Ever so often I read a story on a news site about the body of a missing person being found a year, six years, ten years or even more after they went missing.
I read those stories and wonder when the same will happen for Michele.
I read those stories and I remember the sobs of her estranged husband the day a jury found him guilty of her murder, how the anguished sobs echoed off the high ceilings of the courtroom and sliced a chill through many who heard it, including those of us in the area of the balcony reserved for the media. Etched in my mind is the memory of looking down at his lawyers on either side of him, his head on his folded arms on the table crying out over and over “No! No!”
Calvin “Cal” Harris, a wealthy businessman, had been indicted by a grand jury and then convicted, even without the body of Michele Harris ever having been found.
I read those stories of bodies or remains being found and remember how Michele’s van, keys in the ignition, was found by the babysitter at the bottom of the driveway to the 250-acre estate she and Cal shared with their four young children. I think how Cal didn’t call the police that day, but instead, it was Michele’s divorce attorney who called when Michele didn’t show up for an important appointment. Michele had filed for divorce after she learned of an affair Cal was having with an employee at one of his family’s many car dealerships. She and Cal had met when she was a secretary at his family’s dealership in Owego, NY.
I think how four trials were eventually the final tally of trials held for Cal Harris – before suddenly he was declared an innocent man. Two of those trials were held with a jury in the county the crime is said to have been committed and two in another New York county. Guilty verdicts, rendered by juries, came down in the first two trials but both were thrown out, one because a new witness came forward the day after the verdict to say he’d seen Michele the day after police say she died, alive and well at the bottom of her driveway, standing with a man by a dark truck.
Another guilty verdict was tossed because a higher court said there were improprieties in how jurors were chosen. A mistrial was declared in the third trial when the jury couldn’t make a final decision and was declared – the rather macabre legal term – “hung”. It was in the final, fourth trial a judge found Cal Harris not guilty of the murder of his wife.
It has been 18 years since Michele disappeared.
It has been 18 years since her children last saw her.
It has been 18 years since her brother and father last hugged her.
It has been 18 years without some kind of justice for Michele.
Her credit cards have never been used in that time. A call with her voice on the other end has never been heard in that time.
It’s probable that the case will always be cold because otherwise, someone would have to admit actual guilt or actual incompetence.
The New York State Police and the Tioga County District Attorney’s office maintain Cal is guilty, despite their initial attempts to indict him being thrown out twice by judges before a grand jury finally issued an indictment that stuck.
Michele disappeared on the night of Sept. 11, 2001. She was 35, almost 36, at the time. Many of the state police manpower had been sent to New York City to respond to the terrorist attacks there. Launching a fast search once she was reported missing on Sept. 12 wasn’t easy. But there was a search and Cal allowed it – across all of the 250-acres of their estate and even in the lake on their property. He also handed over financial records, talked to police and gave them access to her van, even though he’d taken it to the dealership to be cleaned out after he saw how messy it was when it was discovered abandoned.
As a member of the media at the time of the first trial, and even more so now being a “regular citizen”, so to speak, the twists of the case is definitely enough to make a head spin. I sat in the media gallery for the first trial, wrote about it for our local paper, interviewed Michele’s family and friends and at one point I was even told off by a close friend of hers for writing a column where I wrote that I could relate to the part of Michele’s personality that may have been messy, imperfect, and rebellious.
Like the police, Michele’s family, her former hairdresser, and her former babysitter also believe in Cal’s guilt.
The wife of Michele’s brother testified Michele called her one night and the sister-in-law heard Cal tell Michele if she ever tried to leave him he’d kill her and her body would never be found. Michele was hiding in a closet to get away from Cal she had told her sister-in-law, Shannon. Shortly after that a judge ordered Cal’s guns removed from the home until a divorce settlement was reached.
A hairdresser said Michele held the phone out when Cal called one day and he heard Cal say he would kill Michele if she continued pursuing a divorce. The hairdresser’s testimony was called into question in subsequent trials. The former babysitter, Barb, said Cal told her less than a month after Michele disappeared to take Michele’s belongings and sell them at a yard sale. Other witnesses testified his mistress was invited to spend the night at his house two weeks after Michele disappeared, on Michele’s birthday.
The babysitter, Barb, who also worked as a housekeeper told me over the phone one day she would never believe Cal was innocent in the disappearance of Michele. I interviewed her on the phone during the trial. She told me a judge had ruled she couldn’t tell jurors about an incident a few days after Michele’ disappeared. Barb said Cal and Michele’s daughter was crying and Barb was trying to comfort her. Cal leaned down, shook his finger in his daughter’s face and told her “Stop your crying. Your mother is never coming back.” Barb said it sent a chill through her at the time, though she wasn’t sure what Cal meant. He then cleared a counter where Michele had collected various items over the years, including art projects from the children.
Barb worked there another year, for the sake of the children, she says, before finally resigning.
One could look at Cal’s actions as guilt or one could see his reaction as a response from a man angry at a woman he believed was being irresponsible by leading a double life. Maybe Cal felt Michele got what she deserved for taking risks in trying to find a new life for herself, even if he wasn’t the one who doled out her punishment. The interpretation of Cal’s demeanor all depends on who you ask or how you look at it.
Cal’s reputation in the community as being “a jerk” didn’t help public perception when the charges were filed. Also unhelpful to Cal were former friends of his who didn’t rally around him but instead offered testimony during his trials that was even more damming and showed a man who seemed unconcerned about his wife’s disappearance.
“Cal is as guilty as sin,” was a comment frequently seen on social media and newspaper comment sections in our area during each of the trials.
There were many who refused to hear that anyone else was guilty.
Cal was rich.
Cal was controlling.
Cal didn’t even care when his wife didn’t come home.
When Cal was finally found not guilty the local comments were “I guess money buys freedom” and “Wow. Another OJ.”
That was the opinions of people in the diners, sipping their coffee and eating their eggs and pancakes. It was also the opinion of many who knew Michele.
When Michele’s friend, Niki, received a call from the babysitter saying Michele had never come home, she was immediately alarmed.
“Michele never stayed out all night,” she told 48 hours.
She said she knew Cal had somehow harmed Michele.
Michele’s sister-in-law, Shannon, said when she received the call Michele hadn’t come home she told her co-workers “I have to leave. I think my brother-in-law killed my sister-in-law.”
Other opinions in the community and from the Harris family swung the pendulum the other way.
“He was framed.”
“The police blamed him and never looked for the real killers.”
“The real killers of Michele are walking around free while they harass this man.”
“Just because he’s a rich jerk, doesn’t make him a killer.”
Cal was rich, had a temper and an affair, his attorneys say, but it wasn’t that Cal didn’t care that Michele didn’t come home. Cal simply believed she was out drinking with friends or her new boyfriend or that she had gone to New York City with a friend to pawn her jewelry, something she had said she planned to do. New York City, though, was shut down on Sept. 12, 2001 due to the terrorist attacks.
Even the babysitter wondered when she saw the van if Michele had been drinking and had fallen asleep inside.
Michele wasn’t simply a poor woman who disappeared, Cal told the police. She’d been working at a restaurant a half an hour away, keeping late nights and hanging out with men who used drugs. Cal believed she was using drugs too, maybe spending the money she was earning at the restaurant on those drugs. Cal already knew she had a boyfriend but told a crime show after his acquittal that he was shocked during the first trial to learn she may have also slept with other men who worked with her at the restaurant.
The night she disappeared she even sat in the parking lot of her workplace with two men – one a drug user and the other a known convicted rapist in another state. Police said they eliminated both men as suspects. They also eliminated her boyfriend, Brian Earley, who police said may have been the last person to see her alive. She’d met him at a bar a year or so before and he’d moved from Philadelphia to be closer to her. He’d even bought them a house in Owego to move into after her divorce.
Much of what was testified to in the trials was hearsay and circumstantial evidence. There was no real evidence Cal had harmed Michele. Even splatters of blood inside the home matching Michele’s DNA, which the prosecution said proved Michele had been killed inside the home, could not definitively prove Cal’s guilt. After his final trial, Cal told a crime show the blood was from an incident when Cal pushed Michele back from him during an argument and she fell in the icy driveway and cut her hand. He surmised she must have shaken her hand to get the ice off and the blood may have come off then. The defense also said the blood could have come from any of the children, whose DNA would have marched Michele’s.
photo from 48 hours episode
In 2014, preparing for the third trial, Cal hired investigators and a new defense team and, according to them, asked him to do what the police hadn’t: find out who killed Michele. Those attorneys said they did – two men from Texas who left the area around the same time Michele disappeared. One of the men was identified by a neighbor who said he saw Michele alive, standing by the man’s truck, hours after the prosecution said Cal killed Michele, the morning of Sept. 12, 2001. And then there were the burned remains of clothing found in 2014, in a burn pit of a house once owned by one of the men from Texas. Those tiny pieces of clothing seemed to be a similar color to the restaurant uniform Michele was wearing the day she disappeared, the defense attorneys said.
After his acquittal, Cal vowed to seek revenge on those who had hunted him for 15 years and he did. He was eventually charged with stalking charges against a police officer who testified against him. He then filed a federal lawsuit against the county he lived in, the state police Troop C in Owego, two former district attorneys who prosecuted him, and individual detectives. And he took to social media, doxing anyone who spoke against him in the past or present.
To be honest, I’m not sure how I would react if my life had been turned upside down for 15 years with little to no evidence to prove I had committed a crime.
The case has seen more twists and turns than an amusement park roller coaster ride and yet there are aspects that remain clear:
Michele is still missing.
Four children never had the chance to know their mother.
Four children suffered as their father was pulled in an out of jail for 15 years.
A brother never had a chance to say goodbye to his sister.
A father never had a chance to hold his daughter again.
Someone knows the truth but no one wants to tell it.
Michele’s children deserve to know the truth.
Michele deserves justice.