James Harris, the 61-year-old former owner of Jimmy’s Hang Ten in Flagler Beach, pleaded guilty today to three counts of sexually abusing his step-daughter and was sentenced to 15 years in prison followed by 15 years on probation. He was also designated a sex offender for life and will be required to abide by strict conditions when released from prison.
He had faced the possibility of life in prison had he been convicted at trial. Even under the terms of the plea agreement, the maximum punishment was 45 years in prison.
Harris is not eligible for gain time, or early release. With his 300 days’ credit for time served at the county jail since his arrest, he would be 75 when he’ll start his probation.
The victim’s biological parents were in attendance during the hearing–one by zoom, one in person–but chose not to address the court. Assistant State Attorney Melissa Clark said she had several conversations with the child’s parents ahead of the plea agreement, and that they were in agreement with the terms. Harris, who also did not address the court other than to say “yes, your honor” or “no, your honor” to Circuit Judge Terence Perkins, was represented by a private attorney, John Hager.
Harris was arrested last July 2 on two charges: lewd and lascivious molestation of a victim younger than 12, a first degree felony punishable by life in prison, and exhibition involving a victim younger than 12, a second degree felony. The prosecution filed an additional charge of lewd and lascivious molestation of a victim older than 12, younger than 15, also a second degree felony.
The victim had allegedly been subjected to Harris’s abuse for years, starting when she was 10. She told a Child Protection Team interviewer that Harris would typically commit the abuse at night or early in the morning when he believed she was sleeping. The abuse stopped when she was 12 only because the girl spent more time with her biological father during the pandemic. She moved back into Harris’s household Christmas Eve in 2020. Harris, she told the Child Protection Team interviewer, resumed the abuse that January.
The girl told a friend. Her friend recommended that she record the abuse on her cell phone. Florida law since 2015–after the Florida Supreme Court encouraged the Legislature to amend the law to that effect–has allowed minors to secretly film or audio record alleged instances of abuse, physical, psychological or sexual.
The girl did so on July 1, 2021, fully expecting that Harris would follow his own abuse routine. He did. The video showed Harris entering the girl’s bedroom naked, then masturbating as the girl pretended to be asleep. Harris also took photographs of the girl.
The girl took the video to her biological father, who turned it over to law enforcement. Given the clarity of the evidence, Harris was immediately arrested. He told authorities that he’d never abused the girl. When confronted with the video, he conceded that he’d done what it depicted–but that it was the one and only time he’d done so. That defense was not likely to be convincing at trial, thus risking a life term and likely convincing Harris to plead out.
He has been at the Flagler County jail since his arrest, on no bond. The judge denied a motion that would have allowed him to bond out.
Part of the plea deal required Harris to plead guilty–not no contest. He pleaded guilty to slightly different charges, too–all second degree felonies, including the replacement of the potential life felony with attempted lewd and lascivious molestation of a person younger than 18, making it a second degree felony. Once released on probation, Harris will have a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, will be barred from living within 1,000 feet of anywhere children gather, like schools or churches or parks, will be bared from unsupervised contact with anyone under 18, and will be electronically monitored, among other restrictions.
Jimmy’s Hang Ten had opened in the midst of the pandemic at 1112 South Oceanshore Boulevard, quickly to become a popular destination. Harris’s wife took over the business after Harris’s arrest, and filed for divorce. The name was changed to Hang Ten. But after various regulatory difficulties with Flagler Beach government, the business closed last November.