One of the biggest attractions at the Louisville zoo was a floppy-eared baby named Scottie. Cute and kind of cuddly, at least for an elephant.
Erica: He’s got hair.
Hoda Kotb, correspondent: He’s got hair is right.
But on this day, he shared the spotlight with another media celebrity: a spunky girl named Erica whose infectious laugh and incredible story captivated a city.
Grandpa: That girl is a miracle child.
Kotb: Why do you think they call her that?
Ebony: Because she’s been through a lot.
Det. Rick Arnold: We had a 2-year-old that was shot twice and lived.
Kotb: Does she have an understanding of what happened to her?
Grandma: She knows that she was shot.
Grandpa: If you could have seen her, you would have said, “There’s no way that this child could possibly make it.”
Louisville, the home of Churchill Downs, is famous for its big horse race, the Kentucky Derby, so it knows a thing or two about long shots. But in betting parlance, the odds of this story ever finding a happy ending were off the board, virtually impossible.
Would a little girl ever gain the strength, not only to recover, but to come back whole? And would a dedicated detective, not only crack his biggest case, but keep the emotional promise he made?
Erica’s story began in a hardscrabble neighborhood in Louisville in this bRick house on Wilson Avenue.
A 2-year-old wild about Dora the Explorer, Erica lived here with her mom, Earon Harper.
On May 18, 2006, police got a frantic 911 call. When they arrived at the house, the man who made the call flagged them down.
Kotb: What was his state of mind?
Tom Barth: He was really hysterical.
Kotb: What was he saying?
Barth: “There’s a little girl in there. There’s a little girl in there.”
Detective Tom Barth and Officer Larry Riley rushed into the house and found a horrifying scene. A woman almost certainly dead on the floor.
Barth: And you could just see a big, like, a pool of blood.
The officers had to step over the woman to get to the back room, where, on the bed, they saw the little girl. Motionless.
Barth: When I first seen her, I, I thought she was dead.
Kotb: Was she saying anything, doing anything?
Barth: Nope. And then, eventually, I touched her and she pushed my hand and said, you know, “Leave me alone.”
Kotb: Tell me about the emotion you felt at that moment.
Larry Riley: I just- - she was alive.
But barely. The officers could see that the little girl had been shot in the head, dry blood was everywhere. They could tell that she’d been left there for a long time.
Larry Riley: She had very labored breathing, very labored breathing.
Kotb: Have you ever seen anyone who was breathing like that who, who made it?
Larry Riley: No, no I have not.
There was no time to wait for an ambulance. A sergeant at the scene barked the order for a police car to take her to the hospital. But first, the officers had to get her to the car.
Kotb: I’ve got to tell you, from the house to the car seems like a long way. What did it seem like when you guys were sprinting?
Larry Riley: That we were running to the hospital.
Kotb: You’re holding her head, and you’re holding her legs.
Larry Riley: Yes.
Kotb: Were you like this, do you remember?
Kotb: Just like this.
Barth: Pretty much like this.
Larry Riley: Like this.
When they finally reached the car, they handed her to two EMS-firefighters in the backseat, and another officer, Steve Kelsey, jumped behind the wheel.
Kelsey: Sergeant hit my car and said, “Go as fast as you can go.”
Kotb: Just hit it.
Kelsey: He said, “Go!”
Kelsey gunned it for the 3-mile trip to the hospital in downtown Louisville.
Steve: So I kept driving. And I’m thinking about my own kids. It could have been any of our children. We’re all fathers.
The NBC station, WAVE-TV, captured the dramatic final moments of the high-speed motorcade, as it made the left turn toward the hospital.
With traffic, Officer Kelsey said the ride can take up to 15 minutes.
Kotb: How long did it take you?
Steve: About two to three minutes.
Across town, another part of the story was unfolding inside this house.
All day long, Harold Harper and his wife, Judith, were wondering why they couldn’t reach their daughter, Earon, and their 2-year-old granddaughter, Erica.
Harold, a retired factory worker, and Judith, a homemaker, talked to their daughter nearly every day. So the silence was strange.
Then the TV news flashed on.
Harold: And said there had been a shooting down on Wilson Avenue where she lived and we thought, “Oh my god.”
He and Judith picked up Earon’s oldest daughter, Ebony, and drove down to the house.
Ebony: There was a whole bunch of people standing outside. It was taped off. And it was a mess down there.
Kotb: So you knew something was up.
Ebony: Yeah. And then I just - -
Kotb: Freaked out.
It wasn’t long before Judith and Harold’s worst fears were confirmed.
Judith: The jewelry she had on… they brought it to me. I knew it was Earon then.
Their daughter, Earon Harper, 42, was dead in the doorway.
Kotb: When you saw that jewelry, and you knew it was your daughter. What went through you, Judy?
Judith: I lost a son in ‘78 in a car wreck. He was already gone when I got to the hospital. I could have shed a few tears, went on about my business. But this was different. My son was 21. He had no children.
The loss of Earon—a mother of four—was devastating. But now the family had to deal with what happened to baby Erica, finding out in the most impersonal way.
Judith: I knew she was hurt by the police rushing her down the street that I saw on TV.
And later they learned how badly hurt. She had been shot in the head.
Harold: Why in the name of god would somebody do that?
It was this man’s job to find out.
Kotb: Now, in your experience, how many times have there been babies who were victims?
Det. Arnold: There’s never been a case I’ve worked where a baby’s been shot.
A life-long local with a once-promising pitching career at the University of Louisville, Det. Rick Arnold knew this would be a high-profile case. He just didn’t know it would be the case of a lifetime.
Det. Arnold narrates crime-scene video: This is detective Rick Arnold. Today’s date is May the 18th, 2006.
A video camera rolled as Det. Arnold processed the crime scene, honing in on clues.
Det. Arnold’s crime-scene video
“On this drum, near the victim’s body, is a shell casing.”
The harsh reality of death lay side by side with the everyday images of young life: Earon’s body in a pool of blood near a red kiddie wagon; a shell casing in front of a box of diapers; and the bed, where Erica once jumped for joy, now covered in her own blood.
“Suspected blood on the sheets, the pillow and the pillowcases.”
Det. Arnold noticed something on the bed that would burn in his memory throughout the investigation.
Det. Arnold: The first thing that immediately hit me was a Dora the Explorer pillow. And it had blood on it.
Kotb: What was the emotion when you saw that?
Det. Arnold: Anger.
With two young kids of his own, this case had already hit Rick Arnold hard. On the spot, he made a promise to Erica’s grandmother.
Kotb: You said, “We’re going to find who did this.”
Det. Arnold: Yes.
Kotb: That’s a lot to promise somebody, isn’t it?
Det. Arnold: Yes it is.
Det. Rick Arnold admitted it. Little Erica’s shooting made his blood boil. It’s why he guaranteed Judith Harper that he’d find out who killed her daughter and shot her 2-year-old granddaughter.
Hoda Kotb, correspondent: Why did you make that promise?
Det. Arnold: That was probably a little emotion spilling over. There was a baby that had been shot as well as an adult that was killed. And we were expecting at that point the baby to die.
Erica had practically flat lined as her high-speed police caravan delivered her to Kosair Children’s Hospital. She was rushed into the emergency room, where doctors and nurses worked frantically to stabilize her.
Dr. Moriarty: Her vital signs were barely measurable.
Dr. Thomas Moriarty, a pediatric neuro-surgeon, seen here during a recent operation, performed surgery on the gunshot wounds to Erica’s head. These were CAT-scans of her skull and brain, pre-op.
Dr. Moriarty: Now, and on this one, you can see part of the bullets and some broken bone.
The surgeon’s life-saving mission was to clean the fragments from Erica’s head, repair the wounds, and preserve brain function, if possible.
Erica actually was lucky in one way: the angle of the bullet wasn’t straight through the brain but downward, exiting under her chin.
Dr. Moriarty: What a blessing, as opposed to the bullet going through and damaging and destroying everything.
And Dr. Moriarty was relieved that the bullet only struck the brain’s frontal lobe, which can absorb injury better, especially in the very young.
Moriarty: Less than 3 years old, the brain’s ability to repair is truly remarkable.
After a delicate three-and-a-half hour surgery, Dr. Moriarty was encouraged by comparison scans of Erica’s brain. The bullet and the bone fragments in the pre-op image were gone.
But despite the repair, brain injuries are unpredictable, and Dr. Moriarty urged caution.
Moriarty: The next three days in the ICU are going to be critical.
At the crime scene, Det. Arnold continued to sift through clues.
More leads came into focus: a bloody footprint; three big red soda cans; and two cigarette butts by the bed.
Det. Arnold: The second one had an ash about an inch long. Someone had left that cigarette and rushed out of there.
Det. Arnold ordered DNA testing on the cigarettes and cans.
The detective was also learning about Earon, and the more he found out, the more he was drawn in.
Mostly by herself, Earon was raising four children, including Erica, the only one home the night of the shooting, and Ebony, the oldest at 16.
Ebony: Instead of like mother and daughter, we were more like sisters.
Kotb: You were like friends, huh?
Ebony: We did everything together. She was the best mom.
And fun to be around, with a boisterous, oversized personality.
Ebony: She was outgoing. She just would do anything. She was just a daredevil. I just miss her so much. She was everything to me.
Harold: She loved her kids. She tried her best to take care of them.
Earon worked at Churchill downs as a hostess, meeting celebrities like actor Jason Priestly. But she had to go on disability because of MS and a painful inflammatory condition known as fibromyalgia.
She often took prescription pain-killers to manage her symptoms.
Harold: She was a—well, to put it bluntly I guess, a heck of a woman. You know? As far as the fighting spirit and everything is concerned.
But her parents were concerned by the crowd she sometimes ran with.
Kotb: She was with some guys you weren’t fond of?
Judith: That’s right.
Even so, her parents could not imagine who would have shot her and little Erica or why. And that just ramped up their own fears that the shooter or shooters might come back.
Harold: I was scared to death. I thought, my god, you know, what if they don’t catch these people?
At the crime scene, Det. Arnold was searching for answers, combing the house for more clues.
Det. Arnold: The first thing that popped into my head was some type of robbery.
Det. Arnold: One of the first things we do is check cell phone records.
Phone records showed that Earon received two phone calls in the hours before the shooting—both from a family friend.
James Quisenberry had known Earon for years. He called her “Auntie A.”
Detective: They’re menthol. That’s the best I can do. Is that ok?
Quisenberry: That’s what I smoke, menthol.
Detective: Oh, good.
Detective: They’re menthol. That’s the best I can do. Is that ok?
Quisenberry: That’s what I smoke, menthol.
Detective: Oh, good.
Police brought him in to see if he had any information that could help the investigation.
Detective: One of the very last people to call her, to talk to her by phone, was you. Which is why we want to talk to you.
Quisenberry: Was me?
Quisenberry provided some names for investigators to check out and repeatedly offered to assist police in any way he could.
Quisenberry: I’ll help you—help you find whoever did this.
Back at Children’s Hospital, Erica was now in the ICU, holding on for life. Her heart-broken grandparents and big sister stood daily vigil.
Ebony: It was like a horror movie, really. I don’t know who that was on that bed. That wasn’t Erica.
Ebony took it very hard. Fourteen years older, she’d been like a second mother to Erica. In fact, Erica actually called her “mommy.”
By day 4 in the ICU, Erica’s family was seeing signs of hope. Doctors believed Erica was strong enough to remove her breathing tube. Now, it was time to see how she’d do on her own.
Ebony: I was rubbing her hand. And she opened her eyes, like, a little bit. And she said, “Mommy!” And then everybody was like, “Oh my goodness. She’s speaking.”
While Erica had taken the first small steps toward recovery, there was a big sign of life in Rick Arnold’s investigation—a mystifying discovery that would turn out to be crucial.
Det. Arnold: Why is this with all these personal effects of Earon Harper?
Kotb: Doesn’t make sense, does it?
Det. Arnold: Made zero sense.
Four days after she was shot, Erica woke up and started talking to her family. In the ICU, Erica was feisty and combative. Her neuro-surgeon, Dr. Moriarty, said that was a positive sign. Her brain was re-booting.
Hoda Kotb: Did you pray a lot?
Judith: Oh, yes.
Judith was the most religious one in the family, and a week after surgery, her prayers and unshakable faith were answered. Erica’s condition was upgraded from critical to fair.
Judith: She looked real bad but I never dwelled on she wasn’t going to make it.
Now, the family had to turn its focus to the one who did not make it: Erica’s mom, Earon.
On May 25, 2006 -- a week after she was gunned down—Earon’s family gathered for her funeral.
And the man who delivered the eulogy was none other than the officer who’d raced Erica to the hospital—Steve Kelsey, who also served as a minister in a local church.
Jessie Halladay, reporter: And it was so moving and personal because he’d been on the scene.
But for Jessie Halladay, crime reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, what elevated this story was simple: little Erica.
Jessie Halladay: The public concern from the very beginning was always that there was a 2-year-old involved.
After nearly two weeks in the hospital, Erica was well enough to move to nearby Frazier Rehabilitation Institute. But the hard work was just beginning. The brain injury had damaged her ability to walk and talk.
What had been second nature to her had to be re-learned—running, talking back and forth and just being a playful kid again.
Erica’s sister, who knew her best, was worried. Erica had lost sight in her right eye forever, and Ebony was afraid she’d never be her old self again.
Kotb: What was different?
Ebony: She didn’t run and play and talk as much. She was kind of quiet.
With still no idea why her sister and mother were shot, Ebony and her grandparents remained fearful.
Kotb: You must have been worried, like “who did this? And where are they?”
Ebony: Yes. I was just thinking about the safety of the kids and me. So, I didn’t go out much.
Back at the police station, Det. Arnold was trying to figure out his next move when his investigation caught a lucky break.
A 75-year-old neatnick spotted some of Earon’s things in a rain-soaked ditch three miles from Earon’s house, and phoned police. There were empty prescription pill bottles, credit cards and ID cards and personal papers.
And something else that did not belong.
Kotb: Tell me about what this thing is?
Det. Arnold: This is the Cadillac manual.
A Cadillac owner’s manual. It stood out because it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the muddy mess.
So why was the car manual there. And whose was it?
Rick Arnold tried thumbing through it but the pages were soaked together.
Det. Arnold: Even the cover, the front and the back cover were just soggy, to the point where when I started to look through this, the very first time, and flipped through, and pages are still sticking together.
Days later, Rick could separate a few pages but was still frustrated.
Det. Arnold: It was the third time, and I really was thinking, you know, this would be the last time—if I don’t find something in this now, I’ll be out of luck. But I went through this—
Det. Arnold: --literally licked my thumb and my forefinger and went through it, page by page.
The third time was the charm.
Det. Arnold: I was able to find stuck all the way down in the binding of the book an automobile insurance card.
Kotb: With a name.
Det. Arnold: With a name most importantly.
By now, his working days had turned into working nights. Det. Arnold typed the name—a man’s name—into his computer and it spit out 15 matches. One of them lived in southern Indiana, just across the river from Louisville.
Around 11 p.m., Rick called the man.
Det. Arnold: I ask him if he knew why his manual would have been in a drainage ditch in Louisville, Kentucky.
Kotb: And what did he tell you?
Det. Arnold: He says, “I don’t know but my car was broken into at my work last week.”
His Cadillac. The break-in happened on the night of May 17, just a few hours before Earon Harper was found dead.
Det. Arnold: I asked him, “Where do you work?” And he said he’s a pharmacist at a Walgreens and bells and whistles go off in my head. He works at a drug store where they sell prescription drugs. It hit me immediately that there was a reason why that manual was with that stuff now.
Det. Arnold now had a working theory, and it went like this: someone broke into a shiny Cadillac, parked outside an Indiana Walgreens. The car happened to belong to the store’s pharmacist.
For no apparent reason, the thief grabbed the owner’s manual from the glove compartment and tossed it into his own car.
Then he went to Earon’s house, where she and Erica were shot, and Earon’s prescription pills and credit cards were stolen.
Then, according to Rick’s theory, the person rushed away from the house, threw the pill bottles and credit cards into the getaway car and drove off.
A few miles away, whoever was in the car got rid of the hot property, tossing Earon’s empty pill bottles and credit cards out the window—along with the Cadillac manual.
And that’s how everything ended up together in the drainage ditch.
Detective Arnold: And I think they were just grabbing stuff and I believe that they just thought, “Wow, we don’t want to have this. She’s dead.”
Rick asked if the pharmacist knew who broke into his car.
Det. Arnold: He said, “I don’t know for sure but I have a pretty good idea.”
The pharmacist remembered—and store security cameras confirmed—that a man in a baseball cap and another man came into the Walgreens at 9:30 p.m. on May 17, just hours before Earon was shot.
Det. Arnold: And he said they didn’t look like they were regular shoppers at our Walgreens. He said, “most of our prescription customers are regular customers.” He went on to tell me they had come back to the pharmacy and tried to obtain prescriptions using bogus names.
And on the security tape, Rick looked closely and saw the man in the baseball cap leaning through the window of the enclosed pharmacy section, seemingly checking out names from pill bottles.
Over and over, Det. Arnold stared at the grainy Walgreens tape. The man in the baseball cap looked familiar.
Det. Arnold: One person sure looks like Quisenberry.
As in James Quisenberry, Earon’s family friend who phoned her minutes before the murder. Earlier, he’d told a detective how much he wanted to help the investigation.
Rick wasn’t buying any of it now. Quisenberry had become a prime suspect, though Rick wasn’t ready to arrest him. Not yet. Not until he had the other man.
But that wouldn’t be easy. Although there were two suspects in his sights, the mystery man was not in focus.
Kotb: How clear is the image of the second guy?
Det. Arnold: It’s not very clear.
Just 27 days after being shot in the head, Erica was released from rehab and met officer and pastor Steve Kelsey and her other rescuers. It was nothing short of a miracle.
Jessie Halladay: To see the looks on those faces and know that she had survived was a pretty powerful moment.
Erica laughed, cried and acted like a 2-year-old. Reporter Jessie Halladay was amazed by her progress—but also concerned about long-term brain damage.
Jessie Halladay: I didn’t feel like at that point I could say for sure she was going to be okay.
But even getting this far had been beaten the odds. Erica was going home.
Harold Harper: Just great to have her there, you know, to get her home from the hospital.
It was a home she already knew. Grandparents Judith and Harold Harper, both 69, were waving good bye to their care-free golden years.
They were fulltime parents again.
Judith Harper: I agreed from the first day that I would take care of her, not knowing what kind of shape she’s going to be in, not knowing what mental state she’d be in.
Erica’s father had never been a big part of her life so a court granted Judith and Harold full custody of Erica and her baby sister.
Kotb: You worked your whole life. This is supposed to be your time to kind of kick back, put your feet up. But that’s not for you?
Judith: Oh, that doesn’t bother me in the bit. Now, me and my husband, we’re a little different.
Harold: It didn’t turn out exactly like I thought it would, you know. Because of, well you know the reason, with the children and stuff.
Four years before the shootings, Harold had retired from his long-time meat-packing job, expecting to ride his Harley into the sunset.
Harold: I had a California trip. And I’ve been into Canada, most everywhere. And well, that had to stop.
Judith: He knows that I couldn’t maintain these children without him.
Harold: I don’t want her to. I love those little kids.
Ebony: I love my grandparents. They’re the best grandparents ever.
Kotb: Do you think that they sacrificed a lot to do this?
Ebony: Yeah. My grandpa loves his Harley.
Harold: But, you know, people do what they have to do. What’s in their heart to do.
Together, they gave Erica a secure home. Day by day, she was gaining strength but things were not normal.
Judith: Erica was so afraid of balloons and—
Judith: Balloons, a-popping. And she was afraid of firecrackers.
Harold: Loud noises and everything, she’s like this.
Ebony: She was scared when it rained, when it thundered outside.
Kotb: Because anything that sounded like gunshots.
But there was something else that terrified Erica, and it was harder to understand.
Judith: There was the guy that come in the daycare to pick his child up and had braids in his hair. And Erica started running and crying to the teacher and said, “Don’t let him hurt me.”
Judith told Det. Arnold about Erica’s new fear of men with braids.
And there, on the Walgreens video, Det. Arnold saw it. The man coming in with James Quisenberry—the mystery man—had braids. But the image was still too fuzzy to figure out.
Rick circulated a freeze frame of the man and hoped someone could identify him. Then he waited.
Eight months later, Rick got some promising news. A detective thought he recognized the Walgreens guy from another shooting.
Det. Arnold: And I might want to check him out.
His name? Kenneth Williams. Rick compared several Williams mug shots with the Walgreens video.
Kotb: And you think, boom, we’ve got our guy?
Rick: And I think it’s probably him but there again, the picture’s on the video’s not real good. But I start focusing in on him at that point.
Then, Rick’s investigation got lucky again: an unlikely witness came forward with information about that same Kenneth Williams and the night Erica and her mom were shot.
But the witness, Rashon Turner, was questionable. He was charged with murder himself—for which he’d later plea guilty to manslaughter—and he was also gravely wounded in a shooting.
Jon Heck, Prosecutor: He’s on his deathbed. He thinks he’s going to hell and he has something he needs to say.
Weeks later, Turner’s health had improved enough to talk to Rick Arnold.
Turner: James and Kenneth Williams, uh, they had supposedly hit a lick on a woman.
Det. Arnold: They hit a lick on some lady.
Kotb: What does that mean?
Det. Arnold: That’s slang term for a robbery.
A robbery that quickly escalated to murder.
Jon Heck: He knew things he couldn’t have known. He knew things that weren’t in the media.
Det. Arnold: There’s no way he could have known some of this stuff.
Kotb: What kind of things?
Det. Arnold: He couldn’t have known there were pills involved.
It was a long, frustrating 15-month investigation. But Rick was finally close to the answers he had promised Erica’s grandmother.
Kotb: What kept you going during some of those times where you might have felt like, “I’m hitting dead ends?”
Det. Arnold: A 2-year-old baby. Erica Hughes.
Five days after interviewing Turner, Det. Arnold was ready to bring in Quisenberry and Williams for some tough questioning.
Actually, Rick had enough on Quisenberry to arrest him earlier. But he wasn’t ready yet. He wanted more—both men from the Walgreens video so he could play them off of each other in dueling interrogations.
And now he had them.
Kotb: You’ve been waiting and waiting patiently. So it’s time to do your thing, right?
Det. Arnold: Now it’s time to move.
Jessie Halladay, reporter: I’m pretty cynical. So I was not really sure what the long-term effect was going to be.
One year after Erica was left for dead, reporter Jessie Halladay made a house call to Erica’s grandparents’ house, a check-up of sorts.
Jessie: With Erica being so young and with her grandparents raising her and there was so much interest to begin with, we wanted to go back and see how she was doing.
Erica had Jessie at “hello.” That’s all it took for the high-spirited, now 3-year-old, to win over the cynical reporter.
Jessie: Erica was in it from the very beginning. You know, she was trying to write with my pen. She wanted to color on my notebook. I was just struck by her curiosity.
Jessie reported that Erica lost all sight in her right eye. She also had a small scar on her chin, where the bullet in her head had exited.
Jessie: I think people still wonder how she survived. I still wonder how she survived.
Louisville and Erica’s family were still consumed by two questions at the heart of it all—who could commit such a horrifying crime and would the shooter ever be caught?
But Judith Harper had faith all along that justice would be done and, most of all, faith in Detective Arnold. After all, the promise he made to solve the case was to her.
Judith: He was going to see that these people were found. If it had just been Earon it would have been just maybe another death. But since Erica was involved in that, they weren’t going to let up on it.
Judith didn’t know it yet, but down at police headquarters, Det. Arnold was close to getting answers from the men he had been pursuing since their starring roles in the Walgreens video, including James Quisenberry, the family friend who’d made the last phone call to Earon, and Kenneth Williams, who admitted to a witness that he was part of a robbery that turned deadly.
Now, it was time to bring both men in and interrogate them.
Det. Arnold: I was a little apprehensive but not nervous. No butterflies. Just because it’s something I had planned on and prepared for such a long time.
Kotb: You were ready?
Det. Arnold: I was ready.
Fifteen months after the shootings, Quisenberry and Williams voluntarily came down to headquarters. Each knew the other was there.
Det. Arnold: I wanted them both to understand that if they didn’t tell us the truth, the other guy may be.
As a tactic, Det. Arnold even walked Williams past a closed-circuit monitor where he could see Quisenberry in an interview room.
Det. Arnold: Now he’s got time to think, “Hey, what’s Quisenberry telling these detectives? What’s he talking about?”
Det. Arnold needed both suspects to admit they were in the house when the shootings went down. That would back up murder charges against both of them, no matter who pulled the trigger.
Quisenberry was interviewed first. He said he knew nothing about the crime. But as the interrogation wore on, he started blaming the man in the other room.
Det. Arnold: I want you to tell me why he killed her, and how he did it.
Quisenberry: I wasn’t there, but I know he did it.
But Det. Arnold knew something Quisenberry did not.
[First interrogation, June 6, 2006]
After Quisenberry’s first interview, Rick had scooped up his smoked-down Marlboros for DNA testing. The results were now back and—bingo—they matched a cigarette butt from the crime scene.
Kotb: He claims he wasn’t there but you got DNA that puts him there.
Det. Arnold: Right.
Det. Arnold: And I collected those cigarette butts, and one of those has your DNA on it....
Quisenberry: The one has my DNA on it?
Det. Arnold: The one has your DNA. That’s exactly right. See, that’s what I’m saying. You were in that house, and that’s what I want to know about.
Kotb: How does he react to being sort of cornered—caught in a lie?
Det. Arnold: He was backtracking. He was getting scared.
Quisenberry: I mean, I never told you that I wasn’t. I’m saying—
Det. Arnold: I know. That’s my point.
Quisenberry: I be over all the time. That’s what I’m saying.
Now, Quisenberry was admitting he had visited his friend Earon that day. But he insisted he left before anyone was shot.
Rick sensed that Quisenberry and his story were crumbling so he went for the jugular, demanding he come clean.
And it worked.
Quisenberry: I saw him go in there, and I was behind him... Pow, pow, pow, pow. I hear more gunshots.
Det. Arnold: Him saying he was in that house was critical. That becomes the most important thing he says in the whole statement.
Det. Arnold now had admission number one.
With the interview nearly over, Quisenberry had a request, one of the strangest Rick had ever heard.
Quisenberry (during interrogation): I know this is hard to ask police this s - - -. I need to smoke a blunt.
A blunt is a king-sized marijuana cigarette.
Det. Arnold: I’ve never been asked that in an interview before.
Detective #2: No, we can’t do that.
Det. Arnold: We can’t do that.
Now it was time to interrogate Williams—and he proved to be a tougher nut to crack.
Kotb: First impressions of him?
Det. Arnold: He’s hard core. He’s hard core to the max.
Williams: I did not shoot the lady... I did not do nothing to her or her baby.
He also denied everything, and blamed the man in the other room—Quisenberry.
Det. Arnold: Did he have a gun?
Det. Arnold: What color was it?
Williams kept insisting he was not even in the house. But Rick needed to get him inside, as he had with Quisenberry.
Det. Arnold: I wanted him in the house, not outside by a car, not down the street at the stop sign.
And he needed it fast, although he didn’t realize how fast at the time.
Kotb: So you didn’t know you were playing beat the clock?
Det. Arnold: No. No idea at all.
Det. Arnold saw an opening and pounced. First, you’ll hear Williams finally admit to coming inside. Then listen closely as Rick asks a rapid-fire follow-up about his location in the house, giving him no chance to think or change his story.
Williams: After I heard a gunshot, I ran in there to see what was going on.
Det. Arnold: What room were you in when that happened?
Det. Arnold: What room?
Williams: I was in the back room.
Det. Arnold: That was music to my ears, hearing him say, “I’m in the back room.”
Rick had him right where he wanted—inside the house. And none too soon.
Det. Arnold: You got an attorney now.
An attorney who immediately stopped the interview.
Det. Arnold placed Williams and Quisenberry under arrest, and then, he wasted no time making the one phone call he had waited 15 months to make—to Erica’s grandmother.
Det. Arnold: I literally got done going to the bathroom and made the phone call from the bathroom.
Kotb: What was making that phone call like?
Det. Arnold: There was an echo because I was in a bathroom, first of all. It was just a relief. I’d promised Judy Harper, you know, on May 18 of 2006 that I would get those answers. And now we had them.
Kotb: What did you think when they told you?
Judith: Well, just, just relieved. I had confidence that they would find them sooner or later because they couldn’t get away with it forever.
Williams and Quisenberry would stand trial for the murder of Earon and the attempted murder of Erica. An eye for an eye? The death penalty hung over both of them.
On the carousel of life in Louisville, it’s what everyone’s been asking: how’s Erica the miracle baby doing?
Kotb: How are you doing?
But through it all, other questions swirled, too. What happened in that house on Wilson avenue and would the men involved in the shootings pay for their crimes?
Those answers would come three years later, April, 2009, in a Louisville courtroom, where James Quisenberry and Kenneth Williams stood trial for the murder of Earon Harper and attempted murder of little Erica.
Whatever the verdict, one man would not be there to hear it. For Harold Harper, facing the defendants was simply too much to bear.
Harold Harper: I couldn’t look him in the eye without rage. And I was just afraid that I’d mess everything up.
It was an emotional trial. Co-prosecutor Mark Baker, with two young daughters himself, cried in his opening statement.
Once he determined that there was still life in that little body, you can imagine what the officers did there at the scene.
Prosecutors maintained that the defendants came to steal Earon’s pills and money, but then Williams changed the plan after Earon fought back, according to key witness Rashon Turner.
Rashon Turner: He told me he snatched the purse from her but she wouldn’t let go of her purse and he shot her.
Turner’s testimony also helped fill in another piece of the puzzle—why Quisenberry and Williams were in the house that night. It appears that after Earon became too ill to work, she found a way to supplement her income by selling her prescription medicine.
She had invited her friend Quisenberry to buy pills before. But this time, the deal deteriorated into robbery and ultimately murder when Williams came along with his gun.
Judith: I had no idea that they would go in the house and kill you over a bottle of pills.
The trial took just one week, and there was little doubt that Quisenberry would be convicted of some crime. He got manslaughter and a maximum 45 years in prison.
As for Williams ...
We the jury find the defendant Kenneth Williams guilty.
Guilty of murder, and then a life sentence with no possibility of parole, spared the death penalty only because one holdout juror would not vote for it.
Kotb: Did you think that he should have gotten the death penalty?
Judith: No. I can’t go around talking or acting with hate in my heart because if I do that then my children, they’re going to be thinking it’s alright for them to do it.
Rick was gratified that he could make good on his promise to Erica’s grandmother. But he also got something back from her.
Det. Rick Arnold: I drew a lot from Judy’s strength because she told me from the get-go that things would work out. And that’s a sign of her faith.
Out of the tragedy, the Harper family had pulled together. With her grandparents as her guiding lights, Erica’s future now looks bright.
Last fall, we caught up with the playful 6-year-old at the zoo, where she briefly stopped her fun and games to talk.
Kotb: They call you the miracle baby, the miracle baby. Why do they call you that?
Erica: I’m a special, special girl.
Kotb: Special girl. Why are you special?
Erica: I know everything.
Kotb: You know everything? What do you know?
Erica: I know, about, like when bananas are rotten, I don’t eat them.
Kotb: You don’t eat rotten bananas, what else do you know?
Since 2006, Erica’s struggles from the brink of death have been blockbuster news in her hometown.
[Public service announcement]
Erica: Hi, I’m Erica Hughes.
And the miracle baby has now become the media celebrity. She’s the familiar face for a community leader’s campaign to keep the children of Louisville safe.
Erica: Please help us fight crimes against children.
Kotb: Erica, what do you want to be when you grow up?
Erica: A nurse and a teacher.
Kotb: And why a nurse?
Erica: You have to help people.
Like the nurses and doctors from Kosair children’s hospital who saved her life.
More than 3 years later, they celebrated Erica’s recovery with a red-carpet reunion.
Taking it all in, surgeon Thomas Moriarty—proud and pleased that he could give his miracle patient a clean bill of health—no brain damage whatsoever.
Dr. Moriarty: She’s wonderful. She’s perfect. She is this little flower that has grown.
Judith: He left her with a good brain and that’s very important.
Kotb: Smart cookie?
Judith: Yeah. She’s going to need it throughout life.
Their prayers answered, Judith and Harold are raising a happy-go-lucky first-grader who still loves Dora but also now soccer, SpongeBob, and bike-riding.
Kotb: When you look at Erica, do you see any of your mom in Erica?
Kotb: What parts?
Ebony: The main thing I see is her loud mouth. She’s loud. She’s got the raspy voice, just like my mom had.
Kotb: Where is your mom right now?
Erica: Up in heaven.
Kotb: Do you think about her a lot?
Erica: (nods affirmatively)
Kotb: What kind of things do you think about?
Erica: I think about her coming down.
Kotb: And what happens when she comes down?
Erica: She’ll still be my mama.
Kotb: So it’s like a constant reminder your mom is with you?
And then there’s one other shared trait, and that’s what kept Erica alive in her darkest hours—her mom’s fighting spirit.
Harold: To battle what she had to battle I guess she did have Earon’s fighting spirit, you know to, to pull through all that. So thank god for that.
To find out more about Kosair Children's Hospital; Dr. Thomas Moriarty, the Norton Neuroscience Institute physician who saved her life; and ways you can help support children like Erica, click on the links below: