Lt. Daniel Harris was an all-American boy, the captain of his high school football and lacrosse teams. So it came as no surprise when this son of a retired naval aviator and grandson of a two-star admiral was accepted into the Naval Academy in 2001. He repeatedly graduated at the top of flight training classes on his way to becoming a fighter pilot. In 2011, he fulfilled a lifelong dream and graduated from Top Gun (he even named the family dog "Maverick"). By 2014, Harris was well on his way to a stellar career, with glowing fitness reports, and a devoted wife and two young children by his side.
He never had a brush with the law — not even a parking ticket.
But Harris harbored a dark secret. For years, he had posed online as a teenager boy to convince young teen girls to send him suggestive risqué pictures. He then used those photos to blackmail the girls; he demandinged they send additional, sexually graphic images and videos or else he would post the initial images online or send them to family and friends.
Investigators found more than 800 sexually explicit images and videos of girls engaging in sexually explicit conduct on Harris' computer. Of the more than 275 screen names with which Harris had Skype conversations, more than 45 were girls who made it clear they were underage. Prosecutors called Harris "the victimizer and manipulator of hundreds of girls," and said his exploits likely started as early as 2008, but he bought a new computer in 2011 so they had no way to prove the extent of his activities.
The victims weren't the only ones fooled. Harris received high marks in his last two fitness reports, obtained by Navy Times. Less than two months before Harris' November 2013 arrest, the reviewing officer said the strike fighter tactics instructor "has earned my strongest recommendation for promotion, selection for [Strike Fighter Squadron] Department Head and VFA Command. PROMOTE AND SELECT NOW!"
With that same vigor, dozens of friends and family members came to Harris' defense. In character letters and courtroom testimony they expressed shock at the charges leveled against a man repeatedly described as anadmired role model with sterling the highest integrity and sterling character; a devoted family man who was selfless and compassionate, caring and trustworthy.
But the tune changed after the prosecution presented a mountain of evidence and the jury founddeclared him guilty on 29 counts of the production, receipt, transportation, and possession of child pornography, and two counts of obstruction of justice. Harris was sentenced to 50 years on Monday.
Harris was a dream kid and role model, "up until the verdict was reached," according his father, retired Cmdr. Steve Harris, who testified at his son's July 13 sentencing. Similar sentiment was presented in taped telephone calls and post-verdict letters in which former supporters expressed everything from regret to resentment. They not only lashed out at Harris' actions, and but also the repeated deceptions he used in a fruitless attempt to evade conviction. An aunt told him to take responsibility for his actions and apologize. His grandmother said he dishonored the Navy and "should have been man enough to admit it." The most scathing letter came from Harris' wife, Erin, who was not at the sentencing. She had voiced strong support when her husband was arrested, and did not want those words to benefit him during sentencing. She said her initial comments came from a hopeful heart that had only a fraction of information.
"My observations were not only wrong, but couldn't be further from the truth," said Erin, who has filed for divorce. "In his world, only he matters."
In rendering his sentence, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Davis noted the "stark contrast" between the picturesque naval aviator and the convicted felon who stood shackled before him. He said Harris had "sadistically tormented," "manipulated," and "blackmailed" nine victims who ranged in age from 12 to 17.
"You essentially raped them," Davis said. "In some ways what you did was worse because you kept coming back to them."
The judge denounced Harris for showing took strong issue with the fact Harris showed no emotion throughout the trial and sentencing, save for one brief moment when a teenage victim forgave him. Harris' gaze otherwise remained fixed to the floor as victims and families described drastic behavioral changes and struggles that resulted from their victimization. Many who were once Outgoing teens said they'd withdrawn in depression; some were hospitalized, and others became suicidal.
"He is a sick man who should be ashamed of his actions, but has shown otherwise," victim "H.K." said at Harris' sentencing.
Naval aviators from Harris' command who were present at sentencing often sat with heads down. "This is embarrassing," one whispered as prosecutors revisited facts during closing arguments. But there was one moment the uniformed officers nodded in agreement: Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Yusi boldly declared that Harris' character was a façade, but true bravery and integrity could be seen in the young girls who had come forward to testify.
The judge also Davis also said he found it "very troubling" that Harris never admitted any of his activity despite the voluminous evidence gathered against him. The fighter pilot instead blamed other people, and even created a fake scapegoat named "John Anderson" to avoid prosecution. Harris offered the wife of an inmate $3,000 to use that alias to send text messages to his family and victims, claiming to have framed him for the child porn charges in an attempt to prove his innocence. When all else failed, Harris sent a letter to the Chinese embassy promising military secrets if they broke him out of jail.
At his sentencing, Harris thanked his family for their love and support, and lamented the loss of his wife and children, but never addressed his actions or victims.
Defense Attorney Andrew Sacks blamed Harris' behavior on the pressures the pilot placed on himself. Harris was caught up in being perfect for everyone; his drive demanded a standard he couldn't possibly meet, and he was soon overtaken. The only place he could find control was in the "dark, dirty little world he found himself in."
Sacks asked for the mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years. Davis wasn't buying it. He sentenced Harris to 50 years in prison. At least 85 percent of that sentence must be served with good conduct before Harris is eligible to be released. Sacks said his client would appeal.
Harris kept his eyes forward as he was led out of the courtroom. His father stood by the door and apologized to victims as families filed out.
"It's too bad that Harris didn't have the same character as his dad," said the father of victim "H.M.," whose call to police initiated the investigation that ended with Harris' conviction. "I really feel sad for the guy's dad. I feel sorry for his kids, too. And I hope they never meet anyone like him when they are growing up."