The Car Thief’s Good Intentions 

On a clear afternoon in September, a white Spire gas company truck sped through north St. Louis. A 27-year-old named James Harris was behind the wheel, steering along rough roads and occasionally swerving out of his lane or pausing at odd intervals. Harris was not, in fact, a Spire employee, which helped explain why two television news helicopters had been filming the truck's every move for the past 45 minutes and why police in unmarked cars were trailing behind, out of sight.

Harris had swiped the white pickup, emblazoned with Spire's orange logo, three hours earlier from a company parking lot in the St. Louis suburb of Shrewsbury. He drove east across the Mississippi River and wound through Illinois. His past misadventures had never attracted this much attention, but he was far from a rookie car thief. By his estimation, he had "test driven" more than 100 vehicles during the past decade. It's impossible to say whether that's accurate, given that Harris sometimes gets a little confused and overestimates his feats and abilities.

He was, however, proving difficult to corral. Wearing a red jersey and blackout sunglasses that concealed the wandering pupil of his blind right eye, he evaded a potentially tire-popping spike strip on Interstate 55 in the Metro East, kicking up a cloud of dust as he swerved through the grass and back onto the pavement of an off-ramp. The news choppers had at times clocked him at more than 90 miles per hour. They filmed him rocketing across the majestic Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge and hovered overhead as he zipped past vacant buildings and Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Their cameras zoomed in as he idled in rush-hour traffic near Saint Louis University.

"It would be really interesting, and of course we're going to continue to work to find out, what is the motivation for this?" KMOV reporter Chris Nagus said on air as he and anchor Claire Kellett narrated the action from the station's studio. "What's this person up to today? What's their mindset? Why are they doing this?"

Shortly after 4 p.m., Harris parked behind a long blue dumpster on Locust Street in Grand Center, turned off the engine and slid out of the cab. He gave the pickup a final pat and started walking west. His right arm swung loosely at his side. His left, less so. He limped a little.

"Just casually walking, Claire," said Nagus, the surprise evident in his voice. "I mean, not in a hurry, not running anywhere. Just taking a casual stroll right down the sidewalk."

Harris had started to cross the street when a pair of unmarked police cars zoomed up on either side. Visibly startled, he raised his hands and dropped to his knees as a pair of plainclothes St. Louis police officers ordered him to the ground at gunpoint.

And suddenly it was over. Police loaded Harris into a transport van, and the live news broadcasts adjourned to a commercial break.

Ten days later, Harris stole a silver Jeep.

St. Louis police followed the stolen Spire truck until Harris parked it and walked away. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • St. Louis police followed the stolen Spire truck until Harris parked it and walked away.

At age sixteen, Harris ran away from a foster home and started living with his seventeen-year-old cousin in an unfinished building in the College Hill neighborhood of north St. Louis.

The utilities had been shut off, but an extension cord into a neighboring building provided electricity. An adjacent restaurant was rumored to be a drug front for an older relative, and strangers drifted in and out. It was a dangerous spot, but a history of family trauma left the teens with limited options. Harris' mom had been a prostitute, and he and his siblings had been taken by the state several years before she died of AIDS when the boy was thirteen. He stayed with his grandfather for a while, but the grandfather was now dead, too.

On the night of September 27, 2008, Harris and his cousin, Stephon "Red" Perry, were asleep when a gunman slipped in and shot them both in the head for reasons that remain a mystery to this day. Perry was killed. Harris survived, but barely.

He had been shot in the face, the bullet entering alongside the bridge of his nose and exiting through the back of his head. He spent more than a week in Barnes-Jewish Hospital before he was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis. Sheila Lynch, an occupational therapist there, remembers when he arrived.

"He couldn't do anything," Lynch, 47, says. "He couldn't move anything, except a single toe."

At first, it was difficult to tell the extent of the damage. Harris could not talk, and Lynch and the other therapists were not sure whether anything they said was getting through. That continued for another week, until the teen started moving one of his hands. Lynch gave him a pen and he wrote down a phone number for a foster home where he had stayed. It was a lightbulb moment she still remembers more than a decade later.

"We knew he was in there," Lynch says. "That was the first time we knew his brain was working in any capacity."

Soon, Harris was writing down words like "Snickers" and "chicken" — all the foods he could not eat, because his meals were still being pureed into a liquid and fed to him through a tube. After several weeks, he began to regain his voice.

"Once he got his voice back and could talk, you couldn't shut him up," Lynch says, laughing.

His injuries were substantial, and some of the damage was permanent. Harris was now blind and deaf on his right side, and the long-term mental effects of a bullet ripping through his skull were murky. But the teen was enthusiastic and hardworking, eager to show off each new ability as his motor skills returned.

"He's got a spirit about him that was pretty amazing," Lynch says.

The rehabilitation center's staff threw Harris a party when he was finally ready to leave them in December 2008. He was days from his seventeenth birthday and had progressed to using a wheelchair. Lynch knew the next steps would be hard. Whoever had shot him was still on the loose, and because police didn't know the gunman's motive, no one knew if the teen was still in danger. So Harris was being sent in protective custody to a youth home in Waynesville two hours away from St. Louis. He would not know anyone there or be allowed to contact any of his scattered friends and family. Lynch was one of the few people who would know where he was.

Once a month, she and Harris' speech therapist would drive down to check in on him.

"I knew he wouldn't have anybody," Lynch says. "At the time, I thought he needed a lifeline."

Harris at age sixteen when he was learning to walk and use his hands again. - SHEILA LYNCH
  • SHEILA LYNCH
  • Harris at age sixteen when he was learning to walk and use his hands again.

One of Harris' favorite childhood memories is of driving. He is sitting on his grandfather's lap, steering while the World War II vet minds the gas and brake.

"I used to love to drive when I was little," he says, sounding almost wistful.

Harris is now locked up in the city's Medium Security Institution, better known as the Workhouse.

He turned 28 in the jail and could spend another seven years in prison if a judge follows the recommendation of the St. Louis circuit attorney. But he's hopeful he will be released again on probation. Seated on the other side of the visiting-booth glass from his attorney, assistant public defender Erika Wurst, he promises he is done stealing cars.

"I don't want to keep getting locked up," he says. "I know I don't have any more chances with the legal system."

His criminal record, lengthy as it is, doesn't describe a man bent on violence. And he doesn't seem to profit from stealing cars. The crimes seem nonsensical — high risk for little to no reward. Often, they occur simply because Harris happens to see a set of keys in a car and jumps in.

"I guess it's the release," he says, struggling to explain his compulsion to drive away in someone else's car. "It's calming. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's the speed."

Harris, who doesn't even have a driver's license, had seemingly caught a break after his arrest for stealing the Spire truck when the judge in his case issued an order for inpatient mental health treatment at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. But Harris and his advocates say he was evaluated at the hospital and released within hours.

"I feel like I got cheated," Harris says.

Instead of receiving treatment, he wandered St. Louis. He was not too surprised to find himself on the streets again. Harris and those who know him say he has endured repeated trauma, including childhood abuse and the killing of his cousin Red, who was Harris' best friend. In 2018, Harris' was thrilled to become the father of a little girl. But that too was fleeting. Before the girl turned two months old, she died in an accident while in the care of the her mother. Harris is aggressively positive, but he says the baby's death made him suicidal for a time.

"It's always been trauma, trauma, trauma, trauma," he says. "I'm just trying to live."

Over the years, he has developed a survivalist streak, facilitated by a relentless charm. He describes himself as a motivational speaker. "Pain is gain," he likes to say. His audience is primarily comprised of MetroLink passengers and strangers along the Delmar Loop who he hopes will reward his wisdom and sidewalk musical performances with tips.

In a Workhouse visiting booth, he beats a rhythm on his chest and snaps his fingers.

"If I appreciate life, life appreciate me," he raps. "It's filled with love and hate, but it's never easy."

He says he was performing along the Loop in September after his release from Barnes when he met a woman who worked in a cafeteria at Harris-Stowe State University. She told him to drop by the college the next morning and she would feed him breakfast, according to Harris. So he did. They talked some more, and she tried to hook him up with a job interview and told him to hang around for lunch, too.

All he had to do was wait for her in the university's library. Ever the charmer, he chatted up an employee, who let him use her phone. Police would later review footage from a security camera, watching closely as Harris placed his hat on the woman's desk. After a moment, he picked it up again and walked off, seeming to take an object from the hat and put it in his pocket.

By the time the woman realized her keys had disappeared, Harris was long gone. An exterior camera had recorded him as he climbed into her silver Jeep and drove away.

He was arrested less than a week later. This time, there would be no order for inpatient treatment and no bond. Harris was shipped off to the Workhouse.

A St. Louis police van prepares to transport James Harris after his arrest for stealing a Spire truck. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • A St. Louis police van prepares to transport James Harris after his arrest for stealing a Spire truck.

The theft of the Jeep played out like a condensed version of a cycle that has repeated for years: A collection of promising developments are undone in an instant by an impulsive, terrible decision.

"It's frustrating," says Sheila Lynch, the occupational therapist who worked with Harris after he was shot.

She knows it better than anyone. Lynch continued to visit Harris as he moved through youth homes and foster care. He loved to try to impress her, running around the gym and throwing a ball to show her how well his damaged left arm was working. Lynch encouraged him, bringing him a bike that she taught him to ride. Harris' life had been filled with people who disappeared on him, or worse took advantage of him. But Lynch never disappeared. She never gave up on him.

Harris was in high school in Springfield, Missouri, when he ran away again. He called Lynch after about a week, and she picked him up in St. Louis. She was able to persuade him that he was better off in a supportive program and helped place him with an organization in St. Charles. There, Harris had an apartment with a roommate for the first time.

"That's when he started to get into trouble," Lynch says.

Harris met another guy one day in St. Charles, and they got high and stole a car. After joy-riding around town, they brought it back and got caught. Harris spent months in jail waiting for a court date. He was eventually released but was soon arrested again when some friends broke into another friend's home and stole video games. Harris was the lookout, Lynch says.

By that time, he was eighteen and the state deemed him old enough to fend for himself. He emerged from jail with nowhere to go. Lynch was desperate to find housing for him, but there didn't seem to be any options. So she let Harris move in with her until she could find another solution.

It was meant to be a short-term solution. Her parents thought she was crazy and naive. At the time, Harris was already piling up a criminal record and Lynch lived alone in rural Jefferson County. They begged her to send him to someone else.

"I was like, 'OK, well, tell me who,'" Lynch says.

They came around after meeting Harris. The same broad smile and sweet personality that had touched Lynch's heart quickly won them over, too. That was also true for her neighbors in the mostly white community, who were at first curious about and then protective of the young black man from north St. Louis.

"When you meet him, you can't help but love him," Lynch says.

It was not long before Harris' cousin came to live with Lynch, too. They made an odd trio with Lynch taking on a parental role, setting household rules and trying to keep her new roommates on track.

"Literally, I was like grounding 21-year-olds," she says. "If there had been reality TV, it would have been the best show ever."

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
  • 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.

Harris was enrolled in community college before he was sidelined by arrests. - SHEILA LYNCH
  • SHEILA LYNCH
  • Harris was enrolled in community college before he was sidelined by arrests.

Harris says he regrets the damage he has done.

"I don't like taking from people," he says. "I don't like leaving people without their cars."

But he also rationalizes his actions. Often, when he has stolen cars, he uses them to drive between crowded areas, such as MetroLink stations, where he can perform and collect tips. At night, he sleeps in the cars.

Lynch says she has seen his mental health deteriorating. The good stretches between the bad decisions have become shorter. It's wrenching, because he remains kind and heartbreakingly eager to impress. She worries about him all the time. In a way, knowing he is in jail is a relief, because at least she knows where he is.

Sitting in the Workhouse visiting booth, Harris says he can understand that.

"I think she's able to breathe and live her life," he says.

His dream is to one day have the kind of "big beautiful family" that he never did. He will have a good job, and he will be the one taking care of everyone. But for now, he is working on the small steps, trying to slow down and think through his plan for when he is released again.

In many ways, he is still like the kid Lynch cared for nearly a dozen years ago. She talked to him after the Spire truck theft, scolding him for another dumb move. She demanded in her tough love way that he tell her what he was thinking.

"Well, clearly I wasn't," he admitted.

And yet he is still eager to impress.

"Did you see," he asked, "how good I drove?"

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly reported the age of James Harris' cousin, Stephon Perry. We regret the error.

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