Excerpts from Steven Long's new book, Out of Control, on the Clara Harris murder case (St. Martin's Press, $6.99)
Lindsey Harris and her father were at home alone when Clara Harris arrived that night. David was playing the new $90,000 grand piano that had been installed in the music room. Their Friendswood mansion boasted two other pianos, a set of drums and David's gym.
Lindsey loved to hear him play, and her father's love for music had been passed on to her as well. She was an above-average violinist, good to the point that her music competed with her duties as a high school cheerleader back home in Columbus, Ohio, where she lived with her mom, Deborah Shank, and stepdad, Jim.
She was four years old when her parents divorced. Now, at 16, she had made Clara a large part of her life for ten years. She watched her father and his wife grow in their relationship.
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"They loved each other," she remembered. "They told each other that they loved each other all the time. They got along very well."
His daughter was to be part of a dream come true for the family. David, an orthodontist, and Clara, a Colombian-born dentist, had been establishing a dental empire in their corner of the world. Owners of a handful of dental offices, the two were now building what they envisioned as a one-stop dental supermarket on Clear Lake City Boulevard, the gateway to the prosperous community minutes southeast of downtown Houston. It would house not only David's orthodontic practice but dental hygiene facilities, general dentists and other peripheral specialties. David had even planned an office for Lindsey if she chose to become a dentist.
But when Lindsey arrived at the family mansion in late June for her summer stay, she noticed new friction. David had told Lindsey recently that he wasn't getting any attention at all from his wife. Before, Lindsey had felt that she was a part of the family. Now, Clara's life constantly revolved around the couple's own children, Lindsey's twin half-brothers.
On that night of July 16, 2002, the music ended when Clara came home. David followed her upstairs. His daughter heard them talking but didn't think much about it.
By the next morning, their words had become louder. Clara was confronting him about what she'd just learned: He was having an affair with Gail Bridges, a worker at one of their clinics.
"Do you love her?" Clara asked, dying inside.
"I don't know," David answered, less than honestly.
"I started to shake," Clara remembered. "I cried, and he tried to hold me. I didn't want him to touch me."
David grabbed Clara's arms and told her, "I'll do anything not to get a divorce."
Clara went downstairs where Lindsey was making breakfast. "I already know," she told her stepmother. "Everybody in the office knows."
"I felt really bad for her," Lindsey remembered.
Clara ran upstairs and slapped her husband on the face.
David grabbed her arm with the strength of an athlete and threw her down. Lindsey heard the fighting and dashed up to their room.
"What are you doing to her, Dad? She just found out. What are you doing?"
David Harris sneered at his wife and daughter. "You two are perfect," he said. "I am leaving. You will never see me again."
In a week that would be true, in ways none of them imagined at the time. What began as a domestic rift behind closed doors would rip into national headlines. And at the core of it would be a naive teenager witnessing a sudden, violent death.
When Lindsey arrived at the dental office in June, she met Gail Bridges and liked her instantly.
"I thought she was really nice and really pretty," she recalled about her father's receptionist. "She was petite and bubbly. Her hair was perfectly in place, and her nails were done."
Lindsey's first recollection of anything going on between her father and Gail occurred when she "saw him put his hand on her leg," she said. "At the time I didn't think anything of it." As she saw David and the woman more each day, she realized that the relationship between them went beyond the way a professional treats an employee.
In the close quarters of the dental office, David's daughter took everything in. One day, when David dropped a patient file, she saw Gail bend over to pick it up, not at the knees, but at the waist. Moreover, when she bent over, her bottom was turned provocatively to face David, who was sitting close by.
Lindsey confronted her father. His attitude about the affair made her even more confused and frustrated. "He told me that I don't understand because I don't live there," she remembered.
When David was reluctant to follow through with a promise to Clara to fire Gail, Clara herself did it.
On July 23, Lindsey spent the day with her stepmother, eventually driving to the Nassau Bay Hilton at Clara's request. On a whim, Clara had asked to see a room at the hotel. David had confessed that he and Gail had stayed there.
"We went there to see where they went," Lindsey later recalled. "When we got into the room, she was calm. She said, 'Well, I guess this is where they spent their time.' "
Clara looked out the window down at Windemere, the yacht club below. It was there, on Valentine's Day, 1992, that she and David were married. Clara soon wept quietly, finally overcome by confronting the fact that her husband and the woman she had so recently fired had likely made love in a room much like the suite she and his daughter had just left.
"I told her it was wrong," Lindsey said. "But I told her I still loved him."
David had told Clara that he would meet with Gail the next night to formally end the affair.
"She was kind of nervous about it. She had doubts," Lindsey said, of Clara. "She kept doing her hair and kept going shopping. She was nervous." Lindsey assured her stepmother that everything would be okay, but Clara continued to be stressed.
There was a good reason. David also had told his wife that he missed Gail Bridges.
Clara had enlisted Blue Moon Investigations to follow her husband that evening, but the private investigator had lost the couple, which triggered more panic in Clara. She had Lindsey drive to various places: Gail's home, Perry's steak house, then Tommy's Patio Cafe, the Kemah Aquarium and other former haunts of David's during his affair. They came up empty in their search.
"We were going to forget about it and go shopping," Lindsey remembered.
Then things changed with a telephone call. At 8:30 p.m., as the two were heading to a mall, a Blue Moon investigator returned the second of Clara's calls. David and a woman were at the Hilton, he reported. "They are on the fourth or sixth floor," the private eye said. "Be patient and you will get a full report tomorrow."
Lindsey could see the change come over her stepmother, but she could do little besides humor her. Clara Harris dialed her number at home. She told the governess, Maria Gonzalez, to pack her husband's best clothes in the couple's oldest suitcase and place them outside the door in the garage, and to throw the remainder of his clothes in the trash.
"Go back to the Hilton," Clara ordered Lindsey.
The desk clerk there denied that David Harris had checked in, because he had paid cash and not bothered with the formality of signing in. Lindsey and Clara walked to a guest parking area and didn't have to look hard. In the center of a small employee lot was the black Lincoln Navigator owned by Gail Bridges.
Clara Harris exploded, running toward the car. She grabbed windshield wipers and bent them, then scratched her car keys along the side of the luxury SUV and broke off the bottom of Gail's heart-shaped bumper hitch cover. Finally, Clara took the keys to her silver Mercedes-Benz and began to scratch the word "adulterer."
To get David out of the hotel room, Lindsey and Clara decided to call his cell phone and tell him that one of the children was ill and he needed to come home. "She was calm until she saw Dad and Gail come out," Lindsey remembered. David walked toward his wife and she began hitting his face. Trained in jujitsu, he easily averted the blows. Clara then locked eyes with Gail. Like a lioness on the Serengeti, she pounced, striking Gail in the face so hard that Gail's vision blurred as she was knocked to the ground. Clara grabbed Gail's hair and pounded her head into the hotel's marble floor repeatedly.
Gail's blouse was torn off, but she only recalled screaming for help, being nearly unconscious, and finally, Clara being pulled off her and held by several men. In a feat of almost superhuman strength, the dentist knocked the men aside and again slammed Gail to the floor. Clara crawled along the floor and bit Gail's leg as she called her a bitch and yelled that she was sleeping with her husband.
During the confrontation, Lindsey screamed "I hate you!" at her father while hitting him with her purse.
After the fight was broken up, the young girl sat cross-legged and crying on the hard concrete of the sidewalk outside the front door. Lindsey had heard her father tell Clara, "It's over." Finally, her stepmother led the girl by the arm and said, "Let's go," taking the keys to the Mercedes from her.
"She backed out," Lindsey remembered. "She wasn't saying anything. I knew that she was mad because she was red in the face, and she had this evil look on her face."
As Clara gunned the engine and roared the Mercedes down the parking lot, the teenager saw a Hilton employee dodge to get out of the way. "I was hoping that we were going home," she remembered. But Clara wasn't turning the car to the parking lot exits onto NASA Road 1, or to the street paralleling the tennis courts.
"Stop, go the other way," Lindsey shouted at her stepmother.
"I'm going to hit him," Lindsey later quoted Clara as saying when she aimed the car at her husband. "She said it like that was going to happen."
"No!" screamed Lindsey.
"She stepped on the accelerator and went straight for him," the girl remembered.
Lindsey looked into the eyes of her father as the Mercedes came barreling toward him.
"He was really scared because he was trying to get away and couldn't," she said.
David's hand reached for the front of the hood, leaving his last living fingerprints there, as if by will alone he could stop the machine. "Clara had no expression on her face," Lindsey said, describing how the woman circled around and ran over him again -- some would claim as many as five times.
When the Mercedes rolled to a stop, Lindsey opened the door so that she could help her dad. But first, she said, "I went around and hit her."
Clara ran to the body of her husband lying on the ground next to a curb. Lindsey remembered bitterly what she saw next.
"She kneeled down and said, 'I'm sorry, so sorry, I am so sorry. It was an accident,' " she recalled. "She wasn't sorry, she had killed him!" Lindsey said. After crying uncontrollably, Lindsey recognized another woman coming out of the Hilton.
"Gail, Gail," she called out to her father's paramour. Gail hid her head, frightened that she would be hit again.
"Gail, I'm not going to hurt you," the young girl said. "She killed my dad. Clara killed my dad."
The two erupted, their emotions overcoming them, filling them with their newfound grief for the man they loved.
Later that night, the Harris mansion filled with people stunned by the sudden death of David Harris broadcast on the ten o'clock news.
"They were sad, but they didn't act like Clara had done what she did," Lindsey said, convulsing with grief. "I knew that she was killing him. I knew that he wasn't going to be okay It was a terrible way for a person to go."
Anger filled her as she thought of what she had witnessed when the car had stopped: Clara "got out and she went over to him and called him 'baby' as if nothing had happened."
Lindsey wanted to be alone, but before going upstairs to the room that had been specially built for her, she went back to the garage. She lifted the old suitcase -- the one set out earlier with her father's clothes -- and carried it up the stairs of the mansion.
"I felt he was there with me," she said.
The effect of what Lindsey Harris witnessed was profound. When the 16-year-old returned to Ohio, she was not the same girl who had loved to play the violin. She was no longer interested in such silly and trivial school activities as cheerleading. And Lindsey Harris gave up the dream of joining her father in the practice of orthodontics.
Lindsey Harris had matured into a beautiful yet troubled young woman; her almond-shaped face, surrounded by her long, straight dark hair, expressed her sadness. She had grown up overnight in the Hilton parking lot.
Lindsey's loss of interest in music and cheerleading compounded another loss. Now, her school grades plummeted.
Lindsey Harris chose not to simply live through the next months. She decided instead to slice her wrists, thinking two suicide attempts were an agreeable option to living with her memories.
Meanwhile, her mother, Debra Shank, filed a lawsuit in Galveston federal court on Lindsey's behalf. Defendants included Clara Harris, her half-brothers, several companies controlled by the dentistry couple, and finally, the estate of David L. Harris, deceased.
Shank was suing to protect the interests of Lindsey and her two half-brothers (Clara and David's twins) in their father's estate. The suit aimed to prevent the children's inheritance from being gobbled up by legal bills generated by Clara Harris's defense against the charge of murder.
David had named Clara as his sole heir. Under Texas law, she could not benefit financially from killing her husband. Upon conviction, she would lose everything, and all of the property would go to Lindsey and her half-brothers.
Shank contended that Clara was already attempting to squander cash that rightfully belonged to the children. What she had been doing was paying for the services of one of Houston's more colorful criminal defense attorneys, George Parnham. His image as a gentle, professorial everyman had been invaluable in his defense of Andrea Yates for drowning her five children.
In the case of Clara Harris, her stepdaughter would be the worst nightmare for the defense. What she said on the stand could put Clara in prison for life, and this was one witness Parnham couldn't risk destroying upon cross-examination, for fear of angering the jury. Lindsey was likable. She was credible, and she was the eyewitness who could, with certainty, come closest to describing Clara Harris's actions and motive.
Throughout the case, Parnham had attempted to speak with Lindsey Harris, to no avail. Her lawyers fiercely protected the fragile young woman, who had already attempted suicide. Assistant District Attorney Mia Magness protected her star eyewitness as well.
And state District Judge Carol Davies had rejected Parnham's efforts to bar Lindsey's key statements from a deposition, when she quoted her stepmother as saying, "I could kill him and get away with it for all he's put me through."
On January 29, 2003, the bailiff in the criminal trial called the witness who would put the widow Harris in the penitentiary. Lindsey Harris came back to Houston with steely determination to imprison forever the woman who had killed her father. She was now 17, poised and articulate, the scars on her wrists healed.
Clara Harris came to court wearing a bright green suit. She greeted friends from Shadycrest Baptist Church as she walked down the right aisle. They were there as usual, there to show solidarity with the sister whom they all loved. Two of Clara's Colombian cousins sat against the wall.
Gerald and Millie Harris would not see their granddaughter testify because they had been sworn in as witnesses and barred from the courtroom. Lindsey was now estranged from them because of her civil suit and their unwavering support of Clara Harris.
At 1:28 p.m., Lindsey Harris took the stand. Clara looked at the stepdaughter she hadn't seen since July and smiled. The girl didn't smile back.
"Bring the jury in," Judge Davies told the bailiff.
Lindsey sat on the witness stand, weeping slightly, her straight hair parted down the middle, falling halfway down her chest, her oval face pretty.
Prosecutor Magness began quietly.
"How old were you when your parents got divorced?" she asked.
"I was four," Lindsey answered.
Lindsey settled in to her testimony more comfortably as she answered Magness's introductory questions, her speech clipped. The prosecutor turned to the previous July 17, the morning after the girl had played music with her father.
"I was on the computer," Lindsey began. "I heard yelling upstairs. Clara, I could hear her. At first I was really scared. They never yelled. They were in the bathroom."
"What did she say to you after the fight?" Magness asked.
"I have to tell you something; he is having an affair," Lindsey answered matter-of-factly.
The girl was shaken by what her stepmother was saying, despite what she had witnessed in the office between her father and his receptionist.
"He just wouldn't do anything like that," she continued. "He went to church. He loved Clara. I felt really bad for her."
Suddenly, there was a bond between the girl and her stepmother that hadn't been there before, Lindsey testified. "We became very close. We went shopping. She told me everything. It made me feel important."
Clara Harris immediately went on a crash diet to lose weight. Lindsey watched as her stepmother now concentrated on the new woman she would become, shopping with the girl at Victoria's Secret and Caché.
"He told her he loved her for the way she looked already," Lindsey said. " I felt that he was going to give Gail up. I asked him and he said yes, and I was happy."
Despite Lindsey's hopes, things weren't okay. David Harris had told his wife that he missed Gail Bridges.
The courtroom attention was riveted on Lindsey as she began to tell her version of what happened when they arrived at the Hilton the following day. She detailed Clara's rage and vandalism of Gail's SUV, then the wild assault inside the hotel.
As she testified, Lindsey looked directly at Clara Harris, her hair in the trademark black bow, and her stepmother looking back at her.
"Outside, she told me that she could kill my father and get away with it for how he's been acting." Gasps emerged from spectators as they heard the words that would begin to seal Clara Harris's fate.
"When did she say that?" Magness asked.
"Thirty minutes before the fight."
When Clara assaulted Gail, Lindsey said, "I was standing back and asking people to help. I was really scared. I had never seen anything like this before."
Her testimony led up to the lethal moments when Clara aimed the Mercedes at her father. "She stepped on the accelerator and went straight for him. He pushed Gail out of the way. When she stepped on the accelerator, it threw me back in the seat."
Lindsey described the impact. "I felt the bump. I knew it was him. I said, 'You're killing him.' "
Magness asked about Clara's actions later, after, according to Lindsey, she ran over the body three times.
"Did she try to comfort you?" Magness asked.
"No," Lindsey answered.
Magness had a final question.
"Did you have any more contact with her?"
"She called two days later when I was at my grandparents'," the girl said. "She said she was so sorry. She said she wanted me to be an orthodontist and be a part of the business."
On cross-examination, Parnham began by gently questioning Lindsey about the closeness that developed between her and her stepmother after her father's affair was revealed.
"You had a shared relationship with your dad?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered. "I called her Mom. We got along very well."
Parnham had his breakthrough, small though it was. He now talked to the girl about family vacations, her own room in the mansion and how it had been designed especially for her.
Next he got Lindsey to admit that Clara Harris had once traveled to Ohio to speak to her class about dentistry. Across the room, the defendant was now smiling at the memories her lawyer was bringing back about those happy days.
"And your brothers," Parnham continued. "You love your brothers."
Clara, who had contained herself during Lindsey's testimony about the fight in the hotel lobby and the killing of David, broke down in tears at the mention of the twins.
Judge Davies exploded.
"It will not be tolerated," the judge roared. "It is not going to happen in this courtroom."
"I'll do my best," Parnham stuttered, walking over to the sobbing Clara.
"My instructions are going to your client," the judge shouted above the woman's sobs.
"She's wailing and sobbing in front of the jury," Magness chimed in. "She is fine when the jury is out of the courtroom."
Clara again took control of herself as she buried her eyes in her hands. Parnham continued, this time asking about the flirtatious ways of Gail Bridges and the fights between David and Clara.
Parnham moved on to Gail's firing, attempting to show that David was more interested in business than in saving his marriage.
"What did you hear him say?" the lawyer asked.
"We can't fire her. We've got 85 patients today," the girl answered.
"And what did Clara say?" Parnham continued.
"She's going," Lindsey answered.
Clara Harris sat with her face covered by her hands, her elbows on the hard oak table, as the girl testified that her stepmother had called her rival a "devil" and "so fake."
Lindsey said under questioning that she had warned her father that if he divorced Clara, there would be consequences he wouldn't like.
"I told him, 'You are not going to see your babies very much if she leaves,' " Lindsey said.
Again, Clara Harris began to cry at the mention of the twins, a tissue now in her hand.
"Would you say that everybody was very proud of Dr. Clara?" Parnham asked, using his favorite endearing term for the defendant.
"Yes," the girl answered.
The attorney had stumbled. Lindsey Harris was in control of the testimony. He had allowed her to relate again how immediately before the impact, she had shouted "Stop" and Clara had accelerated.
"I was saying it very loudly," Lindsey said as Parnham looked on helplessly. "She knew there was a man standing in front of the car."
After he finished with the witness, Magness asked a few brief cleanup questions. Then she uttered the magic words that ended her portion of the case.
"The state rests."
Clara Harris took the stand in her defense, relating how her husband's affair had made her feel closer to Lindsey.
"I asked her, 'What should I do?' She wasn't the best person to give me advice. She was 16. She had never been married. The only thing we had in common was that we loved David. We wanted him to come home."
Harris said she never considered that someone might be injured as she drove the Mercedes, and that she thought she had closed her eyes before the impact, not knowing it was her husband in front of the speeding vehicle.
However, prosecutor Magness would press her on cross-examination about her rage while she vandalized Bridges's SUV.
"At that time, you were angry," Magness said.
"Yes, I was," came back the answer.
"Lindsey was telling the truth when she said that you were angry," Magness probed.
"She always tells the truth," Clara said. It was a devastating response, an answer that would almost ensure that she would be convicted of murder, or at least manslaughter.
"You vandalized her car. You weren't mad?" Magness asked incredulously.
"No," she said.
"Lindsey always tells the truth, right?" Magness asked later.
"Yes," Clara answered.
Magness kept pressing Clara about her being angry, not hurt.
"You said, 'I'm going to hit him.' Remember, Lindsey always tells the truth," Magness said.
"Yes," Clara answered.
"Do you remember Lindsey saying that as you accelerated?"
"Yes, I recall Lindsey saying that," Clara answered, crying. She knew there was now little chance of recovery from the damage her testimony had done.
For final arguments, Lindsey sat in the section reserved for guests of the prosecution. Parnham spoke of the state's most devastating witness, yet was careful not to make the jury believe that he was trying to beat her up verbally. "She is a sweet girl, no question about it. Make no mistake; this is the one great tragedy of the whole case. I pray that one day healing will occur." Parnham did not attempt to refute the daughter's testimony.
But he did say, "Do you believe for one moment that if Clara Harris intended to kill her husband she would have his daughter with her?"
Magness returned to her prevalent theme: "The bottom line was Lindsey tells the truth. Lindsey always tells the truth.
"Every single thing Lindsey told you has been corroborated by an eyewitness or a piece of evidence," Magness said, sealing Clara Harris's fate with her own words. "Remember, Lindsey always tells the truth."
The jury deliberated for just over seven hours. During that time, Lindsey had lunch in the courthouse cafeteria with her mother and stepfather, Deborah and Jim Shank. She nibbled at a chicken sandwich but had no appetite.
When the guilty verdict came in, Clara cast her eyes down at the defense table, in a pose she had struck many times. She then looked at the people who had found her guilty. She closed her eyes as her friends wept.
Across the room, Lindsey Harris was crying as deputies moved closer to Clara Harris. The woman who had slept in a mansion the night before would sleep in the Harris County jail this night, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit.
The punishment phase of the trial began as Lindsey Harris took the stand to describe her life since her father's murder. The jury heard that the girl had attempted to take her own life, had given up music and cheerleading, and had little interest in her schoolwork.
Lindsey told jurors her thoughts as she watched her father dying. "I knew that he wasn't going to be okay, that I was only given 16 and a half years to spend with him," she told the jury. "I had planned to stay with Dad so long."
Contemptuously, she told of her stepmother calling David "baby" and acting like nothing had happened -- immediately after running him down.
Finally, Lindsey Harris testified that she had not seen her half-brothers since Christmas and that she was estranged from her grandparents.
"There is a lot of money involved," she said of the multimillion-dollar fight over the estate. "They are leaving me out of everything, and they don't seem to even care anymore. I feel hurt. Somebody took my dad away from me."
In her closing arguments, Magness began to cry as she evoked the life Lindsey Harris would have had with her father.
"She cut her own flesh because she was so overwhelmed with the pain of the loss of her father. She deserved to have him there when she graduated from high school. She deserved to have him there when she walked down the aisle."
Behind her, in the spectators' section, Lindsey wept at Magness's powerful words thundering out through the prosecutor's own tears.
Lindsey would return to high school in Ohio after the trial. But there was another stop first. On the evening that Clara Harris was sentenced to 20 years in prison, the girl went to her grandparents' home for a brief reunion with them and her brothers.
The estrangement was over.
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