Sarah Harris “went from a radiant beauty queen to an emaciated skeleton in less than six months,” Assistant State’s Attorney Jennifer Harrison said in her opening statement in the murder trial of Dr. James Ryan.
Harris, 25, died Jan. 25, 2022 of a drug overdose. The trial began Wednesday in Rockville for Ryan, 50, her longtime boyfriend who is charged with depraved heart second-degree murder and other lesser charges, which carry a total penalty of up to 65 years in prison, according to court documents.
According to Justia, one of the largest online databases of legal cases, a depraved heart murder, “also known as ‘reckless indifference’ murder, involves a level of extreme recklessness or indifference to human life that leads to death. It typically involves actions that create a high risk of death, even if the perpetrator did not intend to kill anyone.”
Harrison’s opening painted a picture of a dangerous man who over many months supplied his promising but unstable girlfriend with Ketamine, Propofol and Midazolam — drugs typically administered before surgery — as her health steadily degraded. But defense attorney Thomas DeGonia described a “flawed individual” who fell in love—taking Harris on trips and buying her a car—and did not have “murder in his heart.”
At the time of her death, Harrison said, Sarah Harris’ 5’3” frame weighed just 83 pounds. Her death was seen as an unfortunate tragedy until Rachel Harris, Sarah’s sister, discovered text messages between the couple that detailed how Ryan would procure drugs for her, Harrison said.
Sarah Harris met Ryan, a dentist and oral surgeon at Evolution Oral Surgery in Clarksburg when he performed her wisdom teeth surgery in fall 2020, Harrison said. She then became his employee when he offered her a job at his practice as a surgical assistant.
They started dating in January 2021, and Sarah Harris started confiding in Ryan about her mental health struggles, Harrison said.
He offered an IV injection to make her anxiety go away, and the injections were sporadic at first, but Harris eventually became dependent, Harrison said.
“She trusted him. He was a doctor. He was supposed to keep her safe,” Harrison said.
The victim’s mother, Tina Harris, was the first witness called by the state. Her tearful testimony lasted throughout most of the day.
Tina Harris detailed the harrowing story of her daughter becoming addicted to anesthetic and medical-grade drugs, including Ketamine and Propofol, and eventually dying of an overdose.
“Sarah was a bright star,” Tina Harris said. “She could achieve anything.”
She said that her daughter loved to paint and draw, spoke several languages, was an A-student in school, was passionate about graphic design and loved competing in beauty pageants.
Tina Harris said that her daughter typically weighed a healthy 110 to 120 pounds.
Then she met Ryan.
Throughout the next year, Tina Harris said she repeatedly found her daughter in a disoriented state where she was slurring her words, exhausted and not eating — and had multiple needle marks and bruises on her arms from being injected with IVs.
“What I saw was very, very alarming,” Tina Harris said.
Tina Harris also recalled visiting the couple’s home on Godwit Street in Clarksburg many times, finding vials of medicine, an IV pole, equipment to administer an IV, needles, syringes, tourniquets and blood everywhere.
“I saw hundreds of medical bottles,” she said. “I saw blood prints of feet on the ground.”
At one point, she took her daughter to her Gaithersburg home for a week before she returned to Ryan’s apartment.
Harrison brought up the text message exchanges between the couple, discovered on Sarah Harris’ laptop.
These text messages included Sarah Harris writing to Ryan, asking “Can you get more versed and ketamine?” and him replying in the affirmative, and her telling him “I feel like I’m floating,” when he asked how the drugs made her feel, and he said that was a good thing, Harrison said.
On one occasion, Ryan administered ketamine to Harris while she was asleep, Harrison said.
Then Christopher Harris, Tina’s son and Sarah’s brother, died of a heart attack on Jan. 8, 2022.
Tina said that Sarah was looking after her, being concerned for her mother and seemed more like herself.
Jan. 25 was the last day that Tina saw Sarah, she said. They had just picked out a burial plot for Christopher, and Sarah hugged her mom goodbye after leaving the cemetery.
Tina said she woke up on Jan. 26 to Rachel screaming in the other room.
Ryan was on the phone with Rachel, saying: “She’s gone.”
Over FaceTime, he showed Rachel and Tina that Sarah was on the floor dead, Tina recalled.
Tina went to the home where she found her daughter’s body.
“She was my baby,” Tina Harris said.
DeGonia is defending Ryan along with co-counsel Aindrea Conroy, both from the law firm Ethridge, Quinn, Kemp, Rowan & Hartinger.
DeGonia began his opening statement with an audio recording of the seven-minute 911 call Ryan made when Sarah Harris died.
The jury could hear Ryan crying hysterically, telling the operator that he had already tried to perform CPR, but that Harris was still unconscious.
“1, 2, 3, 4,” the operator repeated, counting Ryan through more rounds of CPR.
Ryan then let the emergency personnel into his apartment.
DeGonia said that Ryan is a flawed individual who fell in love.
“Two flawed individuals’ lives became entangled,” DeGonia said.
He said that this was not a healthy relationship, and Ryan’s dental practice declined.
DeGonia said that Ryan would take Harris on trips, like one to the Bahamas, and he bought her a car. He argued that Ryan was not controlling and did not force drugs onto her because that is not who he is.
“This case is about his heart,” DeGonia said. “You know that there was not murder in his heart.”
DeGonia said that Harris experienced bipolar disorder, a diagnosis she received after she began dating Ryan.
He said that Harris started seeing a psychiatrist that Ryan recommended, arguing that Harris was struggling with her mental health.
DeGonia asked Tina Harris why she didn’t report what was going on with her daughter earlier.
Tina Harris said she did not want other innocent people to be hurt, mentioning employees at his practice and Ryan’s children.
“I didn’t want to ruin lives, and I regret that,” she said.
The first day of the trial ended with testimony from Cory Budziszewski, a firefighter and paramedic for the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service.
He responded to the 911 call on Jan. 26 and was shocked to find vials of medicine and equipment in the apartment typically found in a hospital.
“It was different from any scene I’ve ever walked into,” Budziszewski said.
Circuit Court Judge Cheryl A. McAlly is presiding over the case. This trial is scheduled to last until Aug. 29.