ST. LUCIE COUNTY, Fla. — A sheriff's office in South Florida named a deceased deputy as the only probable suspect in the sexual assault and murder of an 11-year-old girl in 1983. Now, cold-case detectives believe he could be responsible for other sexual assault cases across the state.
Lora Ann Huizar, 11, was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered by former St. Lucie County Sheriff deputy James Howard Harrison, detectives with the department said on Thursday.
“Approximately 2% of cold cases in the United States ever get solved,” said Detective Paul Taylor, a cold-case detective for the St. Lucie County Sherriff’s Office. “The day I solved this case was both the worst and the best day of my 30-year career in law enforcement. Nobody dislikes a bad cop more than a good cop, and it felt bittersweet to finally provide the victim’s family with some long-awaited answers.”
The sheriff's office said a uniformed patrol deputy, later confirmed to be Harrison, saw Huizar walking toward her home from a gas station on November 6, 1983, around the time of her disappearance. Her body was found three days later near the same area.
“We have established probable cause to determine that Harrison abducted, sexually assaulted, and murdered the juvenile victim and later altered the crime scene by placing the victim in a drainage ditch in an attempt to destroy physical evidence,” said Chief Deputy Brian Hester.
Authorities said those familiar with the original investigation confirmed that Harrison told two witnesses to leave the scene where Huizar's body was found 20 minutes before additional law enforcement arrived. Cold case detectives said they learned that the position of Huizar's body when crime scene investigators arrived was different from initial eye witness accounts.
In 2021, the department said Harrison's body was exhumed after a private lab found unknown male DNA from the victim's sexual assault kit. However, a comparison was not possible because of degradation to the DNA sample from the rape kit.
Taylor said Harrison's DNA has been added CODIS for comparison should another other cold cases be linked to him.
The sheriff's office said where Huizar was seen walking and where her body was found were both within the bounds of Harrison's assigned zone. The original detectives were unable to link Harrison to the crime or identify any other suspect, the sheriff's office said.
"We don't do a homicide investigation in 2022 like they did in 1983. There was a lot of steps that were missed," Taylor said.
Harrison, according to authorities, worked for 10 different law enforcement agencies in Florida since the 1960s. Based on his 2008 obituary, Harrison worked in law enforcement for 25 years before he retired. He was 73 years old at the time of his death. According to Taylor, he died from cancer.
Cold case detectives said during his time with law enforcement, Harris "exhibited a pattern of inappropriate behavior involving juvenile females." Based on that pattern, cold-case detectives believe Harrison could be responsible for other sexual assault cases across the state.
According to St. Lucie Sheriff Ken Mascara, he worked with Harrison and complained to his supervisor in the late 70s or early 80s that he felt Harrison was having "inappropriate relationships" with young adults. Mascara said he was told by his supervisor, after the complaint went "up the food chain," that Harrison was a preacher and was spiritually mentoring at-risk children and teenagers.
According to Detective Taylor, Harrison was a well-known preacher at Bethel Baptist Church in Fort Pierce. In 1984, Mascara said "accusations" were made against Harrison and he resigned from the department. At the same time, Taylor said Harrison was forced to resign from the church as well. Mascara added that he didn't know the details of the accusations made against Harrison.
Detective Taylor expressed his disappointment that the crime was committed by a deputy with the department during a press conference on Thursday.
"I wish it would have been somebody else," Taylor said. "But I had to follow the evidence and the evidence led to him, unfortunately."
Taylor added that he "would love" for Harrison to be alive right now.
"In my 30 years in law enforcement there is nobody else I'd rather have in the box interviewing than him," Taylor said.
Taylor went on to tell the story of how a dream led him to hang a picture of the victim in his office, where it still remains.
"I lost my only child to suicide five years ago. There had been a while after he died that I had no dreams of him, and it used to bother me, and it upset my wife that she wasn't having dreams of him," Taylor said.
He went on to say that one night he had a dream of his son yelling at him that he "found her."
"I'm like, what are you talking about?" Taylor said. "And he said, he gets right in my face, and he says 'I found her' and I'm like, who are you talking about. And I looked over, and I saw Lora standing there, and she just looked at me and said one word to me or one sentence to me, and she says 'keep digging.' And I woke up," Taylor said.
"So when I got into my office the next day I pulled the picture of her out and....I wrote on it 'Keep Digging, Lora Ann' and stuck it on my wall and it's been there ever since."
If you have any information regarding Harrison or his possible involvement in this or any other criminal investigation, you may contact the St. Lucie County Criminal Investigation Division at 772-462-3230.
The agencies Harrison worked for and when:
- 1961-1963 Orange County Sheriff’s Office Jail (Correctional Officer)
- 1963-1966 Brooksville Police Department
- 1966-1967 Groveland Police Department
- 1968-1973 Hernando County Sheriff’s Office
- 1973-1977 Osceola County Sheriff’s Office
- 1976-1978 Edgewood Police Department
- 1979-1982 St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office
- 1982-1983 Glades County Sheriff’s Office
- 1983-1984 St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office
- Unknown dates Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office
- Unknown dates Okeechobee Police Department
Detective Taylor said he reached out to all of the departments where Harrison worked and those agencies are looking into old cases where Harrison could have been involved.
ABC Action News is reaching out to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, the only agency in the Tampa Bay area where Harrison worked, for comment. The Brooksville Police Department was disbanded in 2018.