Robber gets 20 years in prison
By Blake Belden, Staff Writer
Apr 8, 2014, 14:40
Darrel Lamont Harris
COLONIAL HEIGHTS — A Richmond man was convicted of robbing a women’s clothing store in Colonial Heights and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in the United States District Court on Thursday.
Authorities believe he may have been tied to a string of 14 other robberies in surrounding counties.
Darrell Lamont Harris, 49, of Hawthorne Avenue, originally faced a total of 35 charges in Colonial Heights Circuit Court for a role in the robbery of Dress Barn on Southpark Boulevard in 2012, however complications related to the violation of Virginia’s Speedy Trial Statute caused the case to be dismissed on July 8, 2013, according to court documents.
Of the 35 charges, some of which carried a possible life sentence, 30 were felonies and five were misdemeanors.
Following the case’s dismissal in Colonial Heights Circuit Court, the Colonial Heights Police Department asked federal authorities to look into the case and consider charges.
Harris, who has four prior robbery convictions and was released from prison on mandatory parole in June 2011 after serving about 6 years of an active 16 year sentence, was convicted of one count of interference with commerce by robbery in federal court on Jan. 9 of this year, and sentenced to 240 months imprisonment on April 3, according to court records.
On April 28, 2012, police officers responded to the Dress Barn for a robbery call where they found several employees and customers locked in a room at the back of the store after a man with a firearm stole money from the cash registers and from many of the victims before forcing them into the room and fleeing the scene, according to a press release at the time.
Jennifer Hurley, the Dress Barn store manager who was present during the robbery, was approached from behind and turned around to see a black man wearing a mask, baggy clothes and blue latex gloves pointing a handgun at her, according to her testimony during a preliminary hearing.
It was later determined that the robber used a pellet gun during the incident, according to court documents.
After the robber removed the cash from the registers, and asked for everyone’s cell phones, he locked about 10 people in a back room and had the telephone unplugged, Hurley testified.
“I had a lady who started to have a panic attack. I had her pinned up against the wall trying to hold up her weight. And she started to hyperventilate” eventually lying on the floor and having a seizure, Hurley testified.
When Hurley was shown a photo lineup of six suspects, she positively identified Harris as the robber within less than one minute, according to the testimony of Detective Thad Johnson with the Colonial Heights Police Department.
“His eyes were visible. His mouth was visible. Below his nose was visible” and he had a mustache, Hurley testified.
Although Harris did not have a mustache in the photo lineup, Hurley said that she recognized Harris’s wide, white eyes.
Despite visual limitations, four of the nine total witnesses believed they would recognize the robber if they saw him again, and when the four were individually shown a 6-pack photo lineup, two of the witnesses positively identified Harris and two chose an individual other than Harris, according to federal court records.
Court documents indicate that law enforcement officers were able to use cell phone tower data to determine that Harris’s cell phone was in Colonial Heights during the time of the robbery, and that the suspect was travelling north on Interstate 95 towards Chesterfield County and Richmond with two of the robbery victims’ phones.
Colonial Heights authorities were given Harris’s name from the Chesterfield County Police Department and referred to Henrico authorities who emailed them a picture of Harris, according to Detective Johnson’s testimony in a preliminary hearing.
Authorities arrested Harris on April 29, 2012, and also retrieved several cell phones, a black BB gun and four sets of blue latex gloves from his residence as evidence, according to court documents.
After the commonwealth motioned to nolle prosequi, or set aside, 21 of the charges brought against the defendant in Colonial Heights Circuit Court in January of 2013, Harris then pleaded not guilty to 14 remaining charges, 12 felonies including grand larceny, four counts of robbery, three counts of abduction, wearing a mask in public, the use of a firearm in a felony, conspiracy to commit robbery, conspiracy to commit grand larceny in addition to two misdemeanors, brandishing a firearm and damaging a phone line, according to court records.
Harris was scheduled to be tried by a jury on January 28, 2013, but the commonwealth motioned to nolle prosequi the remaining charges three days prior to the trial following a delay in statistical forensic analysis by the Virginia Department of Forensic Science. The prosecutors set aside the charges with the intent of bringing the charges back up. The department had developed a new system for DNA mixture analysis which created a back log of analysis, according to the court documents.
On Sept. 12, 2012, the DFS filed a report that stated “a DNA mixture of no value was developed from a combined sample of the exterior of the gloves,” therefore the samples were not suitable for submission to the National DNA Data Bank.
However, forensic analysis of the BB gun reported that “Harris [could not] be eliminated as a contributor to the DNA mixture profile.”
Nearly nine months after Harris’s arrest, statistical analysis of DNA mixture had not been completed, therefore the commonwealth was not in a position to subpoena a DFS expert to testify during the trial, according to a motion from the commonwealth.
Following the commonwealth’s motion to nolle prosequi 14 charges against Harris, 10 felony charges were then later brought back up against him including four counts of robbery, two counts of abduction, grand larceny, conspiracy to commit grand larceny, wearing a mask in public and the use of a firearm in a felony, according to court documents.
The defense, then represented by Christian Vaughn, filed a motion in April 2013 to dismiss all charges against Harris because his right to a speedy trial had been violated, which the commonwealth denied in June and Judge Herbert C. Gill entered an order dismissing the case pursuant to the ruling on speedy trial on July 8, 2013, according to court documents.
Authorities from Chesterfield, Richmond, Henrico and Hanover were investigating a string of 14 robberies, most of which were women’s fashion stores and nail salons, which occurred between January and April of 2012 and were believed to be related, according to a press release.
During each robbery, a man entered the store armed and masked between 7 and 9 p.m. where he placed stolen cash into a black bag and fled, the press release said.
Investigators believed at least two people were involved in the robberies, and were working to determine whether Harris was involved in those in addition to the Colonial Heights robbery, according to the press release.
Harris has “a substance abuse history which includes the use of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin as recently as April 2012,” as written in the defendant’s position on sentencing in federal court.
As part of his sentence, Harris must pay $2,230 in restitution to cover the costs in stolen funds from the Dress Barn and five victims in the incident, according to online court records.
Harris will be on supervised release for a period of three years following his imprisonment, according to court records.
He has not been charged with any crimes in Hanover, Richmond or Chesterfield, according to the online court database.