Fort Drum soldier, teen face kidnapping and murder charges in corporal's death
By CRAIG FOX | Watertown Daily Times | Published: December 29, 2020
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — A Fort Drum soldier and a teenager have been charged with kidnapping and killing Hayden Harris, a soldier found dead days after he went missing from Fort Drum, prosecutors said Monday.
Pvt. Jamaal Mellish, 23, of Brooklyn, and a 16-year-old boy whose name was not released, were charged Monday with first-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping, second-degree possession of a weapon without a permit and second-degree possession of weapons for unlawful purposes. Mellish also was charged with suppressing evidence.
Prosecutors say Mellish met Harris in Glen Park, about a 20-minute drive from their Fort Drum base, to exchange vehicles earlier this month. They went to swap a Ford Mustang for Harris’ white 2017 Chevrolet Silverado, Sussex County First Assistant Prosecutor Gregory Mueller told the New Jersey Herald.
“A dispute between the men may have played a role in why Mellish ‘abducted’ Harris in the Silverado,” Mueller told the Herald.
Harris was last heard from between 8 p.m. Dec. 17 and 6:30 a.m. Dec. 18, according to Fort Drum’s public affairs office. He was headed to Watertown “for some type of vehicle transaction and has not been seen since,” an Army statement said.
According to court papers filed Monday, Mellish took Harris against his will from Glen Park — a short distance from Watertown — “for the purpose of inflicting bodily injury on or terrorizing Hayden Harris.” Mellish drove Harris more than 300 miles south to Brooklyn, Mellish’s hometown, then across state lines another 48 miles to Byram Township, N.J., Mueller told the Herald. The 16-year-old was in the pickup truck and has provided statements to police, the prosecutor said.
Investigators have not yet said why Mellish and the teen brought Harris to Byram Township, N.J., but they think that is where they shot and killed Harris, according to news reports.
“Cpl. Harris was shot in the head and his body was buried in snow, near a cul-de-sac in the small town that had not had a murder for nearly 100 years,” Byram Township Police Chief Kenneth Burke told the Watertown Daily Times on Monday.
Byram Township police responded to a wooded field in northern New Jersey after volunteer firefighters “came across some items that just didn’t seem to fit there” on their Santa ride Dec. 19, according to news reports. At 3:15 p.m. that day, police confirmed they had found Harris shot dead in the wooded area adjacent to 30 Ross Road, Byram Township, N.J.
Investigators were quickly able to tie Mellish to the murder because of paperwork (reportedly a receipt for a previous vehicle transaction between the two soldiers) found at the scene of Harris’ body, with Mellish’s name on it, according to the New Jersey Herald.
Harris, known as “Opie” in his rural Tennessee hometown for his red hair, had an infectious smile and one passion in life: to join the U.S. Army, a family friend told the New Jersey Herald.
“That dream came to a mysterious end in the snowy woods of Sussex County, 1,000 miles from his hometown in Guys, Tennessee, and 300 more from Fort Drum, New York, where he’d been stationed since July 2019,” the Herald reported.
Harris, 20, was promoted from specialist to corporal following his death.
On Monday, Sussex County Prosecutor Francis A. Koch announced the charges filed against Mellish and the 16-year-old in the kidnapping and homicide of Harris.
Mellish is being held in military custody under pretrial confinement in Oneida County’s jail; the 16-year-old is in custody at an unknown juvenile detention facility, prosecutors said.
The Sussex County Prosecutor’s Office gave credit to the following agencies for helping make the arrests: The Byram Police Department, New Jersey State Police; Office of the Staff Judge Advocate of the 10th Mountain Division, U.S. Army, Fort Drum; U.S. Army CID at Ft. Drum; Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office; Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department; and the New York City Police Department, Department of Investigations Squad.
“This investigation is ongoing,” according to the Sussex County Prosecutor’s Office news release, “and anyone with information is asked to contact Lt. Nicholas Elmo at the Sussex County Prosecutor’s Office 973-383-1570 or Det. Robert Tierney at the Byram Township Police Department at 973-347-4008.”