Andy Harris came to the courtroom Friday with a lengthy prepared statement: a tribute to Robert “Bob” Harris, the former U.S. Forest Service supervisor for the Tahoe basin and the father he loved and idolized.
In his written text, the son was also going to ask the judge to show no mercy for his stepmother, Colleen Harris, 73, the woman who had “murdered my dad in cold blood.”
But after stepping up to the court lectern, Andy Harris, a Grass Valley attorney, couldn’t compose himself to read. His voice stammered. He began to weep. He junked the script and just started talking.
Colleen Harris would show no emotion minutes later when the judge sent her to prison for 50 years to life.
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Yet, for a fleeting moment, she turned back and looked at her stepson as Andy Harris began: “There is no doubt in my mind the defendant maliciously, hatefully, shot my dad while he was sleeping.”
He went on about his deep depression and enduring shock over the murderous act of a woman the family had come to know as “Grandma Cokie.”
“Someone else has died,” the oldest of Bob’s two sons continued, referring to Colleen. “It was the woman who we thought that we all knew, that we loved as our own. … Now that person is dead. All the pictures. All the videos, all the memories (of Colleen) have been destroyed. They’re gone, because this hurts so bad.”
Only then did Colleen, handcuffed and dressed in an orange jail smock, tear up behind her wire-rimmed glasses.
A jury on April 14 found the Placerville land surveyor guilty of first-degree murder for the January 2013 killing of Bob Harris, 72, her third husband, in their home on Wilderness Way. Bob Harris was a known as a baseball umpire, sheriff’s volunteer and globetrotting conservationist.
The killing was described as Colleen’s final act of romantic obsession, of murdering a husband out of fear of losing him.
Prosecutor Joe Alexander said during the trial that Colleen aimed a 12-gauge shotgun behind her husband’s left ear as he slept. He said she pulled the trigger, blowing out his face, because she was distraught over an extramarital affair Bob had with a younger woman overseas.
“She shot and killed him because she loved him,” Alexander had said when her sensational trial opened.
Her trial followed another lurid case nearly three decades ago. In 1986, then-Colleen Batten was acquitted in the same turn-of-the-century Placerville courthouse for gunning down her second husband, James Batten, 46, the year before.
In the earlier trial, the jury bought a defense claim that Colleen was a victim of sexual abuse who acted in self-defense but otherwise had blacked out over the details of when she shot Batten dead.
This time around, Colleen Harris claimed that Bob Harris’ death was a terrible tragedy, again shrouded by the “gray fog” of traumatic memory loss.
In three days of testimony, her stories shifted. First she said Bob had a gun in bed and was suicidal. Later, she said he wasn’t suicidal. She then suggested it was an accident as they grappled for the gun. Finally, she acknowledged the gun was in her hands.
This time, the jury convicted her of first-degree murder, rejecting lesser counts of second-degree murder, manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter.
Before pronouncing sentencing Friday, El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Kenneth J. Melikian said the evidence against Colleen Harris in her husband’s killing “was overwhelming.”
“In all my years as a practicing trial attorney, and my six years as a judge, I have seen very few acts more selfish or self-centered than that in this case,” Melikian said.
Colleen Harris looked passively at the judge. She declined an opportunity to speak.
The 50-years-to-life sentence Melikian handed out means that Colleen, with credit for time served, would have to live past age 120 to be considered for parole.
Bob Harris’ daughter, Los Angeles police Detective Pam Stirling, told the judge Friday that she wished that Colleen Harris had been convicted – and sentenced – decades ago.
“In both trials, the defendant conveniently lost her memory … and concocted the ‘I was in a fog’ defense, which we all know is an obvious lie,” Stirling said.
She added: “My longtime fears were confirmed that the defendant … appropriately called ‘The Black Widow,’ also murdered her second husband, James Batten.”
Bob Harris had known Colleen since they met at a campground during their high school years. They married in 1990, after Bob’s divorce from his first wife. He knew about James Batten’s killing, but simply told family members that Colleen had lived a hard life, that he loved her and wanted to marry her.
Stirling said her father grew unhappy with Colleen years later and wanted out of the marriage.
Bob Harris became romantically involved with another woman, a teacher and doctoral candidate known as “Aza,” while he was working on conservation projects for the Tahoe Baikal Institute in Mongolia. The group works to protect deep blue lakes, Tahoe and Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia.
Colleen Harris learned of the affair in September 2012. Stirling said her father soon began to fear Colleen after he returned home from Mongolia that same month.
The night before Bob Harris’ body was found Jan. 6, 2013, Colleen Harris sent Stirling a text, complaining that her husband had just called his paramour in Mongolia.
The next day, Stirling said in court Friday, supervisors at the Los Angeles Police Department urgently called her into a meeting. Describing “the worst day of my life,” she told how she asked whether her husband and children were OK. She said they assured her they were, but looked at her with “distraught faces.”
“A gut-wrenching fear engulfed my body as I asked, ‘It’s my dad! She killed him, didn’t she?’” Stirling said. “I just knew.”