SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A REAL News Michiana investigation has revealed how a St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice program failed in multiple ways, allowing a violent juvenile felon to shoot and kill 28-year-old Rhema Harris at her Mishawaka home in June of last year. Police have charged 18-year-old Braxton Bird, who was 17-years-old at the time, with Harris’ murder. Harris was a corrections officer at the St. Joseph County Jail.
Documents uncovered by RNM show Bird was serving time at the Juvenile Justice Center and, by all accounts, should have never been allowed to be near Harris’ home. In fact, it extremely questionable as to how Bird was allowed out of lockup in the first place. It turns out, an extremely lax juvenile program put together by the Executive Director of the Juvenile Justice Center, Dr. William Bruinsma, allowed Bird to leave the center for a “home pass” despite his known, violent criminal behavior.
Documents show Bird was part of the JJC’s Bridge Link Program. Participants of the program are allowed, among other things, passes to go home on the weekends. While it is assumed that the program would only work with non-violent juveniles who show rehabilitation progress, that was not the case with Bird. He had already been arrested multiple times for Armed Robbery, gun crimes and escaping custody.
BIRD’S CRIMINAL HISTORY
According to Bird’s juvenile records obtained by RNM, he had been arrested for multiple violent crimes involving guns for the past several years.
2019: Arrested for Armed Robbery and Theft.
2020: Arrested for Armed Robbery, Battery, Escape, Carrying a Firearm and Theft of a Firearm.
2021: Arrested for Escape.
2022: Arrested for Burglary.
His latest arrest and conviction came less than 3 months before the murder of Rhema Harris.
BRIDGE LINK FAILURES
Despite his recent violent criminal history, Bird was allowed into the Bridge Link Program where he could to continue to terrorize the St. Joseph County community with criminal acts.
According to Bird’s juvenile records: “Braxton has a significant criminal history including violent crimes, and subsequent probation violations after adjudication on those offenses. Braxton has been to residential when he attended Transitions Academy from 24 February 2021 to 04 January 2022. Even after completing his time at Transitions Academy, Braxton was adjudicated for the offense of Burglary. Braxton was given an opportunity to utilize the skills he learned in Transitions while serving his 120 days in the Bridge Link Program. After 96 days in detention, including 60+ days in the Bridge Link Program, Braxton continues to
violate the rules and regulations of Probation and the Bridge Link Program. Probation has exhausted all of the options available to Braxton.”
Bird was also supposed to be monitored by his parents at all times when out on pass. According to his juvenile records, he had a tumultuous home life and lived between the homes of both parents. While his mother has no criminal history, his father has an extensive criminal background.
The Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC) website shows the following sentences:
4/15/1988, Robbery (FC), four years, 11 months; 3/12/1997, Residential Entry (FD), one year and six months, and Possession of Handgun (FD) without License, two years.
7/14/1998 Residential Entry, seven months, Battery (MA), seven months, and Handgun Violation (FC) four months; 1/21/2000, Carrying Handgun without License (FC), 11 months, released 07/23/2000.
Other crimes include: 2/22/2012, Driving While Suspended; 7/04/2013, Operating a Vehicle While Intoxicated (MC), Operating a Vehicle with Alcohol Concentration Equivalent to.15 or More (MA),and Driving While Suspended (MA); 7/31/2013, Operating a Vehicle While Intoxicated Endangering a Person (MA), Operating a Vehicle with Alcohol Concentration Equivalent to.15 or More (MA), Failure to Stop after Accident Resulting in Damage to Unattended Vehicle (MB),and Driving While Suspended (MA); and 12/16/2016, Operating a Vehicle While Intoxicated (MC), Operating a Vehicle with Alcohol Concentration Equivalent to .15 or More (MA), and Operating a Vehicle with an ACE of .08 or More but where defendant has a prior conviction (F6).
MURDER OF RHEMA HARRIS
According to an article by the South Bend Tribune regarding the murder, “Braxton and his associates targeted the house for a shooting because he was mad at a girl (a relative of Harris) who lived there. According to court documents, Braxton was arrested in February for robbing the house of one of the girl’s relatives and blamed the family for getting him in trouble. Braxton had messaged threats to the girl, court documents allege, asking the girl to fight him, but she refused.”
“Then on June 26, Braxton, his younger brother and three other people drove a silver Chevy Impala to Harris’ house on Milburn, circled the home twice before pulling into an alley behind the residence and opening fire, court documents allege.”
According to a probation violation report for Bird obtained by RNM: “On 26 June 2022 while Braxton was out on his pass, Mishawaka officers responded to reports of shots being fired near the intersection of Alabama and Milburn. Upon arrival, officers found one female subject at the residence of 1911 Milburn with a single gunshot wound to her chest. That victim eventually succumbed to her injury later at the hospital. Officers spoke with neighbors who witnessed, both in person and on a Ring door camera, a silver Chevrolet Impala at the scene of the shooting. Witnesses stated they identified one of the occupants of the vehicle as Braxton Bird. Officers then left the scene and found Braxton at his mother’s house on Madison St. Braxton was then taken to the Mishawaka Police Department for questioning on the incident where it was determined that GPS points verified Braxton being at the location of the shooting.”
As seen above, while on pass, Bird was being monitored by a GPS device. According to sources, Bird was not supposed to be at Harris’ home as it was included in his “exclusion zones” specifically due to the crimes he had committed earlier in the year. Even though the GPS pinged Bird near Harris’ home multiple times in the days leading up the Harris’ murder, it was never flagged as a problem.
Bird is being charged as an adult for the murder. His 14-year-old brother was arrested and charged in the crime as well.
DR. WILLIAM BRUINSMA
According to sources, the brainchild of the Bridge Link program that allowed Bird to roam the streets of St. Joseph County leading to Harris’ murder, is Dr. William Bruinsma. Dr. Bruinsma has been the director of the St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center since 2019. This is his second stint running the JJC, as he was previously the director from 2000-2011.
Dr. Bruinsma is a psychologist who has spent much of his career pushing non-traditional justice programs for juvenile delinquents.
From 2011-2019, Dr. Bruinsma was working as the Executive Director of an organization called Rite of Passage.
RNM reached out to Dr. Bruinsma for comment. As of publication, we have not received a response. It’s not clear if anyone at the JJC was held accountable for what led up to Harris’ murder or if standards within the Bridge Link program have changed.
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