Irvin J. Harris' life was short - barely 11 years - but his burdens seemingly mountainous.
His father was sent away on a 20-year stretch when Irvin was only 3 for murdering a man. His mother, with a rap sheet that included convictions on drug and theft charges, struggled with heroin addiction and took him along to Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
And when he needed an adult male role model, the man who showed up was Melvin L. Jones Jr., a convicted pedophile, charged last week with stabbing Irvin to death and dumping his body behind a neighborhood church in Northeast Baltimore.
Despite the hardship in Irvin's life, his mother, Shanda Raynette Harris, insisted last week that her son was well-adjusted, a great student with tons of friends, who never hinted that he might have had troubles. To her, he was every mother's dream.
If any child had troubles, though, it was Irvin, whose relationship with his father was through the mail, and who, it's now apparent, had a pedophile pursuing a relationship with him despite a court's prohibition against the man's unsupervised involvement with children.
Just what transpired between Irvin and Jones, 52, during the years of their association is not clear. It is not known whether they had a sexual relationship. Shanda Harris says she once saw a text message from Jones to Irvin that said, "I love you."
But if Irvin was under stress, he managed to compartmentalize his life to a remarkable degree. His mother said he was a straight-A student who played in a local Pop Warner youth football league. He was an enthusiastic reader who would help his mother study for her GED courses. He was kind-hearted, too, using the money he earned helping people with their groceries at a local supermarket to buy cat food for a stray litter of kittens he nurtured behind his house.
"I was so proud of him, especially in school," said Harris, 41, during an interview at her house Thursday. "All I wanted for him to do is finish school, because I didn't. I wanted him to do better than me."
All-around good kid
Earlier that day, Harris, the mother of seven other children ranging in age from 9 to 25, as well as a grandmother, had made arrangements for Irvin's funeral tomorrow. Hanging over her as well is the possibility that she will be criminally charged for allowing Jones, who she knew was a convicted pedophile, near her children.
On Friday, she attended a closed court hearing on the custody of her children. Harris said the judge agreed to let her keep the children, but that could not be confirmed.
Since Irvin's death, Harris has ventured into his tiny bedroom only a handful of times because, she says, just seeing his possessions causes her to cry. On Thursday, she took a few minutes to walk around the room boasting about her son's amazing singing voice, musical talent and interests.
The room has a tidy but drab feel. No decorations, photos or posters adorn the walls. The bed is covered with a dull, brown comforter. The only hint that a child lived in this room was a stack of children's books and video games stacked on crates beside a computer, along with a picture of a dinosaur colored in crayon.
"When I get by myself, or I pick something up of his, I want to break down again," Harris said. "But I have to stay strong for the little ones."
Friends and those who knew the family describe Irvin as an all-around good kid.
Gary Best, 55, president of the Village Longhorns, a Pop Warner team in Northeast Baltimore, for whom Irvin played cornerback in 2004, called Irvin a great player with plenty of speed.
"He smiled a lot and was very attentive on the football field," he said. "He was a happy kid with a smile, but most of the time he was quiet."
Irvin was quick to befriend newcomers to the neighborhood, including a girl named Jhainaiye Tucker, 9, who said Irvin recently offered her a teddy bear hoping to make her his girlfriend.
"We used to always go on the porch and start dancing," she said. "He was my boyfriend."
Last week, the porch of the Harrises' Belair-Edison rowhouse was transformed into a memorial with balloons and a giant collage of family photos plastered to the front door.
Whether depicting family trips to the lake, birthday parties or Christmases, the photos showed Irvin as the center of attention - Irvin as a toddler hugging his mother in front of a glimmering Christmas tree; a grinning Irvin graduating from kindergarten, his ears poking out of the sides of his cherry red graduation cap; baby Irvin sound asleep in Santa's lap.
What's not shown is the Irvin who missed his father, Aaron Rodney Harris, 45, and the boy who two years ago watched his mother suffer a relapse into drug addiction after eight years of being clean, Shanda Harris said.
She says her children supported her through her struggle with addiction. "My kids always stressed how glad they were to see me in recovery," she said. "They weren't mad. They were with me. We always were a family."
Since Irvin's father was convicted in 1998, the Harris children have rarely seen him. The last time Irvin visited his father in prison, he was 5 years old, Shanda Harris said.
No one in the immediate family had a car. Shanda Harris is unemployed and receives disability checks, hardly enough to afford the $30 bus tickets for eight children to visit an Eastern Shore prison. Other family members would offer to drive them to the prison, said Shannon Venable, 23, the Harrises' second-oldest daughter, but they never seemed to show up when promised.
One day last winter, Irvin made a pronouncement about his father that saddened Shanda Harris.
"He told me last year, around Christmas, that he forgot what he looked like," she said.
In his room at the top of the stairs of their Belair-Edison rowhouse, Irvin would spend hours writing letters to his father on a computer.
Four years ago, Harris moved with her children into a shelter, seeking treatment for her addiction. Around the same time, she met Jones through a man she was dating. While she was in treatment, Jones helped out by baby-sitting.
Jones became "like a male role model," Harris said. He volunteered at Collington Square Elementary School, where Irvin was to be a fifth-grader this year, and at Westport Academy, she said.
Irvin learned how to use the computer from Jones. It was Jones who would sit in Irvin's room and play puzzles with Irvin, his brother Shawn Venable, 13, and sister Reshawn, 9. And Jones was the one who encouraged Irvin, who recorded himself singing Mariah Carey hits, to pursue music as a career.
Where's the father?
About a year ago, Shanda Harris said she learned from an employee at her drug treatment program that Jones was a convicted sex offender. But she continued to stay in contact with him, and the kids were allowed to spend time with him, although she has given conflicting reports about how often Jones was allowed to be around.
Experts say it's common for a sexual predator to "actively seek out vulnerable children," and for him to position himself as "a valuable person in the family's life," said Mary Rode, an administrator of St. Vincent's Center in Timonium, a residential treatment facility for physically and sexually abused children run by Catholic Charities of the Baltimore Archdiocese.
"It's really the adults in a child's life who are responsible for protecting them," she said.
Leon Henry, director of Maryland Children's Action Network, a children's advocacy organization in Baltimore, said when he heard the story of Irvin's death, the first thing that came to his mind was: "Where's the father?"
Here's a young man who was clearly looking for appropriate and positive attention from a male," he said. "This person [Melvin Jones] was able to jump in and exploit that."
Often, Henry said, single mothers are not able to detect such ill will.
You get into the whole protection issue and mothers who are on their own," he said. "Some mothers look for whoever can fill that void. Out of desperation. They're exhausted. What we know about pedophiles, they're not going after the child who's around a father every day."
Sun reporter Tom Dunkel contributed to this article.