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 and a half later, Clara and Lindsey were standing in the lobby.
It is not known if David got a chance to say something to his daughter or to Clara. What witnesses remember is Clara lunging at Gail and screaming, “You bitch, he’s my husband!” Then she slapped at Gail, grabbed her shirt, and tore it off. She also shouted, “This is Dr. David Harris and he’s f—ing this woman right here!” At the same time, Lindsey began hitting her father with her purse, screaming, “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”
Hotel employees tried to intervene, but Clara, her rage building, kept grabbing at Gail. At one point, she and Gail were pulling on opposite ends of Gail’s shirt as if they were in a tug-of-war contest. Finally, according to one witness, David put his hand on his wife’s head, pushed her to the floor, and along with a hotel employee, quickly escorted Gail out the lobby doors to her car, a Lincoln Navigator, in one of the hotel’s parking lots.
The confrontation seemed to have ended. Hotel employees walked Clara and Lindsey back to the Mercedes in another parking lot and asked them to leave. Clara started the car. Suddenly, she gunned the engine and raced toward the parking area where her husband was standing with Gail. The Mercedes glanced off the Navigator and then hit David before he could get out of the way, propelling him 25 feet across the lot.
Witnesses heard Lindsey screaming. They saw her open the door and stick her feet on the ground, attempting either to escape or stop the car. But Clara again aimed her car at her husband’s crumpled body and pressed the accelerator. The Mercedes bounced twice as the front tires and then the back tires rolled over him. She whipped the car around, hit the accelerator again, and drove over her husband a second time. Then she did another one-eighty and ran over him a third time before coming to a stop.
According to witnesses, Lindsey then got out of the car, rushed around to the driver’s side, and punched Clara in the face. Then she collapsed on the ground and sobbed. When Clara got out of the car, she didn’t seem to know what to do, the witnesses said. She finally walked over to her husband. She stared at him. And then, she too began to sob. Before the police arrived to arrest her for murder, the witnesses added, she cradled him in her arms, and begged him to breathe. “I’m so sorry,” she was heard saying over and over. “David, I’m so sorry. I love you.”
The murder made headlines all over the world. One of the English tabloids nicknamed Clara the Driller Killer. The New York Post‘s headline tagged her “Mad Wife at Wheel.” On network television, the morning talk shows interviewed just about anyone they could find who knew something about her, and even the late-night comedians used her as fodder for jokes in their opening monologues. When Clara emerged from seclusion for her court appearance after her release from jail on $30,000 bail, nearly a dozen photographers were there to capture her every move. Perhaps because she didn’t want to be recognized in public, she had changed the color of her hair from reddish blond to dark brown. She sat in the courtroom between two friends, wearing an elegant teal pantsuit, staring straight ahead, blinking back tears. Her wedding ring was still on her left hand.
It was rare to find Clara not weeping, said her lawyer, George Parnham, who gained national attention last year for his sympathetic defense of Andrea Yates, the Houston mother who drowned her five children. Parnham told reporters that Clara was still having difficulty believing that David would never again walk through the front door of their home. A couple of her close friends told me they had spent nights at her home because they were afraid she would become suicidal if she was left alone for too long. The only thing that kept Clara going, they said, was her love for her sons, who were just about to reach their fourth birthdays.
For weeks, people could not stop talking about her. The scene of a vengeful suburban wife tearing off the blouse of her husband’s mistress, then furiously mowing down her husband, then having an abrupt change of heart and crying out for him to live, was so horrific, and so outlandishly dramatic, that it could have been lifted straight out of a classic film noir. Local radio talk shows were jammed with callers saying that Clara should not be severely punished for what she had done. More than one caller suggested that David had signed his own death warrant the moment he left the Hilton with Gail instead of with his wife and daughter. In the letters to the editor section of the Houston Chronicle, one writer blamed the entire fiasco on the other woman, Gail Bridges, for wanting to carry on an extramarital affair with David. Another blamed David for choosing to stray. Clara Harris, one woman wrote, had simply “acted out” the fantasy of every woman who learns her husband is having an affair.
Gail Bridges, like Clara, had also gone into seclusion for weeks after David Harris’ death, in part because of the public speculation about who she was and why she had become romantically involved with the orthodontist. Reporters quickly found out that this was not the first time she had been accused of having an affair. During Gail’s divorce proceedings, which began in 1999, Steve Bridges claimed that she had been carrying on a lesbian relationship with her best friend, Julie Knight, who was married to Charles “Chuck” Knight, a software specialist for an aerospace company. Chuck made the same allegations about his wife during their divorce. Neither husband ever presented any definitive evidence in court that proved a lesbian relationship, and Julie and Gail’s lawyer, Valerie Davenport, of Houston, later stated in a court filing that the tale had been invented by their husbands merely as a way to divert attention from their own “improper misconduct,” including, she alleged, the abuse of alcohol and prescription pills by Steve and an extramarital affair carried on by Chuck with one of Gail and Julie’s close friends (charges both Steve and Chuck deny). Still, for the media, the lesbian allegations gave the Harris saga an irresistibly salacious new twist.
And the story only snowballed when it was learned that Gail and Julie had appeared on a segment of the Sally Jesse Raphael show in 2001, wearing wigs and dark glasses, to talk about their former husbands’ attempts to portray them as lesbians. Soon, videocassette tapes of the episode, which had been titled “My Husband Spies on Me,” were in the hands of most Houston media outlets, and soundbites were being played on the local news shows. A photo of Gail in her wig was run in the Houston Chronicle. “Bisexual Triangle Led to Car Slay of Hubby,” the always-hyperbolic New York Post proclaimed. Gail Bridges had become the Hester Prynne of the Houston suburbs. Only she wasn’t wearing one scarlet letter. She was wearing two: an A and an L.
How had so many likable, normal people—known around their neighborhoods for their decency—found themselves entangled in such a saga? How had they ended up doing things to one another, and to themselves, that simply defied explanation? In many ways, what happened on July 24, and everything that led up to it, was the real-life version of one of those novels that are periodically published exploring that well-worn topic of American fiction: madness in the suburbs. “It is madness. There’s no other way to describe it,” Julie Knight told me one day, shaking her head slowly as we sat at a Joe’s Crab Shack in a sunbaked strip mall next to Interstate 45. “You really do think you have your life worked out. You really do think nothing can go too wrong. And now here we all are on the front pages of newspapers.”
One would be hard pressed to find a more pristine suburban world than the bedroom communities south of Houston. Almost everywhere you go there are new developments under construction, all of them made up of custom-built, split-level homes with “great rooms” that lead off the kitchen. In these neighborhoods, the small front yards are neatly landscaped and the sidewalks have no cracks. There are community swimming pools, soccer fields, and stop signs at every intersection. Residents go to churches where the sanctuaries look like civic center auditoriums, and there they give thanks for their good jobs, for their healthy children, and for their pretty homes with the pretty picture windows that look out on other pretty homes across the street. Probably none of them can imagine that someday they will need to visit Blue Moon Investigations, the suburbs’ most prominent private investigative agency, located on the second floor of the Morgan Stanley office building along Webster’s Bay Area Boulevard.
Blue Moon is owned by a chatty Rubenesque woman named Bobbi Bacha who wears long black or purplish dresses with granny boots and talks in such a cheerful, singsong voice that people who call her for the first time often mistake her for a teenager. The 43-year-old is not exactly a portrait of the hard-boiled detective: She always keeps a stack of decorating magazines in her car in case she needs something to read during stakeouts. Because she wants her clients to feel at home when they visit, she has given her offices a distinctly feminine touch, lining the walls with serene photographs of the moon, placing long-vined potted plants and small, gurgling fountains next to the windows, and burning cinnamon candles on her and her employees’ desks. To soothe her clients’ nerves, she serves them Constant Comment hot tea, never coffee.
Bobbi understands that marriage is an often flawed and disastrous institution. The daughter of a Galveston police officer, she began working as a secretary at a private investigative firm in the early eighties after her husband, her high school sweetheart, left her for another woman. After a second failed marriage, she began working nights for another private investigator to keep food on the table for her three children. Occasionally, when no baby-sitters were available, her children sat in the back seat of the car doing their homework or leafing through comic books while Bobbi tailed cheating spouses. She was good. After word got around about her lying under a dining room table with a tape recorder to catch a wealthy married man with another woman, she had full-time job offers from many of the dozen or so private-detective agencies in the Houston area. But sensing an opportunity to make her own mark in the mushrooming southern suburbs, she opened Blue Moon Investigations in 1995, taking out large ads in the area Yellow Pages with the headline “Need a Clue? Call Blue.”
Today, her business is thriving. On the various days that I visited with her, she was involved in the case of a wife wanting to know if the “thera-stress consultant” that her buttoned-down insurance executive husband was visiting was actually a massage-parlor prostitute, a husband wondering if his wife was having sex inside the family Suburban with cowboys she was meeting at a country-western bar, and an astronaut’s wife who thought her husband was making out with a secretary on his lunch break at the NASA complex. She has 38 assistant investigators, most of whom are younger women who work part-time, doing surveillance jobs at night after spending their day taking college classes or toiling away as schoolteachers, executive assistants, or salesclerks. Bobbi admits she prefers female investigators—”I think we are so much more naturally observant,” she says—but she does want people to know she’s an equal opportunity employer. Her chief investigator, Jeff Moore, is a former male stripper. And when Bobbi is overbooked, she gets her third husband, Lucas, a brainy Boeing engineer, to do surveillance work for her, despite the fact that he’s a bit of a Mr. Magoo who at restaurants will often circle the dining room a couple of times on his way back from the restroom because he’s forgotten where his table is located.
On the afternoon of January 27, 1999, Bobbi was about to leave the office when the phone rang. A man named Chuck Knight told her that he needed someone that evening to watch his wife, Julie, and her best friend, Gail Bridges. Chuck and his wife lived one neighborhood away from Gail and her husband, Steve, and the two couples were good friends. They went to the same church, Bay Harbor United Methodist. Their boys played on the same soccer team. They drank champagne together every New Year’s Eve at the Knights’ house. But for the past year, Chuck said, neighbors had started coming to him and Steve, asking why Gail and Julie spent so much time together—going to lunch, taking tennis lessons, sitting around at one or the other’s homes—while the husbands were away at work. Chuck said he began to have suspicions himself after watching Julie and Gail hugging and, he says, fondling each other when the two couples went out to dinner. The more time passed, and the more their marriages soured, the more Chuck and Steve thought they realized what was going on: Their wives must be lesbians. Chuck told Bobbi that he and Steve would be watching the children that evening so their wives could go shopping at the Baybrook Mall for a couple of hours and that he wanted the two of them followed. According to Bobbi’s notes, Chuck said to her, “But I bet they will go to a hotel. Or they might just pull over on the side of a highway to do their business. Gail has a boob job, and my wife will not be able to wait to touch those puppies.”
Bobbi sighed. She had promised her husband and children that she would get home early to fix dinner, and all of her investigators were already booked. But she did not want the male-owned-and-operated Turman and Associates, her chief competitor in the suburbs, to get Chuck’s business if she turned it down. She took his credit card number over the phone—Blue Moon charges $55 an hour, with a four-hour minimum, for a surveillance job—and she drove over to the Knight house in the Harbor Park subdivision of League City, where she waited for Gail and Julie to drive off in Gail’s Navigator.
Out came Julie, a curvy blonde with startlingly blue eyes, wearing blue jeans and a red Tommy Hilfiger top. Out came Gail in blue jeans and a pink top. The two women drove to the mall and visited a few stores, with Bobbi following at a safe distance. When they lingered at a Nine West shoe store, Bobbi walked in and sat near them, trying on shoes, including a pair of stiletto heels. Meanwhile, the two women swapped stories, laughing loudly, before finally heading back out of the mall, driving through a McDonald’s for soft drinks, and going home.
The next day, Bobbi told Julie’s husband, Chuck, that they had acted like Wilma and Betty from the Flintstones and that there was nothing at all lesbianlike about their behavior. The only time they got physically close, she said, was when their heads briefly moved toward each other in the car.
According to Bobbi, Chuck asked her to “inflame” that part of the report and make it seem worse than it was. (Chuck says he never asked Bobbi to inflame anything, nor did he refer to Gail’s breasts as “puppies.”) “Mr. Knight, you do know that women are different than men?” asked Bobbi in response. (Besides her ability to hide in closets and sneak onto hotel room balconies, Bobbi also likes to think of herself as a kind of therapist who can help her clients better understand human behavior.) “Even if two women kiss or hug, it doesn’t mean they are sexually active with one another. Not at all.” Chuck hung up, and so Bobbi filed the case away and turned to her next piece of business.
Then, in mid-July 1999, Julie and Gail showed up at her office. As they sipped hot tea, they told Bobbi that they had both filed for divorces from their husbands within a week of one another, and they went into all the standard horror stories about bad husbands that Bobbi had heard thousands of times. Among their complaints was that their husbands had been threatening to expose them in court as lesbians, which they said was preposterous. They thought their spouses might be using the lesbian tactic to force them into agreeing to out-of-court settlements that would leave them with less than their fair share of the community property.
Julie said she wanted her husband tracked to see what he might be hiding. (Gail backed out of hiring Bobbi at the last minute, saying she wanted to try to keep the peace between her and Steve during their divorce.) Bobbi had one of her investigators tail Chuck, who began noticing that he was visiting the house of a friend down the street and that another woman was showing up at that house about the same time. Then Bobbi’s investigator caught Chuck and this other woman flying off to Tampa, Florida, for a weekend trip. The woman was Laurie Wells, a part-time baton-twirling instructor and the wife of Steve Wells, a respected suburban remodeling contractor. When Bobbi brought in Julie and Gail to deliver her report, the two women’s mouths dropped open. The three women and their husbands had once been good friends. Gail had met Laurie at a Lamaze class and then invited her to Bay Harbor Methodist.
Before too long, all three couples—the Knights, the Bridgeses, and the Wellses—were finalizing their divorces, and it was not pretty. The spouses kept trooping off to court with accusations of all sorts of misbehavior, sexual and otherwise. They got into shouting matches at the mall and left threatening messages on each other’s voice mail. Julie found her house vandalized, which she blamed on Chuck and Laurie and Steve Bridges. Chuck occasionally followed Julie in his car. During one episode, Julie claims he stuck his middle finger out of his driver’s side window while she stuck a camera out of her sunroof, snapping photos of him to show to a divorce judge. And in one of the more heated court skirmishes, Gail and Julie accused Chuck and Steve of taping their phone calls and then splicing the conversations together so that the two wives would appear to be swapping sexually suggestive comments about such activities as eating ice cream. After Julie and Gail paid a visit to the district attorney’s office, both men were indicted on felony charges of illegal wiretapping. (Charges against Steve were later dropped, but charges against Chuck are still pending.)
By late last year, everyone was officially divorced. Chuck and his new girlfriend, Laurie Wells, both of whom had gotten little property in their divorces, moved into a small apartment together. Steve Wells had full custody of the Wellses’ two girls, in part because Laurie had called him and said she was going to teach the children to hate him, a phone call that he taped and later played before a judge. In her divorce settlement, Julie got full custody of her and Chuck’s two children, but she was continually returning to court to ask for protective orders against Chuck, who she claimed was stalking and harassing her and the children. As for Gail, she got custody of the two youngest children while Steve got custody of the eldest. She and the two kids moved into a smaller house nearby, and then Gail got a job at Space Center Orthodontics.