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Home explosion, tattoo artist's suicide stun Tampa community

CARROLLWOOD — His children searched in the ashes for clues and an urn.

They found a few tools in the garage. They found some pictures. But no note from their father.

Katie O'Neill, a close family friend, was with them. Finally, she found the urn that held his wife's remains.

Vicki Harris had died of breast cancer last summer. Now, inexplicably, James Harris was gone, too.

"We're never going to find out all the answers," said O'Neill, who said she was raised by the Harrises and called them Mom and Dad.

Last week, James Harris apparently set the house at 4139 Rolling Springs Drive on fire, then walked into his back yard, where a poolside tiki hut still advertises Modelo beer. As flames engulfed his home, he shot himself.

A steady firestorm of ammunition from his extensive gun collection inside exploded for half an hour, keeping firefighters at a distance.

The explosion rattled windows in nearby houses and lured gawkers onto a street lined with palm trees and neat lawns as flames leapt 40 feet from the rooftop.

Neighbors watched stunned. People drove by, some taking pictures. A TV news crew set up just beyond the perimeter.

"Shooting yourself is one thing," said John Mize, who has lived across the street for years. But Harris, 53, hadn't given a hint to those around him, not even his own children, before family heirlooms and possessions were destroyed in the blaze. And those who work in Tampa's tattoo industry, which the Harrises founded more than 20 years ago, lost a mentor and a friend.

• • •

Back in 1989, James and Vicki Harris opened Tampa's first tattoo shop, Artistic Armor Tattooing.

They had hired a lawyer to make a case for legalizing tattoo shops before the City Council. Eventually they opened five in Hillsborough County, including South Tampa, Ybor City and Brandon. They sponsored the Needles and Pins Tattoo Convention from 1993 to 2000.

James Harris was a tattoo artist and a storyteller, sometimes weaving tales of his days in the U.S. Army as a sniper. Vicki ran the business side.

They invited employees, who were like extended family, to Christmas and New Year's and Fourth of July parties, buying piles of food and fireworks.

She had homeschooled their children and they both coached Little League teams. He had adopted her son Michael. They had taken in O'Neill, Michael's best friend. The couple worked side by side every day. He inked a family of tigers on her back to symbolize her devotion to family.

"He was a quiet guy," said Tim Kenney, who worked next to him for 12 years, after Harris taught him to ink. "He was always happy, which is probably what confuses some people," Kenney said of the way his friend died.

But those who knew him acknowledge that something changed last fall. Harris had taken his wife's death hard. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in February and died in August at age 48.

In September, a month after Vicki died, her mother had paid off the mortgage on the home they bought in 1998, O'Neill said.

"You never know what is going on in somebody's mind," said Mize as he stared across the street at Vicki's canary yellow Monte Carlo, with a checkered racing pattern on the back panels. It sat next to James' red Chevy four-wheel-drive van, with an array of bumper stickers plastered to the back and flames across the brake lights. Harris had a name for it: Clifford the Big Red Van.

The vibrant hues stood out on a suburban street of subtle whites, beiges and greens.

Over the years, Harris had several brushes with the law. In 1991, he was charged with two counts of arson, which were dropped. In 2008, he was arrested for driving under the influence.

But his neighbors knew a man who mowed his yard once or twice a week and tinkered in the garage on his van or his kids' cars. He had mowed Mize's lawn for three weeks as he recovered from a surgery several years ago.

They had seen less and less of him since his wife died.

• • •

The couple's adult children — Taunya Gaddie, Jessica Harris and Michael Harris — are coping with the latest tragedy, and either could not be reached or did not return calls for this story.

At first, they were mad about the fire, said O'Neill. Memories of their mom were gone.

After finding Harris' body in the back yard, officials ruled the death a suicide. An investigation continues into the fire, which left the house a total loss. It had been doused with an accelerant, probably gasoline.

O'Neill had last spoken to Harris on Christmas Eve when she stopped by to visit. The holiday had been a big deal to Vicki and this year, he told her, he just wanted to stay home, alone.

Vicki had wanted to die at home and he had cared for her till the end.

Most days, his children had checked in on him, yet they wanted to allow him privacy to grieve.

Now they wonder what was on his mind.

"It's so surreal; it's almost unbelievable," O'Neill said. "The end result wasn't him."

She found the urn in her parents' room.

She figures he was tormented by a broken heart.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

Home explosion, tattoo artist's suicide stun Tampa community 01/06/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 6, 2011 3:30am]
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