Mystery still surrounds missing Wyo. boy 10 years later

Saturday , February 15, 2014 - 8:23 AM

Casper Star-Tribune, Patrick Simonaitis

CASPER, Wyo. -- Ten years ago today, Casper 13-year-old Justin Phillip Harris disappeared, vanishing from a boys’ shelter on the north side of town.

To this day, what happened to Harris the night of Feb. 14, 2004, until he was discovered missing Sunday, Feb. 15 – and in the 10 years since – remains a mystery.

Justin, then a 5-foot, 110-pound boy, was initially reported to be a runaway. His bed at the R.L. Mills Home, a center for troubled youth, was found stuffed with clothes, making it appear as if he were still under the covers.

In the days immediately following Justin’s disappearance, it was reported by the director of the boys’ home that Justin was developmentally disabled, functioning at the level of a 6- or 7-year old.

The director, Dick Dresang, also said Justin was taking medication for depression at the time of his disappearance.

Phillip Harris, Justin’s father, has repeatedly denied Justin had any developmental disabilities.

“He was just a shy boy,” the elder Harris said this week. “He was a straight-A student, a quiet student.”

Justin’s disappearance immediately spawned large search efforts in Casper, with about 70 people from law enforcement and public safety agencies combing the north side of the city by foot and air.

As days and weeks passed with no signs of blond, green-eyed Justin, it was reported that the Casper Police Department was investigating the possibility that he had been abducted. It also surfaced that the department had polygraphed a number of people close to Justin, including family members.

National organizations joined in the effort, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which continues to circulate information on the case, including age-enhanced projections of what Justin would look like now.

This week, Justin’s father said he felt the first 60 days of the investigation were “wasted and lost because everyone was pointing fingers at each other,” including him.

“All players involved in the case, each one was a suspect,” he said. “I told investigators, ‘If I had done it, I wouldn’t be sitting here. I’d be with my son.’”

Throughout the years, Phillip Harris has shared with the Star-Tribune theories he has about what happened to Justin.

Days after Justin went missing, the elder Harris said he believed Justin had tried to run away to try to get to Oklahoma, where Phillip lives.

About a month later, Harris told the Star-Tribune that he suspected a cover-up by Mills Home employees, saying he thought a crime had occurred. At the time, police said they had no evidence of foul play.

This week, Phillip Harris said that he has run out of theories and that he has no idea what happened to his son on a cold February night a decade ago. He just wants some sort of closure.

“I just want the body – good, bad or indifferent,” Phillip Harris said. “And I hope they find whoever did this before I do. If I find him, I’ll go off.”

Harris said he has kept in contact with officials who continue to work the case, including those with the Casper Police Department. He also said that Justin’s DNA is tested against all John Doe bodies found across the country but that there has yet to be a match.

The Casper Police Department and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children have open investigations into the disappearance.

Prior to Justin’s disappearance in 2004, the boy and his sister had been the subject of a custody battle between Phillip Harris and the children’s mother, Stephanie Sidebottom.

Justin was a ward of the state at the time he went missing. According to Harris, Sidebottom had turned over Justin and his sister to state custody. Sidebottom could not be reached for comment.

“This is just unjust and needless,” Phillip Harris said. “There is no reasoning for it.”

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