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Murder by Mercedes?

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The Hilton Houston NASA Clear Lake Hotel boasts easy access to the Johnson Space Center and stunning views of a lake with an 83-boat marina. But on the evening of July 24, all eyes were riveted on the ghastly spectacle in the parking lot. Just before 9 p.m.—and just after she had discovered her husband of 10 years in the hotel lobby with his mistress—police say dentist Clara Harris, 44, rammed her husband, David, also 44, with her silver Mercedes-Benz, then ran over him three times before stopping directly on top of his body. Her explanation, as she was being led away to jail: “It was an accident.”

Far-fetched, perhaps, but David’s death did have at least one thing in common with a bloody traffic accident: People just can’t avert their eyes from it. Now something of a cause célèbre, the apparent crime of passion exposed a particularly bizarre and sordid love triangle. That evening, Clara Harris found her husband, a successful orthodontist with properties and businesses throughout the state, in the company of Gail Bridges, a former marketing employee of David’s who had already gained a certain notoriety. Last year the divorced mother of three had appeared with a female friend on The Sally Jessy Raphael Show to defend themselves against charges put forward by their then husbands that they were lesbian lovers. (Bridges, 39, and her friend Julie Knight both deny having an affair.) Deeply upset by David’s death, Bridges has remained in seclusion ever since. “Gail is quite traumatized,” says her lawyer Valorie Davenport.

Hardly a surprise, given the events of July 24. David had admitted to his affair even before Clara received a telephone tip that he and his paramour would be meeting that night at the hotel, not far from the $560,000 white-brick home the couple shared with their 3-year-old twin boys, Brian and Bradley, in an upscale enclave of Friendswood, Texas.

Eyewitnesses say Clara entered the lobby with David’s daughter from a previous marriage, Lindsey Nicole Harris, 16, who happened to be visiting from Ohio. Clara allegedly tore off Bridges’s blouse, and Lindsey beat her father with a purse, shouting, “I hate you, I hate you!” while hotel employees, who at first tried to break up the fight, called the police for help. Moments later, according to Harris County prosecutors, David had just finished walking Bridges to her SUV when Clara ran over him repeatedly. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. Apparently horrified by the violence, Lindsey allegedly punched her stepmother in the face before Clara was arrested by Nassau Bay police. She has been charged with murder, and although police say Clara admitted the crime while being questioned, George Parnham, Clara’s attorney, says his client will plead not guilty.

Baffled by the sudden and violent turn of events, one friend of the couple’s says she saw no signs of serious discord. “They just seemed so happy together, content,” says hairdresser Libia Petkovich, 42, who knew the couple for nine years and chatted with David when he came to collect Clara just two days before his death. The pair, who both studied at the Dental Branch of the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, were married in 1992 after David, the son of a retired school administrator from Pearland, Texas, was divorced from his first wife. Clara, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Colombia, was said to be overjoyed when she became pregnant with the couple’s twins after years of trying. After their birth she continued working while a nanny tended the kids. “You’d never know they were having problems,” says Petkovich.

But evidently they were—and here the already tangled tale gets more twisted. Earlier on the day of David’s death, Clara hired a firm of private eyes known as Blue Moon Investigations to follow her husband. Ironically, she chose the same investigators Gail Bridges’s ex-husband had hired to snoop on his spouse when he suspected she was having an affair with her best friend, Julie Knight, two years ago. Bobbi Bacha, owner of the firm, says she was surprised when she belatedly realized that Blue Moon detectives had twice been hired to investigate Gail Bridges, but absolutely shocked by the viciousness of Clara Harris’s alleged rampage. “It’s weird,” says Bacha, 43, “that a woman who pretty much knows what her husband is doing, and who he doing it with, would suddenly snap.”

As it happened, a Blue Moon surveillance crew was in the hotel parking lot on the night of David Harris’s death and captured the alleged murder on videotape, which the company has turned over to police. It may prove to be the final irony in a case already rife with strange coincidences: The evidence that Clara Harris—now free on $30,000 bond—paid to have collected may well be used against her in court. “Never in a million years would I have imagined someone like her doing this,” says her friend Libia Petkovich. “I know she loved him. I don’t think she’ll ever be happy again.”

Patrick Rogers

Gabrielle Cosgriff and Steve McVicker in Houston