RALEIGH — The woman accused of killing her 2-year-old son in a Raleigh motel room Wednesday was involved in a custody dispute with the boy’s father in Florida, according to the father.
The day before police found Joshua Callahan dead and his mother injured at the Super 8 Motel on New Bern Avenue, his father, Mark Callahan, says he received a copy of a court affidavit ordering the child’s mother to return to Florida for a custody hearing.
Raleigh investigators say Michelle Danielle Harpster killed her son and then tried to end her own life in a third-floor motel room. After emergency workers rushed Harpster, 29, to a hospital, police charged her with murder.
Callahan said he does not know if Harpster knew of the court order.
Stephanie Paredes, who works at the front desk of the motel, said Harpster used a razor to slash both her arms from the shoulders to the wrists and both her legs from the hips to the knees. Police have not said how the boy was killed.
Harpster remained at a hospital Thursday for treatment of her injuries. Police will transport her to the Wake County jail when her condition improves, said Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue.
Harpster had been staying at the motel for about three months, Paredes said.
“She would stay a week, check out and then check back in the next day,” Paredes said. “She would stay two weeks, check out, then come back. She was in and out.”
Paredes described Harpster as a slim woman, who stood about 5 feet 7 inches, with long brown hair. She described Joshua as a “beautiful” and “sweet child” with curly, dark hair.
Harpster did not drive a car.
“It was just her, the baby and three suitcases,” said Paredes, who added that Harpster had a Florida driver’s license.
Mark Callahan of North Port, Fla., said he met Harpster in late 2008 at a library in Venice, Fla. He struck up a conversation with her, and the two soon started a romantic relationship. By early 2009 Harpster was pregnant. Callahan said the relationship soured, and Harpster left Florida a month before she gave birth to her son in Harford County, Md.
Callahan said Harpster returned to Florida when Joshua was about 3 months old. The two were no longer a couple, and Harpster split time living with her mother and a friend of her mother.
“We weren’t together as a couple, but I was seeing my son,” Callahan said. “I saw him between 10 and 15 times. Michelle would never allow me to have Joshua by myself. It was always with her around.”
In October 2010, Callahan said Harpster vanished without notice. Two months later, Callahan filed a motion for child custody and visitation with a court in Sarasota County, Fla. Callahan said a judge denied his motion after Harpster told the court that she was not able to attend a hearing because she was living in North Carolina and that he was not providing for his son. The judge ruled that North Carolina had jurisdiction in the case.
Callahan said Harpster was receiving public assistance while living in Florida.
“I bought diapers and baby formula,” he said. “She applied for child support, but she never showed up for court.”
More than a year passed before Callahan filed an appeal asking the court to reconsider its position about visitation and custody of his son. He says he filed the appeal in the summer of 2011 and that a year passed before the Second District Court of Appeals in Florida reversed the Sarasota County District Court judge’s decision. In late July, Callahan said he filed another motion in district court asking for custody.
On Tuesday, Callahan said he received a court order in the mail that established Florida as “the proper jurisdiction and most convenient forum” to settle the matter of visitation and custody.
Police were dispatched Wednesday at about 1:45 p.m. to Room 323 of the Super 8 Motel.
According to a 911 recording made public Thursday, Harpster had locked herself in the motel room and would not come out.
“A housekeeper knocked on the door at the 11 o’clock checkout and she said, ‘Give me until 12,’ ” Paredes said.
The housekeeper returned at noon. Harpster did not answer the door. “The door is locked from the inside, and we can’t open the door,” a caller told the 911 dispatcher. “We waited and waited, and they don’t open it.”
News researcher Peggy Neal contributed to this report.