POMONA, Calif. – Monica Thomas-Harris got the chilling news just before Christmas: Her estranged husband, jailed for abducting and threatening her, had been released.
A frantic Thomas-Harris rushed to the district attorney's office, begging for an emergency protection order that would allow police to arrest him if he came near her. But it was the Friday evening before Christmas, and no judge was available. The next business day was Monday, but that was Christmas Eve, and her husband's lawyer was on a long vacation and couldn't be reached for a hearing.
Less than two weeks later, Thomas-Harris, 37, was dead, shot in a motel room by her husband in a murder-suicide.
The case has shaken California's legal system, led to an internal investigation by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, and prompted demands from victims' advocates and family members for an explanation of how the husband managed to get out of jail while he awaited sentencing.
"It was around the holidays, people were on vacation. It just seems like we were so close, but not close enough," said Pamela Booth, director of the branch of the district attorney's office that oversees the Pomona courthouse. "That's one of the really tragic things about this."
By all accounts, Thomas-Harris' death resulted from a holiday-related chain of unfortunate circumstances and missed opportunities.
Among them: The prosecutor and the judge who originally handled the case were both on vacation when the deal to release Curtis Harris was struck. The prosecutor filling in that day relied on the judgment of Harris' attorney, who had known Harris for only a month. And a vital piece of paperwork — a probation report warning Harris was a danger to his wife and unsuitable for release — was overlooked or ignored in the holiday shuffle.
"I think it's disgusting that a judge, a district attorney — even his own defense attorney — would have the background they have on a person like this and would permit him to leave court," said Thomas-Harris' father, James Thomas. "What was his business? To go right out and find my daughter and kill her."
The couple married in 2001, by which time Harris already had a long rap sheet, including felony convictions for drugs and weapons. Within a few years, Thomas-Harris left her husband, moving into her parents' West Covina home, and in 2005 she filed for divorce.
Around the same time, she filed for a restraining order against her husband, accsing him of smashing her kitchen and bedroom windows when she refused to let him in. But she never showed up for a hearing on the request, and the matter was dropped.
On Nov. 16, he kidnapped her at a park and handcuffed her to furniture in a motel room, according to police. But she didn't report it to police. Two days later, he abducted her again, binding her with duct tape, locking her in a car and threatening her with a stun gun. This time, she told police about both incidents.
On Dec. 21, Harris, a 34-year-old worker at a company that manufactures plastic food containers, pleaded no contest to false imprisonment and possession of a gun by a felon, under a deal that called for a 16-month prison sentence. He asked to be freed before his formal sentencing so he could arrange care for his elderly mother.
Deputy District Attorney Samer Hathout, who was filling in on the case, and her supervisor both signed off on the deal to let him out. Superior Court Judge Tia Fisher, who was filling in for a vacationing judge, agreed.
"The man appeared rational when I spoke to him, so I presented it to the district attorney and they agreed," said Harris' lawyer, Arthur Lindars. "It's everybody's worst nightmare."
The judge declined to be interviewed but has been distraught about the murder, said court spokesman Allan Parachini. Fisher handled 44 cases that day, and judges routinely rely on the opposing sides to come up with a solution they can live with.
"If you were a judge, you would place great weight on what these two particular lawyers presented you with," Parachini said.
Women's advocates say they cannot understand how Harris managed to get out despite his violent history.
"That really stands out at me," said Katie Buckland, executive director of the California Women's Law Center and a former prosecutor. "It's really troubling that the prosecutor and her supervisor signed off on this deal."
On the day of her husband's release, Thomas-Harris spent about 45 minutes with prosecutors and begged for "a piece of paper" that would shield her, Booth said. Prosecutors tried to get her an emergency protective order, but Lindars was on vacation in Oregon and wasn't expected back for two weeks.
On Jan. 3, Thomas-Harris didn't show up for her job as a customer service supervisor at a pet food manufacturer. Her 15-year-old daughter from another relationship told police she called her mother's cell phone and could hear Harris raging in the background. When the teen called back, her mother didn't answer.
A judge issued a warrant for Harris' arrest the next day. But on Jan. 5, a maid found husband and wife shot to death in a Whittier motel room.