A Private Man
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.
The only damage to the three-bedroom house was a broken living-room window, outside of which Hellman found a twelve-pack of beer and a VCR. He noted that shards of glass from the pane were littered outside, which suggested the robber had broken out through the window, rather than in.
Another possible clue: On the carpet a few feet from Harris's body was an overturned shoebox full of photos, some depicting young black men, shirtless and posing for the camera.
Though he had handled homicides for only two years, Hellman was versed in what some cops call "homosexual murders." He had investigated them before. The victims are usually older men who live alone. They are killed by someone they invite in, and often with a weapon of opportunity. Then robbed. A street hustler taken home by a closeted gay man considers his companion easy prey, Hellman knew, because the hustler is virtually guaranteed anonymity. The john, after all, doesn't want any of his friends or neighbors to know he has a visitor.
Wade Harris's death scene had the trademarks of just such a scenario. In his reports, Hellman also noted that Joe Kostick's son John told investigators that Harris had young black male visitors over to his house from time to time, visitors he did not mention when he came to dinner at Joe Kostick's residence. (In a subsequent deposition, John Kostick denied having told this to police, insisting it must have been his father who had passed on the information.)
A day after discovering the body, Hellman received a call from David Gosoff, who was a long-time colleague of Harris at MDCC and also his landlord. According to Hellman's report, Gosoff said he believed Wade Harris was homosexual, unbeknownst to his friends and family. Gosoff stressed that he had never observed his friend involved in such a relationship. Harris was too private for that.
The most telling information came from Joe Kostick, who related how he visited Wade Harris Friday afternoon and briefly met the young black man who shared the professor's last name. Wade Harris had identified the man as a "friend," Kostick recalled. He had seen no vehicle other than Wade's outside the house.
In those first few days, there were other leads, as well. A friend from MDCC told Hellman that Wade Harris had been complaining for two weeks about hangup phone calls. Hellman also discovered that Harris had been having financial problems and had bounced a series of rent checks to Gosoff. Still, the detective remained suspicious that Harris's killing was related to his alleged homosexuality.
Two days after the murder, an anonymous caller had advised police that he had seen Wade Harris with a young Latin male prostitute in front of the Cactus Lounge on Biscayne and NE 20th Street, shortly before his death. By this time, however, Hellman had zeroed in on a suspect named Tyrone Harris, whose name and phone numbers had been found on an envelope in Wade Harris's kitchen. Like the man Kostick had met on the day Harris was murdered, Tyrone Harris was a black man in his thirties.
On July 14, Hellman interviewed Tyrone Harris, who explained that he and Wade Harris had been casual friends since they met at an NAACP meeting six years earlier. Yes, Tyrone Harris said, he had called Wade Harris on the night of his death, to tell him he and his newlywed wife had moved in with her mother, and to give Harris the new phone number. His wife had returned home a half-hour later, Tyrone stated, and they'd gone out to dinner. He spent the following morning with friends. Tyrone Harris concluded the interview by informing Hellman that he was not sure if Wade Harris was a homosexual but that he considered him to have effeminate mannerisms.
When Hellman interviewed Tyrone Harris's wife and friends, the alibi checked out. He showed Joe Kostick a photo of Tyrone Harris. Kostick said he didn't think Tyrone was the man he had seen working on the VCR.
The detective spent the next week trying, with little success, to learn more about Wade Harris's veiled social life. Wade was a very private man, came the refrain from friends. Hellman spoke with two bartenders at the Cactus Lounge, which he knew to be a pickup spot for male prostitutes. One staffer described Harris as a frequent customer, the other had seen him around. Hellman even went so far as to track down one of the men whose photos Wade Harris had kept in a shoebox. The man said he was not a homosexual but he believed Wade Harris was. While the information buttressed Hellman's theory of the case, it did little to help him locate a suspect.
With nearly two weeks passed since the murder, and the victim's body laid to rest in his hometown of Guntersville, Alabama, Hellman's investigation appeared to have stalled.
On May 22, 1984, Metro-Dade homicide detective John Parmenter was summoned to the North Miami apartment of an IRS agent named Liston Smith. His body had been discovered in a bedroom, his head under a pillow, his underwear peeking out from blood-stained sheets. Smith, 29, had been stabbed 58 times, at least once in the genitals. Two large, bloodied knives lay on the floor. "As soon as I saw Liston, I said, 'This is a homosexual killing,'" recalls Parmenter, who later found a variety of gay-oriented singles magazines around the home.
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.
Local lore has it that the first white man to settle Marshal County, Alabama, was named Gunter. A Welshman, he married an Indian princess, prospered, and had a city named after him. Nestled in a crook of the Tennessee River, Guntersville is a town of 10,000 that seems much smaller. The nearest movie theater is in Albertsville, ten miles south. The races don't mix much, even since desegregation. Most blacks still occupy the area known as the Hill, an elevated plateau whose sagging porches afford an incongruously regal view of Guntersville Lake.
It was here that Wade Harris was born in 1938 and raised, along with nine siblings, by an unskilled laborer and his wife. Elihue Harris was a stern man. But he made sure his children went to school. Wade was never a problem in that regard. He was a star pupil. "There wasn't much time for playing," recalls Jane Alves, the wife of a wealthy white doctor who employed Harris as a baby sitter. "He went to school, worked until suppertime, did his lessons, then came back and worked at night." Harris entered the Navy after high school and then, with financial help from the Alveses, moved on to Atlanta's Morehouse College. Short on funds, he soon moved to Cleveland, where he worked at a hospital and stayed with his first cousin, Ruby Greene. In Cleveland he met and married Geraldine Williams.
The marriage dissolved a decade later, after Harris returned to Morehouse to complete an English degree. His interest in education led to a teaching job at a junior college in Atlanta, and in 1983 he joined the faculty at MDCC. He also began pursuing a doctorate in education at the University of Miami, where he chose as a specialty black idiom and the education of black students.
An avid fan of the Cleveland Browns football team, Harris traveled from Miami to Cleveland twice a year, always stopping in Guntersville to see family. "You could give Wade something sweet and a pot of coffee and he'd set with you all day," says Mattie Croom, his eldest sister. Harris also played master of ceremonies at school reunions, where he was revered as a local hero. "He left town without a car and I do believe I lived to see him drive a Cadillac," says Jane Alves, his old employer.
Harris was especially proud of the three-bedroom house he rented from colleague David Gosoff. He kept it immaculate and had an alarm system installed. The property embodied the security that should have accompanied his hard-won status. When he was found murdered in his home, the reaction from relatives, as on campus, approached disbelief.
"There weren't any of us who could understand why someone would do this," says Croom, who has seen five of nine siblings buried, not counting the twins who died as infants. "If they wanted money, or something to eat, Wade surely would have helped them out.
"When we got the body back here, we were worried we wouldn't be able to have an open casket," Croom adds. "The embalmer said he could do a plastic surgery, and by the time he was done Wade looked real nice from the way they said he looked when they found him. We did open the casket for the public for about an hour. Then we closed it up and didn't look no more."
To friends and relatives, Wade Harris stood as a model of black achievement, a poor, rural kid who lashed himself to the stanchion of education and climbed into the professional class. His alleged assailant offers the bleakest of contrasts.
According to court documents, Chris Harris was placed in state custody at age ten. His mother, who was raising him and four other children without the help of a spouse, claimed she could no longer control him. As a teenager he drifted between foster homes, the street, and youth hall, owing to regular arrests. He left school after tenth grade.
In December 1979, a month before his eighteenth birthday, Harris robbed a man of his car at gunpoint. He later admitted the crime to police and led them to the scene. "Based on his prior record, the extensive efforts to rehabilitate Chris in the juvenile system seem to be futile," a state caseworker wrote. Harris was transferred to the adult system.
"Overall the subject functions cognitively approximately between the ages of eleven and thirteen," observed Ronald Bergman, a psychologist appointed to evaluate Harris at the time. "He presents a capacity for more learning, but his educational experience and cultural deprivation prevent him from using his capacities." Bergman determined Harris to be "functioning at a borderline level of retardation" in verbal testing, with a third-grade reading level.
Harris was convicted and paroled after two years. He returned to a life of impulsive crime and became a familiar face to police.
"Chris Harris sometimes comes to me in my dreams," says John Murphy, a retired Miami Beach homicide detective. In November 1982, Murphy was called to an apartment in the Southgate Towers, at 900 West Ave. Phillip Siskind, 89, lay in the hallway, his walker on top of him, his bludgeoned skull cracked like an egg. Wife Hanna was in the bedroom. She apparently had put up a fight. "There was blood all over the place," Murphy recalls. "You could see from the spatter how [the weapon] was swinging back and forth."
Just a week earlier, the Siskinds had moved to Southgate from a Michigan Avenue apartment, hopeful the new location would be safer. While unpacking, Hanna Siskind noticed her jewelry was missing. She contacted the moving company. The next day the company fired nineteen-year-old Chris Harris, one of the men in the Siskind moving crew. Harris's boss would later tell investigators that the dismissal was due to poor work, not the jewelry complaint.
Besides the Siskinds', police lifted only two sets of fingerprints from the apartment. One belonged to Carmen Adderly, a maid. The other was a match for Harris's. No prints were found from the other two movers. Murphy's theory is that Adderly cleaned the apartment after the couple moved in, erasing all fingerprints. This, he reasons, indicates that Harris was in the apartment after the move. Murphy interviewed Adderly, even put her under hypnosis, but although she said she had dusted the furniture, she could not remember whether she had wiped the dresser on which Harris's prints were found. He also interviewed Harris, who initially agreed to take a polygraph, then refused.
The case was never solved. But last year, after Chris Harris's arrest, Beach police reopened their investigation. Ken Miller, the detective who inherited the case from Murphy, says he hopes to re-examine the evidence with the aid of today's more sophisticated technology. "Back then we couldn't get enough evidence to charge Harris, but there was no doubt in my mind that he murdered that little old couple," Murphy says.
Harris was soon back in prison anyhow, for an armed robbery and aggravated assault.
It takes a few minutes for the guard to fetch Chris Harris from his cell at the Dade Stockade, just west of Miami International Airport. A stocky man with a smile that is more gold than enamel, Harris is not accustomed to visitors and appears bemused that anyone would want to speak with him. "It's hard for folks to make it out here," he explains. "I haven't seen my mama in about a year. My auntie says she don't want to spend time around someone who's involved in all this." He has affixed himself to a chain-link fence in the broiling stockade courtyard, where a hundred other inmates are lined up, shouting to visitors across a six-foot divide.
Though he consents to talk, Harris discusses his life in terms so vague and dispassionate that he might be describing a distant relative.
He says he met Wade Harris in a supermarket months before his death, and that the older man told him to stop by whenever he was in the neighborhood. This is what he did on July 11 at about noon. According to Chris Harris, he helped Wade fix his cable TV and left a couple of hours later. Then he visited his mother and headed to the dog track. He says the police are trying to set him up and claims they beat him for two hours and put a plastic bag over his head to try to make him confess.
Harris admits he used to deal drugs but denies he's ever hustled. He says the reason his old girlfriend Sherall Moore told police she saw him driving Wade Harris's car is that she was angry because he slept with her sister. Police have no proof that he pawned the valuables taken from Wade Harris's home, he adds, though he does concede that he might have purchased stolen goods in the same neighborhood. He says his public defender has a witness who will testify that he saw Wade Harris with another man on the night of his death. He has not discussed a plea bargain.
"Just 'cause my fingerprints are on a box of cable doesn't mean I killed the man," Harris concludes.
While prosecutor David Waksman may be able to prove the defendant was with Wade Harris and robbed him on the night of his death, the evidence that Chris Harris is responsible for the professor's murder indeed appears circumstantial. Further, prosecutors will not be able to mention Chris Harris's previous arrests or convictions A unless he testifies, which is unlikely.
"I truly believe Harris is a multiple offender; no one knows how many people he's killed," says John Parmenter, lead detective in the Liston Smith case. "But having been through this with Harris once already, I'm apprehensive about a conviction."
Howard Lubel, Harris's public defender, says he cannot discuss specifics of the case. "But I can say, without being overly critical of police procedures, that it's dangerous to disregard our system of justice, to keep names and photos around of people who have been found innocent, and then to try to fit them into a pattern," he asserts. "It's the Casablanca approach to law enforcement A you know, 'Round up all the usual suspects.' When you cast a net like that, a lot of innocent people get caught."
Lubel, who already has been granted more than a year's worth of delays, has yet to present prosecutor Waksman with a list of the witnesses he intends to call at trial.
Whether Wade Harris's alleged homosexuality will become an issue in court is not clear. No mention of it was made to the press during the investigation, by design. "We didn't release any information on that because we didn't want people to write this off as 'just another fag killing,'" notes a police source close to the case.
Wade Harris's family and friends seem intent upon upholding this code of silence even now, two years after his death. The victim's lifestyle is a subject quickly deflected, as if Harris's apparent shame has survived him.
"I don't know nothing about that," says Mattie Croom, upon hearing that police believe her younger brother might have been murdered by a male hustler. Croom does not sound angry, or even surprised. Just worn out. "He was such a private man," she adds, after a time.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.
- Trump Sues Univision for a Half-Billion Dollars, Proves He's Totally Unfit for the...
- U.S.-Cuban Embassies May Be Reopening, but Appointing an Ambassador Might Become a Fight
- Heat Signs Dragic to Five-Year, $90-Million Deal; Still Pursuing Wade