The high-profile trial of a man accused of shackling a child to a porch with a dead chicken tied around his neck starts Monday in Union County Superior Court.
And a key witness against Dorian Harper may be his co-defendant, a former county social services supervisor. Wanda Sue Larson, Harper’s longtime girlfriend and the boy’s legal guardian, may testify in the case, District Attorney Trey Robison said.
A final decision has not been made on whether Larson will testify, Robison said. He declined to comment on whether a plea bargain is possible for Larson.
The boy also may testify, Robison said.
Harper and Larson, both 58, each face several years in prison if convicted of all charges. Both have pleaded not guilty. Larson’s trial is set for mid-April, unless she makes a plea deal.
The case that stunned the region and made international headlines was triggered by a hungry hog.
On Nov. 15, 2013, a Union County sheriff’s deputy responded to a neighbor’s call about a hog from Harper and Larson’s Austin Road home eating her flowers and shrubs. That’s when the deputy encountered an 11-year-old boy, shivering and handcuffed by his ankle to the porch.
Authorities believe Harper tied the dead chicken around the boy’s neck as punishment for killing one of the chickens on the 5-acre farm. More than 100 animals, including donkeys, dogs and geese, were later removed from the property.
Harper was home at the time the boy was discovered, but Larson was at work at her job as a child protective services supervisor at Union County’s Division of Social Services. Larson was soon fired and Harper lost his job as an emergency room nurse at Carolinas Medical Center-Union in Monroe.
Authorities removed the boy and four other children ages 7 to 14 who were living at the home. Larson was legal guardian for the 11-year-old and had adopted the other four. They are under Division of Social Services custody outside of Union County.
Investigators also learned the couple had provided foster care for 36 children over a 12-year period, and worked to determine if the other children were abused or witnessed abuse. No other child abuse charges were filed, however.
‘He’s strong enough now’
The boy’s biological mother, Charlotte resident Maria Harris, wants people to know that her son, now 12, is happy and doing well.
“The next hurdle is testifying. I think he’s strong enough now,” Harris said. “He told me he wanted to.”
She said she sees her son about once a week, and is optimistic he will be returned to her soon. The other children removed from the Harper-Larson home also are well, Harris said; two are her niece and nephew.
“I just want some kind of justice for these kids so they can truly, truly move on when they know (Harper and Larson) are held accountable,” Harris said.
Detailing the charges
In December 2013, Harper and Larson were indicted on multiple charges that included felony child abuse, false imprisonment and maiming.
The indictment detailed alleged abuse the boy suffered between August and November 2013, including being chained to a steel railroad track in his room.
Other allegations in the indictment included: Harper burned the boy near his eye with an electrical wire; Harper cut the boy’s face with a knife, leaving a 2-inch scar; and the boy seriously hurt his wrist trying to escape handcuffs Harper had put on him.
Larson failed to get medical treatment for the boy on those occasions, “showing a reckless disregard for human life,” the indictment stated.
The couple also was indicted on a cruelty to animals charge for allegedly not adequately feeding their basset hound.
And because she was a social services supervisor, Larson was indicted on a charge of willful failure to discharge her duty as a public figure.
In the aftermath of her arrest, Union County requested that the state review the 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 as the agency worked to change its culture and move toward greater openness, accountability and collaboration.
Glimpse of a ‘different world’
On Friday, Harper’s attorney, Randolph Lee, filed a motion seeking to force prosecutors to detail deals they made with Larson or other potential witness.
Lee also wanted an order to sequester witnesses, another motion stated, “because the state’s case is built in large part upon the probable testimony of children” who lived with Larson and Harper.
Larson was transferred to a Raleigh prison for undisclosed medical reasons last year but is back in Union County Jail, records show. She remains in custody under a $520,000 bond; Harper’s bond is $500,000.
Lee declined to comment on the trial. Larson’s attorney, Bob Leas, could not be reached for comment.
In a brief interview with the Observer in 2003, Larson explained why she wanted to be a foster parent: “The child that comes into your home, their whole world has been turned upside down. You’re something they can hold onto until things are settled.
“We also have a chance to give a child a glimpse of a world that can be different for them.”