FORT PIERCE, Fla. — A Florida sheriff’s deputy watched Lora Ann Huizar as she walked home from a sleepover the day she vanished in November 1983, according to witnesses.
Huizar, 11, of Fort Pierce, was found dead in a citrus grove three days later, about 600 yards from the intersection where she was last seen alive. The sixth grader had been sexually assaulted and strangled.
On Thursday, nearly 39 years after the girl’s death, St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara announced that cold case detectives have identified that same deputy as the “only probable suspect” in Lora’s murder.
James Howard Harrison will not face a jury, however. Harrison, of Okeechobee, died of cancer in 2008 at the age of 73.
Mascara commended cold case Detective Paul Taylor for doing an “amazing, amazing job” on the case, the outcome of which came as somewhat of a shock.
“This cold case definitely rattled some personal feelings of his, as well as people who worked with former Deputy James Harrison,” the sheriff said at a news conference.
Watch Thursday’s news conference with St. Lucie County detectives below.
Harrison, who worked in law enforcement for 25 years, also served as a pastor in St. Lucie County.
“We have established probable cause to determine that Harrison abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered the juvenile victim, and (he) later altered the crime scene by placing the victim in a drainage ditch in an attempt to destroy physical evidence,” Chief Deputy Brian Hester told reporters.
Taylor was critical of the original search for the missing girl, whose body was found within sight of where she was abducted. He also said that Harrison had “slipped through the cracks,” in part because of the lack of easy communication among law enforcement agencies in the 1980s.
“We’ve learned a lot over the years. We don’t do a homicide investigation in 2022 like they did in 1983,” he said.
Harrison’s body was exhumed and DNA was extracted from the remains for comparison with the slain girl’s 1983 rape kit, Hester said. The sample from the rape kit was too degraded to prove helpful.
Despite that fact, investigators believe the circumstantial evidence they have is enough to label Harrison the girl’s killer.
Lora’s siblings expressed their own shock Thursday in an interview with WPBF in West Palm Beach.
“It naturally was like a disbelief, a dream,” Joe Huizar said. “After all this time, you’re telling me you’re able to tell us who murdered our little sister?”
Mascara, who worked with Harrison in the late 1970s and early 1980s, said he once filed a complaint with supervisors over what he believed was the deputy’s “inappropriate relationships with young adults.”
“Not sexual, not anything like that,” the sheriff said Thursday. “But his interactions with young adults, I thought, were inappropriate.
“My concerns went up the food chain here at the sheriff’s office at the time, and my supervisor told me because he was a preacher, that (Harrison) was ‘spiritually mentoring’ children at risk and teenagers at risk.”
Looking back, Mascara said he now questions Harrison’s true motives for mentoring the children.
“In my mind, I wonder if he was using his authority as a deputy sheriff and his standing as a preacher in the community to go ahead and violate children during the entire course of his life,” Mascara said. “This is a very, very concerning case because of that.”
A ‘feisty, outspoken’ child
The case began as Lora Huizar, who was described by her sister as a “feisty, outspoken” child, walked home the afternoon of Nov. 6, 1983, as she returned from a Saturday night sleepover at a friend’s house. She had left Two G’s Market & Deli and was heading home when witnesses who saw the girl also spotted a uniformed patrol deputy watching her.
That deputy was later confirmed to be Harrison, Hester said.
Lora never made it home. She was within sight of her driveway when she vanished.
Her sister, Michelle Solis, told WPBF that the girl’s personality heightened the shock of her disappearance.
“She was not the type of girl to be tricked to get in someone’s car,” Solis said.
Taylor said the siblings’ father, Jose Huizar, searched in vain for his daughter that night. The family eventually called 911 to report her missing.
Missing children reports were not taken as seriously in the 1980s as they are today. Taylor was reminded of that fact when he sat down with the original case detective and went over the files.
“When the deputy took the original missing persons report, talking to the (1983) detective, the detective said, ‘Back then, we didn’t do much,’” Taylor said. “He said, ‘Back then, we always assumed that if a juvenile was missing, they’re over at their friend’s house, or they’re hanging out here, or they got busy doing something else and they’re going to return home.’”
The Huizar family’s worst fears were confirmed three days after Lora vanished, when her small, 90-pound body was found dumped in a drainage ditch at the back of a citrus grove near what is now the St. Lucie County Fairgrounds.
Taylor said the sheriff at the time, Sheriff C.L. Norvell, was furious.
“(The detective) said the sheriff said, ‘I want an arrest made right now,’” he told reporters.
That never happened. The heartbreaking case eventually went cold.
Mascara said that the sheriff’s office established a cold case unit more than two years ago. Taylor was assigned to lead that unit, poring day after day over unsolved case files.
Almost immediately, Taylor chose to reopen the Lora Huizar case.
“He picked this case in particular because it was a child,” the sheriff said.
Taylor told WPTV in West Palm Beach in 2020 that the girl’s murder was most important to him because he lost his own son to suicide five years ago.
“It strikes a chord with me because I lost my only child, and as a parent losing a child, I can see where her parents were at,” Taylor told the news station.
Watch WPTV’s report on Thursday’s announcement below, including aerial footage of the crime scene from 1983.
The detective kept a photo of Lora on his cubicle wall.
“If I start getting down about not being able to find something, I look over, and she’s kind of talking to me from the grave, saying, ‘Keep digging,’” he said.
And Taylor dug.
“As this case progressed, there are some other turns to this case that really have shocked us all to our core,” Mascara said. “That being ... the identification of a former deputy as the probable suspect in this murder.”
According to authorities, both the grove where Lora’s body was dumped and the area where she had been seen walking were in Harrison’s assigned patrol area. The deputy was the last person known to see the girl alive.
He was also the first deputy on the scene at the grove after witnesses stumbled upon Lora’s body.
“Detectives that were originally assigned to this case back in 1983 weren’t able to link Harrison to the crime or identify any viable suspects at that time,” Hester said.
‘What’s wrong with this picture?’
That began to change when Taylor reopened the cold case.
Taylor told reporters on Thursday that Harrison was not a suspect when he first started his investigation. One thing that puzzled him, however, was why Harrison, who saw the girl carrying a large pile of clothing, had not stopped to talk to her or give her a ride home.
“Any deputy that saw this little girl walking in the area that she was walking would assume she was a runaway,” Taylor said. “She’s carrying clothes, she’s little. They would have stepped out with her.”
Taylor said a visit to the site where Lora disappeared showed that there was a very brief few moments for someone to snatch the girl between the convenience store and her home.
“I’m standing at the intersection where she was last seen, and if you look to the east, you can see where she came from. You can see the business that she just walked from,” Taylor said. “If you look to the south, you can see her mailbox.
“So, it’s a very, very small window of opportunity for her to go missing and for him to make contact with her right in the middle of that, within view of where she came from and where she was going. There’s really not much time left for somebody to come in and just snatch her up.”
As his probe continued, the detective’s unease turned to alarming suspicion.
According to sources familiar with the original investigation, Harrison told the two witnesses who found the girl’s body to leave the area. That was about 20 minutes before backup deputies arrived, Hester said.
Taylor subsequently learned that no one had ever circled back to speak to the witnesses. Taylor tracked them down himself.
“There were tears,” Taylor said. “They started crying and said, ‘I see that little girl lying there every time I close my eyes.’”
The detective discovered something stunning as the witnesses described the scene they encountered 39 years ago.
“It was very graphic, it was very vivid,” Taylor said. “They had a very good recollection of everything they saw on the scene that day.”
There was one problem: What the witnesses saw did not match the crime scene photos Taylor reviewed from the case file.
“What they’re telling me does not match what I’m seeing,” he said. “At that time, I’m, like, ‘So what’s wrong with this picture?’”
Hester said Taylor and other investigators realized that the girl’s body had been moved into the drainage ditch after she was found but before Harrison’s backup arrived.
Taylor, who spoke to “old-timers” in the department and learned of the accusations of Harrison’s inappropriate behavior, began to suspect Harrison might be more than a witness in the case.
Harrison resigned from both his church and the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office in 1984, the year after Huizar’s murder, when additional accusations of inappropriate behavior were made against him, Mascara said. Details of those accusations were not available on Thursday.
After his resignation, Harrison went on to obtain other positions in law enforcement in Florida. Hester said that the longtime deputy’s behavior at those jobs, as well as his behavior at jobs before his stint in St. Lucie County, has also raised questions.
He worked for a total of about 10 agencies throughout Florida from the 1960s to his retirement, according to the chief deputy.
“During this time, he exhibited a pattern of inappropriate behavior involving juvenile females,” Hester said. “This pattern has led detectives to believe that Harrison may be responsible for other sexual assault cases across our state.”
Investigators at each of the agencies are now looking into Harrison’s time in uniform to determine whether other cold cases appear similar to the Huizar case.
“The 10 agencies he worked at, they’re all right up the middle of the state,” Taylor said. “I’ve reached out to them. They’re looking through their files now.”
Like Mascara, Taylor worries that there are additional victims.
“I know just based off Lora’s case there was a lot of migrant workers that work through there. There was a lot of farming going on,” Taylor said of the other jurisdictions.
Harrison’s DNA profile has been uploaded to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. Investigators in other locations across the U.S. can compare his profile to any genetic material they have from their unsolved cases.
“I just hope there are no other victims and this is the only one, but I would say the chances are that he was preying on these young juvenile females,” Taylor said.
The cold case detective recalled meeting with Lora’s family after he closed her case.
“They were distraught, to say the least,” Taylor said.
They were relieved, however, to learn it was not someone the girl knew who brutalized her.
Solis and Huizar told WPBF that they feel the original investigation into their sister’s murder was botched. While they are frustrated that they can never get answers from the alleged killer, they said they also want answers from the detectives who worked the case in 1983.
“From our perspective, things were purposefully overlooked and not done,” Solis said. “There are such humongous gaps in the investigation.”
Taylor said that he, too, wishes Harrison were still alive to face charges.
“I would love for him to be alive right now, because in my 30 years of law enforcement, there is nobody else I’d rather have in the box interviewing than him,” the detective said.
Anyone with information regarding Harrison or his possible involvement in this or any other criminal investigation should contact the St. Lucie County Criminal Investigation Division at 772-462-3230.
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