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She plucked his eyebrows and pierced his ears on the night he died.
Blair Harris was like a big brother to her.
“He always liked to look good for the ladies,” the teenager recalled with a quiet laugh. “He was so sweet, the kind of friend you always wanted to have. We hung out almost every day.”
The 17-year-old Sydney Mines resident and her boyfriend were among four people in Harris’s basement apartment in the early morning hours of Dec. 8, 2018, when he died from a single gunshot wound to the left side of the neck, fired from a .22-calibre rifle.
Cape Breton Regional Police believe the 22-year-old Harris pulled the trigger accidentally, but she’s not so sure.
The young woman, who asked that her name not be published out of fear for her safety, is sharing her version of the events that night because she’s frustrated with the lack of police transparency in the case.
She and her boyfriend were sleeping in another room when the fatal shooting happened at about 5 a.m., she says. The gun went off in the living room and Harris was with a 17-year-old boy who arrived at the apartment after the couple went to bed.
“I saw Blair lying on his back on his bed with both hands on the barrel of the gun, and it was the worst thing I could ever see,” the girl said during a recent telephone conversation. “But it didn’t look right. It didn’t look like he shot himself.”
Since the tragedy, she said she and her boyfriend have endured constant harassment from people believing they were involved in Harris’s death.
They’re both struggling to come to terms with the horror of what they witnessed, she said. She’s been seeing a school counsellor regularly and is on medication to help her sleep.
She also believes her friend’s death was an accident but can’t shake the possibility that the boy, whom the couple have not spoken to since the incident, played a role in the death.
Police will only say the case remains in the hands of the Nova Scotia Medical Examiner Service.
Sandi Steele, Harris’s mom, is seeking answers. Since her son’s death, she has been pleading with investigators involved in his case for their theory on how the shooting played out. But she has not been given that and the uncertainty is driving her crazy, she says.
That’s one of the reasons the young woman decided to come forward, she said. She wants to come clean with what she knows for Harris’s mother’s sake.
“It might help Blair’s mom in some way and the police might start taking this case more seriously,” she said. “I think they have been trying to brush his case under the rug.”
The young woman and her boyfriend were with Harris in the hours leading up to his death, she said. She noticed nothing out of the ordinary about her friend and said he seemed to be his usual happy self. The trio started the evening at a get-together in Scotch Lake sharing drinks with mutual friends, before moving on to Harris’s Sydney Mines apartment at about 2 a.m.
As far as she was concerned, the night was drawing to a close, and they spent the next couple of hours lounging and listening to music before the couple decided to go to bed at about 4 a.m.
She said things took a bizarre turn shortly after that when Harris, who was with the teenage boy, went into the room and woke her up. She said Harris informed her they were going to a nearby track to fire the rifle.
Her boyfriend, who had been drinking heavily, slept through the exchange, she said.
“I was surprised and I told them to be careful and to let me know they got back,” she said. “I remember Blair saying he loved me and that he was so happy we’re all hanging out together.
“Now, I feel so much guilt. If I had stayed awake, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Chaos erupted about an hour later. The young man burst through the bedroom door in a panic, screaming that Harris had been shot.
“He was grabbing my boyfriend, pulling us out of the bed,” she said. “At first we thought it was a bad joke to try to get us out of bed.”
But it wasn’t a joke. The couple discovered Harris dying, his back flat against the bed, his hands gripping the barrel of the rifle that was standing upright and his feet touching the floor. There was nothing she and her boyfriend could do.
“Blair couldn’t breathe because the bullet went through his neck,” she said. “You could hear him trying to breathe and his eyes were still open but he couldn’t because the blood was filling his mouth. He couldn’t talk, he was choking.”
She said she and her boyfriend instructed the young man to call 911 but he refused, informing them he was on probation and the police knew his phone number. She said he pleaded with the couple to gather their belongings and leave the apartment.
“We were in shock and screaming at him saying that we’re not leaving Blair.”
She wound up calling 911. The young man did leave the apartment before returning about 20 minutes later, shortly after police and paramedics arrived, she said.
Police questioned each of them separately. She recounted her story to an investigator at about 8 a.m., stressing that she was uncomfortable with the positioning of Harris’s body. She said she distinctly remembers the investigator saying the case was being treated as a suspicious death.
She said the day before Harris died, he had told her that he had bought the rifle second-hand that day, but it wasn’t a surprise to her because Harris was an avid collector and had accumulated a wide range of items, from jewelry to knives. Police told Harris’s mom the gun was part of a collection of firearms stolen recently from a residence in Millville.
Harris did have prior brushes with the law. Last June, he was charged with mischief. He also had two drug possession charges that ended up being withdrawn.
According to Harris’s mom, a police investigator arrived at her North Sydney home at 7:15 a.m. — around the time the girl was being questioned by police — to inform her of her son’s death. The investigator told Steele that he was sure it was accidental, she claims.
Steele wonders why the police were so quick to label the death accidental given the information that the girl provided and that the investigation was in its initial stages. Steele also questions how her son could have shot himself if he was found with his hands gripping the barrel of the rifle. She insists it would have been next to impossible for him to point the gun at the left side of his neck since he had a debillitating left shoulder injury and was awaiting surgery in Halifax.
The young woman had also told the police Harris was wearing shoes at the time of the shooting. It’s a detail worth noting, according to John Butt, a former chief medical examiner of Nova Scotia.
Butt said often in cases of suicides involving a rifle, the person is barefoot using his or her toes to activate the trigger. That Harris’s hands were gripping the barrel of the rifle isn’t unusual because he was conscious immediately after the gun went off, Butt said. “If it struck an artery, it would take a short period of time for the person to become unconscious,” he said.
Butt believes there’s no good reason why the autopsy report has not been completed by now.
Heather Fairbairn, spokeswoman for the Medical Examiner Service, confirmed Friday that the autopsy is still being conducted and that the family will be contacted after it’s completed. Cases can take several weeks to months and often involve outside testing and analysis, she said.
That explanation likely doesn’t fit this case, Butt said.
“I very much doubt this has anything to do with a laboratory test; that’s rubbish,” he said. “The toxicology service they use in the U.S. provides results very quickly, and that’s why they use it.”
He believes the real holdup in the case is that the police and medical examiner likely disagree on the cause or manner of death. “There is no possible reason for the report to take five months.”
Wayne MacKay, a Dalhousie University law professor, said police should be upfront with the family about how they believe the shooting played out.
“Obviously there’s a tragedy here of some kind and exactly how it played out seems to be not quite clear, but it’s very important it be properly investigated, and it may well be,” MacKay said. “But it is obviously important in these kinds of cases to have a determination that people are willing to accept, that here is what happened as best as we know.”
Steele says she’s determined to get answers and she won’t give up until she does.
“What would these police officers handling my son’s case do if it was their son who died in circumstances like this?” she said. “They would fight to know what happened, right? That’s exactly what I plan to do.”