Mitch Harrison lost his friends and his home; 3 months later he’s trying to move on

By : Steve Blanchard
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Mitch Harrison gave himself a very special and very specific gift the day after Christmas. He watched as a bulldozer pushed down the remains of his Kenwood home, closing a painful chapter in his life as he embarks into 2013.

The demolition was nearly three months to the day that Harrison’s friends, Bruce Johnson and Arthur Regula, were murdered in the bungalow. St. Petersburg police say Michael Norris, a felon with an extensive criminal record, escaped a work-release program and shot the two men before setting the home on fire that sunny, Sunday afternoon.

“Seeing the house get bulldozed was emotional,” Harrison told Watermark in his first interview since the fire. “But it’s over and done. Walking into that house (afterward) never bothered me, but I and my neighbors have had to look at it. They could see it. Smell it. So it going down was another step of healing for them and for me.”

Johnson, 51, was Harrison’s best friend and was temporarily living in the bungalow while he helped renovate the kitchen. The two men were not romantically involved, but grew close ever since they met during happy hour at Georgie’s Alibi more than two years ago.

“We spotted each other and thought, ‘Hmmm…,'” recalled Harrison, who is currently renting a house a block away from his former home. “Then we thought, ‘Nah, we’re better off as friends.’ He was an amazing guy to me. He was one of those people who always did everything for everybody. He moved into my house because he was redoing his own home. I told him to stay with me during the renovation and he helped me redo my kitchen. Interior decorating was his forte.”

“He was living there and helping me while I helped him. That’s what friends do.”

Harrison didn’t know Regula as well, but had grown to like the 36-year-old, who he last saw tiling the laundry room before leaving for lunch with his then-boyfriend that day.

“One of the last visuals I have of him is him sitting on the floor with his legs crossed, smiling while Bruce and I hung blinds and cut up,” Harrison said. “He said, ‘I love working with gay people.'”

Two hours later, Harrison received phone calls from his neighbors, telling him that his home was on fire.

“I hurried back to the house, calling and texting Arthur’s and Bruce’s phones,” Harrison said. “I was asking, ‘Where are you?’ and ‘What’s going on?’ They never answered. I still have those texts.”

Totally Random
The random act of violence that ended two lives and affected countless others in the quiet, historic neighborhood in St. Petersburg was unpredictable and falls into the realm of chance. However, Harrison is left wondering why his life was spared while his friends’ were not.

“I’ve had meltdowns as I’ve wondered, ‘Why not me?'” an emotional Harrison said. “Why Bruce? Why Arthur? I’ve wondered over and over. I could have been there. There are so many scenarios as to how this could have played out.”

St. Petersburg Police investigators say the crime was random, and that Norris did not target the home. The murder and arson was not a hate crime and there is no evidence that Norris’ actions were motivated by homophobia.

“I hated when people asked me if I thought it was a hate crime,” Harrison said. “That frustrates me. My sexuality had nothing to do with it.”

And the tragedy is not about him, Harrison said. It’s about Johnson and Regula, who lost their lives in a senseless act of violence. Harrison is still frustrated with the whole chain of events and wants to know why Norris chose his home as a target that day.

“I’ve wondered, ‘Why me?,” Harrison said. “Why am I going through this and who’s supposed to learn a lesson, if there is a lesson?”
That’s partly why Harrison reached out to Watermark to share his story.

“Could the reason for (the tragedy) be this story?” he wondered. “Or maybe a random person walking down the street and asking me about the house? I believe God has a reason for everything and that there’s a meaning behind this.”

Harrison just doesn’t yet know what that reason may be.

Finding his F-Cube
Harrison grew up in a religious, Catholic home, and admits that the recent tragedy has tested his faith. However, he hasn’t lost it.

“I’ve started leaning on my F-Cube: Faith, Family and Friends,” Harrison said. “Those three things get you through anything.

This is by far the most tragic event of Harrison’s life, but he’s faced hardships before. He has battled cancer and survived open-heart surgery. He’s convinced God is there to take care of him.

“I’m just moving forward,” he said. “I haven’t been in St. Pete for three years, and people are asking if I’m okay. On Facebook that week I had people from my hometown (of Tuscaloosa, Ala.,) reaching out, saying things like ‘We’re not sure what’s going on but our prayers and thoughts are with you.'”

Those messages, he said, helped him during his darkest hours.

“I would look back and re-read those posts,” he said. “When you see someone else reaching out, it keeps you going.”

Even three months later, members of the LGBT community, his neighbors and his Facebook connections continue to keep tabs on him. Even when someone says that they don’t know what to say, Harrison encourages them to interact.

“I tell them to just say, “How are you?” or “Are you okay?'” he said. “I’m not a person who reaches out but I’m learning that I have to let other people help me.”

Moving forward
Since the murders, Harrison said he is more aware of his surroundings than ever before and makes sure that doors are locked whenever he’s home.

“I’m hypersensitive to my surroundings,” he said. “The alarm is set at all times, I hear every noise and I always lock the door behind me.”

He said he’s not scared, but he wants to feel safe, and he plans to feel safe when he rebuilds later this year.

Plans are already underway to rebuild on the now-vacant lot, and the new home will be equipped with state-of-the-art locks and a security system. Once it’s built, Harrison will go through the 32 boxes of knick-knacks and personal items salvaged after the fire. He’s hopeful that he’ll have a housewarming party sometime this summer.

“I’m having to start my life over a little bit,” Harrison said. “The new home has a similar floor plan because it’s a plan that just works.”

It will take awhile to make the new house feel like home again, but Harrison is confident that he’s making the right decision to remain in St. Petersburg and to rebuild his home on the same lot where he lost two friends to tragedy.

“I can’t run from it. This is a great neighborhood and this has become my home,” Harrison said. “I’m ready for the next step. The house is gone and I don’t have to look at it now. I can focus on putting my home back together.”

The new house will look similar to the old one lost in the fire, but will have the addition of a wrap-around porch, a feature to which Harrison is especially looking forward.

“When I move in I’ll have a porch party,” he said. “It’ll be a chance to not only celebrate the new house, but to celebrate the lives of Bruce and Arthur.”

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