Family of teen inmate who died from injuries suffered in Harris Co. jail speaks out

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Authorities say a teenager with special needs died Sunday from injuries he sustained while in jail, and court records say his alleged attacker weighed more than twice as much as he did.

The teen's family, friends and his lawyer held a press conference Wednesday afternoon to discuss the problems at the Harris County Jail.

Fred Harris, 19, had his head bashed on the concrete floor in what sources said was an unprovoked attack. Court records also show Harris was kicked and stabbed.

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

The incident comes the month after some Harris County Jail employees filed a federal lawsuit against the county for unsafe jail conditions, short staffing and inadequate jail funding.

Dallas Garcia, Harris' mom, is grieving the loss of her son.

"When I say he danced his way into everyone's heart, he was one of the most kind kids you would ever meet," said Garcia.

Garcia says she went to the sheriff's office earlier this month as soon as she found out Harris was in jail. She said she presented them with documentation of his intellectual disability.

He was booked into the county jail on Oct. 11 on charges of aggravated assault.

"I came down immediately and told them, 'This is not a place for him. He will never understand,' so I spoke with the deputy, we called the medical staff. and I didn't leave until I got some answers," Garcia explained. "And when I left, they said my son would be OK."

Randall Kallinen, the family's attorney, says 98-pound Harris should have been placed in a cell alone or certainly not with someone more than twice his size with a history of violence.

"Instead, he was put in with a 240 pound individual proven to be extremely violent, and who had manufactured a knife in the jail," said Kallinen.

They say more funding and more staff is needed at the jail, and they are calling on Harris County officials for change.

"We are here today to say, 'Commissioners Court, you need to get that staff,'" said Kallinen.

"I would like to tell them this is their doing," Garcia added. "This is their fault. They did this to my son."

The Texas Rangers have been called in to help with the investigation, which is ongoing.

A Harris County Sheriff's Office spokesperson explained they are in the process of interviewing staff and inmates, and that internal affairs and the Office of the Inspector General are working to determine if policies and procedures were followed.

ABC13 reached out to the office of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo about the incident. We were referred to the sheriff's office.

"Mr. Harris death is a tragedy and adds to the increasing number of lives taken violently in every corner of our society this year," Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in a statement. "We are determined to ensure that his killer faces justice, and we extend our condolences to Mr. Harris family."

Amy Mendez, a mother of four children who said she took in Harris in March, wants to know what went wrong. She said Harris was a Stafford High School graduate and had special needs.

Mendez said jailers should have done more to protect Harris, who deputies said was beaten and stabbed by 25-year-old Michael Ownby.

Ownby has been charged with aggravated assault and serious bodily injury. According to records, Ownby had a sharpened eating utensil.

"I really hope that Fred gets justice," said Mendez. "That's why I'm doing this. Because Fred had no voice. Fred had no one, and if no one steps up for Fred, at least I did. I loved that little boy."

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.

Ownby's appointed attorney, Harris Wood, Jr. sent a short statement on Tuesday about the allegations.

"All citizens enjoy the constitutionally-guaranteed presumption of innocence," Wood said.
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