Students and parents alike joined in mourning the sudden death of a popular high school basketball coach earlier this week in Monroe, North Carolina. They fondly recalled his uplifting “all love, no fear” motto, the “encouragement and motivation” he gave to students at his school, and his smile that “will forever remain etched in our hearts.”
But two days later, the local sheriff dropped a bombshell: teacher Barney Dale Harris had died while allegedly trying to rob a Mexican drug cartel.
Harris, who taught Spanish at Union Academy Charter School and served as the boys’ head basketball coach, was found dead last week in a mobile home belonging to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, widely considered to be the most powerful and ruthless drug cartel in Mexico, Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson announced at a Wednesday press conference.
Harris, 40, seemed to have come prepared for a fight. He was found in the stash house wearing a bulletproof vest, gloves, and a face cover, the sheriff said. He had been shot multiple times.
“It was almost like an old western shootout,” the sheriff said, adding that three neighboring homes were left riddled with bullet holes.
Harris had gone to the trailer with his brother-in-law, Steven Alexander Stewart Jr., in order to rob a cartel member named Alonso Beltran Lara, according to the sheriff. The attempted attack wasn’t meant to be a one-off, the sheriff said: Harris and Stewart were said to have been tracking the cartel’s movements through North Carolina to pinpoint stash houses in hopes of robbing them.
“The I-85 and I-40 corridor has really caused Alamance County to be a great place to deposit their drugs,” the sheriff said of the cartel’s growing presence in the area.
The theft did not go as planned. When police officers discovered the grisly scene after reports of gunfire in the mobile home, they found Harris’ body as well as Lara’s, the cartel member the two had allegedly plotted to rob. Lara’s hands and feet were bound, and he was shot “execution-style,” the sheriff said, though he was still clinging to life when police got there. Officers brought him to a nearby hospital, where he died. Deputies did not disclose who they believe shot Lara, and the investigation is ongoing.
“The trailer looked like it had been ransacked,” the sheriff said. “They were looking for money or drugs, or both,” he said. Deputies found a bag with 1.2 kilos of cocaine and about $7,000 in cash near Lara’s body.
Stewart, who had apparently fled following the firefight, was found at his home with “related objects tied to the crime scene” and charged with first-degree burglary and first-degree murder, police said. He is being held without bond.
The news of the violent circumstances surrounding Harris’ death rocked Monroe, where Union Academy had issued a statement just two days earlier calling on students to wear school colors to celebrate Harris. School leaders had lauded him, saying “[Harris’] motto ‘All Love...No Fear’ will be forever a part of who we are as a school. Love each other and live each day to the fullest.”
On Wednesday, after the sheriff suggested the beloved basketball coach had been moonlighting as a violent criminal, the school released another statement saying it was “shocked and devastated to hear the information.”
Harris, who leaves behind a wife and three children, started working at the Union Academy in July 2017. Parents of children at the school were quoted in local media earlier this week gushing over the basketball coach.
“We absolutely love the family. My husband went to college with Coach Harris. He coached my nephew. It’s been a difficult time, he will be greatly missed,” one unnamed parent told WSOC-TV on Monday.
A GoFundMe set up for the Harris family before the sheriff’s press conference was equally full of praise for the late teacher.
“Our lives will never be the same, as Coach Harris touched the lives of everyone he encountered. He never met a stranger and the encouragement and motivation he gave both his students and athletes was priceless. Coach Harris’ smile will forever remain etched in our hearts,” the fundraiser’s description reads.
The sheriff struck a much more ominous tone on Wednesday, warning that Harris’ death may not be the last violence tied to the cartel to strike the area.
“When we are dealing with the Mexican drug cartels, somebody is probably going to die,” Johnson said. “The Mexican cartels, they don’t forget. They’re going to pay somebody back somewhere.”