Houston Chronicle

August 7, 2002

Harris case even has private eyes talking

Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

Some private investigators spend so much time walking on the seedy side they rarely get the chance to register surprise, shock or disgust.

Then dentist Clara Harris took her 16-year-old stepdaughter with her to confront her philandering spouse and his girlfriend, and, according to witnesses, rammed him with her silver Mercedes-Benz.

Even Houston's most seasoned sleuths are talking about it.

"That was not a wise choice," said Joe Winter Jr., with Joe Winter Investigations. "For the child to see that was ghastly."

Winter expects he and other private investigators will see a jump in business because of the case. The day before orthodontist David Harris died, his wife sought the help of Blue Moon Investigations in Webster.

Apparently Clara Harris, just like hundreds or thousands of jilted spouses in the Houston area, thought hiring a detective to get the goods would help in divorce court -- or at least resolve the nagging questions.

The whole affair makes private investigators look bad, Winter said. "It ties our industry in with the dark side. We're really not that seedy; we just report the facts. We can't control what people do."

Private eye Tim Wilson tells of one high-profile case that happened several years ago: He was hired by New York attorney Michael Kennedy, who represented Ivana Trump. She suspected her husband, Donald Trump, was having an affair.

"I wasn't exactly following him but collecting information about him, his business dealings and his extramarital affairs. I'd call them fact-finding missions," Wilson said.

"Common sense, a camera, intuition -- that's what you need," said Wilson, of Tim Wilson Investigations. "These days, there are all these fancy tracking devices, but it comes down to hard work and the same skills used 100 years ago. You keep a safe distance and hope the traffic doesn't impair your vision."

The Trump case took Wilson up and down the East Coast and, in the end, Wilson linked Trump to actress Marla Maples.

"He was secretive about the affair, but my job wasn't too difficult. Not that many people liked him, but they did like Ivana, and they were more than happy to give him up."

Wilson said most of the men and women he follows are not secretive at all. "They're in love," he said. "They're not using their heads."

Most investigators, specialists in people and information, say they spend only a fraction of their time tailing philandering mates.

Usually they're old-fashioned cases with 21st-century twists -- co-workers ducking into hotel rooms during long lunch breaks, men and women coming home late from imaginary business meetings, victims of corporate melt-downs looking for more than work during lonely job hunts.

Local sleuths said those jobs took a dip after Sept. 11, when most Americans were staying close to home and hearth. Eleven months later, however, business is back.

"I think as long as human beings have hormones, these kinds of things are going to take place," said Jeff Moore, chief of investigations for Blue Moon. "If a spouse wants proof, it's better to hire a private investigator. We're trained; we're licensed. A private citizen can be arrested for stalking."

Or worse. Harris was charged with the murder of her husband, taken to Harris County Jail, then released on a $30,000 bond.

Moore said the Harris disaster was the first time in 20 years that a Blue Moon investigation ended in any kind of injury. The investigator following David Harris that night had not been in contact with Clara Harris, Moore said, nor did the investigator have the time or opportunity to stop Harris before she struck.

"Everything happened so quickly," Moore said. "Nothing could be done."

Moore is well aware the story is a main topic of conversation inside the Loop and just about the only topic of conversation in the Clear Lake area, where the couple lived with their 3-year-old twins.

Most people think Clara Harris just snapped, Moore said, and that she didn't recover from her all-encompassing rage until she was parked on her spouse's back.

Bobby Newman, who has been in the business for 34 years and worked thousands of philandering-spouse cases, said Clara Harris isn't the first Houstonian to respond violently to bad marital news. At least one was his client.

"It was 10 years ago, but I'll never forget it," said Newman, who is with ACTA Investigation, Inc.

The client was a woman who suspected her husband was having an affair, and the ensuing investigation confirmed her suspicions.

Hoping to deliver the news as gently as possible, Newman called and asked her to come to his office. "We told her the truth," he said, "but we said it just wasn't worth her making herself sick. We had her laughing by the end of the session."

Newman still isn't sure exactly what happened that night. "We surmised the husband came home, he had been drinking, and she confronted him. When he went to bed, she shot him three times in the back, then killed herself."

Usually all parties involved are blinded by emotion, said Kent Ferguson, a former FBI agent and certified fraud examiner with Ferguson Investigations & Security Consultants, Inc.

Ferguson said he spends only a tiny percentage of his time on adultery cases, but enough that he was motivated to go back to school some years ago to get a master's degree in psychology.

Usually, Ferguson listens to would-be clients, then asks a few key questions. Have they spoken to an attorney? Would anything he could find out help them in court? If they are going to spend $1,500 to $2,500 on an investigation, will they get anything of value?

"Usually the answer is no, not much," Ferguson said. "Some people say they just want to know. The thing is, they already do know. Particularly women. They have this radar."

His advice? Talk to your spouse and suggest marriage counseling.

"That would be a very prudent move and a lot cheaper. You can get a lot of counseling for $2,500."

Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle