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Son with Down syndrome found dead was mom's 'reason she got out of bed every morning'

TAMPA — Christopher Harrington liked to splash in the bathtub. He loved water and the buzzing sounds of lawn mowers and fans.

When the 38-year-old with Down syndrome disappeared from the back seat of a caregiver's car while it was stopped Tuesday, his mother hoped he had just wandered off and would be found in time to take his antiseizure medicine.

But less than a day after Harrington climbed out of the car at W Sligh Avenue and River Boulevard, Tampa police discovered his body at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in the Hillsborough River.

Officers called his mother, Estella Acree, to see if she could identify a shoe found near the river bank.

"When I saw the shoe, I knew that he had gotten into the water," said Acree, 66. "I knew he wouldn't have jumped off the bridge, but I knew he would find some way to get down there."

Down syndrome and other limitations kept Harrington from going where he pleased, but each week he'd leave the safety of the light blue house with the silver chain-link fence in Rainbow Heights and head to the home of a caregiver while his mother visited with friends or ran errands.

Police said the caregiver, Thomas Murdock, stopped his car for a only a few minutes to pick kumquats. He left Harrington in the back seat, with the child safety locks on.

But Harrington climbed over the seat and opened a front door, said police Chief Jane Castor, who knows the family through Rainbow Heights Crime Watch.

Castor said Harrington meant everything to his mother. She called him her "baby" and had incredible patience with him.

"I think he kept her going," Castor said. "He's the reason she got out of bed every morning."

Acree set her second son's favorite teddy bear, a weathered, naked foot-tall Winnie the Pooh, on his dresser Wednesday.

She started taking Harrington to doctors when he was 6 months old because he wasn't sitting up on his own, she recalled.

When she got the diagnosis, she didn't lose faith in her baby.

He didn't start crawling when he should have. "He would just roll around," she explained. When he took his first steps at 2, it was not a sign she could relax.

"I got him up and walked him just about all night," she recalled.

Acree said her son loved everyone and loved to be around people. His favorite pastime, however, was eating.

Harrington's favorite sign was that he was hungry. It seemed his answer to "what do you want?" was always a light rub of his tummy.

"Anytime you'd set a plate down, he'd reach right on over and get it," said Lucy Jordan, pastor of New St. Peter's Church, where Acree and Harrington attended for two years. "And he loved baked beans. Give him some baked beans and he was satisfied."

His love for music riveted him to the pew during services every Sunday, Jordan said.

"But after service, he was off," she said as she clapped her hands together and smiled.

Acree said Harrington didn't speak but knew a few signs. He graduated from Lavoy Exceptional Center in 1994.

His brother, Robert Acree, recalls the year because he used to wear his big brother's class ring. The youngest son had come home Monday on two weeks' leave from duty in Iraq to get married, Estella Acree explained.

On Wednesday, the home was teeming with family down from Ocala to offer support.

Acree spent Tuesday night worrying about her missing son. He hadn't taken his medication. He didn't know the neighborhood.

She fainted when she got the news from Castor and other officers that Harrington's body had been found in the river, Jordan said. Acree was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital with high blood pressure, Jordan said.

Doctors released her Wednesday afternoon and she returned to her home, family and friends.

"I'm fine now that they are all here, but when they leave later and he's not here, I just don't know what I'm going to do," she said.

Times staff writers Jessica Vander Velde, Ileana Morales and researchers John Martin and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

Son with Down syndrome found dead was mom's 'reason she got out of bed every morning' 03/30/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 11:37pm]
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