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Tragedy motivates Detroit arson investigator

Joel Kurth
The Detroit News

Fire Lt. James Hill-Harris, left, discusses a Detroit arson crime scene with Capt. Winston Farrow. Since joining the Arson Squad in 2011,
Hill-Harris has become one of the most visible members of the Detroit Fire Department.

Detroit – Fire Lt. James Hill-Harris has a scar on his forehead and tattoo on his bicep.

The scar is a reminder of his fifth birthday. His biological mother hit him with a plate for asking for another piece of cake. The tattoo commemorates his adopted father, firefighter Walt Harris, whose 2008 death fighting a deliberately set fire prompted Hill-Harris to become an arson investigator.

"That was like a bucket of water," said Hill-Harris, 33, a 14-year firefighter. "After he died, I had a lot of questions. I had to start thinking about what is happening, why our city is burning."

Boyish, muscular and telegenic, Hill-Harris has become one of the most visible members of the Detroit Fire Department since joining the Arson Squad in 2011. A frequent volunteer for relief efforts, he was tapped by former Mayor Dave Bing to the board of the short-lived Detroit Blight Authority that expedited home demolitions.

One of nine children, Hill-Harris was saved from poverty, neglect and foster homes when he was adopted by his social worker, Syri Harris, and her husband, Walt. For 14 years, Hill-Harris had no contact with his younger brother, Sequoia Turner, who was adopted by another family.

They reunited months before Walt Harris' death. Last August, after prodding from Hill-Harris, Turner graduated from the police academy and is now a rookie patrolman on Detroit's east side.

It's a story of perseverance, hope and forgiveness that begins with one simple act, Hill-Harris said.

"It starts with somebody having empathy, someone in a little better situation deciding to help someone out," he said.

Hill-Harris was 11 when his first family was torn apart.

After bouncing from St. Louis to Memphis, Tennessee, they had settled in Mount Clemens by the early 1990s. There were spells of homelessness, regular violence and frenzied moves in the middle of the night to another home, Hill-Harris said.

During one brawl, an uncle knocked out his mother's tooth. During another, she stabbed Turner's father in the back, Hill-Harris said. An older brother disappeared and died on the run from police.

They lived on welfare. School and meals were sporadic. He barely knew his namesake, James Hill, and now isn't sure that he's his father.

"We all have a lot of different dads," said Hill-Harris, referring to his siblings.

Violence and neglect were regular in Mount Clemens. Social services workers warned they would move to terminate the mother's parental rights if they were called to the home again, Hill-Harris said.

The day came in 1992. The mother got into another fight. She wanted to flee town. Hill-Harris assured her the state was bluffing.

Turner was 2. As officials entered the house, he and another brother ran away from them in hopes of staying with their mom. One hid in a dryer.

A social worker said the situation was temporary.

"Her eyes and her smile were totally disconnected from each other," Hill-Harris said. "Her smile was like, 'Yeah, everything is fine.' Her eyes were like, 'You are screwed.' "

The children younger than 17 were sent to four sets of foster parents. Turner and a younger brother were placed in foster care and adopted in 1994 by a couple in northwest Detroit. A possible factor for the adoption: Turner was born on the same day the couple's only son was killed.

Twice a month, the siblings met for one-hour supervised visits.

"The worst was the moment of separation," Hill-Harris said. "That was a nightmare. People were crying and holding on to each other and adults would have to come and physically try to pry us apart."

After his adoption, Turner's new parents stopped bringing him to the visits. They thought it was in his best interest.

"There were many nights I would go to bed crying," said Turner, who is now 24.

"Why did (my mother) choose crack over me? Why didn't she come get me? After a time, hatred grew."

The Detroit News is not naming the biological mother because she could not be reached for comment. Court records show she lost her children, has a history of assault and evictions, and was petitioned to be put in a mental institution in 2002.

Hill-Harris was barely a teen and trying to hold it together for everyone. The family's foster care case manager noticed.

"James just stood out. He was very positive, very mature and took care of his younger brothers and sisters," said the manager, Syri Harris, 42. "I saw this sweetness. He wanted something better."

A crisis prompted her to act. Hill-Harris' foster family was going out of town without him. Harris had trouble arranging temporary housing and didn't have the heart to put him in a shelter.

She took him in, against all agency rules. Syri Harris was pregnant. The Sterling Heights couple already had two children. Her husband was skeptical of bringing in another child.

"He was 'No, no, no, we're not going to do that,' " Harris remembered. "I said, 'You just have to meet him.' He did and that was it."

Harris quit her job. Seven months later in 1995, the adoption was complete.

James Hill-Harris celebrates the graduation last August of his brother Sequoia Turner, left, from 
 the Detroit Police Academy, along with Hill-Harris’ wife India and children Mariyon and SaVanna.

Walt Harris grew to become a father — and hero — to Hill-Harris. A preacher, real-estate agent and well-loved firefighter, Harris and his wife had two more boys. At 18, Hill-Harris became a firefighter. He eventually got married and had two children.

Twenty miles away in northwest Detroit, Turner had put his old family behind him as well.

"After so many years of going to sleep sobbing over the situation, not really knowing, not really having any explanation, you get to a point where you just don't care anymore," he said.

Then a message came into his Facebook inbox in early 2008. He read it late at night in shock.

"It was: 'I know you. I know your little brother. In fact, I am your older brother,' " Turner remembered.

"Wow. They found me. After all these years, they found me."

Days later, Hill-Harris sat on Turner's couch. The connection was instant. They had similar voices, mannerisms and passions for martial arts, weight lifting, hunting and fishing.

"It was like an older me talking, telling me things I didn't know about my own life," Turner said.

Then, on Nov. 15, 2008, it all fell apart.

Walt Harris and others at Engine 23 were called to a vacant house at 7418 E. Kirby. The fire was mostly out when Harris and two others went upstairs to check if flames were trapped in walls.

Firefighter Walter Harris, James Hill-Harris' adopted father, died while fighting a fire set in Detroit for an insurance claim.

The ceiling collapsed. A beam fell on his head. He was dead at 38. Later in court, a man testified he was paid $20 by the boyfriend of the owner of the home to set a fire in hopes of getting insurance or escaping a mortgage. Both received long prison sentences.

Ten years into his career, Hill-Harris said he reinvented himself because of the "horrible, horrible loss of that great, great man."

"Everyone knows Detroit is burning. It just became part of the backdrop, something you just accepted," Hill-Harris said. "I could no longer just accept it. I became an (arson) investigator to try to get answers, to try to prevent another firefighter, husband and father from being killed in the line of duty."

Hill-Harris got a tattoo in honor of his adopted dad featuring a firefighting Maltese cross, ax, helmet and their father's name. He helped his mother and siblings start the Walter P. Harris Foundation that raises money for mortgage assistance for married couples, mentoring programs and education for youths.

In time, Hill-Harris and Turner forgave their biological mother. She now lives in St. Clair County. Turner met her in 2009. She smoked cigarettes, fidgeted and tried to remind him the times together weren't all bad, he recalled.

"There's no reason to have a hurt in my heart anymore," Turner said. "She messed up. She knew it."

James Hill-Harris
shows off a tattoo
in honor of his
adopted dad,
Walter P. Harris,
left, who died in
the line of duty
while fighting an
arson fire in 2008.

By last year, his dreams of working as an electrician had stalled. He was working in a parking garage. Hill-Harris sold him on a career with the police.

Recruits must buy their own uniforms. Hill-Harris took Turner last year to Enterprise Uniform Co. in Midtown.

Just as his adopted father had done for him, Hill-Harris paid the $1,000 bill for the pants, shoes, hats and other gear.

"It was a heck of a feeling, a very proud and powerful moment," Hill-Harris said.

"I knew my dad was watching. I was thinking, 'Man, you looking down on this now?' "

TO DONATE

The Walter P. Harris Foundation is named for firefighter Walt Harris. The nonprofit raises money for mortgage assistance for married couples, mentoring programs and education. For more information or to donate, go to www.walterpharrisfoundation.org.

jkurth@detroitnews.com | (313) 222-2513 | Twitter: @cityhallinsider