Penned In

Almost nobody -- not even the trial judge or the victim -- thinks John Michael Harvey molested a child. So why's he still serving 40 years in prison?

In 1987, 23-year-old John Michael Harvey was on the inside track of the high-tech circuit. The New York native was working for one of the hottest companies in Dallas, Electronic Data Systems (EDS), running programs that monitored ATM machines.

But he was no computer geek. Harvey had already amassed a flashy sports car, a fast motorcycle, sharp clothes and a cool apartment. Women were attracted to this guy who could party on Saturday night and still be a regular at Sunday worship services.

Then came the call from a stranger that changed everything 16 years ago. A friend of Harvey's high school sweetheart, Karen, sounded frantic on the phone. Karen was staying with her in South Carolina -- and was destitute. She needed help.

Harvey demanded dismissal or a trial on the charges 
that later sent him to prison.
Daniel Kramer
Harvey demanded dismissal or a trial on the charges that later sent him to prison.
Better times: Harvey and his mother in 1991.
Daniel Kramer
Better times: Harvey and his mother in 1991.

Five years had passed since he'd last spoken to Karen. He had never seen the son he'd fathered by her in 1981. Harvey didn't have to think too long before catching a plane to Charleston. He found his former flame in squalor, now with two small children. "She was diminished," Harvey remembers. "They were living in a run-down trailer, beer cans everywhere. I couldn't leave them like that."

Harvey took Karen and the children back to live with him in his one-bedroom bachelor pad.

Today, he doesn't even need to say the obvious -- not when Harvey is retelling his story from the sweltering cell of a Texas prison, where he has lived for the past 11 years, branded as a child molester. His rescue of them would destroy his own life.

Harvey protests his innocence -- convicts often do. But almost everyone familiar with his case now strongly doubts his guilt. That includes the jury foreman and judge in his trial, appellate attorneys and investigators and even the findings of a lie detector. The mother of the victim also disputes the verdict.

Most of all, the victim herself -- now a 17-year-old Houston-area student -- swears she tried to describe the real rapist to authorities but was harangued and manipulated into falsely accusing an innocent man.

The relationship between Harvey and Karen has always had an air of tragedy. Like a low-rent version of the Montagues and Capulets, there has been bad blood for a generation between their families. (To avoid publicly identifying the rape victim, Karen's name and those of her family members have been changed.)

They grew up together in the small town of Geneva, New York, and had their first "date" in the sixth grade. When the two got back together in high school, Karen's mother was so outraged she shaved her daughter's head to make her unattractive. Karen says she had nothing but stubble left, but she donned a bandanna and continued seeing Harvey.

Friction between the families worsened when Karen became pregnant at age 16. Harvey denied paternity, and his parents shipped him off to Pennsylvania to finish school. When son Mikey was born, Harvey was gone.

"The relationship between John Michael's mother and Karen's mother was ugly," says Eva Archer-Smith, a Houston businesswoman and Harvey's cousin. "It was like a vendetta. They felt this was the father of this child and he took no responsibility."

Worse yet, the paternity case filed by Karen's family evolved into a brutal confrontation. Harvey's relatives got other men to testify about sexual relations with Karen -- inflaming her kin -- although a judge ruled that blood tests indicated Harvey was the father of her child.

After he finished school, Harvey landed a Florida job with Delta Airlines, which transferred him to Dallas in 1984. He went on to work for Avis car rentals, then U.S. Sprint. While Texans don't always warm to Yankees, Harvey immediately liked the Lone Star State. He drank beer, smoked a little weed, had a live-in girlfriend for a few years, relished his rising career in computers and was a regular at church.

Joanie Ruppel, the organist at a Greek Orthodox church in the Dallas suburb of Euless, remembers that Harvey volunteered to help at the church's booth at Texas Rangers games and made most church functions. He was "just the nicest guy," she says. "He was always dressed very nice and was very respectful."

Back in Geneva, Karen wasn't faring nearly as well. She gave birth to another child, Melissa, out of wedlock in 1985. Karen moved to South Carolina in 1986 to live with Joe and Linda Walker, the parents of a girl she'd known. She married an air force man named J.R. Williams but soon separated from him.

She went back to the Walkers, who kicked her out in less than a year. She says they told her to take Mikey with her, although they wanted to adopt Melissa. Karen says Joe Walker always had a keen interest in Melissa. "He would do the world for that girl," she says.

Karen and her kids left the Walkers and were taken in by a friend, who placed the pivotal call that got Harvey involved. "I guess we weren't doing so hot," Karen says of that period.

Soon after he flew them back to the Dallas area, Harvey noticed Karen was pregnant, and too far along for him to have been the father. Karen sent her children away so they would not know she would put the new baby up for adoption. After that child was born in 1988, Mikey was with Karen's brother and Melissa had returned to the Walkers.

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