Kentucky families plead to keep nursing home killer in jail

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The last words Terry Eitel exchanged with his wife of 22 years – his high school sweetheart – were about who was going to mow the lawn that day.

They both loved doing it and argued over who would get the privilege.

He’d called Patti at work — Jefferson Place, where she was director of nursing — on April 29, 1997, and she’d told him she’d be cooking one of her favorite meals that spring evening, stuffed peppers.

She never had the chance.

Eitel, 43, and her boss, Deborah Bell, 46, were shot dead in the parking lot by a nursing assistant they had fired two months earlier – Kim Harris.

There was no doubt that 23-year-old Harris was deranged.

One of her lawyers said she once stuck a hypodermic needle in her ear to try and silence the voices in her head. A psychiatrist testified that she suffered from a form of schizophrenia characterized by delusions, hallucinations and mood swings.

But evidence showed she had been planning the crime for months, stalking the two executives and shooting them execution style – after shooting them in the legs and they had begged to spare their lives.

When she was arrested driving south on Interstate 65 to her parents’ home in Elizabethtown, police discovered she had hidden the gun under the floor mat of her car. And when an officer asked why she shot the couple, she calmly replied that it was because they fired her.

A jury rejected his insanity plea and, while sparing him the death penalty, recommended that he serve life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years for two counts of intentional murder.

Now, the Kentucky Parole Board will hear evidence at a Feb. 9 hearing to decide whether she should be released.

Eitel, a GE executive, testified at Harris’s trial that he cried every day for 65 days after his wife’s murder. He said he still couldn’t bring himself to forgive Harris.

Bell’s only daughter Cecily, who was a 21-year-old bartender when her mother was killed, said she decided on a mountaintop in Montana she could be angry for the rest of her life or “move on and let go”. She decided at that moment to forgive Harris.

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But still united in mourning, Eitel and Bell unequivocally agree on one thing: Kim Harris is too dangerous to ever be released from prison.

“Something inside her is broken, and I don’t think 25 years in prison fixed that,” Eitel said.

Said Bell: “Our families shouldn’t have to fear for our lives, or the lives of our children, not after the nightmare and terror she put us through.”

They are joined in that view by former Commonwealth Assistant Prosecutor Craig Dilger, who has prosecuted Harris and says he thinks she should serve her sentence.

The time spent behind bars is a mystery

Eitel and Bell acknowledge that they know nothing about Harris today — whether inmate No. 149071 at the Kentucky Correctional Facility for Women has been treated or rehabilitated. They say their inquiries about him have gone unanswered.

The Courier Journal was also unable to obtain his institutional file, and Harris did not respond to a letter sent to him from prison asking about his mental well-being.

But families of the victims say she never reached out to say she was sorry and expressed no remorse during her three-week trial in 2001 in Jefferson Circuit Court.

Eitel, who raised three teenagers as a single father, said he would be concerned for his safety and theirs if Harris were released.

And Bell, who is now 46, the same age as her mother when she was murdered, said she would have trouble sleeping at night given the premeditation of Harris’ crime.

“She didn’t just crack up,” Bell said.

Employees viewed Harris as an eccentric who would bring puppies to work and give them away.

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She could be endearing; Eitel said she once gave his wife a box of chocolates with a note that read, “Thank you for being so nice to me, even though I caused you so much trouble.”

But a supervisor testified that Harris called one day the year before the murders and said she was going to harm herself. And on the last day, she was sobbing and unable to speak in full sentences.

Bell suggested she go to the hospital, and she did.

After being fired, she broke into Eitel’s house and stole their black Labrador, Eitel said, prompting his wife to file a lawsuit in the district court.

“Patti was scared of her,” her husband recalled.

On the day of the assassination, Harris stole a car from a family member and staked out Jefferson Place, now known as Signature HealthCARE, in disguise.

When Eitel and Bell, who ran 12 nursing homes, left for the day, Harris approached them with a gun hidden under her clothes.

She later told police she did not remember shooting them, but remembered them lying on the ground and hearing Eitel shout.

Harris fired 10 rounds, hitting Eitel with six. She died of a gunshot wound to the back of the head, while Bell was shot behind the left ear at such close range bullet residue was found on her cheek.

Two witnesses said they saw Harris pick up Eitel’s head and smash it to the ground.

“I hate the act she did”

Their survivors say they never recovered.

Terry Eitel, 69, retired on January 1. He said he remarried about 10 years ago but divorced after about a year.

“It wasn’t her,” he said. “She was a good woman.”

But she wanted to live in Michigan near her children, he said, and he wanted to stay in Kentucky near his.

He said he had no hatred for Harris.

“I hate the act she did,” he said.

He also said he had no bad wishes for her in prison, but thinks she should spend the rest of her life there.

“I wondered if I’m vengeful,” he said. “But I don’t think I am. She has her life; Patti and Debbie don’t.

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Cecily Bell said her mother would be 70 if she were alive. She has now lived longer without it than with it.

She said she gave birth to the first of her three children on her mother’s birthday in 2000. River was premature and died three months later.

Cecily and her husband buried her next to her maternal grandmother.

“What I miss most about my mom is the advice she would have given me when I started my own family,” Bell said, “when I was up all night with sick kids and I wanted to know what to do.”

Andrew Wolfson: 502-582-7189; [email protected]; Twitter: @adwolfson.

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