Celebrity cheerleader Jerry Harris has been arrested by the FBI and charged with producing child pornography, the U.S. attorney's office said Thursday. According to federal court records, Harris admitted to agents that he solicited and received explicit messages on Snapchat from at least 10 to 15 individuals he knew were minors, had sex with a 15-year-old at a cheerleading competition in 2019 and paid a 17-year-old money in exchange for nude photos.
Harris, who experienced a meteoric rise to fame this year when he was featured in Netflix’s “Cheer” docuseries, has been under investigation by the FBI for soliciting photos and sex from minors.
USA TODAY reported Monday that the initial criminal investigation was based on allegations brought by 14-year-old twin brothers. In interviews with USA TODAY, the boys described a pattern of harassment, both online and at cheer competitions, that started when they were 13 and Harris was 19. They said it continued for more than a year. On Monday the FBI executed a search warrant at Harris' Naperville, Illinois, home. Since then, agents have interviewed other minors about their interactions with Harris, court records show.
Harris, 21, could not immediately be reached for comment. His arrest was first reported by the Chicago Tribune.
Harris appeared Thursday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge M. David Weisman. USA TODAY listened to the hearing via telephone and other than the judge, the speakers were mostly inaudible.
The judge advised Harris of his rights, including the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. The judge asked Harris some basic questions about how far he had gone in school, whether he was under a doctor’s care or on drugs, and whether he understood what was happening. Harris’ answers were mostly inaudible, though when asked if he was taking drugs he clearly said, “No.”
Harris did not enter a plea.
Harris is represented by defense attorney Todd S. Pugh. Efforts to reach Pugh were not immediately successful.
Prosecutor Christopher Parente described Harris as a danger to the community and asked the judge to keep him in detention. The judge said Harris will remain detained until a hearing at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, at which time the court would determine if Harris could be released on bond or under some other condition.
Parente explained in an interview that the government asked to detain Harris because he's been charged with "a crime of violence and there’s a presumption of detention as a danger to the community.”
Kristen, the mother of 14-year-old brothers Charlie and Sam, told USA TODAY she filed reports with Fort Worth, Texas, police on July 10 and the FBI on Aug. 8. USA TODAY agreed to withhold the family’s last name because the boys are minors and alleging abuse.
The family provided USA TODAY with screenshots from five text and social media conversations between the boys and accounts they say belong to Harris. Several of the screenshots include messages explicitly requesting nude photos or sex. In one conversation on Snapchat, an account with the name “.jerry harris” responded to a photo of Charlie stretching his leg above his head.
“Do it naked and take a video and show me,” Harris replied privately, according to a screenshot provided to USA TODAY.
Harris is also accused of asking one of the brothers to have sex with him in 2019 at two cheerleading competitions. Charlie said he declined both times.
Varsity, which runs those competitions, on Aug. 1 also reported the allegations to police in Florida and Texas, according to letters obtained by USA TODAY. In the letters, Varsity’s Chief Legal Officer Burton Brillhart said the company had learned of “inappropriate sexual conduct” allegations against Harris and had banned him “from having any affiliation with Varsity Brands or any of its subsidiaries or affiliates, now and in the future.”
Kristen and the boys on Monday filed a lawsuit against Harris, Varsity, the U.S. All Star Federation and the Cheer Athletics gym at which Harris has cheered. In it, the family accuses Harris of sexual misconduct and the cheer organizations of negligence and failures to protect the boys from abuse. The lawsuit also claims Harris sexually exploited others in the cheer community.
"We are grateful that the U.S. Attorney and the FBI have taken swift action to protect children by investigating, arresting and charging Jerry Harris," attorney Sarah Klein, who represents the family, said in a statement. "This was made possible because our clients’ mother had the courage to report Harris to the FBI as well as the Fort Worth Police Department and provided evidentiary proof of the manipulation, sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation that her sons had suffered."
Harris, who grew up in Illinois and has cheered since he was a child, gained national prominence in January through “Cheer,” the docuseries that follows Texas’ Navarro College cheerleaders in their quest for a national title. Viewers were drawn to his lively personality and ability to remain positive despite personal challenges, including the loss of his mother to cancer.
In the months that followed, Harris met Oprah Winfrey, interviewed celebrities on the red carpet of the Oscars and filmed a short video with former Vice President Joe Biden. Harris’ Instagram page has 1.2 million followers.
If convicted, Harris faces 15 to 30 years in federal prison. The U.S. attorney's office encouraged others who may be "a victim of sexual exploitation by Jeremiah Harris" to contact the FBI at (312) 421-6700.
Tricia L. Nadolny and Marisa Kwiatkowski are reporters on USA TODAY’s national investigative team. Tricia can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or @TriciaNadolny. Marisa can be reached at email@example.com, @IndyMarisaK or by phone, Signal or WhatsApp at (317) 207-2855.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jerry Harris from ‘Cheer’ charged with producing child pornography