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THE ROANOKE TIMES & World News
by Kimberly O’Brien
18 December 1999
Michael Harris stabbed his friend because he thought the man was making a sexual advance toward him, a Roanoke police detective testified Friday during Harris’ preliminary hearing.
Harris, who is charged with murdering Paul Wright, told Detective Mike Meador after his arrest Nov. 14 that he was asleep when Wright started touching him. The action caused him to jump up, grab a knife and stab Wright twice in the upper back before fleeing in Wright’s car, authorities said.
Harris told Meador he had been staying with his friend on Greenhurst Avenue in Northwest Roanoke because he was having problems with his wife. He knew Wright was gay, he said, but said the man had never done anything like that before. Meador’s testimony Friday in Roanoke General District Court was the first time a possible motive was given for the stabbing since Harris was charged in November. After hearing testimony, Judge Julian Raney certified a second-degree murder charge against Harris to the grand jury. Second-degree murder, which is malicious killing without premeditation, carries a punishment of up to 40 years in prison.
Raney reminded the courtroom that prosecutors could seek a higher charge when they go before a grand jury for an indictment. Harris was arrested three hours after the early morning stabbing after he allegedly robbed a truck stop in Smyth County and then led officers from five departments on a high-speed chase on Interstate 81, police said. The chase ended when Harris, driving Wright’s Ford Escort, collided with two police cruisers. Sheila Hill, a cashier at the Village Truck Stop off Exit 54 in Smyth County, took the stand Friday to describe how a man with blood on his shirt came in the Groseclose store about 4:30 a.m. and demanded beer, cigarettes and money. Hill testified that the man was holding a bloody knife when he told a female customer in the store to get him some beer and told Hill to get him “a little bit of money.” Hill handed him a stack of $20s and the woman brought him two 12-packs of beer.
He grabbed some cigarettes and then ordered the two women into the corner, Hill said. “He said, ‘Don’t make me hurt you, I’ve already killed someone,'” Hill testified. The man apologized before leaving in a small gray car, she said. He headed toward the interstate as Hill called police and gave them a description and the license plate number of the car. Meanwhile, a bulletin on the car had been put out by Roanoke police after Wright’s neighbor noticed the Escort missing. Neighbors had heard Wright yelling for help just before 1:20 a.m. and found him lying in his front doorway. Two witnesses told police that Wright said “Mike Harris” had been the one who stabbed him.
Wright, 36, died at the hospital. Meador said he interviewed Harris in the Smyth County Jail – about 80 miles south of Roanoke – and was told by Harris that “things were kind of a blur” because he had been drinking. He told the detective he had drunk about a case of beer and was supposed to be taking the anti-depressant Zoloft, but hadn’t that night. “He said if he had been taking his medication, this wouldn’t have happened,” public defender Steve Mahar-Milani said.
The statement drew scoffs from some of Harris’ family members. Mahar-Milani’s questions to Hill and Meador centered on whether they smelled alcohol on Harris or whether Harris’ eyes were bloodshot. Both said no. Harris also faces charges of armed robbery in Smyth County and attempted assault on a police officer, resisting arrest, failing to stop and possession of marijuana in Washington County, where he was apprehended. Police found the beer, cigarettes, cash and a knife in the Escort. Kimberly O’Brien can be reached at 981-3334 or firstname.lastname@example.org