48 Hours Mystery: A Time to Kill

A mother vanishes from her Upstate N.Y. home the day after 9/11; Was it the perfect time for a crime?

This story originally aired Nov. 10, 2007.

Tioga County in upstate New York is the kind of place where people go to escape the problems of the big cities.

So when 35-year-old Michele Harris disappeared, it mystified State Police Captain Mark Lester.

"A murder in Tioga County, it's a pretty rare occurrence… For an actual person to go missing and not be able to find 'em is extremely rare," he said. "And normally, you would expect at some point along this way we're gonna find her … And we still haven't been able to find her remains."

In the early morning hours of Sept. 12, 2001, Michele's van was found at the end of her driveway.

"There was a gut feeling I think right from the get-go that something was wrong," Lester told "48 Hours Mystery" correspondent Erin Moriarty.

Lester said getting a search under way wouldn't be easy. "It's the day after 9/11. We had just sent 500 or 600 troopers to New York City the night before. Most of our canines had been sent to New York City. Most of our aircraft was working with New York City. So, trying to gear this thing up quickly wasn't happening as easy as it normally would."

Adding to the pressure was that Michele was the wife of Cal Harris, a prominent businessman from a wealthy and influential Tioga County family. The patriarch, Dwight Harris, bought a string of car dealerships for his three sons to help him run.

Michele, fresh out of college, was working as a secretary at one of the dealerships when she caught the eye of Dwight's youngest son, Cal.

"Michele was just like a magnet. She was beautiful. She was full of life. And she smiled all the time. And she was a happy person. And she was young - I think that that was something that thoroughly attracted Cal," recalled Barbara Thayer, Cal and Michele's nanny and housekeeper.

Cal was a catch - an outstanding athlete in high school, an All-American lacrosse player in college, and by the age of 27, a successful businessman.

Michele, the older of two children from a working class family, had never met anyone like Cal.

Thayer likened it to a "Cinderella story." "Michele came from a small town, not a wealthy family or anything like that. And then here's this man that kinda sweeps ya off your feet. And you know, you travel and you go to Europe and you go to Hawaii and you do fun things. Life could be pretty rosy, you know?"

It was a fairytale romance, and no one was happier than Michele when she married Cal and became pregnant.

By the time she was 33, Michele had four children under the age of 6.

Cal provided well for his family; the couple lived on a 252-acre estate, complete with a private lake.

Cindy and Tom Turner spent most weekends with the couple.

"You could tell they loved each other very much," Tom Turner said. "I mean, they always wanted to be around each other. Always."

If there were any marital problems, Michele kept them hidden from friends and family, including sister-in-law Shannon Taylor.

"It wasn't anything I ever saw. I really didn't know," she said. "I thought that her life was absolutely perfect. You never saw her when she wasn't smiling or laughing."

That is, until Michele's fourth child was born. That's when Taylor would learn life at the Harris house was no longer quite so perfect.

Michele began talking about Cal's temper and his controlling behavior.

"Everything just had to be absolutely perfect," Taylor explained.

Asked what would happen if things weren't perfect, Taylor told Moriarty, "He'd scream. He'd yell."

"He wanted her thin. He wanted her to look good," Cindy Turner said. "And she would lose weight for him."

But Michele told friends nothing she did seemed to please Cal.

"Cal had told her that she was born in Tioga Center, raised in Tioga Center, and she'd die in Tioga Center. Like, 'You're small town. You're beneath me. You're never going to be up to my level,'" Thayer said.

Then Michele discovered Cal was having an affair.

Cal and Michele tried to save the marriage, but in January 2001, after 10 years, Michele filed for divorce.

According to Shannon and Michele's brother, Greg Taylor, Cal did not want the divorce. Greg said it was a bitter split as Michele fought with Cal over money - demanding a full accounting of his businesses.

"There's no way that he was gonna let Michele take his family money. There was no way that was gonna happen," Thayer explained.

The situation was made even worse because the couple was forced by the courts to continue sharing the house.

But on Sept. 9, 2001, while horseback riding, Thayer remembered Michele seemed happier. "We were coming back down towards the barn and she said, 'I'm so happy. I can't believe it.' She says, 'I am finally getting my life back. I can't believe how I feel.'"

Michele hadn't told her husband yet, but she had decided to accept Cal's financial offer and finalize the divorce.

Then, three days later, just hours before she was supposed to meet her lawyer, Michele Harris disappeared.