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Ohio Man Suffocated Fiancé And Staged The Murder To Look Like She Drank Herself To Death

After Kristy Harris, a 19-year-old mother, died, her body was exhumed so investigators could confirm that the death was no accident.

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Who Was Kristy Harris?
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Who Was Kristy Harris?

Kristy Harris's mother reflects on her daughter's life.

Residents of Union Township, Ohio describe their community as a peaceful place to live. But on October 13, 1994, around 9 a.m. the quiet was broken by a 911 call. 

Kristy Harris, a 19-year-old mother, had been found dead by fiancé Don Mills, 20. She was lying on the ground in the backyard of their Clermont County home.

One of her hands was “closed around an empty bottle of Bacardi rum,” Darrell Hawkins, Clermont County’s chief coroner’s investigator, told “Exhumed: Killer Revealed,” airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen.

Had she been inebriated and fallen and hit her head? Was it an accident?

Investigators spoke with Mills, who said he awoke around 8:30 a.m. as usual and was preparing to bring their daughter to daycare. He thought Harris had left for work at a local water plant, but when he saw her car outside he searched for her.

Mills said that he and Harris, who began dating in high school, had gone out the night before. After returning home, she continued to party by herself, Mills claimed. 

Investigators observed leaves in her hair, dried vomit on Harris’ face, a bruise on her forehead, marks on her arms, and a broken fingernail. Were these signs of a night of drinking or something more sinister? An autopsy was done to look for answers. The medical examiner observed petechial hemorrhaging in the eyes and lungs. 

“They’re commonly found in suffocation types of deaths,” said Daniel “Woody” Breyer, who has retired as Clermont County chief assistant prosecutor.

A blade of grass was also found deep in Harris’ airway. 

The pathologist ruled that cause of death as asphyxia. It was “assumed that the alcohol and the drinking had contributed to her death,” said Breyer.

The state of Harris’ body, which had wounds and dirt on it, was inconsistent with a simple accident. The final manner of death was ruled as undetermined. Harris’ blood was taken for analysis, which would take a number of weeks. 

Harris’ mother, Patty Brannum, knew she was a big drinker but didn’t believe she died in a drunken stupor. Brannum reached out to a news outlet, and a local crime reporter in turn found an independent forensic pathologist willing to review the original report.

Although Harris’ death wasn't ruled a homicide, detectives decided to take a second look at her case. Officers canvassed the victim’s neighborhood. A neighbor reported seeing an unknown man at the victim’s home the morning she was found, but Mills explained that it was a friend who he’d called to pick up his daughter to bring to daycare. 

Investigators looked for new leads and re-interviewed the victim’s mother. Brannum told them that Harris and Mills had a relationship that was “pretty up and down, pretty roller coaster-ish,” said Hawkins.

Brannum described Mills as manipulative and said that her daughter had considered ending the relationship. Harris went so far as to go to court to get custody of their daughter, Destiny, along with child support from Mills.

Kristy Harris featured in Exhumed

“He was very mad because he was used to getting what he wanted,” said Brannum.

But the couple reconciled and reunited. Brannum also said that Mills’ mother, Millie, was obsessively possessive of Destiny, and shared that Mills and his mother had planned to take out a $15,000 life insurance policy out on her daughter. Investigators learned that right after Harris’ death, Don and his mother tried to collect the payout. They were unable to do so. Harris, who was preoccupied with planning her wedding, never signed the papers.

One month after the initial autopsy, the toxicology report came back and revealed that Harris had minimal traces of alcohol in her system. She wouldn’t have been vomiting or falling-down drunk. The independent pathologist recommended that Harris be exhumed so that a second autopsy could look more closely at the cause of the suffocation.

A motion filed with the court to exhume the body was granted in April 1995. About five months after Harris was laid to rest her body was “relatively well preserved,” said Dr. Brian Treon, Clermont County Coroner.

The second autopsy revealed a torn membrane inside Harris’ mouth. Such an injury is associated with one’s face being pressed against something, according to Treon. The finding was a possible explanation for how the blade of grass was deep in the victim’s airway.

Further analysis raised questions about the position of Harris’ body when she was found. Investigators believed the scene in the backyard had been staged.

What accounted for the discrepancies between the autopsies? “The first pathologist was making rulings based upon information that was available at the time,” said Treon, adding that the victim was believed to have been intoxicated. 

The post-exhumation autopsy led to a different conclusion: Harris had been murdered.

Police considered who would have a motive to kill Harris and narrowed the suspects to Don Mills and his mother. They soon learned that Mills had a girlfriend, which raised yet another red flag.

Statements from Harris’ neighbors reported car activity on the morning of her death suggesting that her body could have been moved to the backyard, according to “Exhumed.”

Investigators believed they had evidence to make a case against Don Mills, but not his mother. She was never charged with any crime in connection to Harris' death.

Fifteen months after Harris was found dead, Don Mills was arrested for aggravated assault and manslaughter.

In September 1996, his trial began. Prosecutors explained how the blade of grass could end up in her airway as she gasped for one last breath. 

Mills was convicted and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. In 2016, Mills was up for parole, where he had to account for his crime. After years of denials he admitted that he lost his temper after a fight, local12.com reported.

His request for parole was denied. He will be up for parole again in 2025. 

To learn more about the case, watch “Exhumed: Killer Revealed,” airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen or watch episodes here.

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