Since his wife disappeared in 2001, with no body found and no answers about her fate, a shroud of suspicion has hung over Cal Harris. The car-dealership owner from rural Spencer, N.Y., has been tried and convicted twice for killing Michele Harris and has served more than three years behind bars for her murder. But both verdicts were overturned, and he is now building a defense for a third trial while trying to stay connected to four kids who have grown up watching their dad travel back and forth to prison. “I just remember crying like a baby because I was so relieved and excited to have him there,” says daughter Cayla, 19, recalling her senior recognition night on the high school lacrosse field months after Cal was freed on bond in October 2012. Adds her brother Taylor, 20: “It doesn’t feel like a family when he’s not home.”
BURDEN OF PROOF
“The emotions have been from one extreme to the other,” says Cal, who was released in October 2012 after three years in prison.
Their mother vanished on the night of 9/11, at a time when the Harris children, who now range in age from 15 to 20, were too young to have memories of her. But now they are old enough to grasp the high stakes—and speak publicly in their father’s defense. On Jan. 21 potential jurors who could send Cal, 53, to prison for life, were scheduled to gather in a Schoharie County courtroom to decide whether he killed Michele, 35, in the midst of a bitter divorce. Once again blood-spatter evidence that investigators say proves murder and that the defense says is “thin” will be presented, reopening wounds that have scarred two families during 14 years of accusations and mystery surrounding the disappearance. “I’m just fighting to survive for these kids,” says Cal. “Nobody on the face of this earth deserves to be treated as I have.”
A Circumstantial Case
Blood spatter in the garage and kitchen of the Harris home helped convict Cal Harris in 2007 and 2009. But with no weapon found, experts—including Paul Kish, above, testifying for the defense in the second trial—were divided over the date and cause of the blood. One appellate judge, summarizing a prosecution expert, wrote in 2011 that the spatter amounted “to no more than 10 drops in the garage, and one drop in the alcove…. Indeed, the police found no signs of a struggle in the house or injuries on [Cal Harris’s] body to suggest a violent encounter.”
Prosecutors—and Michele’s family—say the earlier verdicts were correct. The motive alleged in court: In the midst of a toxic split, Cal, whose net worth was estimated at $5.4 million at the time Michele filed for divorce in January 2001, wanted to avoid a costly payout. Michele, who met her husband working as a secretary in one of his car dealerships, had rejected a settlement granting her primary child custody and $740,000. A trial and further appraisal of Cal’s business interests were scheduled. After Michele had drinks the previous night with coworkers, then stopped at her boyfriend’s apartment, her minivan was found on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, at the end of the Harris home’s quarter-mile driveway, the key still in the ignition. (Although estranged, the couple lived separately under the same roof with their kids.) Investigators found no weapon but did find spattered blood in the garage and an adjacent kitchen alcove. Further building the circumstantial case: evidence alleging a pattern of intimidation aimed at his wife by Cal, from opening and closing a shotgun in a threatening manner in Michele’s presence in 1996 to a 2001 phone conversation overheard by her hairdresser. “Drop the divorce proceedings,” Cal said, according to testimony. “Do you hear me? I will [expletive] kill you. I can make you disappear.” Said Michele’s sister-in-law Shannon Taylor in a June 2014 interview with CBS: “Twenty-four people totally agreed that he was guilty.”
But after both verdicts were put aside (see timeline), his defense team says there is more than reasonable doubt about Cal’s guilt, and they are aided by an appellate court judge, Bernard J. Malone, whose dissent in a 3-1 majority ruling backing the second guilty verdict made another retrial possible. “It seems that from Sept. 12, 2001, forward, [Cal Harris] was presumed guilty by police, the district attorney, and [the victim’s] family and friends,” Malone wrote. That, said the judge, shifted the burden of proof to Cal to show his innocence—even as the investigation revealed that when she vanished, Michele was involved with two men: the boyfriend she visited on the night of her disappearance and, in Malone’s words, “an admitted cocaine abuser who had previously assaulted a woman.” No others have ever been charged, and Tioga County District Attorney Kirk Martin declined to comment to PEOPLE. “They have fixated on Cal from the beginning of this, and they are just not going to admit they got it wrong,” says Cal’s attorney Bruce Barket. “We’ve made big strides in—I don’t want to say solving the case, but I certainly do feel confident we know who committed the crime, and it wasn’t Cal.”
“I believe in him,” says Tanner (far left), who supports his dad along with siblings (from left)Jenna, Cayla and Taylor.
The Harris children were ages 2 to 7 the last time they saw their mother. “I don’t remember her, so it’s hard to imagine my life with her,” says daughter Jenna, now 17. But they are steadfast in supporting their father’s innocence. “I believe in him,” says son Tanner, 15. Adds Cayla: “He might not have gotten along with my mom toward the end, but I know he loved my mom very much, and he tells me all the time she was a beautiful person, a great mother, and he would never do anything to hurt the mother of his children.”
But for now, the siblings are bracing themselves for their father’s third murder trial and holding tightly to one another. Cayla will remain at home during her first years in college to care for Jenna and Tanner should her father go back to prison. Recently Cal and his children gathered for a family competition in which they played games of pool, had putting contests and tossed rings over the antlers of a mounted deer; the losers did the dishes. “I wanted to make sure we spent a lot of time together and made it memorable,” says Cayla. “It was nice to see the whole family enjoying each other.” Meanwhile her father is trying hard not to focus on the possibility of a third murder conviction: “I try to block that out.”