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The Car Thief’s Good Intentions 

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

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