Details released Wednesday cast further doubt on the story told to police by a Cobb County father who said he mistakenly left his son inside his stifling hot SUV, causing the toddler’s death.
“The chain of events that occurred in this case do not point toward simple negligence and evidence will be presented to support this allegation,” Cobb Police Chief John Houser said in a statement released late Wednesday afternoon.
According to police, the Cobb medical examiner believes 22-month-old Cooper Harris died June 18 from hyperthermia, or heat stroke.
Whether his death was accidental remains in question.
Houser said detectives obtained “physical … and testimonial evidence that lead them to believe a more serious crime has been committed” by Ross Harris, an IT specialist with Home Depot.
A Cobb public safety official with knowledge of the investigation said Harris, 33, has been his own worst enemy. His account of what happened that day is filled with inconsistencies, the official said.
Among the contradictions:
*Harris told police his SUV with his son inside was parked unattanded all day. But an arrest warrant made available Wednesday states he opened the driver side door of his Hyundai Tuscon, placed something in the vehicle, and then went back to work.
*According to the warrant, Harris deviated from his normal routine. After having breakfast at Chick-fil-A, the suspect drove directly to his office at 2600 Cumberland Parkway instead of going to Home Depot’s daycare facility on Paces Ferry Road, where Cooper was a regular.
Investigators concluded rather quickly that Harris was culpable for his son’s death. He was arrested and charged with felony murder five hours after 911 operators first received calls that a man was seen hovering over his son’s body screaming, “What have I done? What have I done? I’ve killed our child.”
The high temperature that day reached 92 degrees. According to the Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the internal temperature for cars parked in direct sunlight on days that warm can range from 131 degrees to 172 degrees.
Police aren’t saying why Harris went to his car during lunchtime, or how long he was there. In fact, they aren’t saying much at all about the investigation.
“You’ve got to give the investigators breathing room,” Cobb police spokesman Michael Bowman said during an impromptu press conference early Wednesday evening. “Let us do our job.”
The delay in releasing information about a case that has garnered national headlines may have something to do with the challenges prosecutors may face if they attempt to prove Harris acted with criminal intent.
“They might show reckless disregard, but without a smoking gun it will be difficult to prove malice,” said Georgia State University law professor Jessica Gabel.
Gabel said the announcement Wednesday that the cruelty to children charge leveled against Harris had been reduced from first to second degree — implying negligence — suggests such evidence remains elusive.
— Staff writer Alexis Stevens contributed to this article.
AJC reporters have been following the investigation into the death of 22-month old Cooper Harris since police arrested his father on murder charges last week. Read more of our comprehensive coverage at MyAJC.com.