FORT DRUM — An argument between two Fort Drum soldiers swapping their vehicles with each other apparently led to one of them being shot to death in a wooded area in northern New Jersey.
First Assistant Prosecutor Gregory Mueller told the New Jersey Herald that the body of Cpl. Hayden A. Harris, 20, was found on Saturday in a wooded area in Byram Township, Sussex County, N.J., and a fellow soldier was taken into custody in connection with his death.
Pvt. Jamaal Mellish, 23, remains in the custody of Fort Drum Military Police.
Stars and Stripes is reporting Cpl. Harris was found shot to death in the wooded area.
Cpl. Harris was meeting with Mellish “for some type of vehicle exchange” in Watertown when the meeting escalated, according to the New Jersey newspaper.
According to the Byram Township Police Chief Kenneth Burke, Mellish was supposed to exchange a Ford Mustang with Cpl. Harris, and receive a Chevrolet truck. Chief Burke said the two had previously done business with one another.
Investigators believe Mellish “abducted” Cpl. Harris in the corporal’s truck and drove him to the New York City area, then over state lines to New Jersey, according to the news report.
Some paperwork involving a previous vehicle transaction between the two soldiers was found near the scene where Cpl. Harris’ body was located, Chief Burke said.
The Byram Fire Department was conducting their annual “Santa ride” around the town, and just after 2 p.m. Saturday, pulled into a cul-de-sac at the end of Ross Road, the police chief said. Alongside the road, firefighters noticed debris, including sneakers, a food package and an umbrella, as well as snow stained with what appeared to be blood.
Chief Burke said Byram Township police began investigating the area, and found paperwork for a previous vehicle transaction with both Cpl. Harris and Mellish’s names on it.
About 200 yards into the wooded area off the cul-de-sac, police discovered Cpl. Harris’ body, mostly buried under snow.
After identifying the body as that of Cpl. Harris, Byram Township police contacted the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Army, who confirmed they had Mellish in custody, and had already charged him with kidnapping.
An unidentified juvenile also was inside the vehicle when they ended up in Sussex County, Chief Burke said. No more information about the juvenile will be released during the investigation, he said.
It’s unclear whether the kidnapping charge stems from Cpl. Harris’ disappearance, or the juvenile’s presence in the vehicle.
According to Chief Burke, Mellish will be held in New York until further charges are brought against him, and it’s expected he will be extradited to New Jersey, pending a hearing.
Chief Burke said investigators from the Byram Township Police Department, alongside the Sussex County Prosecutor’s Office and the New Jersey State Police Crime Scene Unit were in Watertown to continue their investigation Monday.
Cpl. Harris was last seen between 8 p.m. on Dec. 17, and 6:30 a.m. on Dec. 18, Fort Drum officials have said.
Fort Drum officials had asked the public to be on the look out for a 2017 Mustang involved in the missing soldier’s case, but he was taken to New Jersey in his 2017 white Chevrolet Silverado.
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office turned Mellish over to Fort Drum MPs after a deputy stopped him while driving the Silverado on outer Arsenal Street in the town of Watertown either late Friday night or early Saturday morning, a sheriff’s office official said.
Cpl. Harris was posthumously promoted to the corporal rank and awarded the Army Commendation Medal. His unit, C Troop, 1-89 Calvary, Fort Drum, reported him missing just hours after losing contact.
Members of the Fort Drum community, and Cpl. Harris’ family, are mourning his death.
“We are devastated,” said Brigadier Gen. Brett T. Funck, acting senior commander for Fort Drum and the 10th Mountain Division. “It was well known here that Cpl. Harris was a great soldier, and as we share our grief with his friends and family, I hear again and again how he was also, and most importantly, a really wonderful, caring person.”
Cpl. Harris, who is from Guys, Tenn., joined the Army in March 2019. After training at Fort Benning, Ga., he arrived at Fort Drum in July 2019.
His awards and decorations include two Army Achievement Medals, the National Defense Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and the Army Service Ribbon. He graduated Air Assault School in 2019.
“Corporal Harris had excellent teammates in the 1-89 Cavalry Regiment. I am proud of their quick action and hope that they can find some comfort in knowing they ultimately helped law enforcement officers locate Corporal Harris and greatly empowered the investigation into his disappearance,” Brig. Gen. Funck said.
“Our community is far-flung but close-knit. And in very tough times like this, we are especially grateful for the incredible relationships we have with our families, our friends, our community, and our partners,” he added.
Cpl. Harris is survived by his mother, father and sister.
Several police agencies in multiple states assisted with the investigation.
The Army CID is working with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, the Sussex County Prosecutors Office and the Byram Township Police Department in New Jersey on this case.