GORDO, Alabama — A long-time friend of the Georgia father who left his toddler son in a hot car to die says that the man now charged with murder was a popular guy who liked being the center of attention — but noted "I hope he gets what's coming to him" if he did it on purpose.
Ben McRea, 33, has been close friend of Justin Ross Harris, also 33, since they were in high school together, and he was a groomsman at his wedding. The two men met when McRea was about 15 years old, after his parents moved from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
They first bonded at the local University Church of Christ, during a church trip to see the Atlanta Braves play. They were very close and were both big Crimson Tide football fans.
"From that point on, we were inseparable," McRea said. "We were best friends." He characterized Harris as popular and outgoing.
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"He was just a great and outgoing personality. He always liked being the center of attention. He was the Ferris Bueller of Tuscaloosa."
McRea said he was partly responsible for setting up Harris and his wife Leanna, who just retained a lawyer herself, although she has not been charged in the case and police have not named her as a suspect.
HANNAH RAPPLEYE / NBC News
Ben McRea, 33, outside his home in Gordo, Ala. McRea was close friends with Ross Harris.
A friend of Ross Harris knew Leanna and wanted to set the two up. McRae said he accompanied the future spouses on a date to a local bar, during an open mic night.
"They really hit it off from the start," he said. Shortly afterward, McRea remembers, in the driveway of Harris' house, "He looked at me and said, ‘Ben, I'm going to marry that girl.'"
He was surprised by that because "(Harris) seemed like the type of guy who was scared of commitment." He dated "a lot of girls," McRea remembers.
McRea said he used to meet with Harris for lunch on almost a daily basis. He was a creature of habit, McRea said, getting the same thing every time: chicken fingers with cheese dip, rice, tortillas and no beans. The wait staff knew him so well they'd bring out his order before he asked for it.
He said Harris was the kind of guy who couldn't stand to "have a hair out of place." He said he was late to his own wedding because he had to pull over to get hairspray.
Regarding Ross and Leanna, McRea said, "They seemed to be best friends. They were polar opposites."
He described Leanna as shy and Ross as uptight. She controlled their finances until very recently, and would be upset with Ross if he spent money without telling her first. Ross was more laid back and seemingly always late.
"We joked he was the kind of person to be late to his own funeral," McRea said. "It didn't seem like he ever took anything seriously. But I always assumed he could be serious when he needed to be."
"They seemed to love each other very deeply," McRea said. "I can't tell you how shocked I was to find out the things he was doing behind her back."
"She had very low self esteem, always called herself 'overweight," McRea said.
He said it was his understanding they made a mutual decision to wait to have children until Ross Harris was finished with school and had a better paying job.
McRea said the wedding was simple, very nice. He was at the bachelor party before the wedding, as well which was a simple party — a few drinks with male friends, and cigars.
At the time of the wedding the couple had found a home to rent in the Tuscaloosa area and were very excited about their new life together.
"I would have never known there were any issues — they seemed to be best friends," said McRea.
Prosecutors have alleged that Harris was having marital problems and left his son to die in a hot SUV on purpose because he wanted a child-free life.
"We would never have dreamed he'd be capable of doing these things. He seemed like a loyal husband. He seemed like a good father," said McRea.
He said that the thing he doesn't understand is, in the context of Harris being obsessed with and knowledgeable about computers, how such evidence of online searches and social media accounts even exists.
"That boy knew how to clear his history — that boy knows how to cover his tracks — did he want all that to come out?"
When he heard about the boy's death, McRea said, "At first I thought, he could just have got that distracted. He could have been just real busy and preoccupied. And then I heard it was just like any other day, watching cartoons, going to Chick-Fil-A, and I was like, this don't look good."
"I got mad," when he first heard the new evidence about his cheating, "Because I wasn't just Ross' friend, I cared about Leanna too it just blows my mind. I didn't see him as the cheating type."
Harris has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and child cruelty. His lawyer, Maddox Kilgore, has said that his client accidentally forgot to drop off Cooper at daycare on the morning of June 18 in the Atlanta suburbs.
Ironically, McRea said, he and and the Harrises fell out of friendship because of cheating. A mutual friend had been cheating on her husband, also a friend of theirs, and McRea knew. Leanna wanted him to tell the friend, but he didn't. They stopped being close around the fall of 2010.
He said after the couple moved to Georgia, he'd see Harris' parents around town. "They'd be the proud grandparents, and talk about the grand-baby."
On June 19th, the day after his birthday, McRea was driving to meet up with his parents at a local Olive Garden restaurant. He got a Facebook message from a mutual friend that said "Have you seen this?" It was a link to a story about Ross. "I had to pull over, and I just cried like a baby." At the restaurant, he said he was extremely upset. "I said, 'Momma, Ross killed his baby. Momma, Ross killed his baby. How? How?"
"Please God," he said he begged, "tell me he didn't leave him in the car. Tell me this wasn't on purpose."
He said he's been watching TV all the time to hear of news on the case. "As more stuff comes out I just look over at my roommate and I say, How did he become this monster? What happened?"
“There's so many questions running through my mind that I want answers to, just like everybody else ... If this was on purpose, I hope he gets what's coming to him. And if she (Leanna)" knows anything about it, I hope she's right there with him."
First published July 11 2014, 2:56 AM