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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Frederick Harris III Murder Case

     In 1987, when he was 20-years-old, Pittsburgh area (Penn Hills) resident Frederick Harris III joined the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and the Army Reserve. Four years later, he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in psychology. In 1996, Harris left the National Guard and the Army Reserve with the rank of first lieutenant.

      From December 1997 until May 2000, Harris worked as a correctional officer at the State Correctional Institution at Somerset, Pennsylvania. In May 2000, he trained as a case worker for Allegheny County Children and Youth Services, but didn't stay beyond his six-month probationary period.

     Despite his college degree and military background, Harris' life began to unravel due to mental illness that included bipolar disorder. In 2001, he was treated at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh where the psychiatrist prescribed a mood stabilizer. By 2004, he was living on a disability payment of $800 a month. In December 2004, at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, Harris participated in group therapy sessions that lasted until November 2005.

     In 2009, Harris pleaded guilty to insurance fraud after he lied to his insurance company about how his motorcycle had been stolen. The judge sentenced him to six months probation.

     Harris pleaded guilty in April 2011 to criminal trespass in a bizarre case. After a real estate agent showed him a $500,000 home in Murrysville, Pennsylvania, Harris moved into the vacant house without permission. He stocked the refrigerator with food and slept in a sleeping bag. When police officers came to evict him, they found Harris hiding in a closet. The judge sentenced the house squatter to probation, the terms of which he quickly violated.

     In May 2012, an assistant Allegheny County prosecutor charged Harris with the assault and harassment of his sister Angela in her home. Harris put her into a headlock and dragged her into a bedroom where he punched her several times. That day, police officers arrested him at a Pittsburgh area homeless shelter. Declared mentally incompetent to stand trial, the judge sent Harris to Torrance State Hospital for treatment. Upon his release from the mental institution, Harris pleaded guilty to the assault and harassment charges. The judge sentenced him to seven months in the Allegheny County Jail plus seven years of probation. Upon his release from the Allegheny County Jail, the authorities incarcerated Harris at a state prison in Westmoreland County in connection with his probation violation in the criminal trespass case. He remained behind bars in Westmoreland County until March 2013.

     Harris' father, in 2014, kicked his son out of his Forest Hills home after the 47-year-old tried to choke him. The homeless man's mother, Olivia Gilbert and her husband Lamar, had allowed Harris to move in with them at their home in Penn Hills, a suburban community a few miles northeast of downtown Pittsburgh.

     On Tuesday December 16, 2014, at two in the afternoon, Harris' sister Angela called the police to report that she hadn't heard from her mother and stepfather since Saturday December 13. Officers, in response to the welfare check call, met Angela Harris at the Gilbert house.

     From the outside, the Penn Hills residence looked normal. Because the house was locked and the officers didn't have probable cause to force their way in, Angela Harris kicked open a back door.

     Olivia Gilbert, 73, and her 76-year-old husband Lamar didn't seem to be home. A police officer, finding the master bedroom door locked, jimmied his way into the room to find Frederick Harris III lying under covers on the bed. While Harris was breathing and didn't appear injured or sick, he didn't move or speak.

     Paramedics removed Frederick Harris from the Gilbert house on a stretcher and took him to the Forbes Regional Hospital where doctors couldn't find anything wrong with him physically.

     From the hospital, deputies with the Allegheny County Sheriff's Office put Harris in a patrol car and drove him to downtown Pittsburgh to be questioned at the department's homicide unit. The officers transported Harris from the police vehicle to the interrogation room in a wheelchair. When deputies asked him questions, Harris closed his eyes and refused to speak.

     Back at the Gilbert residence, detectives made a series of gruesome discoveries. In the garage deputies found three trash cans containing knotted garbage bags. One trash can contained two heads. Another bag held human arms, legs, feet, hands, and Mr. Gilbert's torso. The third trash can contained a section of a blood-soaked blue carpet that had been cut from an area near the basement laundry room. This bag also held five bloody knives. (A latent fingerprint expert would later connect the suspect to one of the garbage bags.)

     In the laundry room, officers found dried blood spatter and three bottles of bleach. They also recovered a bottle of anti-bacterial kitchen cleaner. Although parts of the laundry room had been scrubbed, a crime scene luminol test revealed the presence of blood.

     Detectives at the murder site found a receipt that showed that the three garbage cans had been recently purchased at a Home Depot store in nearby East Liberty.

     Back at the Allegheny County Sheriff's office, deputies found, in one of the suspect's pockets, a handwritten note signed "Mr. & Mrs. Gilbert" that thanked Frederick for house sitting while they were on vacation. The note contained a PS that read: "Don't answer the door for anyone."

     While questioning Harris his interrogators noticed a relatively fresh laceration on the palm of his right hand.

     On December 17, 2014, an Allegheny County assistant district attorney charged Frederick Harris III with two counts of murder and two counts of abuse of corpse. The judge denied the suspect bail.

     According to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's office, Mr. Gilbert had died from a stab wound to his torso. The forensic pathologist found that Mrs. Gilbert, whose torso was missing, had died  "by sharp instrument." (Investigators suspect Mrs. Gilbert's torso and other body parts were picked up by refuse workers and taken to a landfill.)

     In September 2016, in an Allegheny County court room, the jury found Frederick Harris III guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of abuse of corpse. The defendant's attorney had failed to convince the jurors that someone else had committed the murders. The judge sentenced Harris to life without parole.

     

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