Dressed in a petite pink blazer with a black turtleneck, Colleen Harris, 72, settled into a familiar seat Wednesday – at the defense table, on trial for killing another husband.
Nearly three decades after she was acquitted in the shotgun killing of her second husband, she listened as a prosecutor described in opening statements how she gunned down her third husband amid her heartbreak and fury over his extramarital affair.
Harris, a Placerville land surveyor, is charged with killing husband Robert “Bob” Harris, 72, a retired U.S. Forest Service supervisor, conservationist and avid baseball umpire, at their home in January 2013.
Before a crowded courtroom gallery, she watched as El Dorado County Deputy District Attorney Joe Alexander laid out a narrative on her deep affection for Harris and, ultimately, her decision to shoot him dead with a shotgun blast as he slept.
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Colleen “had loved him since they were teenagers,” Alexander said. She and Bob reunited late in life and married in 1990. But in 2012, Bob Harris had an affair with a younger woman he met while doing environmental work in Mongolia.
That Christmas, as she was recovering from hip replacement surgery, Colleen Harris discovered that her husband had sent his overseas lover a necklace, Alexander said. Then, on Jan. 5, 2013, she caught Bob Harris stepping outside of the house to make a cellphone call to the other woman.
Colleen sent an anxious text to Harris’ daughter, Pam Stirling.
“Between you and me, as I sit here wondering who I am married to, your dad just called his Mongolia love about 10 minutes ago,” Harris said in the text, which was read in court by both Alexander and Stirling, the prosecution’s first witness Wednesday. “When he came back in his whole being was so different, so bubbly.”
A day later, Alexander said Bob Harris was killed in bed with a 12-gauge shotgun blast at close range. And he told jurors it wasn’t the first time Colleen Harris had done that.
“There is something else you need to know,” Alexander said.
In 1986, the former Colleen Batten was acquitted of murder in the same Placerville courthouse where she is facing trial now.
The prosecutor in 1986, Walt Miller, said Batten shot her husband, James Batten, 46, with a .410-bore shotgun as he was reading a newspaper in bed. Miller said she then finished him off with a second round at close range, before planting a pistol on the bed to make it appear as a self-defense killing.
In the spectacular murder case – featuring a local newspaper headline, “Colleen Batten – murderess or martyr?” – the defense argued she had acted in self-defense. The jury found her not guilty after she claimed James Batten held a pistol to her head, sexually assaulted her and bragged about abusing a daughter.
But Alexander said Wednesday that wasn’t exactly what Colleen Harris told sheriff’s detectives hours after Bob Harris was killed. He said she brushed off questions from detectives asking about her previous husband’s death.
“Oh, I don’t remember,” the prosecutor said she answered. “(Batten) may have been having an affair with the neighbor’s wife and I may have shot him.”
When detectives asked if she had been a suspect in that murder, Alexander said Colleen replied, “Isn’t the wife always a suspect?”
Colleen Harris’ new trial spins on her alleged violent reaction to her third husband’s romantic betrayal. On Wednesday, Alexander told jurors: “You will reach only one conclusion – that this woman shot and killed her husband, Bob Harris. She shot and killed him because she loved him.”
On Wednesday, Harris was represented in court by the same lawyer, David Weiner, who won her acquittal in the earlier killing.
Weiner declined to offer an opening statement, saying he will do so later when the defense opens its case. In an interview, he said he will put his client on the witness stand to testify in her own defense.
“She will tell the truth,” Weiner said. “When she tells us, you will know what happened.”
Stirling, Bob Harris’ daughter and a Los Angeles police detective, testified Wednesday that Colleen began urgently texting and emailing her in September 2012 complaining that her father was having an affair.
At the time, Bob Harris had been in Mongolia since that June as a volunteer executive director for the Tahoe Baikal Institute. The organization is dedicated to sharing scientific information to protect two deep blue water lakes – Tahoe and Lake Baikal, the latter in eastern Siberia north of the Mongolian border.
Stirling testified that Colleen sent repeated texts expressing “a wide range of emotions ... sad, then hurt, surprised, ranging to anger” over learning from her son that Bob was having an affair with woman in her 30s named Aza.
Stirling said she had a warm relationship with Colleen, who was known to her children as “Grandma Cokie.” But she said she grew alarmed over the intensity of the texts and began forwarding them to her email account for storage purposes.
“They were very disturbing in a lot of ways because of the emotions that the defendant was expressing,” Stirling testified. “Her emotions were going up and down. I was concerned that we would end up where we’ve ended up today,” with another murder trial.
Weiner immediately objected, and Judge Kenneth J. Melikian ordered Stirling’s last two sentences stricken from the court record.
Harris’ son, Andy Harris, a Grass Valley attorney, said in an interview before the trial that his father had largely brushed off any worry about the death of Colleen’s previous husband.
Yet in court Wednesday, Stirling testified that their father was fearful when he came home from Mongolia in September 2012.
“Dad was worried for several reasons,” she said. “He was worried because her emails (to him) were all over the place. She was angry. She was sad ... He was fearful for his safety. He remembered the demise of her first husband.”
She said her father moved out of the Placerville home to a family cabin in South Lake Tahoe, where Colleen had already dumped his belongings. She said her father added extra locks at the cabin because he took medication to sleep and was afraid he wouldn’t awake if his wife ever came after him.
Yet family members said Bob Harris later returned to live in the Placerville home when Colleen was recovering from hip surgery in November 2012. Stirling testified Colleen started saying she believed the couple might reconcile.
But prosecutor Alexander said Colleen by Jan. 5, 2013, learned that her husband was moving back to the Lake Tahoe cabin.
“He trimmed the rose bushes today and tied up the grapes,” Colleen Harris said in her text to Stirling saying her husband had just called his mistress. “Is he planning on staying and sharing a life with me? I’m not sure … I don’t know what to do. I love him so much.”
The next day, Colleen Harris’ lawyer called police to report a homicide at her Wilderness Court address.
El Dorado sheriff’s Deputy Michael Roberts, one of the first to arrive, said he greeted Colleen Harris outside her house and asked for a description of her husband.
“She told me he was beautiful,” he testified.
Then, he said, Colleen broke down in tears.
Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.