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Nice, polite tenant was fugitive lawyer

Stephanie Palmer was impressed by the dark-haired, neatly dressed man who came into her mailbox rental business in a St. Louis suburb last November.

He called himself Al Messer and always had time for a pleasant chat when he stopped to check his mail every other week. But he rarely received any.

Messer had been laid off by IBM, where he worked with computers, he told Palmer. Now he was working on his doctorate, taking classes at Washington University.

"He seemed like a very nice person," Palmer said Tuesday.

So she was stunned last week when agents from the FBI arrested Messer at her condominium and she learned that his real name is Ronald J. Harris, not Messer, and that he is a bankruptcy lawyer, not a computer specialist.

Harris, who had built a busy practice at U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Tampa, vanished Nov. 11, the day he was supposed to attend a real estate closing in New Orleans with $143,000 in clients' money. Both the FBI and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office later issued warrants for his arrest on charges that he had absconded with money from those clients and others.

The Florida Bar suspended his license and took inventory of more than 600 case files that Harris left behind, including 200 cases pending before bankruptcy court.

Harris, who was held in a St. Louis federal jail without bail, will appear before a U.S. magistrate this afternoon to determine whether he will continue to be held without bail and whether he will be returned to Tampa to face trial.

FBI spokesmen in both Tampa and St. Louis have had little to say about the Harris case since announcing his arrest. Michael Reap, the prosecutor who will represent the U.S. Attorney's Office in today's hearing, said Tuesday he knows little about Harris' activities while he was on the run.

Harris' public defender did not return Times' phone calls, and neither did Harris.

It is not clear whether Harris, 43, used any other names while he was a fugitive. But he had a reason to choose the name Messer: His ex-wife is named India Messer.

Palmer, 47, said it was just before Thanksgiving when the man she knew as Al Messer first appeared at the mailbox rental business she manages about a 20-minute drive from her home.

He kept the box for a few months but then closed it one day, telling Palmer that IBM had rehired him and was moving him to Phoenix.

She forgot about him until he returned less than three weeks ago and reopened his box. He said he was looking for a place to live and was tired of hotels. Did she know somewhere he could stay?

This time, she discovered she and Harris had some mutual friends in the St. Louis area. When she introduced him to another friend who came to the mailbox business one afternoon, she listened as the two shared memories about New Orleans, where Harris lived before moving to Tampa.

And the final test came when her son, Scotty, a graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans, was impressed by Harris. Harris also graduated from Tulane.

"Whatever he was telling me was very believable," Palmer said.

Harris seemed interested in dating her, Palmer said, but he knew that she is seeing someone else.

She leased a room to Harris the week he was arrested, with no idea that her new tenant was in serious trouble.

He was calm, cool, organized, she said.

And thoughtful. When Harris moved into her condominium in a different St. Louis suburb last Monday, he paid $100 cash in advance for the first of four weeks' rent. He shopped for groceries, split the food bills and cooked dinner every night _ pasta one night, beef the next. Fish was on the menu Friday.

But Friday afternoon, only a short while after Palmer had lunched with her new tenant, her son called to tell her of the FBI's arrest.

"I've been in shock. I feel sorry for him," Palmer said.

She said she since has talked to Harris by phone and visited him in jail. Harris' ex-wife called her this week to thank her for what she did for Harris, Palmer said.

"He was a very nice individual. I could probably be his friend for a long time," she said. "I don't think he meant any harm to me."

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.