A Private Man

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

A week later Parmenter received a call from Smith's relatives. While cleaning his apartment, they said, they had discovered a bundle of bloody clothing in the oven. In the pocket of the jeans, Parmenter found the key to a room at the Frolics Motel on Biscayne Boulevard. Among those who had signed into the room during the past week, he learned, was the name Chris Harris.

Parmenter soon received word that Liston Smith's Toyota had been recovered in Fort Myers. Police had taken the driver into custody, and the young black man agreed to speak with the detective from Miami. Though he had identified himself to police as Ricky Bruger, on the form waiving his constitutional rights he marked down the initials "C.H." When Parmenter confronted the suspect about the discrepancy, Bruger admitted his real name was Chris Harris.

Harris's fingerprints were compared to those investigators had lifted inside Smith's apartment. Three matched. Store clerks also identified Harris as the man who had made purchases with Smith's credit card on the morning after the murder.

According to police reports, Harris eventually admitted that he dealt dope on Biscayne Boulevard but denied he'd ever met Smith or used his credit cards. When he was asked why his fingerprints were found inside Smith's apartment, however, Harris changed his story. He now admitted he and his brother and two friends had visited Smith to sell him cocaine but insisted he had left after an hour. Hoping to test Harris's credibility and to keep him talking, Parmenter proceeded to feed the suspect a series of lies about evidence police had obtained A and Harris continued to adapt his story. When Parmenter told him his fingerprints had been found in blood, Harris claimed he had tried to intercede after Smith and another man began fighting with knives. Parmenter told Harris his prints were found on the knives. Harris explained that after witnessing the fight, he had picked up the knives, then gotten scared and dropped them. Parmenter countered that his were the only fingerprints found on the knives. This prompted Harris to offer a fifth and final version of the crime: He had discovered Smith dead and removed the knives that were sticking out of him.

Chris Harris went on trial in May 1985. His defense attorney, public defender Al Williams, argued that police had nothing more than circumstantial evidence when it came to the murder, despite their efforts to mislead his client. The jury acquitted Harris of murder but convicted him on four counts of illegal use of credit cards. Judge Howard Gross sentenced him to ten years in prison, though an appeals court later reduced the sentence.

Both the nature of the crime and the acquittal haunted John Parmenter.
More than seven years later, when he overheard fellow officer Bill Hellman discussing the Wade Harris case in the squad room, only one thought crossed his mind. He suggested Hellman run a check on Chris Harris.

Learning that Harris had been freed in 1988, Hellman sent the ex-convict's fingerprints to the lab for comparison with those that had been taken from inside Wade Harris's house. Matching prints were returned on a soda can, a box of coaxial cable, and a bottle of Captain Morgan spiced rum. Hellman next showed Joe Kostick a photo of Chris Harris. Kostick identified him as the man he had seen fixing Wade Harris's VCR.

In late July, the detective spoke to Sherall Moore, a former girlfriend of Chris Harris. Moore recalled an odd visit from Harris on the day after the murder. "He came back to say he was doing good for himself, that he came into money," Moore related in a sworn statement. Her old boyfriend was driving a gray car, which he had said belonged to him. Moore was shown photos of Wade Harris's Ford Escort. "That's the car," she stated. She remembered the tinted windows and red pinstripes.

On August 1, Hellman interviewed Wallace Vances, a counselor at the Dade Youth Services Detention Hall who had briefly taken in Chris Harris a few months earlier. "Vances advised that Chris Harris is a street hustler...[who] frequents the area of Biscayne Boulevard and NE 79th Street," reads Hellman's report. John Reed, a long-time friend of Chris Harris, spoke to Hellman about an alleged homosexual relationship between Harris and one of Reed's friends.

Hellman also tracked down records indicating that Harris had pawned a color TV and a microwave oven on the morning of July 11, at precisely the time police were inspecting Wade Harris's dead body. The microwave was same color and model as the one stolen from the victim's home. In October Hellman obtained an arrest warrant.

Throughout the fall, detective and suspect played a cat-and-mouse game. Hellman would tell Harris's friends and relatives that he wanted to speak with Harris. The suspect would inform his contacts that he had already spoken to police. In the end, Harris's penchant for pawning betrayed him. On December 12, 1992, police got a call from the Cash Inn on NW 79th Street. A clerk who had previously spoken to Hellman about Chris Harris said Harris was on the premises. Within minutes the suspect was in custody.

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