LATE IN THE AFTERNOON OF July 24, Clara Harris, a pretty and personable 44-year-old dentist from the Houston suburbs, put on a silky blue blouse and cream-colored slacks. She brushed her hair and tied it in place with a little bow. She then took Lindsey, her husband’s sixteen-year-old daughter from a brief first marriage, for a drive in her silver S-Class 430 Mercedes-Benz.
Clara loved her Mercedes-Benz. She had once told her husband, David Harris, a spectacularly successful orthodontist who had as many as 120 crooked-teethed adolescents a day coming through his office, that the only extravagance in life she cared about was owning a Mercedes. For her, the car was a shining symbol of all that she had been able to accomplish. She had been born in Bogotá, Colombia, and raised by her widowed mother. Determined to make a living for herself, she had studied dentistry there before coming to the United States for more training in the late eighties. With her thick red hair and perfect smile and little mole on her left cheek, she looked like a beauty queen. In fact, she had been. She was crowned Miss Colombia Houston in a local contest soon after completing her residency at the University of Texas-Houston Dental Branch. “I remember David calling soon after he had met Clara and telling me he was completely smitten,” his father, Gerald, would later tell me.
Clara felt no differently about David. They had met in 1991, when they were both in their early thirties and working at the Castle Dental Center in Houston. David was not only brilliant when it came to teeth—he had graduated second in his class (also from the Houston Dental Branch)—but he had a charming, folksy nature, his favorite word being “golly.” They married on Valentine’s Day, 1992, less than a year after their first date, and held the reception at the Nassau Bay Hilton hotel, about thirty miles south of downtown Houston, across the highway from the looming Johnson Space Center and not far from where David would eventually open his first practice, Space Center Orthodontics. “I found the best,” Clara once told a reporter from a Brazoria County newspaper serving Lake Jackson, a nearby community where she had opened her own dental practice in 1993. “I found the one God had reserved for me.” She put photographs of the two of them in her office, replacing them with new ones every few months, and she talked to David two or three times a day on the phone, never hanging up before saying, “I love you.” In 1998 she gave birth to healthy twin sons, and she enjoyed a splendid relationship with David’s daughter, Lindsey, a talented violinist who lived with them in the summers after spending the school year with her mother, who had moved to Ohio. No matter how many patients Clara had to see, she always got home in time to cook dinner for her family in their palatial white-brick home, worth more than half a million dollars, in the cheerily named suburb of Friendswood. She had the perfect life, she often told her patients. “For Clara, it was always ‘David, David, David,’” one of her co-workers said. “I used to tell people that I wished I could be able to love my husband in the same way that Clara loved David.”
But on that July evening, David Harris had decided not to be with his wife. He was meeting a receptionist who worked at his office, a petite, stylish 39-year-old mother of three named Gail Bridges. Less than two years earlier, Gail had divorced Steven Bridges, a popular State Farm agent who had clients all over the suburbs south of Houston. They too seemingly had the perfect life. They had lived in an exclusive gated subdivision called South Shore Harbor, in League City, a suburb just across Interstate 45 from Friendswood. After carpooling her kids to school, Gail, a former high school cheerleader, could be found at a La Madeleine, sipping coffee and chatting with other beautiful mothers. She had flawless alabaster skin, eyes as brown as almonds, and a pixieish Dorothy Hamill-like hair cut. Compared with other neighborhood wives, her breast implants were not overly large. But after her divorce in November 2000, she moved to a smaller home in an ungated neighborhood, and she eventually started looking for work. When she was hired by Space Center Orthodontics in August 2001, she was making only about $1,800 a month—hardly the kind of money she was used to. But she did like the job, in part because she got along famously with the orthodontist. Dr. Harris started lingering at the front desk to talk to her. In late February 2002 he quietly asked her if she would like to have lunch at Perry’s Restaurant. By April or May, they were intimate. They began meeting at the Nassau Bay Hilton, the site of his wedding reception, where the rooms had views overlooking the water.
That’s where David had asked Gail to meet him on July 24. He used cash to purchase a room under an assumed name, and together they walked into an elevator and headed upstairs. When they came back down, about an hour