In the summer of 2007 Turlock residents Mark Henson and Nicholas Harris wouldn’t have known each other if they passed on the streets. By the following summer Harris would find himself jailed and charged with killing Henson.
On Thursday, Vanessa Bartlett, the woman who linked these two lives together, took the witness stand to recount the events leading up to Henson’s death and the alleged confession Harris made to her in the aftermath.
Harris is facing murder and arson charges for the death of Henson, 25. Henson died Aug. 12, 2008, from more than 15 stab wounds. He was found bleeding on the front porch of a home on Bennington Avenue in Turlock. His car, parked nearby, had been set on fire. He was rushed to Emanuel Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
The Stanislaus District Attorney’s Office contends that Harris killed Henson because of a past relationship with Bartlett.
While the defense acknowledges Harris had a role in Henson’s death, they are arguing that he should be found guilty on a lesser charge of manslaughter, rather than murder, because they claim Henson had his own knife and swung it at Harris.
Bartlett and Henson started dating in 2007, but the relationship came to a quick end when Bartlett verified her suspicion that Henson had been stealing money from her. The two parted ways and did not have any contact with one another for nearly a year until Henson showed up at her work to apologize for his behavior, Bartlett testified. By that point, Bartlett had been dating Harris for several months.
In her testimony, Bartlett stated she told Harris about Henson coming to see her to apologize and that Harris “expressed displeasure about it. He didn’t want me talking to Mark.”
Towards the end of July 2008, Bartlett saw Henson again when he came into the grocery store where she worked. She testified that the two engaged in some small talk and then he left. She said she told Harris about the meeting and that he seemed “not terribly affected by it,” but that it did cause “some irritation.”
“I knew him [Harris] well enough that it was getting under his skin,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett and Henson saw each other two more times in the following two weeks at the grocery store, with none of the meetings going farther than a short casual conversation, Bartlett said. She testified that she told Harris about each run-in and that Harris’ irritation seemed to be growing.
“He felt Mark was showing up just to see me,” Bartlett said. She also testified it was around this time that Harris stated he believed Henson was stalking her.
“I kind of laughed at that,” Bartlett said. “I didn’t feel threatened by Mark at all. I thought he was pretty harmless.”
In these three weeks prior to Henson’s death, Bartlett recounted pointing out Henson’s mother’s home on Bennington as they drove by and Harris asking pointed questions about Henson’s vehicle. She testified that after she answered a few of his questions she asked him why he wanted to know about the vehicle.
“He mentioned very matter-of-factly that maybe he wanted to go slash his tires,” Bartlett said. Under cross-examination by the defense, Bartlett stated Harris would often say “outlandish” things for the “shock value.”
Bartlett testified that on the night of Aug. 11, 2008, she spoke with Harris on the phone briefly. He asked if he could come over, but she said no because she had to take an assessment test the next morning. Shortly after midnight she said she was woken up by a noise in her house and was surprised to find Harris in her bathroom. On the witness stand Bartlett said Harris didn’t stay long at her house and that he “seemed preoccupied by something.”
Later that morning Bartlett learned Henson had been stabbed to death and his car set on fire, less than a block away from his mother’s home, which is about a half-mile from where Harris resided on Whispering Pines Drive.
Bartlett testified that she spoke with Harris on the phone that day and that Harris told her he had killed Henson.
In her testimony Bartlett recounted Harris telling her on the phone that he went out looking for Henson’s car in the neighborhood with the plan of slashing the tires. When he found the car he noticed the windows were rolled down and he decided he would go home and get a jack and gasoline with the intention of taking the tires off and putting them in the car and lighting them on fire, according to Bartlett’s testimony.
Harris allegedly told Bartlett that Henson popped out of the car while he was trying to take a tire off. He told her Henson had a knife, so he pulled out his and started stabbing Henson.
“He said it wasn’t hard for him to do. Overpowering him was easier than he thought,” Bartlett recalled Harris telling her.
Bartlett stated Harris seemed remorseful about the death.
“He was just as in a whirlwind as I was,” she said. “He said Mark wasn’t supposed to be there and that it was an accident.”
Bartlett said she implored Harris to turn himself in and to answer her one question — why did he do it?
“It seemed so senseless,” Bartlett said. “He couldn’t give me an answer. Nicholas was very romanticized by being a vigilante.”
Bartlett and Harris spoke by phone again the following day, at which point she again asked him to turn himself in to the police. Harris told Bartlett that he didn’t intend to turn himself in and that he was going to go camping with his parents and think about his options.
Bartlett made the decision that day to contact the Turlock Police Department and tell them what she knew about Henson’s death. After meeting with detectives, Bartlett agreed to call Harris again, only this time the conversation would be recorded.
In the 18-minute conversation, Bartlett again asked Harris why and how he killed Henson. At one point Harris tells Bartlett that he couldn’t let Henson live because “he knew my face, my name.”
Harris begins recounting the details of that night, but then stops and says he doesn’t feel comfortable talking about the details. He states he has given her enough information to “close the case against him.”
In the recording Harris eludes to having wanted to “do the same thing” to the father of one of Bartlett’s sons but that he was talked out of it.
Harris also tells Bartlett that he will “not be going quietly” and that he is contemplating suicide.
“What right do I have to be standing here when he isn’t?” Harris asks.
The defense claims that Harris knew Bartlett had gone to the police and that he felt betrayed by her and was purposely saying cruel things to hurt her, regardless of whether they were true or not.
The defense repeatedly grilled Bartlett on why she would continue to tell Harris about meeting Henson if she could see it irritated him, but the questions were objected to by the prosecution and never answered.
Under cross-exanimation, Bartlett did confirm that she had seen Henson with a butterfly knife. The defense has claimed Henson pulled out a butterfly knife, but no knife was recovered from the crime scene.
Harris was taken into custody Aug. 13, 2008 at a home in Sacramento. He has remained in jail since his arrest.
Testimony is expected to resume today.