Crime - Sacto 911

Placerville woman accused of murder ‘devastated’ by husband’s affair

On trial for murder, Colleen Harris, 72, leaves for a lunch break from El Dorado Superior Court on March 18. Harris is facing a second murder trial in the shotgun killing of another husband.
On trial for murder, Colleen Harris, 72, leaves for a lunch break from El Dorado Superior Court on March 18. Harris is facing a second murder trial in the shotgun killing of another husband. rbyer@sacbee.com

Three hours earlier, an El Dorado County deputy peeled back covers in her master bedroom and recoiled at what he saw.

Colleen Harris’ third husband, retired Tahoe basin Forest Service supervisor Robert Edward “Bob” Harris, 72, had been killed with a 12-gauge shotgun the first weekend of 2013. He was shot at close range from just beneath his left ear, leaving a gruesome exit wound on his face.

Yet Colleen Harris, in her interview with detectives, was relaxed and chatty. The Placerville land surveyor and outdoor enthusiast rested her right leg on a chair in front of her. She talked animatedly, in the present tense, about the man she loved. She spoke of him as if he were still alive, still in need of her affection, understanding and forgiveness.

Three decades earlier, Colleen, now 72, sat through a similar police interview. In 1985, her second husband, James Batten, 46, was killed in bed with another shotgun. She said he had been carrying on with a neighbor’s wife. She was acquitted after her defense lawyer argued she was a victim of sexual violence at the hands of a husband who had also abused her daughter.

This week, as the prosecution presented its case against her in another murder trial, the highlight was the videotape of Colleen Harris’ upbeat narrative provided to detectives after the killing of Bob Harris, a sheriff’s seniors volunteer, renowned baseball umpire and globetrotting conservationist.

Bob Harris made frequent trips to Mongolia and Russia as the volunteer executive director of the Tahoe Baikal Institute, a group dedicated to protecting two deep blue-water lakes.

Colleen Harris told detectives she learned in September 2012 that her husband was having an affair in Mongolia with a young woman named Aza. Yet she appeared to brush it off as a late-life crisis.

“He found this young girl in Mongolia, 34 years old, who made him feel like he was God,” she said in the videotaped interview. “I didn’t know that it had been going on for a year. Stupid me.”

After learning about the affair, Colleen Harris went on her husband’s computer and found love letters in his emails to the other woman. She searched the Internet for everything she could find about his overseas paramour, a teacher and doctoral candidate.

“I emailed my husband,” Colleen Harris told detectives. “I told him I was just devastated. I told him, ‘I’ve had time to think about this. I know I love you ... I know we can work this out.’ ”

Harris said she and her husband were repairing their marriage. She never said he was dead – or even seemed to acknowledge she was being interrogated in a homicide case.

The defense is expected to open its case Wednesday, with Harris taking the witness stand to explain why she should be found not guilty.

El Dorado County Deputy District Attorney Joe Alexander has portrayed her as a calculated killer based on her actions after the slaying.

Alexander presented crime scene investigators who testified that Colleen Harris used Windex to clean blood spatter off the ceiling above the master bed after the killing.

He introduced cellphone records indicating that she took off driving around 7:30 a.m. to San Francisco, where she dumped her husband’s cellphone, pistol and his treasured coin collection at a son’s house.

The prosecutor played a recording of her calmly calling the auto club for roadside assistance on the way back after her car spun out and stalled on Interstate 80 in Davis in the early afternoon. In another call, she laughed as she told the dispatcher she got the car started again and was on her way.

Shortly before 3 p.m., Harris called her attorney, David Weiner. Shortly after 3 p.m., prosecutors say, a cell tower reading suggested she ditched her phone somewhere near rural Mount Aukum.

It was 6 p.m. when Weiner, after speaking with Harris outside her rustic house on Wilderness Court in Placerville, reported to authorities there had been a homicide inside.

A few hours later, after a medical checkup at Marshall Hospital, Harris was in an interview room with detectives. She initially acted subdued and confused. She said she recalled her husband having a “bloody nose.” When told he was dead, she said, “Oh, my God … You’re joking right?”

She mentioned wrapping a quilted blanket over Bob so he wouldn’t get cold. Otherwise, she said, whatever happened was a “gray fog.”

Detective Sgt. Mike Lensing testified that Colleen Harris eagerly perked up in her interview when questions turned from Bob Harris’ death to his affair. Lensing said Colleen Harris got “more energy” and “I actually saw her sit up and engage.”

In the video, an upbeat Colleen Harris told him she was worried – even sympathetic – for her husband despite his betrayal. She said she lectured him after his return that “a 34-year-old girl is not going to fall in love with a 72-year-old man – guaranteed.”

“How is it going to work out with a rich, old American man fooling around with a younger woman?” she said she asked her husband.

Harris said her husband believed he had destroyed his reputation and that she was worried for him.

“Bob is very image-conscious,” she said. “I would be very worried he would do something to himself.”

The prosecution’s forensic pathologist, Dr. Gregory Reiber, later testified that this was no suicide. He said physical evidence suggested that Bob Harris was killed as he slept by someone holding a shotgun likely 3 to 6 inches above his head.

The prosecution introduced photographs showing bruising on a knuckle, something a sheriff’s deputy testified was consistent with firing a shotgun.

Before resting Thursday, the prosecution called Bob Theis, the responding deputy after second husband James Batten was killed in 1985. He testified Colleen asked him, “ ‘Is he dead?’ ” and “ ‘Did I shoot him?’ ” He said she then sobbed: “ ‘I want to die. God darn it. I loved him so much.’ ”

Earlier this week, authorities introduced Colleen Harris’ personal journal. Found in her kitchen, it offered a searing narrative of a woman hurt, angry and scorned.

Harris described her revulsion at reading romantic emails from her husband to the other woman. Referring to one vivid note from Bob to Aza, she wrote, “One sentence stayed with me: ‘I can’t wait to feel your naked body again.’ ”

“I am so deeply destroyed I don’t know where to begin,” Colleen Harris wrote.

She also wrote of dumping Bob Harris’ belongings at a Lake Tahoe cabin, where he moved after returning from Mongolia. She described the pain she felt over her husband “Skyping his lover in Mongolia” from the Tahoe cabin, adding: “Where do I fit in, his wife of 22 years?”

Bob Harris moved back into the Placerville home to care for Colleen Harris through the winter as she recovered from hip replacement surgery. Then, on Jan. 5, 2013, Colleen caught Bob making a phone call.

“I saw him outside talking on his cellphone, giggling and laughing,” she wrote in her final journal entry. “I checked his laptop and realized he was talking with this girl.”

She added: “What do I do? A knife to the heart … I am dying right now.”

The next day, another husband was found dead.

Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.

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