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When it can never be taken back

Story of abuse comes to an end — when a husband brings home a shotgun
Tuesday, November 23, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:21 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

There is no one kind of abuser. A National Institute of Justice study of a batterers’ counseling group from June 2003 described the participants as ranging from 19 to 71 years old, with monthly salaries ranging from $250 to $10,000.

“We have to be careful we don’t categorize our abusers in a certain fashion,” says Detective Jeff Westbrook of Columbia Police Department. “When it comes down to relationship stuff, people go berserk.”

Here is one man’s story.

Dannie Harris is 54 years old. He has salt-and-pepper hair. Large square shaped glasses cover his brown eyes. He sits at a long table, hands folded in his lap. He speaks softly, telling about the first time he saw Charlotte, who would later become his wife. She was 19 and he was 28.

“As soon as I looked at her I said, ‘That’s the kind of girl I need, right there.’ Something about her just stood out.”

To Harris, she was prettier than any other girl. She wore glasses and had boots like his. The attraction was mutual.

“I’ve been wanting to meet you,” were Charlotte’s first words to him.

They started dating. Charlotte moved in with Harris in nearby Marshall. They were married shortly after.

“We got along, I thought, pretty good. Building up,” Harris said.

Harris had various jobs while going to school to become a carpenter. Charlotte worked at Wal-Mart, becoming the manager of customer service.

They spent the next 15 years in Marshall. Two daughters were born, Carmelle and Chanelle.

“We had fights, not physical fights, just verbal fights, you know every marriage is going to have that,” Harris said.

But Harris says they were happy. He confided in Charlotte and she in him. “She was the love of my life.”

Then things changed.

In 1995, they moved to Columbia. Harris worked as a roofer, getting a lot of jobs as Columbia started a building boom. Charlotte got a job at Gerbes in the deli.

“One day she come in and said she was going to leave. I said, ‘Why? She said I don’t want to be around you any more.’ I said, ‘What did I do?’ She said nothing. ‘I just don’t want to be around you no more.’ She said, ‘I still love you, but it’s over.’ I couldn’t — couldn’t get it.”

She said the girls could stay with him if they wanted to. Carmelle chose to go with her mom.

“I took her. Found her an apartment. I paid the rent. I helped her furnish it.”

They were having some arguments about Carmelle, who was in trouble at school. He thought she wanted to get away from the stress. But he wasn’t sure.

“Something in the back of my head told me, said, ‘Something’s wrong.’ So instead of going to work, I started spying on her. With binoculars. And a rifle with a scope.”

What he saw was Charlotte with the manager of the deli at Gerbes. “I started seeing them leave and go here and go there together. So I asked her about it. And she said — he was the manager and she was the assistant manager, and they would go price-check things.

And I said price-check things — that don’t make no sense.

“How can you price check things going down Highway 70 back towards Marshall, back towards Boonville? Don’t make sense. She said, ‘You’re spying on me.’ I said, ‘Yeah I am. I want to know the truth.’ We had a few unnecessary words. She went her way and I went mine. So I just kept it, this hate, you know, building up.”

Harris didn’t have anyone in Columbia he could really talk to about what was happening, what he was feeling. His family told him Charlotte was no good. He should just drop her.

But then Charlotte accused Harris of breaking into her new apartment. Harris says it wasn’t him, that he was even out of town working when the burglary happened. Charlotte went over to Harris’ house to confront him.

“And the day she came over and accused me of breaking into her house, made me so mad I grabbed her throat ’cause I was thinking about her seeing this other guy. Then I realized what I was doing I let her go — well, she went out the door. Carmelle and Chanelle was next door, they both got in the car and she took off with them.”

Charlotte took her daughters to her aunt’s house.

Later that night, Harris was arrested for assaulting his wife. He would eventually plead guilty to the charge.

After a week alone, Harris called Charlotte and demanded the return of their younger daughter, Chanelle, who had chosen to stay with her father.

“I told Charlotte, Chanelle better be back here tonight or I’m coming up there. I said, I’ll kill the whole family.”

Charlotte brought Chanelle back to Harris. He was still upset.

“The hate just kept building up inside of me. And I told my lawyer, I said I need to talk to somebody, I said I’m slipping. (He said) ‘Oh, you’ll be OK.’”

But Harris was indeed slipping. “I took Chanelle back down to Marshall. I left her there with my niece. I told my niece ‘If I don’t come back, take care of her.’”

Harris drove back to Columbia and went by Charlotte’s new apartment. Charlotte and Carmelle were outside with one of Charlotte’s co-workers. When they saw Harris, Charlotte and Carmelle ran inside.

“Boyfriend got in his truck and left. I tried to stop him on the road, he wouldn’t stop, so I went on home. And I sat there. And I got high. Smoked a little weed, drank a little Jack Daniels and got madder and madder and madder and I just snapped. I went out to a pawn shop and bought me a shotgun and I went down the street and bought me some shells for it. And they wasn’t the right ones so I went to Wal-Mart and bought me some slugs. And I went out there, I went by her job first and she wasn’t there. I went out to the apartment, she wasn’t there. Coming back I saw her. Coming back to her apartment. So, I let her get to the apartment.”

Harris’ voice gets very soft. “I went in, kicked in the door, and shot her dead.”

Harris, still at the table, lets his head drop. He cries quietly. A full minute ticks by.

Barely audible, he says, “That was the wrong thing to do — I just — I flipped out.”

CLANG!

The door to the room opens. A prison guard in gray uniform steps in. He holds a clipboard and glances at Harris.

Guard: Harris?

Harris looks up and nods.

Guard: Number?

Harris: 532117.

Guard: Six house?

Harris: Six house.

Having accounted for Harris, who came over from building No. 6, known as Six House, where he resides, the guard leaves.

CLANG!

The door slams shut.

And so, too, did the door slam shut on Charlotte’s life and on his own on that day in the summer of 1997.

Before Harris shot his wife she begged for her life crying out, “Dannie, I don’t deserve this!”

He replied, according to witnesses, in a calm, normal tone of voice, “Till death do us part,” and then shot her, once in the leg and then point blank in the chest.

Harris said he never struck his wife or abused her physically except for the time he grabbed her by the throat. But people who knew them in the early years of their marriage said they often got into physical fights.

One police report of an interview with Carmelle, the Harrises’ older daughter, written the day of the murder indicates that things had not always been peaceful at home.

“Carmelle explained to me that when they still lived together on 2506 Morning Glory,” wrote officer John Short, “Dannie would get upset with them if the house was not properly clean when he returned home. She stated that one minute he would tell Charlotte that he loved her and would be very nice to her and the next minute he would be threatening to kill her.”

She also told Short that Harris “had always been mean to her mother, had beaten her in the past and that her mother was a very nice lady and cared very much for her (Carmelle). She stated to me that her and her mother were best of friends because her mother was not allowed to have friends because Dannie would not let her.”

According to the police report, when Charlotte got a restraining order against Harris and when she filed for divorce, she would find her car damaged or a shopping cart thrown on it when she left work that day.

The night before he killed Charlotte, Harris said he saw Charlotte, her “boyfriend” and Carmelle unloading a mattress and box spring at Charlotte’s new apartment. He said he followed the boyfriend and tried to confront him on the road.

The man who was with Charlotte and Carmelle that night, however, was not the manager of the deli, a man in his early 20s.

It was Carlos, also a co-worker of Charlotte’s who was helping her move furniture. According to the police report, Carmelle said that Carlos was well aware of Harris’ jealousy and threats, and he drove away quickly when Harris stopped next to him at a stop sign and yelled to him, “Are you screwing my wife?”

It was the deli manager who Harris claimed he was on his way to kill after he shot his wife, though.

“I was on my way back up to Gerbes. … I was going kill Bryan. I was going to kill him, too. And I would have made it except my wife’s spirit came and told me, said, ‘Don’t do that.’”

Instead, Harris pulled over at a gas station and called the police. He told them what he had done and where he was. When they arrived, he surrendered without a struggle. He has never denied what he did. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Many aspects of Harris’ story are familiar to Columbia police, not because they worked the case but because they are common to many abusers.

For example, the damage to Charlotte’s car.

“Property damage is very, very common,” Westbrook says. “And, it took me awhile to figure that out. The message that this man is giving the woman is ‘You see what I can do to your car, think of what I can do to your face.’”

Westbrook believes that the intention is to intimidate, not just to express anger or hurt. Even though abusers say things like they just “snapped” or they “lost it,” their behavior is very calculated.

“It’s all about a control thing,” Westbrook says, “so they’re going to control by intimidation, by threats, or by violence if that doesn’t work. It’s just trying to scare somebody, make (her) think that they’re out of control when they’re not. They’re very much in control. They want you to think, I’m crazy, I’ll do anything. Well, they’re not crazy. And they will do a lot of things to achieve their goal.”

Even Harris admits that if he hadn’t been high from smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol he wouldn’t have been able to shoot Charlotte.

“The more I smoked, the more I drank, the madder I got. That’s true. And I just blew up,” he says.

Harris says if someone in his state of mind asked him for advice he would tell him to find someone to talk to.

“Somebody that will listen. And that’s the truth. A lot of things happen when people don’t listen,” he says.

He even says he’d tell him to go to the police department and ask for help.

“Say I need to talk to somebody cause I’m getting ready to just click. You know, lock me up or something. Somebody’s got to listen, not criticize, just listen.”

But if no one responds, then his fate is sealed, he says.

“Then they’re going to wind up just like where I am, right here. I’d tell them, You going to wind up exactly where I’m at. … I did it. I killed my wife. I accept all responsibility for what I done. They should have given me the death penalty, in my mind. I deserve it.”


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