Durham, USA - The father of a murder suspect details his daughter’s involvement with an alleged religious cult.
Willie Harris gave NBC 17 his first sit-down interview after the arrest of his daughter, Lavada Harris.
Lavada Harris is one of seven people charged in the murder of Antoinetta McKoy. Durham believe they found McKoy’s body in a backyard on Ashe Street Wednesday. The next day they announced that a child’s remains were found. Jadon Higganbothan, 5, has been missing for months. Pete Moses, Jr., the alleged cult leader, is the only one of the seven charged with the murders of both McKoy and Higganbothan.
A prediction of trouble
Mr. Harris said he predicted his daughter would end up in trouble after years of involvement with Moses.
"Family members have told her for years and years that this man was no good and he was going to get her in trouble sooner or later and sure enough, that's what happened. I knew from day one that he was bad news, but she wouldn't listen to me,” he said.
Lavada Harris began dating Moses seven or eight years ago, Mr. Harris said. She moved with him to Colorado about three years ago.
“She’s definitely in love with this man. It seems like, I don’t know what it’s going to take for her to get over him,” he said.
That move to Colorado was troubling to Mr. Harris. He said his daughter left at the end of January, one day before his birthday. The father and daughter celebrated the birthday every year with a restaurant dinner. Harris said he couldn’t understand why his daughter couldn’t wait one more day to leave. He said the group seemed to be in a hurry to leave town.
Communication, relationships and religion
Once in Colorado, Lavada Harris’ phone calls back home faded further and further apart, eventually to once every few months. She, Moses and the other people they were with lived in Colorado one year, almost to the day, Mr. Harris said.
When the group returned to Durham, Mr. Harris said he did not know where his daughter was living. She always called from a private number. He said he believes Moses was behind that privacy in order to prevent anyone from being able to contact what Mr. Harris calls a “cult.”
He said other women were in the cult and were also romantically involved with Moses. Mr. Harris said Moses tried to recruit women online and also posted anti-government messages on the Internet. Moses stayed at home while the women worked outside of the house, Mr. Harris said.
In December, Lavada Harris told a relative that she would no longer celebrate Christmas with the family because she had a new religion, her father said. He said he never learned the details of that religion.
Developments in February
In February, Lavada Harris began to reconnect with her family. She saw them on Sundays, hugging them and saying she loved them. She shut down, however, whenever the topic of Moses came up. She told family not to believe what they saw on the news, Mr. Harris said.
February was also the time investigators began searching for Higganbothan and McKoy in the Durham area. Also around that time, the alleged cult moved out of the Ashe Street house where the bodies were later found, according to a next door neighbor.
Lavada Harris’ family urged her to go to police with what she knew about Moses and the missing person cases, though she refused. In recent months three different family members offered Lavada, who was unemployed, a place to stay, her father said. She would only say she would think about it, he said.
This week's move and murder charge
Then this week, Mr. Harris thought he may have a chance to finally start rebuilding a life with his daughter. He said she called him Tuesday saying she would move in with him. When he asked when, she said she could be there in an hour.
Mr. Harris said his daughter arrived with her bags of belongings, and later sat on the couch and caught up on her “soaps.” He wanted to know why she finally agreed to live with him after months of him pleading. Harris asked his daughter if it had become “too crowded.” She gave a short, affirmative answer. He planned to press for further details on that and Moses Wednesday.
Wednesday morning Lavada Harris asked her father to borrow his car to go on a job interview. The day went by and that evening he saw on the news that his daughter was charged with murder, Mr. Harris said. Police arrested her during a traffic stop.
“She called me and told me she was ready to move in with me and I was all happy about that, hoping that she would be able to start a new life and everything and get all this stuff behind her. Then, the very next day she was arrested and that’s where we are now. It’s like everything is a total nightmare. I don’t know what’s going on,” he said.
Daughter talks about murder case
Mr. Harris said he had a long conversation with his daughter after her arraignment Thursday.
“She was very withdrawn and very sad. I know that she regrets everything that she’s done. She was crying and everything, telling about how sorry she was,” he said.
She’s in denial about whether Moses had anything to do with the murders, Mr. Harris said, and “swore up and down” Moses didn’t do it. Lavada Harris also didn’t believe Jadon was dead, he said.
"I really feel for the parents. I can’t imagine how tough that can be for a parent to lose a child like that. I just hope it brings some kind of closure to them. As far as my daughter goes, I know she’s innocent and she’s been drawn into this thing. She has a lot of regrets and everything, but as far as being involved in the actual murder or whatever, I know she’s innocent. I would stake my life on it,” Mr. Harris said.
When asked about the bodies and the case, she kept telling her father, “I don’t know.”
“She insists that she don’t know anything about that. You know, it’s like, I don’t know whether she’s protecting somebody or if she’s afraid to say or what, but at some point I had to believe that she really didn’t know where these bodies were buried or whatever, you know. I don’t think she was present at the time when the shootings took place. I don’t know, maybe she knows something, but I just don’t know what to say,” he said.
Hopes for a changed daughter
Harris said Lavada, who had always been a “follower,” appeared to be “programmed.”
“My daughter has taken a 180 degree turn. It’s like she’s an entirely different person sometimes. I just don’t know what’s going on with her,” he said.
"Now I don’t know how long it will be before we reconnect and can be together again. These charges are very serious, you know. I don’t know what kind of evidence they got but I still maintain that I know that my daughter is totally innocent,” he said, adding that investigators and people close to the case have had positive things to say about his daughter.
“It seems like everybody that has interviewed my daughter and talked to her has a good feeling about her. They know she has a good heart and that she has done some things in the past that stands out from the rest of the girls, women, in that group. They know that she’s a good person, that she has good intentions. I’m hoping that they know that she’s not capable of anything that she’s been accused of,” Harris said.
“I’m going to be there for my daughter as much as I can. In the end, I’m just hoping that she will be exonerated and we can move on with our lives and be together again,” he said.