Execution-Style Slaying of Family in N.Y. Days Before Christmas Stuns Community
On a freezing evening three days before Christmas, the Harris family received the last visitor its members would ever see.
One after another, Tony and Delores Harris, 15-year-old Shelby and 11-year-old Marc were tied up and shot in the head, then doused with gasoline and set on fire.
Their partly charred bodies were found the next morning, Dec. 23, after a neighbor heard a smoke alarm. Police said there was no sign that an intruder had forced entry into the house.
“These were very outgoing people who would open the door to anyone,” State Police Capt. Carl Shaver said.
Police have not publicly suggested a motive. State troopers and FBI agents have been at the Harris home all week, searching for evidence and questioning neighbors.
A brown and tan van was taken from the family’s garage, and it was discovered later in the parking lot of a nearby mall. Police have said that they are looking for a bicyclist who was seen riding along Ellis Hollow Road shortly before nightfall on Dec. 22.
Christmas wreaths and red ribbons still flutter from the doorways of the gray two-story house, and a white wooden sign shaped like a goose reads “Welcome Friends.” Inside, unopened Christmas packages lie under the tree.
The Harrises lived in Ellis Hollow, an affluent section in the rural town of Dryden, a quiet neighborhood set between forested hills about 5 miles from downtown Ithaca in western New York state.
Residents say they cannot remember much more than a burglary or two in recent years, and Tompkins County Sheriff Robert Howard says that there hasn’t been a murder there “in a long, long time.”
People left their doors unlocked and neighbors watched each other’s children.
“About the worst thing that happens here is a car accident in the winter,” said Pat DeMane, who lives two houses from the Harris residence.
Residents now peer cautiously through their windows before answering the door.
People described the Harrises as active and well-liked in the community.
“You can’t think of anyone that would have a grudge against them,” said Ann Parziale, a friend of Mrs. Harris. “To do something like this--you’re really speechless.”
The family moved to Ellis Hollow in 1986, when Tony Harris, who would have turned 40 this week, was named sales director of Deanco, a Syracuse-based electronic equipment distributor. Mrs. Harris’ father built the large frame house for them, friends said.
Delores (Dodie) Harris, 41, knew everyone and organized pie bees and cookie exchanges. She was active in the PTA and the Ellis Hollow board, and she opened a crafts and gift shop, The Grey Goose, in a barn next to the house because she was worried about not having enough to do, Parziale said.
“She enjoyed meeting people and knowing people,” Parziale added. “If there was a job to be done, she would do it. When no one wanted to put out the PTA directory, Dodie did it.”
Mrs. Harris had planned a party for her husband’s birthday today, the day funeral services for the family will be held.
The couple were very involved in their children’s lives, Parziale said, going out of town to watch Shelby’s tennis matches and Marc’s hockey games and getting to know their friends.
“They were very careful about where Shelby baby-sat . . . . They knew her friends and her boyfriend,” she said. “The kids were not home alone a lot.
“People can’t understand how it could happen,” she said. “This is a very wholesome, family-oriented community.”
“Those things aren’t supposed to happen here, in this community,” said Edgar Clemens, a retired schoolteacher who has lived on Ellis Hollow Road for 26 years.
“I don’t think anybody around here slept Saturday night,” said one neighbor who was afraid to give her name. “We’re all pretty nervous around here.
“I’ve opened the door to people whose cars have broken down. I don’t think I’ll do that any more.”