A Time To Kill

A Mother Disappears The Day After 9/11

Produced By Lisa Freed and Marc Goldbaum

This story originally aired Nov. 10, 2007. It was updated on June 24, 2008.

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. "Normally you would expect at some point along this way we're gonna find her," he says. "And we still haven't been able to find her remains."

As correspondent Erin Moriarty reports, in the early morning hours of Sept. 12, 2001, Michele's van was found at the end of her driveway.

But getting a search under way wouldn't be easy. "It's the day after 9/11. We had just sent five 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," Lester explains.

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," remembers Barbara Thayer, Cal and Michele's nanny housekeeper.

And 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. "Michelle came from a small town, not a wealthy family or anything like that," Barb says. "And then here's this man that kinda sweeps ya off your feet. And you know, you travel 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, she had four children under the age of six. And Cal provided well: 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 says. "I mean, they always wanted to be around each other."

If there were any marital problems, Michele kept them hidden from friends and family, including her sister-in-law Shannon Taylor. "I thought that her life was absolutely perfect. You never saw her when she wasn't smiling or laughing," Shannon remembers.

That is, until Michele's fourth child was born. That's when Shannon would learn that 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," Shannon says.

Asked what would happen if things weren't perfect, Shannon tells Moriarty, "He'd scream. He'd yell. He wanted her to dress a certain way."

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

But nothing she did, Michele told friends, 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,'" Barb says.

And 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. But according to Shannon and Michele's brother Greg, Cal did not want the divorce.

Greg says it was a bitter split, as Michele fought with Cal over money, demanding a full accounting of his businesses.

The situation was made even worse because the couple, forced by the courts, continued sharing the house.

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

Michele had not told her husband yet, but she had decided to accept Cal's financial offer and finalize the divorce. Three days later, just hours before she was supposed to meet her lawyer, Michele disappeared.