What would Ryan Harris be like today? Mom wonders
Girl whose '98 murder got national attention would have been a young woman today
Ryan Harris would have turned 21 Friday.
Her mother, Sabrina Harris, will spend the milestone wondering: What kind of young woman would the skinny, pigtailed 11-year-old have become if she had not been brutally killed in 1998?
Would Ryan like to wear mascara? What would she be studying in college? How would she do her hair? Would she have a boyfriend?
Then there are still the difficult questions: Did she know her attacker? Where was she snatched off her bike?
On July 28, 1998, Ryan's semi-nude body was found beaten, strangled and sexually assaulted in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood. Her underwear was stuffed down her throat. Leaves were folded and tucked into her nostrils.
The story grabbed national headlines after two boys -- ages 7 and 8 -- were charged in the slaying and became the youngest people in the U.S. to be charged with murder. The boys were exonerated after DNA evidence linked the death to a man, Floyd Durr, who was at the time suspected in the rape of two other girls. He would later be convicted of raping four girls.
In April 2006, Durr accepted a plea deal that put him in prison for life in connection with Ryan's death but spares him from the death penalty -- something that still infuriates Harris. Attorneys on both sides said Durr's IQ qualifies him to be considered mentally disabled and thus ineligible for the death penalty based on federal and state Supreme Court rulings.
Park named after Ryan
Nine years later, the case is over. No more media attention. No more visits from police. No more court dates.
Instead, the Harris family moves on but does not forget.
"It's been weird because I have other children and they're growing and Ryan isn't growing with them," Harris said Wednesday at Ryan Harris Park in Englewood, named after the straight-A 5th grader.
Harris, 37, of Dolton, speaks openly about Ryan's murder, but her grief is just below the surface.
She said she often goes to the park or the cemetery where Ryan is buried and cries. She frequently speaks of her daughter in the present tense. "Her birthday is on Friday," she said.
News about the violent death of another child can send her into an emotional tailspin. Seeing a gaggle of teenagers makes her ache for her daughter. She is instantly consumed with fear when one of her six children cannot be located for even a short time.
"I always feel like someone is always trying to take my kids," she said.
On the day of Ryan's murder, the girl had finished her chore of washing dishes and set off on her bike. That is when she encountered Durr and ended up dead at the end of a path 20 feet north of 66th Street.
Harris, who was six months pregnant when Ryan was murdered, has not forgiven Durr, even though he has contended that he did not kill Ryan. Instead, Durr said he came upon the young girl's body and committed a sex act.
On Wednesday, Harris visited the spot where her daughter was found. The day was frigid and overcast, but as she gushed about how her daughter was so smart and precocious that she could have been a "a doctor, lawyer and basketball player," a warm beam of sun burst out of the cloudy sky.
"The sun is shining right now, and I think that's her smiling at me because she knows I'm talking about her," Harris said.
'A safe haven'
An annual community picnic with potato sack races and barbecue is held at the park July 28 to remember the day she was found.
"[Ryan's murder] affected the community greatly," said Darryl Smith, president of the Englewood Political Task Force, which helps sponsor the picnics. "The picnic is not only for Ryan Harris, it's for children to come to a safe haven.
"We felt the urge to concentrate on the youth from that point on to ensure that no other youth get hurt in that manner again."
Dozens of balloons, all purple, Ryan's favorite color, are released at 2:30 p.m., the time at which her body was found. The picnics attract family, friends and supporters, including a woman who was raped by Durr when she was a young girl. The woman, now 22, would hold Harris' hand tightly during the first few gatherings. It was not until a couple of years later that Harris learned who she was.
Harris, who works as a caregiver for the city's Department of Human Services, spends all of Ryan's birthdays at Restvale Cemetery in Alsip at her daughter's gravestone. Friday will be no different.
Harris comes alone. She never visits with any of her other children. They come with their father.
"I don't like for my children to see me crying," she said. "I don't want them to feel like they're living in her shadow."