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Six Weeks Later: Awaiting UNC Student’s Official Cause Of Death

By Ran Northam Posted July 31, 2014 at 6:58 pm

Six weeks after a 21-year-old UNC student died of what appears to be cardiac arrest, there still aren’t any official answers from the North Carolina medical examiner.

John Pharr (courtesy of RegencyCenters.com)

John Pharr (Courtesy of RegencyCenters.com)

“The medical examiner reached out to us within 24 hours of his death and was very gracious,” says John Pharr, the father of Harris Granger Pharr. He was speaking with WCHL Thursday from Prague on a trip to Amsterdam. “He said, ‘it is unusual; we do do a pretty thorough investigation and certainly when the decedent is of the age of what Harris was’. He estimated the time of death and said, ‘in my professional opinion, he certainly died of cardiac arrest, and the cause of that I have no idea’. He said, ‘I do not suspect foul play and examined the body extensively for signs of drug abuse etc’, and he said, ‘I found none’. So, we’re not pressing for answers.”

John is the Senior Vice President and Senior Market Officer for Raleigh’s Regency Centers, a commercial property developer, owner, and operator.

Harris Granger Pharr (Courtesy of Facebook)

Harris Granger Pharr (Courtesy of Facebook)

Harris, a rising senior biomedical engineering major and member of the Alpha Chapter of the Chi Phi fraternity, died in his bed at around five or six in the morning of June 19 at his college residence at 500 Pittsboro Street. The residence is across the street from the UNC School of Public Health, where Pittsboro Street and Manning Drive split, and John says it was a house that held close to ten students.

Harris’ father described him as a “pretty intense guy” when it came to academics. He says he would often find him up late studying when he was at home in Raleigh, sometimes until three or four in the morning.

He says he believes one contributing factor to his death may have been the activity he took upon himself to accomplish the night before.

“One of the upstairs rooms had become available, and he wanted to move his whole setup into that room,” Pharr says. “That was about 6:00 at night. I understand he accomplished that all himself without any help, which would have been physically stressful.”

However, he says it’s hard to believe that alone would force a 21-year-old into a cardiac arrest.

The News and Observer published a story on May 24 that shared legislators’ concerns about the state medical examiner’s system inadequacies. That story came after the N&O investigated “thousands of faulty investigations into suspicious deaths”.

Part of the story stated, “An Observer investigation…found that medical examiners rarely go to death scenes and sometimes don’t look at bodies in cases they handle. The state requires no training and seldom disciplines examiners who break the rules. The state also conducts fewer autopsies than leading systems, which experts say makes it harder to determine the correct causes of death.”

In multiple emails to WCHL Thursday, the ME’s office said the time it takes to complete a case can vary, and that the level of testing required could extend it. John says he was told it could take up to 90 days to get an official result. The ME’s office said it couldn’t release any information until the case was complete.

John adds that not everyone is being as patient as he is.

“He had life insurance,” Pharr says. “The life insurance company I do know contacted the medical examiner. They’re trying to get the medical examiner to make a statement of fact that his death was not as a result of foul play. If somebody was responsible, then they go after that person with regards to the pursuit of an insurance claim.”

The Chapel Hill Police Department ruled in its investigation that foul play was not suspected.

Harris’ body was cremated, and family and friends held a funeral at the First Presbyterian Church in Raleigh on June 25.

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