Lenny Harris was last seen at a place that was close to his heart, the Charles Houston Recreation Center. This was where he helped mentor generations of children and conducted community meetings and spent time with old friends. But Wednesday, Sept. 21, was different. It was the day the civic activist seemed to vanish in thin air. He was reported missing that day, and news spread quickly through the community.
"I just lost it when I found out he was missing," said Rhonda Taylor, who attended Robert E. Lee Elementary School with Harris in the mid-1960s. "It’s surreal. I still don’t know what to think."
On Thursday, Harris didn’t show up for an event at the Alexandria jail, where he was supposed to be part of an inspirational program to inspire inmates. His wallet was later found on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. By Friday, the Alexandria Police Department was looking for help from the public to track down his whereabouts — issuing a release saying he was last seen driving a 1994 light blue Toyota Corolla bearing a Virginia license plate XKG-8385. On Monday, police issued security camera footage showing a man police describe as a "person of interest" using Harris’ credit card at 1 a.m. Sept. 22.
"I keep hoping that this is a nightmare that will pass," said Mayor Bill Euille. "But every day that goes by without seeing him increases the worry."
LENWOOD "LENNY" HARRIS, 53, is a lifelong Alexandria resident who is well known in the city, where he has devoted his life to organizing members of the African-American community and public-housing residents. He’s best known for founding a nonprofit known as Operation H.O.P.E., although he’s also been part of countless other charitable organizations and causes. He also owned a pest-control service known as U Can Trust Pest and Termite Service. Several years ago, he founded the One Love Festival. Over the summer, he organized public-housing residents who were upset about concerns raised by residents in north Old Town.
"When he saw me on the street he would tell me to go home or he would call my mother," said Wayne Boggan, a longtime friend. "I’ve always thought of Lenny Harris as the backbone of Alexandria."
Hundreds of family, friends and supporters turned out for a candlelight vigil Sunday night. The mood was somber as the crowd started gathering at Charles Houston Recreation Center to remember their friend before marching to the field next to George Washington Middle School. Forming a giant circle in the field, about 400 people held hands and prayed for the safe return of Harris.
"Many folk didn’t think they could speak up or speak out," said the Rev. Earl Lee, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church. "But they knew that they would talk to Lenny and that he would speak up and speak out for them."
FRIENDS WERE DOWNCAST yet hopeful that Harris would return. Many said that rumors have been circulating like wildfire since his disappearance, offering a dizzying array of possibilities for what may have happened to him. Considering that his wallet was found on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, some have speculated that he may have ended up in the river. When asked about what efforts — if any — are being made to look in the river, the Alexandria Police Department declined several requests for a comment.
"Our detectives are conducting a thorough and extensive investigation to locate Mr. Harris," said police spokeswoman Ashley Hildebrandt.
For now, friends and family can only hold out hope that Harris will return to Alexandria.
"I feel like a part of my life is missing," said former Vice Mayor Bill Cleveland during Sunday’s candlelight vigil. "My hope and prayer is that we will see him again."