Here’s what life was like for an 11-year-old boy living with Dorian Harper.
He was chained to a steel railroad track and slept on the floor of a filthy, locked room every night with three boys, then begged them for a blanket or a block of cheese. He remained shackled with handcuffs all day, even if he went outside. And when Harper got really mad, he twisted the boy’s pinkie finger with pliers or burned his face near his eye with electrical wires “to teach him a lesson.”
These were some of the chilling details that emerged Wednesday during sentencing in Harper’s child abuse case. A surprise plea deal emerged just as his trial was about to start in Union County Superior Court.
Harper, an emergency room nurse, and his longtime girlfriend, Wanda Sue Larson, a Union County child protective services supervisor, were arrested in November 2013. A sheriff’s deputy, investigating a call about a loose hog in the area, encountered the boy shackled to their porch by his ankle with a dead chicken tied around his neck.
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“The facts in this case are horrifying,” prosecutor Cristin Dunne told the court.
Because Larson worked in child protective services, the case prompted a review of Union County’s foster care, adoption and child-protection programs. The agency also began an overhaul of its practices. Five DSS workers were fired and a top manager was demoted at the agency. Her trial is set for next month.
On Wednesday, Harper, 58, was sentenced by Superior Court Judge Brad Long to a minimum of six years and three months, with a maximum of 10 1/2 years in prison. If he had gone ahead with the trial, he could have received a sentence that was twice as long.
Under the deal, Harper pleaded guilty to six felonies and a misdemeanor – including maiming, intentional child abuse inflicting serious injury and assault with a deadly weapon – that were consolidated into three felony judgments for sentencing purposes. Several other lesser charges were dismissed.
District Attorney Trey Robison said the main reason he agreed to the deal was a strong desire not to “re-victimize” the boy, now 12, by forcing him to testify.
“The case was not going to be provable without his testimony,” Robison said.
Scared and scarred
The boy was in the courtroom, as were three of the four other children who lived at the home.
But the 12-year-old got up and quickly left in the middle of sentencing testimony. He was too upset to listen any longer, Dunne said.
Larson had been the boy’s guardian since he was about 3. She had adopted the other four children in the home.
The boy’s biological mother, Charlotte resident Maria Harris, told the court her son remains frightened a lot and worries he will be bullied in school because of the scars Harper caused.
The boy is scared at the idea of Harper getting out of prison, Harris said, but he also “cried because he didn’t want (Harper) to spend all those years in jail, because there were good times.”
Those conflicting emotions were echoed by one of the other boys in the home. Now 15, he testified in a quavering voice, saying there were good times in the house before things changed.
“I don’t know how all this happened,” the teen said. “(Harper) deserves what he’s getting, but I’m also sorry he has to serve the time.”
Harper, sitting just a few feet away, never looked over.
The boy on the porch
Authorities believe Harper tied the dead chicken around the boy’s neck as punishment for killing a chicken on the couple’s 5-acre farm.
During the hourlong hearing, officials described the scene at the home after the deputy’s chance encounter with the boy on the porch that chilly November day. He was wearing a T-shirt and jeans while shackled.
Harper was home, but Larson was already at work.
Deputies found a room locked from the outside. Inside, they found the railroad track, blankets, handcuffs and urine on the floor.
“The house was covered in dust, urine and animal feces,” prosecutor Daniell Chunn said. After the children were taken to the Sheriff’s Office, she said, “The stench was so bad you could smell it permeating from the hallway.”
Harper often blamed the one boy whenever something went wrong in the home, Chunn said.
The other boys shared their dirty blankets with him because Harper didn’t want him to have one. In the morning, they had to take back the blankets before Harper came in.
The boy’s finger was infected, he had hair loss, two swollen scars on his face and was so undernourished, Chunn said, “he looked like he was 5 or 6.”
Being chained up, the boy told authorities, was the sum of his life with Harper.
Chunn highlighted three incidents between August and November 2013. She said Harper used pliers to twist the boy’s fingers and fingernails “to admit to things going on in the house,” took a knife and cut him on his face after blaming him for a problem at the home and placed electric wires on his face to “teach him a lesson.”
Neither Harper nor Larson got the boy medical attention, prosecutors said.
Dealing with the damage
Harper’s attorney, Randolph Lee, said he could not explain what happened.
“Things fell apart,” Lee said, “and Mr. Harper did not respond appropriately.”
He noted that the couple provided foster care for 36 children over the years, and no other abuse charges were filed over any other children.
Lee said Harper took a plea deal – after rejecting the same terms before jury selection began Monday – to spare the children the pain of testifying.
Before sentencing, Harper expressed remorse, apologized and blamed Larson for some of his troubles, including her decision to take the children out of school in spring 2012 and have them home-schooled.
“It was a series of events that unfolded, and I became trapped,” Harper said, without elaboration.
Then he spoke of the children.
“I did love them,” Harper said. “I still love them. They will be my children forever.”
No decision has been made on whether Larson, 58, will get a plea deal, Robison said. She remains in Union County jail with bail set at $520,000.
The five children were initially turned over to Davidson County’s social services department for custody, and were taken in by John Rowland and his wife.
“The torture lasted for years before the case was discovered,” Rowland told the court. “The children will deal with the damage of (Harper’s) actions forever.”