CHICAGO (CBS) — “Cheer” star Jerry Harris will remain in federal custody pending trial on child pornography charges, accusing him of coercing underage boys to send him nude photos and videos of themselves, and in some cases soliciting them for sex.
Harris, 21, of Naperville, has been in a federal lockup since he was arrested last month, and his attorneys had sought to release him on home detention, under the supervision of four cheer moms who volunteered to monitor him and prevent him from accessing the internet.
At a detention hearing on Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Heather McShain said while she believed those women would take their responsibility seriously, she said there was “clear and convincing evidence that [Harris] would be a danger if released.”
The judge noted Harris allegedly admitted to federal investigators that he sexually abused five to 10 victims, including a 15-year-old boy he’s accused of assaulting in a public restroom, and that he continued to reach out to boys over the internet even after finding out he was under investigation. Federal prosecutors have said he destroyed his cell phone and obtained a new one to continue reaching out to young boys after he was tipped off about the investigation.
McShain said all of the evidence shows he either is unwilling or unable to control himself.
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Sarah Klein, an attorney for two alleged victims in the case applauded the judge’s ruling in a statement Friday afternoon:
“On behalf of our clients and the other victims of Jerry Harris, we thank the Court for keeping Mr. Harris in custody. This ruling will not only ensure the protection of other children and the community, but it sends the message that the allegations made by our clients and Mr. Harris’s other victims are being taken very seriously. It sends the message that, by coming forward, our clients’ and other victims’ trust in law enforcement and legal systems was well-placed. And this ruling makes absolutely certain that Mr. Harris CANNOT hurt any other children while he awaits trial.”
Harris was not in the courtroom for the hearing, and was participating by phone from the Metropolitan Correctional Center in the Loop.
Friday’s hearing was interrupted by several voices on the conference call, apparently unaware their phones weren’t muted. One woman told Harris “No matter what, stay strong. … I love you kiddo.”
“I love y’all too,” Harris responded.
The woman stopped talking when someone else on the phone conference said, “Everyone can hear you. I hope you know that.”
McShain’s ruling that Harris remain in custody came two days after hearing emotional testimony from the mother of two alleged victims, who called the whole situation her “worst nightmare.”
At a lengthy hearing on Wednesday, Harris was painted as a late-night predator. Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Parente was graphic in describing the accusations against the 21-year-old.
“We are talking about an adult male, 19, 20, 21 years old, asking children ages of 13, 14, or 15 to bend over so he can sit on his phone or computer and masturbate,” Parente said.
At that hearing, McShain pressed for more specifics on timelines. Parente said the location and exact dates might identify some of the underage victims they’re trying to protect because the cheering community “is a small one.”
But the prosecutor did clarify that Harris learned of the investigation and destroyed his cellphone around March or April. Within a matter of weeks of getting a new phone, Harris resumed reaching out to minors, Parente said.
A mother of two victims begged for Harris to stay behind bars.
“For nearly two years, my sons have suffered more than I can describe,” the mother said, calling the aftermath her “worst nightmare” that has robbed her boys of their “innocence” and “joy of the sport” of cheerleading.
The mother said she complained to the organization and local law enforcement in Texas where they live, but it wasn’t taken seriously until the FBI started looking into it.
Moreover, the mother said since Harris’ arrest, she has learned of other alleged attacks that happened in the time she was complaining about him.
In a filing issued on Tuesday, prosecutors said Harris “exploited and violated” at least 10 minor boys over the past two years, by repeatedly asking the boys to send sexually explicit images of themselves. Prosecutors said Harris “targeted young boys by reaching into their bedrooms through his cell phone and used guilt, threats, and money to persuade them to engage in sexually explicit activity which Harris would oftentimes record and masturbate to.”
Harris also admitted to trying to meet all the victims in person, and kept it up even when he was tipped off about a possible investigation into his conduct, prosecutors said.
Law enforcement also recently interviewed another boy who said he was sexually assaulted by Harris inside an unlocked public restroom during a cheer event, prosecutors said. The boy was 15 when Harris followed him into a bathroom and sexually assaulted him, prosecutors said.
“Harris’ sexual assault of this boy in such a public place, in an unlocked public bathroom, during an event attended by dozens of responsible adults demonstrates that Harris either does not care about being caught committing his offenses, or simply cannot stop himself,” prosecutors said in the filing.
Meanwhile, defense attorney Todd Pugh said Harris had a trouble childhood – adding that his client was “mocked and bullied” in high school, struggled with his weight, and then lost his mother to cancer.
Pugh also took issue with the concerns about the victims’ privacy and safety, noting that the mother of the two boys who spoke in court on Wednesday also agreed to a USA Today article with her boys in which their first names and faces appeared.
But Parente reiterated that he does not think home confinement is enough for Harris – taking issue with a suggestion that releasing Harris does not propose a danger because the victims whose mother spoke do not live in Illinois.
“To say that releasing him presents zero danger because they’re in a different state misses the point of this case…. His victims are spread out across the country,” Parente said. “Physical distance is nothing to keep Mr. Harris from creeping into their bedrooms, having these little boys expose their body parts so he can have sexual gratification.”
Harris is considered a breakout star – a fan favorite on the Netflix show “Cheer.” He has more than 1 million Instagram followers. He even appeared with Oprah Winfrey.
FBI Chicago Field Office Special Agent-in-Charge Emmerson Buie Jr. said last month that a web page has been created at https://www.fbi.gov/jerryharris. On the website, victims can report contact with Harris and find additional victim resources.
Anyone can also report victimization by calling the Chicago Field Office at (312) 421-6700.
Harris faces 15 years behind bars if convicted.