Teen inmate with special needs killed by cell mate in Harris County jail, family says

Jessica Willey Image
Wednesday, November 3, 2021
19-year-old inmate found dead in Harris County jail holding cell
Authorities said the attack was unprovoked and now, the teen's loved ones want those involved held accountable.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A family is searching for answers after a teen who was sent to the Harris County Jail is now dead.

Fred Harris,19, who died Sunday from injuries he sustained while in jail, had special needs and weighed half as much as his alleged attacker, according to friends and court records.

Harris had his head bashed on the concrete floor, records show. He was also kicked and stabbed.

His alleged attacker, 25-year-old Michael Ownby has been charged with aggravated assault, serious bodily injury. According to records, Ownby had a sharpened eating utensil.

According to the Harris County Sheriff's Office, Friday night, Harris was in a holding cell with Ownby, who, sources told ABC13, attacked Harris unprovoked. Records show Ownby to be 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 240 pounds. Meanwhile, Harris was just 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighs 98 pounds.

After the attack, Harris was taken to the hospital, but the sheriff's office said he died on Sunday.

"This is heartbreaking. This is heartbreaking that he died alone, scared and had no one," said Amy Mendez.

Mendez is a mother of four children who said she took in Harris, a friend of her son's, in March. She said he was a Stafford High School graduate and had special needs.

"He was just a 13-year-old kid trapped in a 19-year-old body." She added he always carried a toy karaoke microphone with him.

Harris, who had no criminal history, was jailed on Oct. 11 for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Mendez said he left her home in May and had been living on the street.

Ownby had been in jail since Oct. 28 for a charge of assault on a public servant. He also had a warrant for a misdemeanor for allegedly harassing his own mother.

Harris' appointed defense attorney, Kirk Oncken, said he had just met with Harris on Thursday and was "addressing his needs." He expressed outrage about the circumstances.

"I'm surprised that somebody, who was in custody, was in possession of something like that," Oncken said about the sharpened eating utensil Ownby had. "It's pretty shocking, pretty scary that something like that could happen in the county jail."

In addition to the Texas Rangers investigating Harris' death, the sheriff's office told ABC13, "The Sheriff's Office Internal Affairs and Office of Inspector General Division is also investigating to determine whether all applicable policies and procedures were followed, which is standard following the death of an inmate."

Ownby's appointed attorney, Harris Wood, Jr. sent a short statement, "all citizens enjoy the constitutionally-guaranteed presumption of innocence."

In the meantime, charges could be upgraded for Ownby, and Mendez wants those involved to be held accountable.

"I really hope that [Harris] gets justice. I loved that little boy, and it's heartbreaking to hear he's gone," Mendez said.

Randall Kallinen, a civil rights lawyer, plans to hold a news conference Wednesday afternoon outside the jail.

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