang. He got killed by somebody who was supposed to protect him.”
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