A Private Man

MDCC English professor Wade Harris didn't share much about his life. But he might well have shared his murderer.

Wade Harris used to join Joe Kostick and Bob Derosiers for dinner on most weeknights. The pair did yard work for him and lived a block away on a quiet street in North Miami Beach. Fellow aging divorces, they were among Harris's closest friends, and they engaged him on a variety of topics -- politics, health care, and especially racism. As a black man who had escaped poverty through education, Harris would defend his race to his white companions.

But his tone would always change when the trio watched TV news. The images of violence, magnified on Kostick's large-screen set, upset the 53-year-old Harris, a soft-mannered professor of English at Miami-Dade Community College. Confronted with a procession of mostly black assailants, he would lament the hollow dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Then he would talk about his own fear. "That's why I don't teach high school," he'd explain. "Too dangerous."

Harris was late for dinner on July 10, 1992. Earlier that Friday afternoon Kostick had paid him a visit and found Harris with a younger black man who was trying to fix the professor's VCR. "This guy's named Harris, too," Wade Harris told Kostick, although the two were never formally introduced. A few minutes later Kostick left, concerned that the new puppy he'd brought along would relieve himself on his friend's rug. When Kostick called to check in an hour later, Harris said the VCR was taking longer than expected to fix; he might not be able to make dinner at all.

At a quarter to eight the next morning, Kostick's phone rang. Hilda Argus, another neighbor, had seen one of Harris's living-room windows ajar and noticed that his car was missing. Fearing a burglary, Kostick dialed the police. The first officer to respond conducted a quick tour of the home and spotted a figure lying beneath the covers in one bedroom. He assumed it was Harris, asleep.

Metro-Dade Sgt. Connie Dee arrived next. When she noticed two drops of blood on the tile floor outside the bedroom, Dee flicked on a light and stepped in. The walls, ceiling, and fan blades were dusted with a red mist that thickened to spatter over the head of the bed. A pillow had been set on top of the prone figure.

Dee lifted the pillow, then quickly replaced it.
Metro-Dade homicide detective Bill Hellman was immediately called to the scene. He was not long in identifying the murder weapon. A .32 caliber revolver lay on the carpet beside the bed, its blue-steel chamber splotched with blood. Six unfired bullets, evidently emptied from the gun, were scattered nearby. Harris had not been shot. His assailant had beaten him with the gun butt, so savagely that the blows left circular indentations on the dead man's cheek and shattered his skull.

It would take Bill Hellman five months to arrest a suspect. In December 1992, 32-year-old Chris Harris (no relation) was charged with killing Wade Harris. Prosecutors are likely to seek the death penalty at his trial, which recently was postponed until January. Police believe the defendant may be responsible for three previous slayings: He was acquitted of a 1984 homicide that was strikingly similar to Wade Harris's. In the other case, a 1982 double murder that was never solved, Harris was the prime suspect. As a result of his most recent arrest, Miami Beach police have reactivated that investigation.

"The irony is that everything Wade was against, that was his fate," concludes his friend Joe Kostick.

Indeed, with a record of violent crime that stretches back to his early teens, Chris Harris appears to be precisely the sort of man who terrified Wade Harris. Yet he was invited into the professor's home, allegedly with fatal consequences. Chris Harris insists he was simply there to fix a VCR and never laid a hand on Wade Harris. But Hellman's investigation led him to believe the relationship was more involved, that behind an erudite, even prudish public demeanor, the older Harris had led a second life of closeted homosexuality that cast him into the orbit of the very people he feared.

This may be the final irony of Wade Harris's demise: that by shielding from loved ones an identity he considered shameful, he made himself all the more vulnerable to the mayhem that ended his neatly ordered life.

At six-foot-three, with a crown of white hair, Wade Harris was a distinguished figure on MDCC's Wolfson campus downtown, where he taught for nine years. His classes were packed with admiring students. He served as adviser to student government, a frequent chaperone on student trips, and chairman of the faculty promotion committee.

Off campus, though, Harris was a private man. So private that many of his closest friends in Miami knew nothing of his family in Alabama, and vice versa. Few here knew that he had once been married, or that he had been the first in his family to graduate college. He seemed squeamish when it came to sexuality. Colleagues still recall his agitation about a campus art exhibition he deemed obscene. His romantic interests were not a topic of discussion.

That ended the night he died.
To Metro-Dade's Bill Hellman, the death scene invited immediate questions about the relationship between victim and assailant. For one, there were no signs of a struggle. Harris lay on his side, hands and arms unmarked and folded beneath his head, in a pose that suggested sleep. He wore bikini-style lavender briefs and nothing else. A wallet containing his ID but no money was discovered in a briefcase on the dresser. The stereo cabinet in the living room had been emptied of its contents, except for a turntable, and it appeared other items had been taken, too.

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