Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Police Suspect Lesbian Obsession Behind Killing

(Link) When one best friend strangles another and dumps the body, there's gotta be a reason. Was she secretly in love with her, a psychotic or both?

1 comment:

LNewsEditor said...

JIC Post:
By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post

The detectives asked the question over and over and over again: Are you a lesbian?

Melissa Burch Harton, sitting with Howard County police hours after strangling her best friend, insisted that she was not, according to a transcript of the interview. But police kept pressing her in the hopes of uncovering a possible motive for the killing.

Eventually, Harton, 25, told police that her friend, Natasha A. Bacchus, 31, died after a violent argument that was, in part, over Bacchus's revelation that she was in love with her and wanted to kiss her. Bacchus's husband, however, says Harton is a compulsive liar and claims she was the one infatuated with his wife.

"It's like a soap opera," said Michael E. Kaminkow, Harton's attorney. "Did one of them have feelings beyond friendship for the other? That's probably the biggest mystery of the entire case."

Opening arguments are scheduled to begin as soon as today in Harton's trial on a charge of first-degree murder, one of Howard County's rare -- and most sensational -- homicides. Prosecutors said the killing was premeditated; Kaminkow said Harton acted in self-defense during a fight between two very drunk women.

"I don't think Melissa intentionally killed anyone," said her husband, Brett Harton, 28.

The killing took place during their 2005 spring break from Loyola College, where the two married women had met three years earlier when they began a doctoral program together in clinical psychology. Bacchus, of Stewartstown, Pa., had driven to Harton's home in Columbia to celebrate their completion of a major project.

They had a total of 18 alcoholic drinks at several bars the night of March 8, Kaminkow said. Then they drove around Columbia for several hours and began to fight, Harton told police.

Bacchus kept demanding to know what Harton's parents thought of her, Harton told police, and became irate when Harton told her: "They think you're really screwed up and you have serious issues. . . . They just want me to stay away from you."

The argument became even more heated, Harton told police, when she brought up an earlier conversation in which Bacchus revealed her sexual feelings for Harton.

"Remember how you said you were in love with me? Like how obsessed with me you feel?" Harton told Bacchus, according to Harton's account in the transcript. "That really made her mad."

The altercation turned violent sometime early March 9, and Harton eventually strangled Bacchus and dumped her body in the parking lot of a pool, police said.

In statements to police, Harton said that Bacchus, in addition to being in love with her, couldn't keep friends and was constantly dependent upon her for support. But Harton's description of Bacchus may, in fact, have been a truer portrait of herself, according to interviews with people who knew the women.

When asked whether Harton was in love with his wife, John P. Magee, 34, said, "I think that's obvious." He would not elaborate for fear of jeopardizing the trial, in which he might testify.

Friends also said that Bacchus was anything but shy. Pete Rogers, director of spiritual development at Loyola, said, "She radiated warmth."

Harton was the more reserved one, Kaminkow said. "I wouldn't call her introverted, necessarily, but she is somewhat shy," he said. He said Harton's statements to police might have been "an inversion, where one person says one thing that is really the reverse."

Harton's interview with police contained several contradictory accounts of what happened to Bacchus. She initially told investigators that Bacchus was abducted by several men. Then she told them that Bacchus was having an affair with a man named Sam, who beat her. Only after exhaustive questioning did she admit to killing Bacchus, although she said the death was accidental.

Magee said Harton continued to lie, adding that there was no way that his wife was in love with her. He and his wife had a madly-in-love, 10-year relationship that began the moment he showed up on her doorstep for a blind date, Magee said.

"She answered the front door of her apartment, and I was like, it's over," he said. "I was going to get on one knee right then and there. . . . She was just amazing."

Born to observant Muslim parents from British Guyana, Bacchus had recently converted to Catholicism, her husband's religion, and was writing her dissertation on the use of prayer to overcome negative experiences. Bacchus planned to open a clinic for troubled children after graduation and start a family.

"We definitely had just one of the best marriages and best relationships," Magee said.

Kaminkow contends that the marriage was not so perfect. He said the night before she was killed, several witnesses saw Bacchus passionately kissing another man she met at a bar.

Kaminkow said he will argue that Harton acted in self-defense and never intended to kill Bacchus.

"I don't think there is any question that the victim here had her hands around Melissa's neck also," he said. "What's defensive? What's offensive? How do you tell the difference?" he added.

"We had a very loving and open and good marriage," Brett Harton said. "If you're alluding that there was some sort of lesbian feelings or something . . . I don't think that was the case."

Mary V. Murphy, a senior assistant state's attorney, would not comment on the case.

Magee said he hopes that Harton is sentenced to life in prison. He said he feels anguished that Harton's lies have left him uncertain why his wife died.

"The truth of the matter is I'll never know what happened," he said.