Kittanning fugitive who turned up dead was 'own worst enemy'
John Paul Harrison, the Kittanning man who went missing in early December after fleeing police and whose body was found Thursday in the Allegheny River, was a loving son and gifted artist who nevertheless had his demons, according to family members.
Authorities say Harrison, 40, failed to stop when Armstrong County detectives tried to pull his vehicle over in the early morning hours of Dec. 3 in Kittanning. Harrison allegedly was driving without his headlights on when the detectives spotted his Dodge truck.
An ensuing chase ended when Harrison crashed his truck in Rayburn Township, authorities say, and he fled on foot and disappeared for more than four months.
His mother, Debra Harrison of Dubois, Clearfield County, said her son John wasn't a perfect angel, that he struggled with alcohol and was on parole following a brief period of incarceration related to a 2015 theft the night he ran from authorities. But he wasn't a violent or dangerous man, she said.
“He was a real mommy's boy. He loved me very much,” she said. “He had a drinking problem. He was his own worst enemy. A judge said his crimes only hurt himself, but he was never aggressive.”
Harrison had just purchased a new home with the help of family and was working to get his life back on track, his mother said.
His nieces adored him, according to Debra Harrison, who said her great-granddaughter told her that John Harrison was her favorite adult.
Debra Harrison said John most likely was out drinking that night because it was the 10-year anniversary of the death of his brother, Jesse Almanzo Harrison, who died of natural causes on Dec. 2, 2007.
“I really believe he was missing his brother. I think he shouldn't have been out drinking,” she said.
Katie Charlton, Armstrong County's district attorney, said Monday in a press release that Harrison had been a fugitive since fleeing police on Dec. 3 and that he had been charged with felony counts of fleeing custody and driving while his license was suspended.
According to the release, area law enforcement and fire department crews “held coordinated efforts in attempting to locate Mr. Harrison, which included several searchers of the area and the utilization of the Armstrong County sheriff's canine unit.”
Police were chasing him on foot when he disappeared, Kittanning police Chief Bruce Matthews said. At the time, he was within 300 feet or closer to the Allegheny River, Matthews said.
Despite a concerted effort to find him that evening, there was no sign of him, Matthews said.
When police returned to the vehicle, they found Harrison's cell phone, wallet and keys inside.
The next day, on Dec. 4, his family reported him missing, Matthews said. “There were several extensive searches on Dec. 5 and 6,” the chief said.
Harrison's body was found more than 30 miles away on Thursday, near Sycamore Island in Blawnox. There was no apparent cause of death, the chief said.
“We still don't have a lot of answers,” he said.
According to Whisper Harrison of Kittanning, John's sister, though it is nice to have some answers, it certainly isn't the end the family was looking for.
“After four months you want closure, but obviously this isn't the best deal in that sense,” she said.
The Armstrong County Medical Examiner's office is working to determine the cause of John Harrison's death, Charlton said in the release.
Matthew Medsger and Chuck Biedka are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Medsger at 724-226-4675, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @matthew_medsger. Reach Biedka at 724-226-4711, email@example.com or via Twitter @ChuckBiedka.