Houston Chronicle

Jan. 20, 2003, 3:39PM

IDYLLIC FACADE IN RUINS

Trial starts Tuesday in dentist murder case

By RUTH RENDON
Houston Chronicle

David and Clara Harris epitomized a successful and happy couple.

The two were operating a dental corporation in the Houston area, had young twin sons and lived in a palatial Friendswood home.

She was a dentist and drove a Mercedes-Benz. He was an orthodontist and drove a Suburban.

The couple also owned a house on Lake Livingston and property in Colorado. In early July, the family took a Jamaican vacation that included David Harris' daughter from a previous marriage.

Within weeks of the tropical vacation, the happy and successful facade ended when Clara Harris, 44, was arrested on accusations that she ran over and killed her husband after finding him with another woman at a Clear Lake area hotel. She later was charged with murder and remains free on $30,000 bail. Harris, who has custody of her twin 4-year-old sons, has entered a not guilty plea.

Media from across the country will descend on the Harris County Criminal Justice Center when jury selection in Harris' trial begins Tuesday morning.

The trial will finally reveal the contents of the videotape taken the evening of July 24 when David Harris, 44, was killed. An investigator for a Clear Lake private detective agency was filming while witnesses said Clara Harris struck her husband in the parking lot of the Nassau Bay Hilton Inn.

Another trial highlight will be the testimony of Lindsey Harris, David Harris' daughter. The teen, who turned 17 earlier this month, was a front-seat passenger in the Mercedes-Benz when her father was run over. Lindsey lives in Ohio with her mother but spent the summers and Christmas break with her father and stepmother.

Adored her father

Those close to the family say Lindsey adored her father.

David Harris grew up in Pearland where his father, Gerald, worked as a school principal. Gerald Harris headed up the district's transportation department before retiring.

David Harris was active in the Pearland High School band and his love for music continued as an adult. Shortly before his death, he had taken up playing the piano again and even bought an $89,000 tri-centennial edition Steinway piano. The Steinway company made only 300 of the special pianos and four were offered for sale in the Houston area, said Fred Forshey with Forshey Piano Co.

Forshey said Clara Harris had encouraged her husband to buy the instrument. David Harris had taken his mistress, Gail Bridges, to see the piano before he bought it, Forshey said.

"He was a wonderful student and he played well," piano teacher Judy West of Friendswood said. "We were excited over his improvement. He was just delightful."

David Harris had even offered his new piano and Friendswood home for an adult recital for West's students, she said.

In addition to playing the piano, David Harris was a drummer with the band at Shadycrest Baptist Church in Pearland. West said Harris' band recorded a CD of Christian music two years ago.

"He was nothing but polite and nice and energetic. He had a high-energy personality. He was just a joy," said West, who took Harris on as a student in May. "He was a very accomplished man but he was not arrogant. He never came across as arrogant to me. He was always nice and respectful. He was just really delightful. I will miss him and I will miss our time at the piano."

Harris attended Indiana University where he majored in orthodontics and received a master of science degree in dentistry in 1991, school officials said. He later studied to be an orthodontist at the University of Texas Dental Branch in Houston. He had a new building under construction, which has since opened, in the Clear Lake area, and traveled to his wife's office in Lake Jackson twice a week to work on orthodontic patients there.

It was at UT that Harris met his future wife, Clara L. Suarez.

The couple married on Valentine's Day 1992. Twin sons, Brian and Bradley, were born three years later.

In recent interviews, the Chronicle has learned new details about the events leading up to Harris' death.

Confronted husband

Clara Harris had confronted her husband on July 17 and he admitted to the affair with Bridges, 39, a divorced mother of three and at the time his office receptionist. Clara Harris was shocked about the affair. David Harris had told his wife that he had only kissed Bridges on the hand and that he wasn't sure if he loved her, according to George Parnham, Harris' defense attorney.

When Clara Harris went downstairs in their Friendswood mansion, she shared the news with her stepdaughter, only to find out Lindsey Harris was aware of the relationship.

Parnham said Clara Harris marched up the stairs and slapped her husband, who then grabbed her arm and threw her on the floor. Lindsey Harris intervened.

After talking to her husband, Clara Harris called her dental office and canceled her appointments for the following two weeks. She and David Harris had decided to work things out, Parnham said.

Clara Harris, her attorney said, was determined to save her marriage. She got a personal trainer, dyed her hair blond, was visiting a tanning salon and had even contacted a plastic surgeon about breast implants -- all at her husband's behest.

"She went through all of this. He said, `I'm going to take her (Bridges) to lunch and I'll tell her what's going on and end it,' " said a friend of Clara Harris', who asked not to be identified.

It was Clara Harris who went to her husband's Space Center Orthodontics office and fired Bridges a week before his death. David Harris later informed Bridges she was on leave with pay.

"As an employer, I can understand. You don't want this woman to turn around and sue you for sexual harassment," Clara Harris' friend said. "The move that he made was a smart employer move. However, it was completely sleazy."

When she went to the private detective agency on July 23, Clara Harris had provided the firm with the name of the restaurant where her husband and Bridges would meet. She also gave the agency a description of Bridges and of her husband's and Bridges' cars.

The day of his death, David Harris was supposed to meet Bridges for a late lunch at Perry's Grille and break off the affair. When David Harris left his office for the lunch, an office worker was supposed to follow him. The office worker left shortly after he did, but when the worker got to the restaurant, Harris and Bridges weren't there. The worker then called Clara Harris on her cell phone, Harris' attorney said.

Called investigator

Clara, who was at a tanning salon with her stepdaughter, then called Blue Moon Investigations' message line to say her husband was not at the restaurant and to please call her back.

Clara Harris and Lindsey then set out to find them. They drove by Bridges' home and several area restaurants.

Clara Harris later received a call on her cell phone from a Blue Moon Investigations representative saying her husband was on the sixth floor at the Hilton Inn, her attorney says. Blue Moon officials have acknowledged calling Harris but deny telling her the whereabouts of her husband.

When Harris and Lindsey turned into the hotel parking lot at 3000 NASA Road 1, the teen spotted Bridges' 2000 Lincoln Navigator, Parnham said. The two went inside the hotel, where a front desk clerk said there was no David Harris registered.

Lindsey Harris called her father's cell phone from the hotel lobby and he answered saying he would soon be home, according to Parnham. Clara Harris then called her husband and he told her he was leaving a Pappas restaurant and would be home shortly.

Within minutes, the hotel elevator doors opened and David Harris and Bridges stepped out.

Clara Harris and Bridges became involved in an altercation before David Harris helped pull them apart.

Asked to leave hotel

When asked to leave by hotel personnel, David Harris escorted Bridges to her car. Clara Harris and her stepdaughter got into her car and witnesses said she sped toward the two. She sideswiped Bridges' car and hit her husband, propelling him 25 feet in the air, witnesses said.

Clara Harris then drove over a grassy median, circled around and ran over her husband two more times, according to witnesses. After being arrested, Clara Harris said the incident was "an accident."

Before his marriage to Clara, David Harris had been married to Debra S. Turner. Lindsey was born to them. The marriage lasted five years, with Debra Harris filing for divorce in Indiana in October 1990. The couple had separated a month earlier.

"Certain disputes and differences have arisen and have existed for some time in the past between husband and wife, and as a result of said differences, they separated," the court record shows.

The final divorce decree filed in July 1991 says the two had arrived at an amicable settlement and understanding, including "that wife shall exchange the VCR for the love seat in husband's possession prior to his relocation to Texas."

Debra Harris, who has since remarried and goes by Debra Shank, was awarded custody of their daughter.

Granted visitation

David Harris was given summer visitation and half the Christmas vacation with his daughter and agreed to pay for her travel expenses. He also was ordered to pay $550 in monthly child support.

In the divorce settlement, David Harris was to pay for his daughter's college room, board, books, fees and tuition at a state-supported school or its equivalent.

Lindsey Harris had expressed an interest in following in her father's footsteps in the dental field and even worked at her father's office over the summer.

Debra Shank filed a federal lawsuit in Galveston on Lindsey's behalf shortly after David Harris' death asking that his assets be frozen. David Harris' estate remains active in a Galveston County probate court.

David and Clara Harris had established a dental corporation with six dental offices in the Houston area. The corporation, in which Clara Harris owns 51 percent, operated with the couple buying up dental practices. They then would hire dentists to run the offices.

In August, a probate court inventory of the couple's assets showed the couple had a net worth of $3.6 million.

A dental associate, who asked not to be identified, described the couple as being "in sync" with one another both personally and professionally.

"I worked well with both of them," the associate said. "It was a very successful partnership. They worked so well as a team. She was the general dentist that treated the kids and then refers to the orthodontist. It was all kept in-house. That's why the practice grew so quickly. It was like a one-stop shop.

"They weren't just a married couple. They also were in business together. Their lives were tied together."

The corporation has continued to operate with Robert Blanchard, a Clear Lake area orthodontist and friend of David Harris, handling the business affairs. Blanchard was named as the executor of Harris' estate.

Dental associates of Clara Harris said they were shocked to learn the woman with exceptional chair-side manners and a nurturing personality could have killed her husband.

"When I found out I just sat there saying, `No. No. She has completely lost her mind.' We were freaked out, like she must have a brain tumor, because this is not Clara," said a friend, who asked not to be identified.

The friend, who practices dentistry in Houston, described Clara Harris as "one of the most likable people you could ever meet. In 13 years of knowing her, I cannot tell you one thing I did not like about her. Not one and I can't tell you that about 90 percent of my friends."

Practiced in Colombia

Clara Harris is an only child who practiced dentistry in Colombia in the early 1980s before coming to the United States. She went to dental school at Washington University in St. Louis before being accepted into a graduate program with the University of Texas Dental Branch. Her residency work was at Memorial Hermann Hospital.

Practicing dentistry in the United States, she told a Lake Jackson newspaper in 1997, was a tribute to her electrical engineer father, who died when she was 6.

In the newspaper article, Harris said her mother told her that American men were wonderful.

"She was right. I found the best. I found the one God had reserved for me," she said.

Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle