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Originally published May 16, 2010 at 4:45 PM | Page modified September 14, 2012 at 11:33 AM

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1 year after officer tackled him, man is bedridden, wife is caretaker

Chris Harris is permanently disabled after being tackled by a King County sheriff's deputy last year, confined to bed, unable to talk, walk or do anything for himself. His primary caregiver is his wife, Sarah, whose life has been irrevocably changed, but whose love remains steadfast.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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OLYMPIA — Sarah Harris goes through the motions of her day trying hard not to think about what life was like a year ago — or what it would be like now if not for "the incident."

She feels guilty leaving the house, even if only for a couple of hours to visit her mom or sister, to run errands, or go grocery shopping. She still cries every night.

Her husband, the first boy she kissed and the only man she's ever loved, suffered a catastrophic brain injury when his head slammed into a concrete wall after a brief footchase with two King County sheriff's deputies on Mother's Day 2009. He's now confined to bed, unable to talk, walk or do anything for himself.

Christopher Sean Harris spent six weeks at Harborview Medical Center, where his family was encouraged to remove him from life support because doctors didn't think he'd ever come out of a coma. But he did, and was transferred to an Edmonds nursing home in June.

Sarah Harris, who worked as a manager for Nordstrom and dreamed of becoming a buyer for the department store, gave up her job to care for her husband.

"I loved my job, and I miss it all the time," she said. "But I knew there was no way I could go back to work and leave him alone in a nursing home all day. There was no decision to even make."

In late November, the couple moved in with Chris Harris' father, dentist Rob Harris, and his longtime girlfriend, Angela Lamb, an obstetrics nurse. Lamb's daughter and 9-month-old grandson also share the house on Summit Lake, about 15 miles west of Olympia.

Sarah Harris, who turns 30 this month, is her husband's primary caregiver and figures his medical bills — largely paid through state disability benefits — already have topped $1 million. At the request of her lawyer, she declined to talk about the night her husband was injured.

Mistaken identity

On May 10, 2009, Chris Harris, now 30, was walking through an alley in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood when a woman pointed him out to two King County sheriff's deputies as a suspect involved in a bloody bar fight that re-erupted at a nearby convenience store. The deputies, working as Metro Transit cops and dressed in black fatigues, chased Harris for 2 ½ blocks.

At the time, witnesses gave conflicting accounts: One said the deputies didn't identify themselves until after Harris had started running away; others said they yelled "police" immediately.

Harris slowed to a walk at Fourth Avenue and Lenora Street, outside the Cinerama Theatre. As he turned to face the deputies, he was shoved hard in the upper chest by Deputy Matthew Paul. Harris was thrown backward eight feet, crashing headfirst into the cinema's concrete wall and crumpling to the sidewalk.

A surveillance camera outside the movie theater captured footage of the incident.

Investigators later determined that Harris wasn't involved in the brawl, or a later fight at the convenience store.

After reviewing the chase and apprehension of Harris, prosecutors found no basis to charge Paul with a crime. After an internal investigation cleared the deputy of wrongdoing, the King County Sheriff's Office called the incident "a tragic accident."

In January, Sarah Harris and Franklin Smith, her husband's court-appointed guardian, filed a personal-injury lawsuit in Pierce County Superior Court against King County, accusing Paul of acting negligently and violating the sheriff's use-of-force policy.

Two senior King County deputy prosecutors, John Cobb and Kristofer Bundy, are representing the county in the civil case. They filed a response to the suit in February, denying liability and arguing that any force used against Harris was "reasonable, necessary and lawful under the circumstances."

Different accounts

The two sides disagree about when the deputies identified themselves as police officers: The county is arguing that "the deputies lawfully pursued plaintiff [Harris] after he unlawfully ran from them after seeing them and hearing them order him to stop," according to the county's response.

A call to the deputy prosecutors was not returned.

Sim Osborn, a personal-injury lawyer representing Sarah Harris and Smith, said Chris Harris — who also goes by his middle name, Sean — likely did not realize the men chasing him were sheriff's deputies. They were wearing dark clothing, not traditional uniforms, and Harris was in a dark alley.

"If you're not sure a person is a policeman, the best thing you can do is get around a crowd of people in a well-lit area," Osborn said. "That's exactly what Sean did, and he was horribly punished for it."

Harris, who was living and working in Edmonds, had finished his shift at Arnie's Restaurant that night. According to a sheriff's spokesman, he had a few drinks at a nearby bar then paid someone $60 in gas money to drive him to Belltown.

Osborn declined to discuss what Harris was doing in downtown Seattle the night he was injured.

"It's unimportant why he was here — he was lawfully walking on the street and had committed no crime," Osborn said.

Depositions in the civil case are to begin in the next month or so, with the case scheduled to go to trial in January.

High-school sweethearts

Sarah Harris was in gym class at Tumwater High School when she first laid eyes on the boy who introduced himself as Sean Harris.

"I remember telling my friends, 'The new boy is cute,' " she said.

He joined her circle of friends and a year later asked her to a school dance. They were 16.

"The day after the dance," Sarah Harris said, "he showed up at my door with a stuffed animal and roses."

They always considered that day — Oct. 29, 1996 — the beginning of their relationship, she said. Exactly 11 years later, they married in Las Vegas, surrounded by 40 friends and relatives.

They had just begun talking about starting a family when Harris was injured.

"I give him hugs in the morning, and it's so hard not to have his arms wrap around me," Sarah Harris said. "Not to have that affection, not to have somebody hug and kiss you back, is probably the hardest thing."

They sleep in the same room, her bed a few feet from his hospital bed, where an IV stand and a dresser full of medical supplies are within easy reach and double-glass doors look out onto the lake. A camera is mounted on the wall opposite Chris Harris' bed, and the images are sent to a portable monitor that Sarah Harris carries with her when she leaves their bedroom.

Doctors can't put their finger on Chris Harris' condition, Lamb said. Based on brain scans, they say he shouldn't be able to move or make sounds. Yet, he can respond to simple commands and appears to have symptoms of "locked in" syndrome since he's aware of what's going on around him.

He even recognizes loved ones — his mother, his uncle, old friends from high school — who visit.

"He'll stare at someone for a really long time, and then you'll see the change in his eye," Sarah Harris said. "It clicks, and all of a sudden he knows who he is looking at."

Though her husband can't talk, "he can make noise and he giggles a little bit, which makes me happy," Sarah Harris said.

He has two to four doctors appointments a month, and each time a private ambulance is called to transport him at a cost of $1,000 per ride, Sarah Harris said. In the past six months, medics have been called twice to take Chris Harris to the emergency room, the last time in March when he suffered a series of grand mal seizures, she said.

"It's OK, it's OK"

On a recent Wednesday, Lamb shaved Harris' face and brushed his teeth. Together, she and Sarah Harris worked to dress him in a T-shirt and sweatpants before an ambulance arrived to take him to a doctor's appointment.

As two emergency medical technicians set up a gurney next to his bed, Chris Harris became obviously upset. As his body tensed, and he looked at the strangers crowding his room, he made guttural noises to signal his distress.

Sarah Harris was at his side in a moment, stroking his head and telling him, "It's OK, it's OK," in a soft, low voice.

For Sarah Harris, it's heartbreaking to see her husband so helpless, knowing he once worked out three hours a day and always was the one to organize barbecues, beach volleyball games, hiking trips and vacations for their friends. But as difficult as the last year has been, she's thankful that the man she's shared every important milestone with remains a part of her life.

"I guess I just don't see how if you love somebody that you could just walk away from them," Sarah Harris said. "He didn't get better and walk out of the hospital. Every second of our day, this is what we're dealing with.

"I don't have a choice — and I wouldn't be anywhere else."

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654

or sgreen@seattletimes.com

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