Sheriff: Union County teacher, coach killed in shootout with Mexican drug cartel

ALAMANCE COUNTY, N.C. — A popular Union County teacher and coach was killed in a shootout last week with a Mexican drug cartel, according to the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office.

Barney Harris was the basketball coach at Union Academy in Monroe where he was well-loved and respected, but Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson said there was another side to Harris that most people didn’t see -- one that was involved in the dangerous and deadly drug world.

Channel 9 learned Harris and his brother-in-law, Steven Alexander Stewart, went to a mobile home park on Wyatt Road in Green Level, North Carolina in the early morning hours of April 8 to steal money and drugs from the Sinaloa Cartel’s stash house.

Johnson said the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office was flooded with calls just after 12:50 a.m. in reference to reports of gunshots being heard at the mobile home park.

When they got there, deputies said they found Harris in a bedroom with several gunshot wounds. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Investigators said 18-year-old Alonso Beltran Lara, who was a member of the cartel, was also found with gunshot wounds. Deputies said his feet were bound and his arms were tied behind his back. He was taken to a hospital where he later died.

Detectives said Harris and Stewart broke into a trailer and Lara showed up while they were inside. Deputies said the men questioned Lara about the stash and when he didn’t give them the answers they wanted, they shot him in the head.

“And they were trying to find the money and drugs and apparently he didn’t give them the information to do that and he was technically close range, two bullets to the back of the head, he was executed,” Johnson said.

Johnson said after the pair killed Lara, other members of the cartel showed up and Harris was killed in the gun fight that followed.

According to Johnson, dozens of bullet casings were found at the scene. Some pierced through other trailers in the community, but no other injuries were reported.

“The trailers that were shot up, it looked like an old Western shootout, that’s what it looked like,” Johnson said.

The sheriff said Harris was wearing a bulletproof vest but that it was no match for the high-caliber firepower of the cartel’s guns.

“Mr. Harris, he had a bulletproof vest on, but it did not work with the kind of ammunition that was used,” Johnson said. “He had gloves on, and he, they went there to do what was done except they did not think it was going to backfire on them.”

Detectives believe Harris and Stewart had been using electronic trackers to follow members of the cartel before the shootout.

Johnson said Stewart, who is from Wadesboro, survived the shooting and was arrested on Sunday. He has been charged with first-degree burglary, first-degree murder and possession of a firearm by a felon.

Harris was hired by Union Academy Charter School in July 2017 as a high school Spanish teacher and served as the head coach for the varsity men’s basketball team and varsity men’s track team.

“It’s just hard to understand,” Johnson said. “The fact that someone like Mr. Harris, who apparently had a pretty good life as a teacher and a coach, wound up in this type of crime.”

Johnson said he is concerned that the shootout could lead to a drug war with the cartel seeking revenge against Harris’ loved ones.

“I’ll tell you right now, as sheriff, I’m still worried about some retaliation because Mexican cartels -- they don’t forget. They’re going to pay someone back somewhere,” he said.

Deputies said they found about two pounds of cocaine in the trailer along with $7,000.

Juan Daniel Salinas Lara is wanted in reference to this crime and has active warrants for trafficking cocaine.

Anyone with any information is asked to call the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office at 336-570-6300 to speak with a member of the Criminal Investigation Division or report anonymously by calling Alamance County Crime Stoppers at 336-229-7100.

Cartels moving more drugs through the Carolinas

Channel 9′s Allison Latos has gotten exclusive access to Drug Enforcement Administration and Homeland Security cases that link major crimes in our area to Mexico.

Agents told Allison that the same highways we all use to commute or travel are how cartels bring their drugs into our community.

The DEA called Atlanta the cartel’s hub, connecting to secondary hubs in Charlotte, Raleigh and then the coast.

Alamance County, where the shootout happened, is where Interstate 85 and Interstate 40 combine, increasing that drug traffic.

Since Feb. 19, the county has seized 129 kilos of cocaine and $2 million.

DEA reports to Congress say the Sinaloa Cartel is the largest, most powerful drug operation in the western hemisphere.

For three decades, the DEA says it was run by notorious drug kingpin, Joaquín Guzmán -- also known as El Chapo. Before being sent to a super-max prison, Forbes named Guzman one of the most powerful people in the world.

“He was such a good person from what I saw”

Harris was around children every day as a teacher and coach at Union Academy. He was well-known and respected, so the details behind his death have come as a shock to the community.

Channel 9′s Susanna Black spoke with parents and students about how they’re handling the news. One mom said the details seem unreal.

“He was such a good person from what I saw -- he was a good teacher,” she said.

She said he was a mainstay at her child’s school.

“We feel sad because every morning we saw him when I arrived and dropped off my children,” she said.

The family said most of all, they’re thinking of the people most affected by his death.

“We feel sad for his family,” she said.

Union Academy sent Channel 9 a statement that read, in part: “The Union Academy family was shocked and devastated to hear the information and will continue to focus on supporting our students and families.”