SAN FRANCISCO — The mother accused of drowning her three young boys in San Francisco Bay said the day of the killings that she would "feed them to the sharks," but family members didn't think she was serious, a sister said Thursday.
Less than a day after Lashaun Harris, 23, allegedly stripped her children naked, hoisted them over a pier safety rail and flung them into the bay's chilly waters, relatives described Harris as a devoted and loving mother whose life began spiraling out of control when she started showing signs of mental illness two years ago.
With Harris facing arraignment today on charges of murder with special circumstances, authorities mounted an intensive, around-the-clock effort to recover the children's bodies. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter spotted the body of Taronta Greely, 2, on a beach more than a mile from where his mother was arrested Wednesday night; but Treyshaun Harris, 6, and Joshoa Greely, 16 months, remained missing in the bay's churning waters.
More than 200 city, county and federal personnel searched the waters in patrol boats, helicopters and personal watercraft, while teams of divers searched the shore and under piers for any sign of the two boys. Recovery of their bodies, officials said, was of critical importance if the city was ever to come to grips with the tragedy.
"I think the most important thing is finding the bodies," said Mayor Gavin Newsom. "This recovery effort is difficult. Everyone needs closure, not only the family, but the community."
Harris, a reported schizophrenic who had been living in a homeless shelter since last month, came from a large, close-knit family that until recently had helped look after the struggling young mother. Relatives said Thursday that her condition had deteriorated in the last four or five months.
"She doesn't like taking her medication," said one of her sisters, Britney Fitzpatrick, 16. "Once she told my mama she had thrown it away."
Although Harris had resisted efforts by her mother, Avis Harris, to take custody of the children, her sisters and cousins said they always believed she would look after her children. Although Harris' behavior could be odd, they said, they never imaged she would harm her offspring. Even the shark comment caused little concern.
"No one took it seriously," said Fitzpatrick, one of Harris' six siblings.
Some relatives even thought Harris was overprotective of the boys.
Fitzpatrick remembered Treyshaun as "very ambitious and hyper -- always jumping up and down." Taronta, named after his father, was known as T.J.
The incident occurred about 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at one of San Francisco's most picturesque tourist spots -- the bay-front Embarcadero, with the landmark Transamerica Tower and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in the distance. Harris reportedly undressed her children on Pier 7, lifted them over the heavy wrought iron railing and dropped them into the water, police said. A witness called 911 to report what he had seen.
Police Chief Heather Fong said that when police and fire officials arrived a few minutes after the call, Harris, a former certified nurse's assistant, was walking back toward land, pushing an empty stroller up the pier.
On Thursday, the San Francisco County district attorney's office announced that it was charging Harris with three counts of murder and three counts of assault on a child with great bodily injury. Prosecutors also filed a special circumstances allegation of multiple murder which, if proved, could make her eligible for the death penalty.
Harris was diagnosed as schizophrenic after her third pregnancy, relatives said. Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder in which sufferers experience delusions, hallucinations and distorted thought and speech patterns, among other symptoms. Some sufferers claim to hear voices. The precise cause of the illness is unknown, but its symptoms can sometimes be managed through medication, which can carry its own serious side effects.
Harris had been admitted to John George Psychiatric Pavilion in nearby San Leandro for 30 days at the start of this year, and her mother obtained custody of the three boys.
Harris regained custody after her release and by summertime moved with her children to Florida to stay with a relative. During that visit she was hospitalized a second time.
Relatives said that when she was released from the hospital in Florida, she moved back in with her mother in Oakland but that she had grown increasingly stubborn, particularly regarding the care of her children. Relatives said Harris' mother was again trying to obtain custody of the three boys when her daughter decided to move out and take up residence with the boys in the Salvation Army shelter near her mother's home.
Wanda Harris, 21, a cousin, said that relatives offered to take Harris in, but that she refused. They regarded her behavior as eccentric -- she sometimes laughed out of context -- but not dangerous.