One night last December, Lowell Police responded to a call reporting domestic battery and vandalism at the apartment a woman shared with her fiance, who she said had threatened her and punched through her car windshield with his bare hands before leaving. As police dispersed throughout the city to find and arrest the man, Moses Harris, one officer came upon his car in a parking lot near the Concord River.
In surveillance footage from a nearby building, the officer can be seen approaching Harris, 25, who stepped out of his car and raised both hands above his head. The officer took out a taser, and Harris began to run, with the officer chasing him on foot. Both men run out of view of the camera into the shadows by the river. That’s where the video — the only existing video of the incident — ends.
“We have him all the way down in the back of the parking lot, it looks like he's about to jump into the river,” the officer, who Lowell Police declined to identify, said in a radio dispatch that night. “He's in the water. He's going down.”
According to police, Lowell sent firefighters and state police officers to try to find Harris, who could not swim, and continued the search with canine units, drones, divers, boats, and a helicopter. They did not find Harris that night.
Harris' disappearance sparked months of local protests over yet another fatal confrontation between a Black man and the police. Family members and protesters demanded answers about what happened and weren't satisfied with what they heard back from the police or from City Hall. His fiance, Jerytza Montanez, 40, questioned how police handled Harris, who she has said suffered from mental illness.
Twelve hours after the attempted arrest, police told his family that Harris was presumed dead after jumping in the freezing river.
That's when Harris' mother, Louise Harris Daddeh, began to have doubts.
“We just need proof that he jumped, because we didn't see him jump,” Harris Daddeh said. “We just need proof.”
Tina Degree, an activist with Community Advocates for Justice and Equality, or CAJE, and a close friend of Harris Daddeh, has called on Lowell Mayor John Leahy and other public officials to investigate the incident and press the police department to name the officers involved and release the police report, which has been deemed confidential because of the domestic nature of the charges.
In a statement, Rep. Lori Trahan, who represents Lowell, said she "understands the importance of transparency in this process and has conveyed as much" to the Lowell police.
But Degree says those efforts haven't worked. “The police are not being transparent,” she said. “They say they're being transparent. They're not.”
Every Saturday for twelve weeks following Harris's disappearance, organizers from CAJE and other local groups gathered in crowds of around 50 people to protest for more information outside the Lowell police station.
“We love you, we miss you, we will keep fighting for you,” they chanted, holding signs that read “justice for Moses” and “his life matters.”
Finally, on March 7, after 77 days, someone walking by the Merrimack River spotted something about 15 yards from shore in Andover, about five miles downstream from where Harris disappeared.
The Essex County District Attorney confirmed that it was the body of Harris. The body was found about five miles downstream from where he was last seen near the Concord River, which flows into the Merrimack. In a statement, the DA said no foul play was suspected.
Harris' stepfather, Emmanuel Wahpo, says the state medical examiner didn't immediately let the family identify the body, and he's unsatisfied with what police have provided.
“We want an outside investigation, because Lowell police would tell you that they are working with the family, and they're not,” Wahpo said. “They’re not working with us.”
Lowell Police Captain Mark LeBlanc said he gave the family his cell phone number and kept in contact with them regularly, texting and calling every day in the first few weeks.
He acknowledged the police were the only source of information on this case — but they gave the family everything they could.
“If there was a video, I would love to show it to the family,” LeBlanc said. “All I can provide them with is the information that we know, and we know it from the single officer who was there, from his radio transmissions and from the video immediately prior to that.”
Mayor Leahy says many people go missing in or near the river, and the police follow a standard protocol.
"If they don't like the answers they're getting and they keep saying they're not getting answers, that's two different things,” he said. “We had a case like this years ago, there was a person that fell in the river, and they didn't find his body for six months.”
Like most police departments across the state, Lowell police don’t use body or dashboard cameras, which Leahy said might have shed more light on this case.
“If we had negotiated with the union for body cameras, this would have been a good case where it would have told the actual story,” he said, “and there'd be no question because it was on film.”
But body cameras don't capture everything, noted Rahsaan Hall, an attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts. The ACLU has been working with CAJE on the case.
“I don't know that there's any amount of reports and video footage that is going to allay people's concerns about this disappearance,” Hall said, “when, in fact, an incident like this could have possibly have been dealt with differently.”
Lowell police say Harris' case was handled the same as any other missing person case, but Wahpo says he’s not convinced.
“Moses was treated differently because of the color of his skin,” Wahpo said. “This is where I stand. I stand to be corrected.”
LeBlanc says that is "unequivocally and absolutely" not the case.
"Missing person cases have so many different factors to them, there's any number of factors that go into those investigations," LeBlanc said. "But I can tell you that in this search was the most extensive search we've done. Our communication with the family was immediate, and I would I would wholeheartedly rebuke any inference of anything otherwise. It's absolutely just not the truth."
Hall says this case, which relies heavily on personal accounts, demonstrates the need for transparency in policing.
“This is absolutely not normal by any stretch of the imagination,” Hall said. “The police chase someone and they allege that person jumps in the river and then just disappears, and there's no meaningful accounting of it other than what this police officer says?”
The question of what happened the night that Harris went missing is a patchwork of testimonies.
Harris and Montanez had been together for nearly a year. She had called the police for domestic assaults in the past — but this time, she said she asked police to approach him cautiously because he was struggling with mental illness.
“They knew before they even stopped Moses,” she said. “They knew they should have approached Moses in a different way.”
"Moses, you need help," Montanez wrote in a text to Harris that night. "Answer if you love me," Harris responded, after calling eighteen times with no answer. "Please. you kill me," he wrote, sending a picture of his hand, bloodied and cut from punching her car windshield.
Harris' parents aren't on speaking terms with Montanez. Text messages show they blame her for calling the police that night.
But the parents and fiance agree that the police could have approached the situation differently. Wahpo says the video shows that Moses was unarmed and scared for his life. “Moses would have been here today with us if the police had done their due diligence,” he said.
The officer involved acted exactly how he should have that night, LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc says the last thing the Lowell police department has wanted is to be in conflict with the family.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with his loved ones as they continue to mourn his loss,” he said. “Our focus at the department has been on the family and working to find closure for them during this time, which is obviously tragic. But there's a lot of misinformation being spread, and that's kind of overshadowing this tragedy as well as our efforts to find closure for the family.”
Harris' parents say not knowing what really happened — and imagining the possibilities — has traumatized them for months.
“We just need some clarity, we really do,” Harris Daddeh said.
“Once we get clarity, we can get closure,” Wahpo said. “And then that's it.”
Harris' body now lies in a funeral home in Lowell, with a service planned for later this month. Though putting his body to rest will provide some closure, his family says they'll continue to ask for an investigation, for more answers about what happened the night that he disappeared.