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October 21, 2014

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Months after deadly scuffle, question lingers: Was justice served?

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Brandi Lea Photo

Donald “JJ” Harris was a downtown denizen for more than 20 years until he was killed during a fight in July 2013 while working security for City Center Apartments. Harris was known for his skill with a guitar and his bluesy, raspy voice.

City Center Apartments

Homicide doesn’t always mean murder, and a closed case doesn’t always mean closure.

Just ask those close to Donald “JJ” Harris.

Harris, 59, had been keeping his eye on the City Center Apartments downtown before it even occurred to officials at the complex to hire security.

Harris, known for his signature sideburns and skill with a guitar, started doing his own security patrols when he lived in the building, said Lesley Perceval, who managed and lived at the complex for several years and became close with Harris. In 2008, the complex decided to pay Harris for providing security.

“That building was his entire life,” Perceval said.

Harris’ devotion would prove deadly.

Around 2 a.m. July 5, 2013, Harris confronted a drifter on the property and accused him of trespassing, according to a Metro Police report.

A fight ensued. Harris died.

Harris’ co-workers watched and rewatched the complex’s security footage, searching for answers.

A suspect was arrested on one count of second-degree murder. Then, the suspect was released while the Clark County District Attorney’s Office waited for the Clark County Coroner’s Office to determine how Harris had died.

Harris’ friends searched for future court dates, not realizing there wouldn’t be any.

Months later, a decision comes down

Five months after the incident, in December, the Coroner’s Office ruled Harris’ death a homicide.

The cause, the coroner said, was positional asphyxia. In other words, during the struggle Harris ended up in a position that cut off his breathing to the point of death.

Harris went limp after being pinned by the intruder, authorities said.

But just because a medical examiner determines someone died at the hands of another human being doesn’t mean the death is a crime.

In January, the District Attorney’s Office decided not to file charges. There was no formal announcement, no notification to those who knew Harris.

Cortney Myers, vice president at VRG Management Services Inc., which oversees City Center Apartments, was shocked when the Sun called in February with details about Harris’ death and the status of the case. An insurance carrier told Myers' office that Harris had died of a heart attack.

But requests by multiple City Center Apartments employees over the past several months for police reports or information on how Harris had died hadn’t been fruitful, Myers said.

Upon hearing the coroner determined the cause of death but prosecutors decided against filing charges, those close to Harris were left with questions.

A police investigation concluded the suspect, 28-year-old Blake Valbracht, killed Harris in self-defense.

Unprovoked, Harris attacked Valbracht with a flashlight, according to police records. Valbracht had been trying to keep Harris from attacking him again when Harris died, according to a report by a Metro homicide detective that was submitted to the D.A.’s Office.

Once Harris lost consciousness, Valbracht performed CPR and hollered for help, according to the police report. When police arrived, Valbracht surrendered.

Valbracht’s statements to police about what happened corresponded with evidence at the scene, said Sgt. Matt Sanford, a member of Metro’s Homicide Unit. The security footage that so captivated Harris’ co-workers was of little help to police; the video did not have audio and was low quality, Sanford said.

Since Valbracht’s statements matched the evidence, it was likely Valbracht was telling the truth about Harris starting the fight, Sanford said.

For Perceval, who’d watched Harris handle a slew of downtown Las Vegas security peculiarities, the news was hard to fathom.

Harris was sweet, humble and soft-spoken, she said. Harris, the pompadoured protector whom people were quick to compare to Elvis Presley, only became physical as a last resort, Perceval said.

A factor in the case was that Harris hadn’t been wearing anything that identified him as security, said Clark County District Attorney Christopher Lalli.

Perceval said that when she’d worked at the complex, persuading Harris to wear the yellow security personnel shirt was a battle. When he did wear it, he made it his own, cutting the shirt so it had a deep V-neck to show off a gold chain and chest hair.

Jenna Arntson, manager at the City Center Apartments, was also surprised authorities determined Harris had started the fight. Arntson said she was certain Harris would have said he was security, noting his professionalism.

D.A.’s Office: Not a close call

Determining not to press charges in the case wasn’t a close call, Lalli said.

So why did it take six months for the D.A.’s Office to decide?

The Sun was told at the time of the incident that the cause of death was pending a toxicology screening, which typically takes six to eight weeks. Clark County Coroner Mike Murphy said Harris’ autopsy was actually pending more than just a toxicology screening, which came back on time.

To fully investigate Harris’ death, a neuropathology study was done, Murphy said. This involves looking at brain tissue and sometimes the brain stem and optic nerves.

These tests can take a long time because there are a limited number of neuropathologists who do specialty work in forensics and an even smaller number willing to testify in court.

The D.A.’s Office waited, Lalli said, because it is important in a potential murder case to have all the essential facts before making a decision.

With an unprovoked attack, a cooperative suspect who immediately comes to the aid of the deceased and security footage that matches the suspect’s statements, there just isn’t a case to be made, according to authorities.

"When you factor all of those things in, there is just no way that a jury would convict here,” Lalli said, “and there is just no way we as prosecutors would bring charges under these circumstances."

Prosecutors must prove the absence of self-defense, which is a high burden that would be difficult to overcome in this case, Lalli said.

Nevada law requires two factors for a killing to be classified as self-defense:

“The danger was so urgent and pressing that, in order to save the person’s own life, or to prevent the person from receiving great bodily harm, the killing of the other was absolutely necessary” and “the person killed was the assailant, or that the slayer had really, and in good faith, endeavored to decline any further struggle before the mortal blow was given.”

If new evidence were to arise, Lalli said, prosecutors always could revisit the case.

Valbracht’s father, James Valbracht, said he didn’t want to comment for this story since he was estranged from his son and didn’t want to further strain the relationship. An associate circuit judge in Missouri, James Valbracht said the last he had heard his son had found housing in Las Vegas.

The decision not to press charges against Blake Valbracht isn’t sitting well with Harris’ friends.

“They are not serving justice by letting him off scot-free like that,” Perceval said, saying authorities should have punished Blake Valbracht for something, perhaps trespassing.

Sanford, though, said there would have needed to be documentation that the suspect had been warned about not being on the property for a trespassing charge to be filed.

“It’s scary to know that (Blake Valbracht) is still out there,” Perceval said. “It’s very sad for somebody who cared so much for the community to literally lose his life protecting it."

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