A 34-year-old staff sergeant on the U.S. Army’s 20 most wanted list, who deserted in January to escape more than 40 counts of possession of child pornography and allegations of child rape, was on Wednesday found to be living in Sihanoukville, where he has been working for months as a dog trainer.
Staff Sergeant Michael Edward Harris skipped bail in Orlando, Florida, where he was charged with 44 counts of possession of child pornography and accused of committing indecent acts against a child and forced sodomy, Arizona news channel CBS5 reported Saturday, citing U.S. Army sources.
Mr. Harris, from Arizona, was reported absent without leave in January and charged with desertion the following month. Records show that he entered Cambodia on January 17, CBS5 said.
The U.S. Army has failed to locate him, prompting his ex-wife, former police officer Denise Diaz of Kentucky, to start a Facebook group named “Fugitive Michael Edward Harris bring Him to Justice” in March. The CBS5 report ignited renewed interest in the case that helped place Mr. Harris in Sihanoukville, where he was working as a dog trainer at K9 Cambodia Elite Service Dog Facility under the alias Michael Dobbs.
Ms. Diaz said in an email Wednesday that it was imperative that authorities catch her ex-husband quickly because of the risk he poses to children.
“My children are 2 of his victims and he will continue to perpetrate crimes against children,” she said. “He has been doing it for many years undetected.”
With word spreading on social media that he was living in Sihanoukville, Mr. Harris did not show up to work Wednesday morning, according to his boss, British national Leo Clifton, who released a statement a short time later announcing the termination of his employment.
“We are shocked beyond belief at this,” Mr. Clifton said by telephone. “It is something that has been shoved onto our shoulders and we are dealing with it the best we can by cooperating with the relevant authorities.”
Sok Phal, director of the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, said Cambodian authorities were cooperating with the U.S. Embassy and would send a team of investigators to Sihanoukville today to locate and arrest Mr. Harris.
“We only received the documents from U.S. [authorities] a few days ago and we just finished organizing it all yesterday and cannot work faster, as we need to follow a step-by-step procedure,” General Phal said.
“We will go to Sihanoukville tomorrow morning alongside staff of the U.S. Embassy to find and arrest him,” he said.
But according to Uk Heisela, chief of investigation at the immigration department, the U.S. Embassy first informed the National Police Commissariat two months ago that Mr. Harris had entered Cambodia and was likely still here.
“As far as I remember, the suspect was American and involved with pedophilia. The U.S. Embassy sent the document to National Police and cc’d the general department of immigration about two months ago,” he said.
Khieu Vantha, chief of Sihanoukville’s Bei commune, where the K9 Dog Facility is located, said commune police were only informed on Tuesday that a wanted U.S. national might be in the area.
“I received information that we should arrest the foreigner yesterday evening accompanied by a warrant, but I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet,” he said.
The U.S. Embassy declined to comment.
“The U.S. Embassy does not comment on potential or ongoing investigations,” public affairs officer Jay Raman said in an email.
Anti-pedophile NGO Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE) said Wednesday it has been assisting efforts by the police and the embassy to find the suspect amid concerns that he may have committed further child abuse in Cambodia.
“We received the information a few days ago and have been to Sihanoukville, but unfortunately we have not managed to locate him yet,” said Khoem Vando, APLE’s deputy director of field operations.
“It is just an assumption at this stage, but the likelihood that he has been in contact with children here is high and he may have come to Cambodia specifically to interact with Cambodian kids,” he said.
Apprehending Mr. Harris, whose passport was reportedly canceled by the U.S. State Department in August, may prove more difficult than locating him.
Ms. Diaz said her ex-husband had in the past used fake identities to evade arrest and, as a military police officer and an army investigator, had worked with both the FBI and a counterterrorism task force in Orlando prior to his arrest.
According to the owner of the apartment building in Sihanoukville where the suspect signed a three-year lease under his actual name two months ago, authorities arriving in Sihanoukville today will be too late.
“After learning that K9 had terminated employment of the suspect, I ran to the apartment building with many people…but we found an empty apartment,” the owner, who requested anonymity to protect his business interests, said in an email.
He added that the suspect left behind various identification documents, an expired credit card and some Iraqi currency, adding that a witness saw him leave the building at 11 a.m. on a black customized motorcycle.
“He is now gone and I believe it is for good,” he said.