15 years later, Harris mystery haunts family, law enforcement

Jerrie Whiteley, Herald Democrat
Jennifer Harris

(Editor’s note: This is the first part in a two-part series about the Jennifer Harris case.)

Jennifer Harris was 28 and at a crossroads as Mother’s Day approached in 2002. Some say the Bonham resident thought — perhaps hoped or maybe worried — she might soon be a mother herself.

Her father, Jerry Harris, has said in countless interviews that she was trying to start her life over.

But fate wouldn’t give Jennifer Harris that chance. On May 12, 2002, she left a group of friends after telling them she was going to meet someone. She got in her green, 2000 Jeep Wrangler and drove away, never to be seen alive again, at least by anyone who will talk about it.

Where did she go, who did she meet, what did they discuss, and what happened to her during that meeting are questions that have fascinated — and maybe tormented — two counties, at least four sheriffs, and countless other law enforcement officers for a decade and a half.

In separate interviews over the past several weeks, family members and each of those four Fannin County sheriffs discussed the case, a reward for information, and the possibility of the mystery ever being solved.

While Talmadge Moore, Kenneth Moore, Donnie Foster and Mark Johnson, all current or former Fannin County sheriffs, may disagree a lot about the case, there are a few things on which they agree — the case was a tricky one in the beginning with only circumstantial evidence and time hasn’t done it any favors.

How it began

When Jennifer Harris didn’t return home on May 13, her grandmother became concerned and reported her missing to the Bonham Police Department.

That same day, her green Jeep was found near Lake Bonham Hoe Down Hall on County Road 2680 in the unincorporated part of Fannin County. Five days later, on May 18, fishermen found her nude body floating in the muddy water of the Red River.

Her father remembers the day clearly.

“I was in Bonham at a friend’s house when a knock came on the door,” Jerry Harris recalled recently. “And it was Pat Porter, a friend of mine. He told me he heard on the police band radio where they had found a body believed to be a woman in the Red River.”

Jerry Harris said he immediately went to the river, where a large crowd was already gathered.

“Sheriff Talmadge Moore came up to me and said he was 90 percent sure that the body that was found was my daughter,” he said.

In a recent interview, T. Moore, as the former sheriff is commonly known, said there was no way he would have thought, as he stood there by the river that day, the case would take on the urban legend quality it has and that it would still be unsolved 15 years later.

“Lord, we worked that thing as hard as we could,” T. Moore said. “I know Jerry personally, and he is a good guy. It was a terrible thing, and everybody worked it as hard and diligently as we could.”

There were only ever two real suspects in the case. They had previously been identified only as Jennifer Harris’ ex-business partner and her ex-husband. In a recent interview, current Fannin County Sheriff Mark Johnson identified them by name as James Hamilton and Rob Holman.

James Hamilton, T. Moore said, took a lie-detector test and “passed it with flying colors.” Johnson said as far as his review of the case is concerned, “You can pretty much rule out Hamilton altogether.”

Holman, Jennifer Harris’ ex-husband, was supposed to take the test too. However, T. Moore said, Holman “lawyered up” shortly before he was to take the test, and, on the advice of counsel, refused to take it. Holman did not return numerous phone calls from the Herald Democrat seeking an interview. The attorney who represented him during the initial investigation into Jennifer Harris’ death, T. Moore said, has since died.

So have the two lead detectives, Mike McClellan and David Perkins, who were on the case when T. Moore was in office.

Allegations about a deputy

Jerry Harris has, for a number of years, made some startling allegations about McClellan, but he never made them to T. Moore.

Jerry Harris said McClellan seemed more interested in what he could make off the case than in solving it.

“He wanted me to find out what they wanted on her Jeep because he was interested in taking up payments on it and buying it for himself,” Jerry Harris recalled. “I told him I would have to check with her sister and her sister was outraged about it.”

McClellan never got the Jeep, but that wasn’t the only request he made that struck the grieving father as odd. McClellan also talked about wanting Jennifer Harris’ laptop for himself.

The laptop eventually went missing from evidence and has never been found.

McClellan left the Fannin County Sheriff’s Office on March 8, 2003, and moved out of state. He died in May of 2010.

T. Moore said not only did he not hear those allegations from Jerry Harris, even though the two men knew each other for years and continued to talk after T. Moore left office, but he never heard anything about that from McClellan.

“If it had been true, then he (McClellan) and I would have had a heart-to-heart discussion real quick, right then and there,” T. Moore said. “I am not going to say that Jerry is not being truthful, but I am gonna say that is the first that I have heard about that.”

He said he also never heard anything about Jerry Harris’ allegations that McClellan put him to work in the case.

“I remember Lt. McClellan began to give me chores to do to look into,” Jerry Harris said. “He more or less made me an unofficial investigator in the case. That’s what I remember is that the father of the victim was given chores to do and phone calls to make and things like that. He wanted me to call certain people and meet with certain suspects and check out where certain people were at certain times.”

Jennifer Harris’ uncle, Jeff Schneider, said McClellan also gave him tasks to do.

Schneider was given the job of matching names with a list of cellphone numbers from a phone bill the Fannin County Sheriff’s Office had received as part of its investigation. The family never received a reason from McClellan about why someone at FCSO wasn’t doing those things.

T. Moore shook his head upon hearing the allegations and said he can’t say those things didn’t happen, but he had never heard about them before. He said that certainly wasn’t the way investigations were supposed to be run during his administration.

Asked whether McClellan seemed trustworthy and competent when he worked at the FCSO, T. Moore said, “I’ll tell you this, if I hadn’t of felt that a way, he most definitely would not have been one of my investigators.”

One task that Jerry Harris took upon himself was continuing to look for evidence on the Red River. He said he and a man named Joe Todd found some clothes there on March 10, 2003, and turned them over to the FCSO. Jerry Harris said the clothes went missing at one point. He said he was told later they had been found again, but when he looked at them, he realized they weren’t the same clothes he had turned in. They were not the style of clothes that his daughter would have worn, he said, but no Fannin County sheriff since has ever publicly questioned the authenticity of the evidence.

T. Moore said he and his crew worked the case hard. But most of the evidence they had was still circumstantial. All of the sheriffs who have held charge over the case pointed out that getting an indictment in the case probably wouldn’t be that hard. They do have circumstantial evidence, but that is all they have.

Getting 12 people on a jury to think they have heard enough to clear reasonable doubt could be much harder, and the sheriffs said it is better to wait than blow their only shot by rushing to court.

Jennifer Harris — a former masseuse who graduated from Bonham High School and was living with her grandmother in Bonham when she disappeared on May 12, 2002. Her nude body was found in the Red River on May 18, 2002.

Jerry Harris – Jennifer’s father and the dominant force behind the effort to keep her case in the public eye until it is solved.

James Hamilton – a former business partner of Jennifer’s and one of two suspects mentioned but never named on the record in the case until this month. He took and passed a lie-detector test during the FCSO investigation into the case.

Robert Holman – Jennifer’s ex-husband and a suspect named by authorities off the record for years and recently on the record by Fannin County Sheriff Mark Johnson. Holman was scheduled to take a lie detector test but later changed his mind on the advice of his attorney.

Talmadge “T. Moore” Moore — sheriff when Jennifer’s body was found in the Red River.

Mike McClellan — one of two investigators on the Harris case for the first two years under T. Moore. Jerry Harris alleges McClellan had a significant interest in Jennifer’s possessions and assigned investigative tasks to members of the Harris family. McClellan died in 2010.

David Perkins — another investigator under T. Moore. Foster retired as a peace officer in 2008. He died in 2014.

Kenneth Moore — the second sheriff to work on the Jennifer Harris case.

Donnie Foster — a deputy under T. Moore and chief deputy under Kenneth Moore, who was on the scene the day Jennifer’s body was pulled from the Red River. He became Fannin County Sheriff in January 2011.

Mark Johnson — current Fannin County Sheriff. He defeated Donnie Foster in the last election and named Hamilton and Holman on the record.

Myles Porter — Fannin County District Attorney when Jennifer Harris died. He later faced rumors that he was connected to her death. The Harris family, all of the sheriffs who have worked on the case, and Porter have said he had nothing to do with her death.

James Lamance — Whitewright police officer killed in the line of duty after chasing a car along back roads into Fannin County in December of 2002.

Kevin Lamance — reserve police officer riding along with his brother James Lamance on the night James Lamance was killed.

Richard Hicks — Whitewright resident who was tried and acquitted of capital murder in the death of Whitewright Police James Lamance.

Paul Brown — U.S. District Judge who sentenced Richard Hicks to 15 years in prison after a jury convicted him of violating a protective order that had been issued well before the Lamance shooting. Brown ruled that there was evidence to believe that Hicks had killed Mr. Lamance and used a sentencing guideline to sentence him the same as if he had been convicted of second-degree murder.

Richard Glaser — current District Attorney in Fannin County who has given of his forfeiture fund to help pay for the investigation of the Jennifer Harris case.

“Cold Justice” — a television cold case program that talked with Foster about investigating the Jennifer Harris story. Foster said the show stopped calling him back but that didn’t keep people from hammering him because the show walked away from the case.

“48 Hours” — a television show that Mark Johnson said is currently looking at doing a show about the Jennifer Harris case.

Bill Sturch — five-term Bryan County, Oklahoma sheriff who retired in 2012. He was sheriff at the time of the case.

Bill Hamby — undersheriff for Bryan County who was at the scene whe the body was pulled from the river. He was the Oklahoma point of contact, and he died in June of 2002.

The people closest to the case