BY COLIN KRIEGER
Pictures by Debbie Millern and Colin Krieger
A suspect is in custody and funeral arrangements have been set in the shooting death of a local man early Friday morning near the Frog Bottom neighborhood of Columbus. Randall Carl Cooper, 31, turned himself in late Friday evening to face charges in connection with the murder of 23-year-old Virgil Lee Harris. Cooper stands accused of shooting Harris multiple times with a large caliber pistol just as Harris was exiting a car the men had been riding in.
Columbus police raced to the 300 block of 21st Street North early Friday morning after E-911 operators were notified that a man had been shot and was laying in the street bleeding. Columbus Police Lieutenant Oscar Lewis was reportedly clearing out the parking lot of the Heidiho Lounge at 106 22nd Street South around 1:15 a.m. when gunfire erupted about four blocks northwest of the club. Officers were initially dispatched to the 300 block of 20th Street North and were en route when Lewis radioed out that he had discovered the victim laying just north of the intersection of 21st Street North.
Witnesses on scene that spoke with The Packet said that Lewis arrived to find Virgil “Pit” Harris laying on the ground in a pool of blood with an unidentified black male standing over him. The witnesses went on to say that Lewis ordered the man, who was pleading for help, to back away from Harris and to identify himself. Lewis apparently quickly determined the man was not involved and then immediately began attending to the victim as other officers arrived on scene.
Officers Amanda Burrell and Joshua McCain arrived to find Lewis performing emergency chest compressions on Harris, who had been shot at least five times on the left side of his body, including at least once in his head. As Lewis attempted to save the victim, Burrel and McCain secured the scene and quickly began to question a large crowd that had assembled in front of a nearby home. Columbus Fire and Rescue crews arrived and took over for Lewis and continued to attempt to revive the victim. Around 1:26 a.m., paramedics from Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle arrived and joined in the rescue attempt. [Harris has been described as being from Crawford in various media outlets, because his listed address from his most recent arrest was on Trinity Road in Crawford. In reality, Harris had resided in and around East Columbus most of his life, and was very familiar to residents in and around Beech and Taylor Streets. Harris’ family said he has stayed at his father’s house in Crawford in recent months because he knew police were looking for him for a parole violation charge – CK.]
As the rescuers feverishly worked to save Harris, witnesses speaking with police said that a black male with dreadlocks had done a “drive-by” on Harris and then sped off in a silver or grey Chevrolet Monte Carlo with a shattered passenger side window. The shooter was described as a black male, about 5’8″ tall with dreadlocks. Officers quickly put out a B.O.L.O (Be On the Look Out) for the vehicle and several officers began to search the surrounding neighborhoods.
Lt. Donnie Elkin radioed in several minutes later that he believed he had eyes on the suspect’s car near Waterworks Road. Within minutes of Elkin’s communication, the Monte Carlo returned to the scene of the crime, closely escorted by Elkin and another police cruiser. The female driver of the car, Vursha “Tootie” Lovelace, was clearly distraught and barely able to tell police her involvement in the shooting. Lovelace was briefly questioned on scene before being taken, along with another witness, to Columbus Police headquarters.
Paramedics continued to work on the victim for nearly 20 minutes on scene. Harris was then loaded on a stretcher and transported via ambulance to BMH-GT where he was later pronounced dead shortly before 2:30 a.m. Lowndes County Coroner Greg Merchant on Saturday said that Harris died from multiple gunshot wounds to the left side of his body. Although Merchant did not disclose the exact location of the wound or the caliber of the weapon, at least four wounds were visible on Harris’ left abdomen and another on his head. Sources with ballistics experience described the weapon as likely smaller than .40 caliber, but still a large caliber pistol. Several shell casings could be seen around where Harris came to rest, amidst a sea of broken glass.
Although Columbus Police would not confirm specific information based on the ongoing investigation, it appears that Vursha Lovelace was driving the Monte Carlo when the incident occurred. It is believed that she was pulling up to a house in the 300 block of 21st Street North to drop off Harris, who was going to hang out with some friends. Cooper and Harris had reportedly been in a verbal argument and could be heard yelling at each other as the car came to a stop. Harris began to exit the car and Cooper reportedly began to open fire from the back driver’s side seat. Witnesses reported four shots in quick succession, which are believed to be the wounds to Harris’ abdomen. Cooper then allegedly climbed from the backseat to the front and fired at least two more shots at the victim.
Witness accounts of what happened next differ, but it appears that Lovelace was behind the wheel as the car quickly sped off to the north on 21st Street and then turned east on Fourth Avenue North. Sometime shortly thereafter, Cooper exited the car and ran off, presumably discarding the weapon used in the shooting. Lovelace apparently was in shock over the incident and was believed to be returning to the scene when she was pulled over by Elkin. Cooper, who has family and friends in the Frog Bottom area, quickly disappeared from sight.
Members of Virgil Harris’ family spoke with The Packet late Sunday to share some information about the shooting that differs from what Columbus Police initially learned on scene. Family members said that several friends of Virgil, who they refer to as “Prince”, came to them with significant details they believe the public needs to know. [It is important to note that the family says, as of Sunday, they have not been questioned by the Columbus Police. It is also important to note that sources indicate that Cooper has not been thoroughly questioned in the matter. That interrogation should take place Monday – CK]
“This was a setup, a robbery,” a relative said. “And there was a fourth person in the car.”
The family says that Harris was shooting craps at a neighborhood game online casino in the V.I.P. apartments behind Sunflower grocery store in East Columbus in the hours before the shooting. They say that several people who were at the party said that Virgil Harris had a good run, and had won all the money from the game, estimated to be around $700-$800. Cooper had reportedly lost a good bit of money in the game, and Harris was said to have been talking trash to Cooper. The family says multiple people told them that Harris reached out to Cooper after the game to make peace, and even gave him $20 and asked if he could get a ride to meet up with a friend. Cooper reportedly agreed to let Harris ride with him, Tootie Lovelace and Lovelace’s boyfriend, whom the family identified as Tevin Harris (no relation).
“Now, that’s where it gets fishy,” Kewona Harris, the victim’s sister said. “My brother was in the front seat, and her boyfriend was in the back (passenger side.) I don’t know any man who’s gonna sit in the backseat while another man sits up front.”
The family said the fact that the victim was allowed to sit up front leads them to believe the whole thing was set up so that they could get their gambling money back from Virgil Harris. The family went so far as to imply that Lovelace likely knew the robbery was going to occur. There have been no reports of Lovelace mentioning a fourth passenger in the car, nor was there any large sum of money found on Harris. Another witness, who has provided reliable information to The Packet in the past, said that Harris did leave the craps game and did win a “bunch of money.”
Based on witness statements, Columbus Police obtained a warrant for Cooper’s arrest, signed by Lowndes County Justice Court Judge Ron Cooke, and Columbus Police Chief Selvain McQueen distributed information, including a recent mugshot of Cooper, to the local media in hopes of catching the fugitive before he skipped town. Friends of Cooper’s told The Packet he was likely headed to Tennessee to hide out with friends, but those rumors were put to rest when Cooper surrendered to police shortly after 10 p.m. Friday night.
Randall Carl Cooper, Jr. will have his hearing Monday in Columbus Municipal Court. Cooper has only a brief history with local law enforcement officials, with three arrests on record (DUI, disorderly conduct and public drunk.) Despite his short record, several sources close to Cooper say that had a penchant for firearms, and he would often threaten people with one of his pistols when he was under the influence.
When contacted about the new information presented by the family, Chief McQueen said that all facets of the case were being examined, and that anyone with any information should contact the police directly.
“We don’t have a crystal ball. We need people to talk with us,” McQueen said. “We’ve got Mr.Cooper in custody and we look forward to hearing what the victim’s family has to say.”
Virgil Harris has been in and out of trouble with the law since he was in his teens, including multiple drug-related arrests in recent years, but his family says this had nothing to do with his past. They said that anyone’s child could have been in the same situation, getting robbed after a night out on the town.
“Senseless, this was senseless tragedy,” Harris’ mother said. “It’s just cowardly – it didn’t have to happen.”
Virgil “Prince” Harris, A.K.A. “Pit”, will be put to rest Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. at Fourth Street Baptist Church in Columbus. He leaves behind a 4-year-old daughter. Sister Keona Harris said her brother had made peace with his life and had bought his little girl Christmas presents. She said he was planning on surrendering to authorities for his parole violation right after the holiday.
“Regardless of his past, he was loved,” Keona Harris said. “He was a son, brother, uncle, companion, and father.”
(Multiple attempts were made to get in touch with Vursha Lovelace or her family for her to possibly defend the Harris’ family’s accusations. Lovelace and her family will be given ample space in next week’s issue should they choose to respond- CK)
[wzslider autoplay=”true” interval=”5000″ lightbox=”true”] 0