1 bullet, 23 years of pain - East Valley Tribune: News

1 bullet, 23 years of pain

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Posted: Saturday, October 4, 2003 4:52 am | Updated: 1:53 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

A bullet fired 23 years ago finally killed Steve Harris.

The 45-year-old man spent more than half his life as a paraplegic because of the bullet that shattered against his spine on Jan. 27, 1980.

Two decades later, a blood clot, a complication of his paraplegia, finished the bullet’s work, a Maricopa County forensic examiner said.

Harris became Scottsdale’s sixth homicide of the year when he died Sept. 9. The man who pulled the trigger, his father, can’t be tried. John Kempel Harris died before his son.

Friends of Steve Harris, a 1975 graduate of Scottsdale High School, said the talkative and friendly man rarely spoke of the shooting and even less about family. Except for his father.

Despite the bullet, the subsequent confinement to a wheelchair, and personal and financial losses brought on by severe chronic pain, Steve Harris reconciled with his father.

"He forgave him. They became very close before (his father) passed away," said Christian Malburg, a Phoenix man who for the past nine months cared for Steve Harris. "It’s an amazing story about Steve — how he survived all this."

Steve Harris visited his father in prison where he was serving a 16-year sentence for attempted first-degree murder.

When his father died during heart surgery in 1988, still an inmate, Steve Harris was the only family member to carry out his father’s wish — to sprinkle his ashes in the San Diego surf.

"His father really made him what he was. Whatever Steve did, he was the best at," said Randy Olson, a close friend.

Encouraged by his father, Steve Harris grew up racing and winning, starting with gocarts at age 5.

He moved to motorcycles and cars as he got older. Malburg still has some of Steve Harris’ racing trophies.

His friends say the drive that pushed Steve Harris to win on speedways carried into his life after the shooting.

"You loved to be around him because he could be so up and cheerful despite being in as much pain as you knew he was," Olson said. "He was also the toughest, strongest guy I ever met in my life."

Everett Schwartz, who lived with Steve Harris in Phoenix, said Harris would sometimes go through excruciating pain a week at a time.

"It was the only time when he would get angry with his father," Schwartz said.

Before the shooting, Steve Harris was a 6-foot 1-inch athletic Rural/Metro firefighter who wanted to turn his hobby of motocross racing into a profession of stunt riding, Olson said.

The 22-year-old had spent Jan. 27, 1980, with his girlfriend and had just walked into his apartment at 8055 E. Thomas Road when his father, sitting on a couch, shot him from 10 feet away, according to court records.

Friends would later testify that his father, who suffered bipolar disorder, was angry he had to answer the phone all day because of his son’s newspaper ad to sell a motorcycle.

While Steve Harris’ girlfriend ran next door for help, his father stood over him, saying: "I hope you die," Steve Harris told police.

Olson believes Steve Harris’ father, who drank the better part of a bottle of brandy before the shooting, couldn’t handle his son’s increasing independence, though later he was devastated by his actions, Olson said.

"It’s a bizarre case," said Scottsdale police Sgt. Doug Dirren, "because, No. 1, you are dealing with a case between father and son. No. 2, because the father was arrested and sent to prison for the crime. And now, 20 years later, the son died as a result of his injuries."

There is no statute of limitations in Arizona for murder.

John Harris, had he lived, could have been charged with his son’s death, said Bill FitzGerald, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.

Though John Harris was sentenced for attempted murder, he could have been tried again for homicide because his son’s death represented a "change in circumstances," FitzGerald said.

"Double jeopardy has nothing to do with this," he said. "It’s something we think could potentially happen, but we have never had any cases like that."

For reasons never fully explained to his friends, Steve Harris’ fortunes swung from good to bad over the years. At one time, he had a wife, a home and a chain of Phoenix hobby shops, Schwartz said.

He lost the businesses, he told them, because his pain made their management too difficult.

After the shooting, Steve Harris continued racing in sprint cars modified with hand controls. He quit after he broke his leg, his friends said.

When they met him, Steve Harris had a custom-built van, a steady stream of girlfriends and little else.

"He had gone from friend to friend and different people to take care of him. That’s how I ended up in the picture — he was left alone," Malburg said.

When he died, they could not find any information about his remaining family — a mother and three sisters.

"I cannot find them to let them know he’s passed on," Malburg said.

Several months ago, a device to relieve pain was placed in Steve Harris’ back. When his back became infected, he was hospitalized and eventually moved to Promise Specialty Hospital-Phoenix. His death was sudden.

"He was joking around with nurses and the staff that morning," Malburg said.

He and Schwartz scraped together enough money to cremate Steve Harris. They say they will fulfill his wish to sprinkle his ashes off the same San Diego coast where he took his father’s ashes.

"He loved his father," Olson said.

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