Brightly dressed joggers padded by and small boats bobbed in the choppy harbor waters behind him. But Charleston Detective Thomas Bailey didn’t seem to notice as he pulled a thick binder from his unmarked car.
His interest lay not with the fitness buffs and camera-toting tourists who strolled the historic Battery seawall. Instead, Bailey fixed his attention on a scrubby patch of grass where a beloved teacher died a violent death nearly seven years ago.
In his hands, Bailey held the sum total of the police investigation into Clifton Harris Jr.’s murder — a 6-inch-thick book full of names, dates, statements, phone numbers, photos and more.
The only thing missing was the answer to a question that has perplexed police since that balmy August morning in 2006: Just who killed Harris and why?
Harris, a mentor to generations of students at First Baptist Church School on Meeting Street, was found slumped over the wheel of his idling car along Murray Boulevard at 3 a.m. that day. A pair of gunshots had ended his life.
Friends knew of no one who wished harm upon Harris. Equally puzzling was what the 57-year-old West Ashley resident was doing at The Battery in the wee hours of a Saturday morning.
Some people suggested Harris was seeking respite from a sleepless night or watching a meteor shower. Others, however, began speculating about possible links between the killing and The Battery’s reputation as a late-night cruising spot for gay men.
Harris was gay, and police learned that he had been known to make trips to The Battery to meet men on occasion. But investigators have found nothing to indicate his lifestyle played a direct role in his slaying, Bailey said.
Investigators haven’t ruled out any theory, Bailey said, “but right now, we’re leaning toward the possibility that this was a robbery gone bad.”
Harris’ relatives said his death was a difficult blow for his family to absorb, and they would welcome any answers at this point.
“It just tore us up, this happening to him,” his aunt, Laura Barker of Charleston, said. “He had a lot of things going for him in his life, and he did a lot of good for people.”
With a bald head and piercing eyes, Harris was known as a kind, gentle man and a devout churchgoer who had a passion for travel and teaching. Over the years, he visited many points on the globe, from Russia and Sweden to England, Egypt and Morocco. Each time, he would return home with tacky T-shirts and a wealth of lessons to share with his students, helping to expand their horizons.
Friends said he adored the children at First Baptist and considered his work there “a mission.” Over his 33-year career, he taught history to about 3,000 students.
The lifelong bachelor, however, kept his personal life intensely private. Barker and Harris’ uncle, Fletcher Harris, said family members didn’t learn Clifton Jr. was gay until after he died.
“We didn’t know anything about that,” Fletcher Harris said.
During the day, families and tour groups crowd The Battery and adjacent White Point Garden. But for years, The Battery also has been a discreet hook-up spot for gay men who cruise in the shadows of antebellum homes valued at $2 million or more.
A 2003 article in the gay travel magazine OutTraveler suggested The Battery may be “the most beautiful cruising spot in the country.”
Warren Redman-Gress, executive director of the Charleston-based Alliance for Full Acceptance, said he doesn’t think many gay people frequent The Battery these days looking for companionship, as there are plenty of safer options available. Redman-Gress said he doesn’t know anyone who goes there for that purpose.
Still, at least two ads could be found on Craigslist last week posted by gay men looking to meet at The Battery for a discreet encounter and some “light touching and groping,” as one man put it.
Whatever drew Harris to The Battery on Aug. 19, 2006, he didn’t make it out alive, though there were signs he had tried to escape his attacker.
Area residents called police after hearing gunshots ring out. Officers found Harris slumped over the steering wheel of his 1998 Nissan Altima, which was still running and had come to rest on the grassy median. He had placed the car in reverse, as if making a hasty exit. The wipers slid back and forth over the windshield, and all the windows were rolled down.
What officers didn’t find were witnesses or clues to the shooter’s identity.
Bailey said nothing appeared to have been stolen from Harris, but the crime scene and other evidence raised suspicions that he might have been shot while trying to escape a robber who approached his car.
Detectives found no reports of similar robberies in the area around that time. But if a robber was targeting cruisers, might not some of those crimes have gone unreported by men leery of answering questions about what brought them to The Battery in the first place?
Bailey is appealing to anyone who might been have victimized in the area back then or saw anything on the morning Harris was killed to call police and share that information with investigators. He can’t shake the feeling that someone out there has information that could help crack the case and bring Harris’ killer to justice.
Barker, Harris’ aunt, said his family would like nothing more than to see that happen.
“Clifton was a real good guy,” she said. “It was such an awful thing for him to lose his life at that age.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.