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The Car Thief’s Good Intentions



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James Harris says his life has been “trauma, trauma, trauma” for as long as he can remember, but he is still hopeful that a better future awaits. - SHEILA LYNCH
  • James Harris says his life has been “trauma, trauma, trauma” for as long as he can remember, but he is still hopeful that a better future awaits.

After Harris was shot, his injuries were easy to see.

However, as he has healed physically, his needs have transitioned largely to the hard-to-spot emotional and mental. Lynch says it has been nearly impossible to find doctors, caseworkers or programs that will consider Harris in the larger context of family trauma, brain damage from the shooting, poverty, substance abuse and deteriorating mental health.

"Because he's the walking wounded, he doesn't present like he has a disability," Lynch says.

Part of the challenge is the push-pull of his personality. The same wit and charisma that makes people want to help him can fool others into thinking he is more capable than he is, Lynch says. Even at his best, few saw that his bed at her house was angled toward the door because he worried the gunman who shot him in his sleep would come back. They didn't know about the bouts of paranoia or notice the child-like tendencies during their short conversations.

"He had good street smarts, but there was other stuff that it was like, 'Oh, this is what a thirteen-year-old or a twelve-year-old would say to me,'" Lynch says.

Harris' older cousin, who lived with him and Lynch, was better able to take care of himself and held down a solid job with a car dealership after moving out on his own. But Lynch was having a harder time keeping Harris focused. His mind was always racing, jumping over the calculations of consequences or skipping past social cues.

That might manifest in running recklessly from task to task when he lands work or misinterpreting the kindness of a clerk as romantic interest. Or he might borrow a friend's car and never return.

Lynch sees him not as bad, but impulsive.

"His intent is not to steal a car to sell it," Lynch says. "It's to drive it. He loves to drive."

She has tried to combat those knee-jerk decisions by having write down his goals and tasks, which slows him and helps him reason. He does well with that kind of structure, but Lynch could not watch him all the time.

And as a man in his twenties, Harris wanted to follow his own rules. For one thing, he liked to smoke marijuana, which definitely wasn't allowed at Lynch's place. She had also begun to wonder where to draw the line between helping and enabling him. Harris, she knew, needed to understand there were consequences for his actions. If she picked him up after work and could tell he was high, she would not let him come home.

They would argue. He would move out, return and move out again. A few years ago, Lynch stopped letting him stay there at all. She has become a foster parent to young children, and it doesn't work to have a young man floating in and out.

She has occasionally put him up in apartments and hired lawyers when he is in trouble. She has also not taken his calls at times and let him be homeless, swallowing the crushing worry in hopes that he will be forced to make better choices.

"It's a really tough balancing act," she says.

Harris is set to plead guilty in the car theft cases in March.

His attorney, Erika Wurst of the public defender's office in St. Louis, says it appears he has a good chance of avoiding prison time if they can figure out a plan for where he will live and what he will do once he is released. The judge delayed the case last month to give them more time to put it together.

It is not easy, but she assures Harris that she will contact his caseworker and they will figure it out.

"We'll get something," she says.

Harris has been through a few lawyers and caseworkers. Some have been better than others, but Wurst has impressed Lynch with her earnestness and dedication. It's no small task to persuade the court to consider a decade of cases and see more than a criminal who has not learned his lesson.

More than a few people have given up on Harris, including those who tried to help him, only to get burned. A pastor in Bond County, Illinois, let Harris live in an apartment in a building he owned in exchange for labor. In Harris' telling, he handled a variety of skilled tasks and landscaping, but the man says it was more like carrying things every once in a while and raking leaves here and there.

One day, Harris became paranoid that a town police officer was after him, so he stole one of the man's vehicles and kept it for a month before crashing it while running from police.

The man says he liked Harris and still believes Harris genuinely wants to do the right thing, but his problems are complex.

"Did he tell you 'pain is gain'?" he asks. "That's his mantra, so he's seeking pain, or if he inflicts pain on someone, he's helping them out."

The man says he finally realized Harris was someone he just couldn't help. He asked that his name not be included in this story, because he wants Harris to know that there will not be another chance.

"This is a saga I don't want to stay connected to," he says.


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