Houston Chronicle

Aug. 4, 2002, 5:00PM

Clara Harris: Mother of twins kept to herself

Houston Chronicle

The image of a jilted wife mowing down her husband with a Mercedes-Benz is sharply at odds with the memories Clara Harris' friends have of her as a pleasant-enough neighbor, focused businesswoman and loving wife.

"She was so nice, I would have never thought she was capable of that," said William Hinson of Pearland, a family friend and former next-door neighbor. "She must have just flipped out at the last minute, as far as I can tell. She truly loved him very much because everything was `David, David, David,' you know. She talked about him a lot. She didn't do anything without him."

The "David, David, David," as folks now know, was orthodontist David Lynn Harris, 44, who died July 24 after being struck repeatedly with the silver luxury car in the parking lot of a hotel overlooking Clear Lake.

The slaying occurred, police say, after a heated exchange with his wife, Clara Harris, also 44, over his rendezvous at the hotel with his mistress.

Harris, who lived with her husband in Friendswood and worked with him as a dentist in Lake Jackson, is now charged with murder. The case, with its allegations of betrayal and vengeance, has people talking -- and wondering how they would handle themselves in a similar situation.

A lawsuit filed late last week by David Harris' ex-wife, Debra Shank, in U.S. District Court in Galveston says that Clara Harris has family and friends in Colombia. But whether she grew up in that South American country remained unclear.

Luisa Aquino, spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said she could not answer questions about Harris' citizenship status because of federal privacy laws.

Other details are a matter of record. Harris, then known as Clara Suarez, earned a degree in dentistry in 1990 from Washington University in St. Louis, according to the state dental board. She completed a residency through the dental branch of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Her husband graduated from the same dental branch in 1989 and then went on to study orthodontics.

None of those interviewed for this story could recall where the couple met. They married on Valentine's Day 1992.

At some point later, they rented a house on Max Road in the Brookside area of Pearland, where David Harris grew up, son of a former Pearland High School principal.

Their Max Road landlord, Willie Hayes, declined to speak about the couple when approached. Several of their former neighbors who still reside there were surprised to learn the Harrises used to live close by. Others knew of them but said they weren't acquainted.

Still, Hinson said, "Clara always treated me and anyone that's ever been around nicely." The couple used to keep Hinson's horse on the several-acre property the Harrises lived on with Clara's mother and David's daughter from a previous marriage, he said.

They mostly kept to themselves, he said.

"They didn't just go around shaking everybody's hand," he said.

Clara Harris became pregnant with twin sons around the time she and her husband built their new house in 1998 in Friendswood's Polly Ranch Estates. Hinson said he remained friends with them and had recently cut grass for them.

"I didn't have any indication they were having any trouble," he said.

Most of the Harrises' current neighbors interviewed said they weren't well known in Polly Ranch Estates. Janet Faubion, who lives a few doors down from the Harrises' $564,000 house on 3.7 acres along Clear Creek, said she rarely saw Clara or David but frequently saw Clara's mother walking the twins in a stroller up and down Pine Drive.

"I never saw anything going on over there," Faubion said. "I had no idea who they were until the story broke."

Some people move to the neighborhood's large lots to be secluded, said Pine Drive resident William Taylor.

"People tend to stay to themselves," he said.

Dave Nolen, who lives across the street, also has twin 3-year-olds. Nolen said he and his wife socialized with the Harrises on occasion, including birthday parties for the children.

"This was totally unforeseen," he said. "I have nothing but positive things to say about them. They were the sweetest people."

Others close to Clara Harris who were contacted declined to comment on her background or the murder charge against her.

Clara Harris' main dental office is in the Brazoria County town of Lake Jackson, population 26,000. Her husband, whose primary office was in Clear Lake City, came to her Lake Jackson office twice a week for orthodontic work on her patients.

She currently has two associates who work out of her office, neither of whom could be reached for this article.

The dental office reopened Tuesday, but manager Barbara Wood declined to discuss whether Harris would continue seeing patients while she is out on bail awaiting trial. A week after his death, David Harris' name was still displayed on a green and white sign outside the office in Lake Jackson's small downtown.

Some local dentists said the couple were well known in the community, and their smiling photos appear in their ad on the cover of the Greater Brazosport Area Yellow Pages. But since they lived 40 miles away, few if any maintained personal relationships with them.

Dr. Peter Norris, whose office is a few doors away from the Harrises' Circle Way location, said the couple rarely attended monthly meetings of the local dental society or socialized with other dentists.

"She wasn't gregarious," Norris said. "She stuck to herself, that's a definite."

No one interviewed could say for sure why Clara Harris chose to set up shop about a decade ago so far from home. But Norris said "it just strikes me that she's very business-oriented" and likely scouted out a smaller community where she could stand out.

"The outlying little towns are often a much cheaper place to do business that you can make more money here, and she might have discovered that," he said.

Dr. Perry Mueller, who became Lake Jackson's second dentist when he opened his practice 43 years ago, knew little of the Harrises. But many dentists have come to the town because of a strong insurance plan offered by Dow Chemical, one of the area's major employers, he said.

Harris built her practice by taking over office space and patients of dentists who retired. Most recently she expanded by buying out Dr. Warren Kolar's practice, according to Brazoria County property records. Kolar could not be reached for comment.

"They had a booming business over there," said Carolyn Lemonds, who works at Gulf Coast Specialities next door to Harris' office. "It stayed extremely busy."

Lemonds said many people in Lake Jackson are gossiping about the case and what they would do if they learned their spouse were having an affair.

"I'm sure a lot of us would go wacko, maybe, if something like that happened," she said. "I'm sure there's a breaking point for everybody. You don't know when it will hit you."

Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle