On a January day in 2012, Karla Lewis said goodbye to her husband and four children, leaving her North Houston home for Bush Intercontinental Airport. Though she had been with her employer just three weeks, her boss had invited his new sales and marketing manager to accompany him to New York for a round of client meetings.
Lewis (names of victims have been changed) had traveled some in her previous office jobs for EatZi’s and Central Market, but this would be the 43-year-old’s first trip ever to New York City. And since she would be arriving on a Sunday night, she would at last get to see Times Square, the Rockefeller Center ice rink, and other iconic Manhattan spots in person. Morris had promised her as much.
Morris was Henri Morris, the highly successful CEO of Edible Software, a company whose products helped food wholesalers track their inventories. He was the married, 65-year-old father of two grown sons who both worked at his firm, a bespectacled, slightly jowly Meyerland resident who lived a lifestyle commensurate with his wealth. But he also had a reputation for generosity, both toward his synagogue—United Orthodox on Greenwillow St.—and his employees, whose trips with Morris went far beyond typical expense-account affairs. In the case of Lewis’s New York junket, that meant sushi and a couple of rounds of bloody Marys in Continental’s President’s Lounge before their flight to New York, and a first-class seat next to Morris.
Lewis had two cranberry-and-vodkas before the plane touched down at LaGuardia, whereupon Morris rented a big black sedan at Hertz and the pair drove to a nearby Marriott. As she later told the FBI, Lewis was impressed by their reception there. It seemed like the entire hotel staff knew the South African native with a software company in Houston. After securing two rooms for them on the eighth floor, Morris told Lewis to meet him in the concierge lounge—an exclusive preserve for frequent customers—where she ordered another cranberry-and-vodka, drinking about half of it before her boss announced that he would be treating her to dinner in Manhattan as thanks for agreeing to come on the trip with him.
“‘This is a crime that many, many people get away with,’ says Bryan J. Sweeney, a Clear Lake–area forensic psychiatrist who has worked on drug-facilitated rape cases and knows the unique difficulties they present.”
At that point, he grabbed three to-go cups and headed over to the beverage cart across the lounge. When he returned, two of them—one of which he had just marked “Henri,” another one freshly marked “Karla”—were full of vodka and cranberry juice. The third read “Spare.” Lewis remembers thinking that was a bit odd, but she took the cup with her name on it as they headed to the car, had a sip, then another. Fade to black.
The next thing she remembers is pulling back into the hotel parking lot and Morris saying something about losing his room key. Fade to black. Then she was wandering the halls, thinking she was in the wrong hotel, not knowing what city she was in. She remembers wetting her pants as well. Fade to black again. She was back in her room, as was Morris.
“You scared me to death,” he said. “You’ve been lost for the last 45 minutes and I didn’t know where you were.”
Lewis told him she was fine, that he’d overreacted. At that point, Morris suggested they sit on the bed and watch TV together, but Lewis begged off, saying she needed to call her husband. Morris left, and she did so, a conversation she only vaguely remembered later. Looking at her phone, she noticed a photo of Rockefeller Center but had no recollection of even visiting the ice rink, the one thing she’d most wanted to see in New York. The time stamp was 8:24 p.m. Where else had she been for the past four-plus hours? And what had she done?
Just days after their return to Houston, Morris announced that Lewis would be accompanying him on another business trip, this time to Peoria. After drinking just half of a rum-and-coke on the plane, she started to feel strange. Lewis has no recollection of getting off the plane in Chicago, and the rest of the night is a blur of hazy images: red lettering on a black condom packet; Morris’s face “squished up” against hers, telling her “you’re going to have a long career”; Morris’s hand entwined with hers; his hand between her legs. Then she vomited suddenly, at least three or four times, although she would only remember this the next morning in the shower. That morning played out like the one in New York, with feelings of anxiety, a racing heart, and self-recriminations.
But the shower also revealed something new—a fresh, purple bruise near her T-shirt line, one that ached like a bad flu shot, an injury consistent with a shirt being yanked off violently. In addition, a large area of her face was red and covered in what she believed was Morris’s “stubble burn.”
On the instructions of a friend with HPD, Lewis went to the FBI. Agents convinced her to agree to one final trip with her boss, although ultimately Morris would be arrested at Intercontinental before the two boarded the plane. In his carry-on bag, authorities found Viagra and Cialis, themselves not illicit, though his wife would certainly have objected. They also found the sleeping pill Ambien, as well as oxazepam, a benzodiazepine commonly mixed with alcohol to facilitate sexual assault and subsequent amnesia about the event, according to the subsequent testimony of toxicologists. Agents also seized a few small Jack Daniel’s bottles filled with sugar-water, which they believe Morris planned to use to disguise the drugs’ bitter taste.
It all seemed incredibly damning. But as Lewis was about to find out, putting Morris behind bars for his acts would be harder than one would expect, and the aftermath of his crimes would be as shrouded in haziness as the acts themselves. In fact, everything about the case—from her memories of those nights, to Lewis’s duties as a responsible employee, to the laws used to prosecute men like Morris—demonstrated a certain fuzziness, a fuzziness that has so far played to Morris’s advantage.
“This is a crime that many, many people get away with,” says Bryan J. Sweeney, a Clear Lake–area forensic psychiatrist who has worked on drug-facilitated rape cases and knows the unique difficulties they present. For one thing, victims who were drinking are apt to blame themselves. “If you don’t know for a fact that you were drugged, you might wonder, why did I let myself get this way?”
Often, there is also uncertainty about what actually happened, as was the case with Lewis. That uncertainty meant that she did not immediately go to authorities, nor did she go to the hospital in time to be tested before the drugs passed through her system. As Sweeney puts it, in drug-facilitated rape cases, any delay gives key evidence time to vanish.
Houston’s Dr. Ashraf Mozayani literally co-wrote the definitive book on this type of case, Drug Facilitated Sex Assault: A Forensic Handbook. She was also Harris County’s chief toxicologist for 16 years.
In the public mind—and therefore a jury’s mind—the men who commit these acts are low-life psychopaths, she says, although the typical perpetrator is actually someone like Morris, a prominent businessman women would be given to trust. Furthermore, juries tend to be biased against women who find themselves drinking with their bosses prior to such acts, especially those like Lewis, who do it in a hotel far from home.
“Defense,” adds Harris County Assistant District Attorney Anna Emmons, who has prosecuted similar cases, “is inevitably going to be able bring in people who will say that the victim was having a good time and was just drunk.”
Still, some men are convicted of these crimes. In 2008, Mozayani was an expert witness for the successful prosecution of bar owner Peter Corbo. She’d been called in by Emmons and fellow DA Jane Waters; both remember the case as especially difficult.
Corbo was a balding, forty-something man overly fond of the teenagers and twenty-somethings who worked or hung out in his bar, several of them current or former employees. In the case, a 19-year-old woman claimed that she had been drinking with Corbo, and only weeks later—when she discovered she was pregnant—did she discover she’d had sex with him. Ultimately, the woman terminated her pregnancy. A tissue sample from the embryo was a match for Corbo.
But the prosecution still had no case. Juries tend to have a hard time with sexual assault, says Waters, because “they are complicated and not like what you see on TV. They expect things to be really obvious. They expect there to be physical injuries and signs of abuse, and you just don’t see those things in these cases.”
Eventually, after fanning out in the Cypress and Katy bar scenes, investigators found several women with similar stories about Corbo. Having established a pattern, they were able to charge him with sexual assault, haul him into court, and ultimately put him away for 12 years.
Which seems like a just ending until you consider the implications: one woman coming forward and claiming rape isn’t enough, as her testimony may well not be believed, especially if the assault was drug-facilitated. Multiple victims must be found. Still, perpetrators of drug-induced rape do generally leave behind a trail of victims, and Morris is no exception.
Just before Lewis and Morris went to New York, Martha Jones came into her co-worker Erin McMullan-Bjork’s office, sat down, and burst into tears as she told of a bizarre and disturbing trip she’d taken to New Orleans with their boss Morris, how they’d spent the evening in the French Quarter, how he kept ordering drinks whether she wanted them or not. The next thing Jones knew, Morris was guiding her by her shoulders to her hotel room, although they somehow ended up in his, where he tried to tear off her sweater. Jones said she ultimately fought off Morris and returned to her room, where—after throwing up—she felt some of her symptoms of drowsiness subside. (We’ve used McMullan-Bjork’s real name, as she never accused Morris of sexual assault.)
The next day, Jones told Morris she wanted to go home. He urged her to stay for an important client meeting and apologized for the night before, explaining his actions as stemming from his troubled marriage. Jones agreed to continue with the trip, and there was no further incident, although clearly memories of the previous night were still haunting her, months later. in McMullan-Bjork’s office. By then, McMullan-Bjork was also crying.
“Don’t tell anyone,” McMullan-Bjork remembers her colleague saying. “I need this job, and I still haven’t worked all this out in my head.” Jones seemed to believe that her run-in with Morris really could have been a one-time thing. Maybe her boss really did have a troubled marriage that led to an alcohol-fueled lapse in judgment in the French Quarter. Maybe Jones really had consumed much more alcohol than she remembered. Maybe she was partially to blame.
“Did he rape her? Sodomize her? Photograph her naked as he did others? The possibilities are extensive and the implications foul and odious.”
It was only in February, after Lewis returned from Peoria looking “all out-of-sorts,” that McMullan-Bjork put two and two together. “Do you feel comfortable traveling?” she asked Lewis, whom she barely knew. Lewis didn’t immediately get her meaning.
“When I first started working here, I heard a very disturbing story, and I wanted to make sure you were good,” McMullan-Bjork continued.
As Lewis later told the FBI, “at that point, it all started clicking: it’s not me.” She told the whole story to McMullan-Bjork, who then persuaded Jones to share what had happened to her. Over a shared after-work appetizer, the two women compared notes. Drinking in concierge lounges. Carrying around to-go cups filled with Morris’s concoctions. Memory loss followed by self-blame. Vomiting. Terrified and helpless husbands back home. Morris acting gently disapproving even as he assured them they’d just drunk too much.
Later in February, shortly after her meeting with Lewis, Morris invited McMullan-Bjork to travel with him. She refused and was terminated. This would be one of his last executive decisions, as it turns out. Between then and the time Morris was arrested a few weeks later, Lewis went to the feds, who quickly found even more of Morris’s alleged victims.
An Edible employee named Diane Mathews claimed in an FBI deposition that she had accompanied Morris on a trip to Newark and Philadelphia just two weeks into her job. In Newark, she awoke in her hotel bed to find that a pillow and sheets were over her head and a blanket around her ankles. Despite being disoriented and groggy, Mathews managed to hear the click of a camera-phone, whereupon she bolted up, realizing she was naked with Morris standing over her. She demanded to know why he was in her room and told him to leave immediately. He did, and she collapsed back into sleep, noticing when she awoke that she felt soreness in her “female regions” and saw bruises on her arms and hip area. Mathews was certain she’d been raped.
“I’ve never done anything like this before, and I really like you,” Mathews recalled Morris telling her later, adding, as was his habit, that he was trapped in a bad marriage. She left the company soon afterward, and shortly after that the FBI discovered nude pictures of her on Morris’s phone.
Then there was Anna Clark, a software implementation specialist who accompanied Morris to a seafood expo in Boston in February of 2011. She remembered having blacked out on one evening during their trip. On another, Morris massaged her shoulders in a hotel bar and tried to convince her to let him continue the massage in his room. She refused. A few weeks later, Clark was fired.
And then there was Loretta Green, who recently spoke with Houstonia about what she described as her “terrible experience” at Edible in late 2009. She didn’t want to talk about the alleged assault, although her deposition for the FBI detailed an all-too-familiar scenario. Twice she had left town with Morris, and both times he had tried to ply her with alcohol before attempting to grope and kiss her and lure her to his hotel room. Green’s job at Edible was one she desperately needed, and so she reluctantly agreed to go on a second business excursion with Morris.
“He made me go on that second trip,” Green says now. “I cried and cried. I didn’t want to go. But I thought, there’s no way he’s gonna try this again, after the first time. Who would do that? But he did.”
On November 1 of last year, a day of reckoning finally came in the federal courthouse downtown. The front rows of US District Judge Melinda Harmon were packed with the families of Morris’s victims, as well as the victims themselves. Morris stood before the bench as federal prosecutor Sherri Zack read a graphic litany of his crimes against Lewis, Mathews, Green, and a fourth woman, and how they all amounted to five counts of “transportation,” meaning, according to the plea agreement, that Morris had “traveled in interstate commerce and committed, and attempted to commit the drug-facilitated sexual assaults” of those four women.
Judge Harmon asked if that was an accurate account. Morris conferred with his attorneys for a moment as a hush descended over the courtroom.
“Judge, that is an accurate summary of what happened,” Morris said at last. “I agree with it.”
After that, Harmon announced the terms of the defendant’s conditional—and controversial—plea deal. He would have to register as a sex offender, and upon his release from prison, would be under federal supervision for the rest of his life. But while each of the five counts of transportation could have netted Morris ten years behind bars, for a total of 50, he ended up getting only one year. Total.
Morris’s victims and some observers were aghast. “We were hoping for more,” one of the women told the Chronicle outside the courtroom. “He looks like a pretty normal person. He is not. He is a monster.”
For his part, one of Morris’s attorneys, Stanley Schneider, countered, “If the facts were as serious as they are suggesting, we would not have the [plea agreement.]”
For Bryan Sweeney, the forensic psychiatrist, the explanation is simple. “I honestly feel like the court system in general doesn’t take these kinds of rapes nearly as seriously as they should,” he says. “These guys don’t get nearly the length of sentences that violent offenders and people who break into houses get. They just don’t. There’s this bias that exists where [both judges and juries] look at them differently.”
Even if his conditional plea agreement stands in his criminal case—more on that later—Morris is not yet out of the woods, at least from a financial standpoint. Lewis, Clark, and Jones have hired Friendswood attorney Jeffrey Todd and taken Morris to civil court, along with Edible Software and its parent company, Solid Software Solutions. The plaintiffs are seeking monetary damages for the tort of assault.
Meanwhile, Morris’s attorneys, Dan Cogdell and Gregg Rosenberg, have filed a motion to dismiss the civil suit on the grounds that Morris’s actions constituted workplace sexual harassment rather than assault. In their view, if a trip is for business, then the location where the harassment takes place is also a workplace. By that logic, the women should have first taken their cases to Edible’s HR department. This, at any rate, was what Morris’s attorneys implied in their depositions of the women, giving rise to the following exchange in Jeffrey Todd’s Friendswood law office.
“Where is the place to address sexual harassment?” Cogdell asked Clark.
“With a lawyer in a courtroom,” she said.
“That’s the only place to address it?”
“In my opinion.”
“Okay, did Edible Software have a human resources department?”
“Did you address it to them?”
“Well, it’s Henri’s son,” Clark replied.
“I understand that,” Cogdell answered.
“No I did not address it with Henri’s son.”
The distinction between assault and harassment was a potentially important one, because sexual harassment cases are bound by Waffle House vs. Williams, a 2010 ruling in which the Texas Supreme Court found that victims in sex harassment suits are to be awarded relatively low settlements limited by the Texas Commission on Human Rights rather than the larger sums available in the civil court system.
Under that interpretation, Edible and Solid Software Solutions might be shielded from damages related to Morris’s actions, whether he was the CEO or a mailroom drone. (Civil trials are all about money, and most of Morris’s is tied up in the companies.) In addition, Waffle House does not extend its protection to out-and-out rapists, which is why Morris’s team maintained that the women were too groggy to determine whether they had actually been assaulted.
In his passionately worded counterargument, Todd contended that “this deliberate strategy ignores the claims that were actually asserted and centers on the claims that the Defendants wish had been asserted.” (Italics in the original.) “Morris didn’t discriminate against the Assault Victims, whether in or out of the workplace; rather he attacked and violated them! Morris invited or induced the deferential and trusting Assault Victims across state lines; where in remote cities he mendaciously drugged each and all of them into intentional insensibility, with the explicit intent of forcefully removing their clothing, photographing them naked and sexually assaulting them while they were completely inert and vulnerable.”
For Todd, letting Morris off the hook for his crimes would be like granting a surgeon leniency for a botched operation just because the patient was sedated.
Judge Jeff Shadwick agreed with Todd; Morris’s motion to dismiss was denied and the case continues, with a trial date set for the middle of next month.
It’s a fluid situation, as they say, because Morris’s plea agreement is conditional. He’s currently free on bond pending formal sentencing on February 7. When Edible’s CEO goes back before Judge Harmon, she will have the option of declaring his one-year sentence insufficient. Of course, in that event, Morris could withdraw his plea and force a second trial, one that could result in anything from vindication to what would amount to a life sentence. In other words, as with so much of this case, what might happen is anyone’s guess.
Loretta Green is hoping he takes a gamble and loses. “It should be a lot more than [one year],” she says. She has twice suffered through extended periods of nightmares and crying jags because of Morris, she says, once in the aftermath of his actions, and then again when forced to recount her story to the FBI. Even today, Green avoids reading newspaper accounts or watching TV reports about Morris; her only information on the case comes from the FBI.
“He should spend the rest of his life in jail,” she says flatly.
But for the time being, at least, we are left with an ambiguous ending that mirrors Morris’s victims’ inability to find closure. “And it is here that the real horror of her experience becomes exquisitely clear,” as Todd put it in a legal pleading regarding Clark. “This good and decent woman was rendered incoherent by the intentional drugging of Morris and she is left now to forever wonder about what vile things he did to her while she was unconscious. Did he rape her? Sodomize her? Photograph her naked as he did others? The possibilities are extensive and the implications foul and odious.”