19 years later, no answers in Detroit mother's disappearance

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

No one knows where Della Harris is.

The Detroiter left home for work one summer day 19 years ago and never returned, leaving unanswered questions and a void in her family.

“That’s something that you always have on your mind,” said her granddaughter, Latisha Harris. “You can’t just let that go.” 

This month, relatives gathered at a west-side park near where she once lived to celebrate what would have been the mother of four’s 61st birthday.

They hope to renew their search for answers, though the odds of positive news, or anyone stepping forward, seem dim.

“If she is dead, and not missing, I need to have the death certificate for her,” daughter Mabeline Baker said. “It would at least give us closure so we could find her and give her a proper burial.”

Detroiter Della Harris hasn't been seen since July 3, 1999.

The day before the Fourth of July 1999, Harris was heading to a shift at Home Depot with her husband, who had been dropping her off, Baker and relatives say.

She worked there with younger sister Sondra Gotcher, who eventually learned from another co-worker that the Harrises appeared to scuffle outside. Harris apparently left with him and never reported for work, she said.

That night, hours before a holiday family picnic, Harris’ husband called Baker to ask if she had seen her or was babysitting as usual. Her daughter thought: “ ‘Why would she be? I’m not working.’ It raised suspicion.”

Concerned when they couldn’t reach her cell phone, relatives rushed to the Harris home on Anglin in east Detroit only to find no one there, they said. The 41-year-old’s belongings, including a purse and blood pressure medication, were untouched. 

“What woman goes away without her purse? My sister wouldn’t,” Gotcher said. “Red flags were coming up everywhere.”

Family members soon filed a police report. They had scant contact with Harris’ husband, whom she married about a decade earlier. As loved ones visited hospitals and checked neighborhoods, he mostly stayed absent, they said.

Detectives interviewed him and reported that he passed a lie detector test, relatives recalled. However, before further follow-up, the couple’s car was later found burned and the spouse immediately took their elementary school-age daughter to the South — abandoning their Detroit house, Baker said. 

Public records show the man spent years living in Alabama before dying in 2010.

Her relatives suspect he had answers in the disappearance but cannot prove it.
“Why would you walk away? Why would you not be here with the family?” Gotcher said. “There were many questions with him.”

Meanwhile, the family circulated posters and “looked for her for a long time,” Gotcher said. “After that, nobody helped us with anything. After a while it just went cold.”

Detroit Police Department representatives were  unable to verify details of the case.

The loss haunted loved ones while scouring streets, even visiting the Wayne County morgue to see if bodies there matched Harris’ description.  Finding few clues, they grew frustrated.

“It feels like nobody cares about her disappearance,” Shavay Baker said. “I just hope they find out what happened. It’s been two decades.”

Part of the challenge lies in investigators’ approach, said Michigan State Police Detective Sgt. Sarah Krebs, who leads its missing person unit and handles many prominent cases.

“If law enforcement characterizes it as a voluntary missing right from the start instead of looking it objectively like foul play could be involved, we have a hard time not even getting a jump-start on those cases,” she said. “Sometimes they just fall through the cracks.”

Also complicating matters: When Harris disappeared, the Detroit Police Department was among the regional police departments where “a lot of their missing person cases were taken at a desk, in a book,” Krebs said. “There was no computerized report.”

Chances to gather more information could have risen, she added, if authorities filed electronically and reported the case through the National Crime Information Center, “an electronic clearinghouse of crime data that can be tapped into by virtually every criminal justice agency nationwide,” according to its website site.

Since the 2000s, investigations have also been aided through another resource: the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, which has a searchable database and offers forensic services.

Still, if a cold case had little record at its originating police department, Krebs said, “it’s really to hard to dig those back up.”

Memories of Harris, though, are firmly planted.

The Mumford High School graduate, whose birth name was Cordelia, loved playing basketball, working in the carpentry department and doting on her grandchildren — treating them to gifts and shopping trips.

“She was a fun grandma. She made sure we were taken care of,” said Shavay Baker, one of her many grandchildren. “She was a peaceful person. The only memories I have of her was her spoiling me.”

As Harris’ family rapidly expanded and new decades arrived with myriad milestones, her absence loomed large. It was especially acute for Gotcher, who "looked for her to come through the door every day. People still ask me to this day: ‘Did you ever find out what happened to your sister?’ It’s something that you push down deep inside and don’t want to rehash. But it comes up anyway.”

She and others recognize their quest for closure might lead to a heartbreaking discovery — a possibility sometimes raised during MSP’s annual Missing in Michigan events, which connect residents who lost loved ones with resources and collect DNA to match them against unidentified remains.

Harris could be among the 300-plus such sets known across the state, Krebs said, or her body might emerge like that of a man whose corpse was found at an abandoned Detroit home a few months ago, almost exactly five years after his parents reported him missing.

“It’s not unheard of that someone would be found alive after all these years, but it’s hard to hide in our digital society now,” she said. “Having not a trace for this long — the likelihood she is no longer living is very high.”

To honor her memory, the Harris family frequently gathers on July 19, her birthday.

Relatives of Della Harris, who vanished in 1999, gather for a candlelight vigil and balloon release at a Detroit park on her birthday.

This year, about a dozen gathered at a park not far from her former west-side home, barbecuing chicken legs, hot dogs, sausages and pork chops while kids laughed and frolicked on nearby swings.

As the summer sun faded to a balmy moonlight night, they left a picnic table and circled a stereo blaring the melodies of Harris’ favorite song: the 1980s Alicia Myers single “I Want to Thank You.”

Minutes later, the group lifted candles and bowed their heads as Latisha Harris prayed for help in finding answers. “Any little thing will help us give her a proper burial,” she said.

When the final “Amen” was murmured, Harris released a cluster of white, black-striped and “Happy Birthday” balloons into the evening sky glimmering with emerging stars.

Latisha Harris releases balloons to honor her grandmother, Della.

One by one, relatives prepared to leave, hugging and blowing out their candles. Before walking off into the night, Latisha Harris bent down near the grass and let two burn, believing her long-gone grandmother would extinguish each when it was time.