Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Paradise Defiled

How does a young child cope when her mother vanishes into thin air? It has long been known that the effects of violent crime spread like a circle when a stone is thrown into a pond because those closest to the victim have to live with the memories and consequences. When Diana Lynn Harris [pictured] disappeared in 1981, her daughter Christine was ten-years-old. This is her story.

Key West has a history. From wreckers to rum-runners to drug smugglers to official corruption, life in America’s southern-most city has always seethed with crime and violence. By the early 1980s, slimy drug runners had infested paradise. It was into this culture that Diana Lynn Harris moved.

Diana left Michigan and came south for a new start. She brought along her two children, Chrissy, 10, and Mikey, 8. And she brought a new boyfriend. The group settled into an old hotel that had been converted into efficiency apartments on Big Pine Key. Diana wasn’t afraid of hard work. She quickly landed two jobs, at the No Name Pub and Sugarloaf Lodge. Life for the children was idyllic. They’d escaped the winters of Michigan for palm trees and sun and surf. Chrissy and Mikey loved the beach and hanging out with their mom.

Unfortunately, many of the friends Diana made were shady at best.

In fact, she landed in a nest of drug smugglers. Diana’s boyfriend didn’t like Florida and moved on. Soon she began dating Gary Argenzio. He conveniently forgot to tell her that he had once been charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment, lewdness, and rape.

After having spent three months in paradise, Chrissy and Mikey were sent back to Michigan. They flew out of Miami on June 7. Diana was scheduled to pick them up on August 15 when they would all attend her sister’s wedding.

She never made it.

One of Argenzio’s friends was Mitchell Denker, an attorney who owned what locals called a “party house.” Argenzio and Diana Lynn Harris moved into that house. Denker was known as a “drug lawyer.” In late 1980, the “Big Pine 29” drug bust occurred. Twenty-nine people were arrested as they attempted to off-load a boat filled with marijuana. Federal officers seized more than fifteen tons of the stuff from a fenced lot near Denker’s house. The lawyer was quick to represent the smugglers.

After an investigation by the Feds, the Key West Police Department was declared a “criminal enterprise” under the RICO statute. Many of the KWPD officers partied at Denker’s house. Several were later fired for their ties with drug smugglers.

Diana’s mother last spoke with her on July 15. After being unable to contact her daughter, her mother reported Diana missing. A week later, Argenzio stole a boat and fled the country. He was later arrested in Mexico and charged with theft. His attorney was a cousin of Mitchell Denker. Argenzio was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.

Chrissy’s life changed after her mother disappeared. She became restless, moving with the winds, and living with relatives and friends in Michigan and Texas. At 16, she was drawn back to south Florida. She ran away to Miami and began searching for her mother. Chrissy, who now goes by Christine, learned that three years after her mother vanished, KWPD had purged the files concerning the investigation of Diana’s disappearance. “There are no documents whatsoever,” Christine said. “All of the 1981 records were destroyed in 1984.”

Since buying a computer, Christine has been able to contact others who research missing persons on the Internet. One such site is the Doe Network. In a recent email, she wrote: “I had stopped eating because I spent all my time searching for info online. I still feel like the information I need is right under my nose. It deeply frustrates me that I can’t find it. I feel Mom’s killer is running free today, living a good life and many in the Florida Keys know about the person, knows who murdered her and how she died and will never tell.”

Over the years, Christine has entertained several theories about what happened to her mother. The most obvious is that Diana was murdered in the “party house” and her body dumped at sea.

At Christine’s urging, the case was reinvestigated in 1995. At that time, police claimed that Diana disappeared from another house, this one also owned by Mitchell Denker. Police interviewed a friend of Denker named Mark Ripin. According to a police report dated August 15, 1995, “Ripin said that he and Mitch Denker arrived at the residence one Sunday evening and found a hole in the wall. They asked Argenzio about the hole and he made some comment about assaulting his girlfriend, Diane Harris. Harris was not at the residence and never showed back up after the incident...It is the opinion of Ripin that Argenzio killed Harris, took the body out on the boat and dumped it in the ocean.” Since Argenzio died after being released from prison, he makes a convenient scapegoat. The original investigators dispute Ripin’s 1995 claims about there being a “hole in the wall” at the residence. They are adamant that there was no such hole.

A friend of Diana’s reported that she got a phone call from Diana the day before she disappeared. Diana confided in her friend that a big shipment of drugs was coming in and she feared the phones might be tapped. Did someone murder her because she had knowledge she shouldn’t have had or because she informed an outsider about the shipment?

Another theory is that Diana was sold into “white slavery” in Turkey or Asia. Although this seems far-fetched, Mark Ripin was known to have made many trips to Asia.

Many of those connected with the party house have been convicted of various crimes. Mitchell Denker was convicted of two felonies, sentenced to prison, and disbarred from practicing law in the state of Florida. Mark Ripin spent time in prison for armed robbery. Others were convicted of drug offenses.

In August, 1981, shortly after Diana’s disappearance, Gerald Douglas Oxby dispappeared from Key West. He has never been heard from. In 1995, a man named Tom Stump also disappeared from the same area as Diana. He was an associate of many of the players in Diana’s disappearance. No arrest has ever been made in any of those cases.

“I’ll never let go of my mom,” Christine wrote. “I talk about her so I don’t forget the little things about her that I loved so much. She loved the beach and always took us there in Michigan and in Florida. [In Michigan] we used to go to a beach called Sleepy Hollow. In Florida we went every time she wasn’t at work to Bahia Honda Beach. We went to the zoo often, too.”

What happened to Diana Lynn Harris? Someone knows. If anyone has any information about this case, please email Christine Hill at averyriver27@aol.com or for additional reading, check out the links below.




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