(Editor’s note: This is the second part in a two-part series about the Jennifer Harris case. Click here for the first part.)
At the time that former Fannin County Sheriff Talmadge Moore was investigating the death of 28-year-old Bonham resident Jennifer Harris, the Fannin County District Attorney was a man named Myles Porter. The district attorney had recently lost a capital murder case involving the death of Whitewright Police Cpl. Jim Lamance, 53, in December of 2000.
In 2002, Porter tried, but didn’t convict, a man named Richard Hicks for shooting Lamance and attempting to kill his younger brother, Kevin Lamance, who was a reserve officer with the Whitewright department. The older Lamance had been on duty with his brother riding along in a patrol car when they chased a truck that resembled one Hicks had recently purchased. The chase began along Grayson County back roads after an alleged traffic infraction. They ended up in Fannin County, and the truck pulled off into a field.
After a short standoff, Cpl. Lamance was shot in the head and his brother said the shots came from the truck in the field. The truck then took off after Kevin Lamance fired his weapon at it. Hicks was arrested at his home sometime later. He admitted that he had led Cpl. Lamance on chases through the back roads previously, but denied being in the truck that the Lamance brothers chased into the field that night.
The case seemed to divide the county with people writing letters to the editor of this paper proclaiming Hicks’ innocence and others swearing that the authorities had stopped a cop killer. The acquittal in 2002 did little to settle the uproar.
Jennifer Harris’ naked body was found by fisherman floating in the Red River on May 18, five days after she went missing. When the rumor mill in Fannin County started churning out possible suspects for Jennifer Harris’ death, Porter’s name made the short list.
T. Moore, as the former sheriff is commonly known, said he didn’t believe it from the onset. Asked to comment on the case as it approached its 15th anniversary, Porter’s responses showed that the situation still rankled after all these years.
“I didn’t know Jennifer Harris, never met her and never heard of her,” Porter said.
Jennifer Harris’ family members have said all along that they have never had any reason to suspect Porter in her death. But the rumors kept on going.
“A year after she was found, one of my secretaries was at Walmart and heard people saying that I had been arrested, is how I heard about it (his supposed connection to Jennifer Harris),” Porter said recently.
Even though he never met her, the persistent rumors cost Porter the election. He said he traced it back to Hicks’ supporters.
Hicks was later sent to federal prison after a federal jury, in District Judge Paul Brown’s court, found him guilty of using a gun in violation of a protective order issued well before Lamance’s death. The judge cross-referenced the case to sentence Hicks to 15 years in prison after finding that there was evidence that Hicks had fired the gun that killed Lamance.
Mike McClellan was the Fannin County Sheriff’s Office investigator credited with finding the two, spent 30-30 shell casings that were matched to a rifle found in Hicks’ home. McClellan later left the FCSO and moved to Oregon and then Oklahoma. His obituary says he was survived by “his soul mate Lynn Lamance” — the widow of Cpl. Lamance.
T. Moore said McClellan, and the other deputy who worked on the Harris case a great deal, David Perkins, were both still at the FCSO when he left.
Former Sheriff Kenneth Moore said the case he inherited from his predecessor in 2005 was long on interviews and paperwork but short on concrete evidence.
“I mean you got a body in the river and you have to go from there,” he said.
But where to go from there wasn’t the easiest question to answer.
Kenneth Moore said by the time he got the case, there had been hundreds of man hours spent on it by the FCSO, the Texas Rangers and the state’s cold case squad.
Despite the fact that so many people had worked on it by then, it was still in pretty good order. He said some parts of it were stored under lock and key in another facility, but the case files were never damaged or rifled through. Kenneth Moore acknowledged that he had heard a rumor one of his staff members was working on a book about the case but said he never knew enough about that to even comment on it.
What he did comment on was the fact that so many people knew so much about the case. Kenneth Moore said generally law enforcement wants to hold something back to be able to test anything someone tells them about the case. It seemed like there was an awful lot of information about the Jennifer Harris case out there though. If someone does come forward now, Kenneth Moore said, law enforcement is going to need something to test any statements with and he is not sure what is left for that.
The next new sheriff, Donnie Foster, was an old hand at the FCSO, having been Kenneth Moore’s chief deputy. He had also been on the Red River the day they pulled Jennifer Harris from the water.
“I inherited a mess when I took over,” Foster said recently. “There was not much in the way of evidence to it. Anything and everything was all thrown in together and that is the way that it was when I got it.”
Current Fannin County District Attorney Richard Glaser also said the case is in terrible shape. Over the years since he was elected, Glaser has given the Sheriff’s Office money to help investigate the case. Glaser said the case is in such bad shape now, with missing evidence and other evidence that people question, he would have to look really hard at it before even presenting it to a grand jury.
Glaser said everyone wants to see Jennifer Harris and her family get the justice they deserve, but he has to have faith in the charges before he can file them. Glaser said he was with Jerry Harris the day he sat down at the Fannin County Courthouse and opened the package that was supposed to be the clothes he turned into the FCSO. Glaser confirmed Jerry Harris immediately said those weren’t the clothes he turned in.
Both T. Moore and Foster were there the day Jennifer Harris was pulled from the water and both said Oklahoma had claim to the case. They also said the autopsy was done in Oklahoma.
Foster said there were really three investigations. Bonham Police had the missing person’s report filed by Jennifer Harris’ grandmother. Fannin County had the abandoned-car case from Jennifer Harris’ Jeep being found out by Lake Bonham, and Bryan County, Oklahoma, had a body found in the river.
Bonham Police Chief Mike Bankston, however, said the city doesn’t have a missing person’s case in its records for Jennifer Harris.
Bill Sturch, the Bryan County sheriff at the time of Jennifer Harris’ death, said his undersheriff, Bill Hamby, was at the scene when the body was pulled from the river. Hamby, who died in June of 2002, talked with the Fannin County sheriff.
“The sheriff says, ‘Well, we’re familiar with who she is, we have a pretty good idea what happened, and we’re going to handle it if you don’t mind,’” Sturch said. “I said, go ahead.”
Sturch, who retired in 2012, said he isn’t quite sure what happened, but it should have been their case. Oklahoma has jurisdiction over the river to the south banks. He said that it didn’t seem Fannin County wanted their help, and he noted they have worked together well before and after this case.
“I think it should have been our case anyway,” Sturch said. “I can’t believe the Fannin County sheriff kept the body, when in the legal world it was ours. We may not have wanted it, but it was based on where she was found.”
Fannin County authorities didn’t make any official requests for assistance from Bryan County, Sturch said. He noted his office had opportunities to talk with people along the river who may have seen something and information might have come forward.
“I thought it was sure odd that nobody ever made a contact with me from the Texas side,” Sturch said. “We could have handled cases that would have involved her, or someone who might have been involved with this situation that went on — saw something or knew something and just didn’t say anything.”
Foster said he did call the Bryan County authorities about the case after he became sheriff and was told that it had been filed away. Foster asked that the records be sent, but he never heard back from anyone.
Sturch said BCSO never conducted an official investigation, and only Hamby filed a report on his early involvement in the case.
The person who kept Oklahoma at arm’s length could have been the lead investigator on the case, McClellan. Jerry Harris said McClellan had a way of making other people feel unwelcome to any part of the case. Jerry Harris said he heard McClellan tell FBI agents their help wasn’t needed in the case.
“People were never into facts when it came to this case,” Foster said, adding he never had any single investigator assigned to the case.
But the rumor mill ran rampant.
“If you answered one thing, they came up with something else,” Foster said, explaining the case started to again influence local elections.
Foster found himself fighting a public relations nightmare when word got out that he had talked to a representative from a television cold case show called “Cold Justice,” which asked him to be allowed to come in and look at the case. Foster said the show canceled on him several times, and he was doing what he could to try to get them to look at the case. The movement "Justice for Jennifer," Foster said, whipped people up to the point that they were acting like Foster didn’t want to solve the case. That couldn’t have been further from the truth, he said, but, like every sheriff before him, he said they had to have more to go on.
Mark Johnson, Fannin County’s current sheriff, thinks the $25,000 reward that Jennifer Harris’ family has managed to raise might be a step in the right direction. The family is trying to raise up to $50,000. Jerry Harris had once offered a reward up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of his daughter’s killer but withdrew it because, Johnson said, he got tired of dealing with the people who didn’t have anything useful to offer.
Johnson said he told Jerry Harris they were going to get those calls, but someday, they might also get one that would lead them to just the right person or piece of information. Johnson has handed the case over to a member of his staff who he says is skilled at putting things in order, and Jerry Harris said he has more hope for the case than he has had in a long time.
Exhausted from years of fighting for his daughter’s face and name to stay in people’s minds, while also fighting to protect her reputation from those who like to whisper about who she might have been seeing and what might have led to her death, Jerry Harris said he is hoping they finally get some of the luck that has so eluded them in this case.
Jennifer Harris might be local folklore to some, but to Jerry Harris, she is still just his much loved and greatly missed little girl.
Herald Democrat reporter Alex Maxwell contributed to this article.