'Your client is a one-man crime wave': Teen charged in Baltimore County officer's death has lengthy juvenile record

and Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

The West Baltimore teen’s crime spree began in December, prosecutors say, and, over the subsequent months, he stole four cars, skipped court dates and escaped from a juvenile center.

When a Baltimore County police officer confronted him Monday, 16-year-old Dawnta Harris ducked down and accelerated a stolen Jeep, running over Officer Amy Caprio as she opened fire, prosecutors say.

Caprio, 29, became the first Baltimore County policewoman killed in the line of duty. Condolences poured in Tuesday from across Maryland. Grieving officers crowded a courtroom in Towson for the first appearance of her alleged killer.

In a yellow jumpsuit, the slight teen appeared by video from the county jail for a bail review beside his public defender.

“In the last six months, no offense, but your client is a one-man crime wave,” District Judge Sally Chester said. “I’m not certain any juvenile facility is secure enough to hold him.”

The teen spoke softly, answering the judge’s questions. He made no other statements. Chester ordered him held without bail.

Dawnta Anthony Harris, who was arrested nearby shortly after the incident, is charged as an adult with first-degree murder. He faces life in prison and is scheduled for a preliminary hearing next month in Baltimore County District Court.

“I will tell you, judge. He did in fact confess,” prosecutor William Bickel said.

The teen and three other youths were stealing jewelry and cash from homes in Perry Hall when Caprio confronted Harris, police said.

The three eluded a massive manhunt Monday afternoon and evening but were arrested later at their homes in West Baltimore. Charges are pending against the three, said police, who have not identified them.

“We want to make sure it’s a good tight case,” Baltimore County Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan said.

In court, Bickel detailed the teen's alleged crime spree. He said the 16-year-old, who lived in the Gilmor Homes housing complex, stole cars in December, January and February. In March, the teen was sent to a juvenile facility in Montgomery County. But, Bickel said, the teen escaped, stole another car, then was arrested in the city.

He said the teen was placed on house arrest in April and issued a monitoring bracelet. By mid-May, Bickel said, the teen had left home and his mother called authorities. A former student at Baltimore’s Excel Academy, Dawnta Harris had been on the run for one week.

Emerging details about his case have reignited debate over Baltimore’s system of juvenile justice.

“Did the system work? It sounds like it could have worked better,” Sheridan said. He said his officers are arresting more youths.

Sam Abed, secretary of juvenile services, said his staff had tried to find the teen, visiting his school and calling his mother.

“Our hearts go out to our brothers and sisters and Baltimore County law enforcement for their loss,” Abed said. “We are in shock about the incident.”

Officer Caprio was about to celebrate her fourth anniversary with the department. In recent months, she nabbed a pair of suspected package thieves and was named the Parkville Precinct’s officer of the month for March. Her chief said Caprio was smart, energetic and brimming with leadership potential.

On Monday afternoon, she was called to investigate a suspicious Jeep on Linwen Way in Perry Hall. The 911 caller reported three people left the Jeep and had broken into a home, according to charging documents.

Caprio came upon the Jeep and pursued the teen driver down the cul-de-sac. She got out of her patrol car, drew her gun and ordered Dawnta Harris out, police said.

Her body-worn camera captured the next moments. Bickel recounted them in the courtroom.

“He put his head out the window, looking at the officer. He then closed his door, ducked and accelerated,” the prosecutor said. “She fired her weapon. … He ran over her.”

Neighbors said they saw the Jeep ram the officer, flinging her body. They heard the gunshots and saw her lying in the street. A volunteer firefighter on the street tried CPR.

Caprio was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly before 3 p.m. Medical examiners determined her cause of death to be head and chest trauma.

Her viewing will be held Thursday at Schimunek Funeral Home in Perry Hall. Her funeral is scheduled for Friday at Mountain Christian Church in Fallston followed by a service at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens.

Police said the teen drove away after the encounter. He allegedly ditched the Jeep about a block away and officers spotted and arrested him nearby. Once at the police station, Bickel said, the teen tried to hide the Jeep keys under his seat.

His defense attorney asked the judge to consider how scared the teen likely felt to see a gun pointed at him.

Harris’ mother could not be reached Tuesday. But his defense attorney said he has a little sister and he helps his mother with chores.

After officers arrested the teen, they continued to search for the three suspected burglars. Nearby schools delayed dismissal until the evening, stranding nearly 2,000 students for hours.

Police allege the teenagers were responsible for a string of burglaries in the area.

Sheridan said police believe the three other youths ran away after Caprio was hit. Later, they were arrested in their homes in West Baltimore, police said.

Officers continued to search the neighborhood Tuesday for evidence and a handgun believed to be taken from one home.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said the three also could be charged with murder under state laws that permit co-defendants in a crime to be charged with “felony murder.”

“We believe that we have a solid theory to proceed on murder charges for all four of them,” Shellenberger said.

Gov. Larry Hogan ordered Maryland flags flown at half-staff Tuesday. And officials with the county police union draped their office in black.

Caprio is the first Baltimore County officer killed since 2013, when Officer Jason Schneider was fatally shot while serving a warrant in Catonsville. She’s the 10th officer killed in the department’s nearly 150-year history.

Her fellow officers who filled the courtroom Tuesday, some standing along the back wall, watched as the teen appeared on the monitor for the bail review.

None of them spoke. The hearing ended and they filed outside. The hallway was hushed as they sobbed and embraced.

“We’re going to get through this,” an officer whispered.

Baltimore Sun reporters Christina Tkacik, Sarah Meehan, Talia Richman and Pamela Wood and contributed to this article.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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