Lucille Miller

I love finding much older cases that are often forgotten to history.  The only problem with them is the further you go back in time the more it can sometimes feel like a game of Telephone.  For those younger readers maybe I should explain what that is since no one "plays" anymore.  It was a game where one person would whisper a story to another and that person told another, and that person told another and so on until all the players have heard the story.  The last person was to repeat the story out loud as they had been given it, or at least understood it to be.  The idea was to see how different it was from the original.  It is not unusual with old cases that lore and just plain false facts find their way into the stories so much so that they are often confused with the facts.  A great example of this would be the "Bloody Benders."  They were a family of killers in the late 1800's in Kansas.  Many years later author Laura Ingalls Wilder would do lectures and book tours and sometime throughout she began telling a story that she had met the Benders and that her father had been involved in one of the many posse and search parties that were formed to search for the family who had escaped the area before their crimes were found out.  Well, over time it has been proven that the Ingalls family, although had been in the area for a period of time, were not even in Kansas anymore when the Benders were discovered. Could there have been a chance the Ingalls family, including Laura as she claimed, had met the Benders?  It is possible but even still not in the way that she told the story because even if she had met the Benders she would have been too young to remember.  And yet her story has made it into many of the stories about the Benders and often is believed to be true.  

For this case I tried to rely on two main things.  One is an article written by Lucille and Gordon Miller's daughter, Debbie around 2004 and the other are the few appeals I found on Lucille's case.  Although, I admit that I have often stated that I like reading appeal papers because they seem to give the most accurate details of the crime and the events that were presented at trial, these appeals were a bit questionable.  I am unsure that I have read an appeal from this far back in time (the 1960's) and the wording and the "attitude" that came from the paper was much different than I am used to.  I am unsure honestly if it is something that was common at the time or if the fact that Lucille was a woman made a difference.

In the early morning hours of October 7,1964 Lucille Miller was knocking on a farm house door in San Bernardino County  California. When the woman in the house opened the door she found what she described as a distraught woman claiming that her car had caught fire while driving and her husband was still inside trapped.  She was sure he was dead.  After calling the authorities a fire truck was dispatched but the description was a bit vague on where to find the car.  After the authorities were called the woman asked Lucille Miller if she could call anyone else for her.  She would tell her to call Harold Lance, her friend and lawyer.

The fire department had issue finding the burning car but found the home in which Lucille had gone for help and she and Harold Lance, who had arrived led the department out to where the car was on a dark, country road.  By this time most of the Volkswagen Beetle had been destroyed by fire and the body of Gordon Miller was clearly visible, although completely charred.  

Lucille would say that her husband had been feeling ill in the evening and had asked for some hot chocolate but Lucille knew that if she made him a cup there would not be enough for their three children the next morning for breakfast.  The time was already getting close to midnight but apparently there were a few stores that stayed open very late, which I found very surprising in 1964.  She stated she told her husband that she was not comfortable driving on the dark winding roads around where the new home they had built was located alone and so all but told him she would go but he would have to go with her.  According to Lucille he agreed but he brought a pillow and blanket with him that he had been using inside the house.  They would find a store open and Lucille would go in, presumably with Gordon's wallet with the money, and buy the milk before returning to the winding roads to go home.  The roads were made more difficult because earlier in the day Gordon had hit a dog with the vehicle and one of the headlights had been damaged and did not work.  Lucille would claim that while driving the car seemed to shift and veer as a car does when a tire is blown.  It was soon after she saw fire out the back of the vehicle. In 1964 the Volkswagen Beetle carried the engine in the back of the car.  As the car slid she brought it to a stop on the side of the road and claimed that the fire had gotten bigger.  She would say that she went to the passenger side of the vehicle but the door was locked and Gordon was not responding.  

A few months prior to this Lucille had been driving near the area she thought she was now at with their daughter Debbie and another vehicle had hit her.  While most of the area was sparsely populated where the accident happened was not far from a home in which Debbie, who needed stitches later, got help. According to Lucille she thought this accident was near that same area and thought she would find the home.  Much was made about the fact that it took Lucille what was said to be nearly two hours (although I admit I am unsure this is completely accurate) to get help when she knocked on the strangers door.

Lucille would return to her home several hours later but it appears from the description by her daughter that while authorities were investigation the crime scene an officer was stationed at her home to keep an eye on her.  Around 1:30 that afternoon Lucille was taken into the station for more questioning and subsequently she was arrested and charged with 1st degree murder. By the time she went on trial two months later Lucille was visibly pregnant.   

At her trial Lucille was portrayed as a greedy woman who had killed her husband for two reasons.  The first was to obtain his life insurance that had a double indemnity clause if his death was an accident and the other reason was so that she could be free of her husband thinking her former lover, Arthwell Hayton, would now marry her. Now, I cannot say that neither of these things were not true, or that Lucille was innocent or guilty of the crime but what I can say that by many accounts I do not believe that a trial such as hers would be presented in that way today.  

Of course there was testimony about the "accident" of which the prosecutors said there was not one.  Fire officials determined that the engine had not caught on fire and claimed that the fire was started with an accelerant, likely a gas can found in the back seat without a cap. The car was said to have been examined and nothing could be wrong with it.  There were some flat tires but officials believed that was due to the fire and not a flat as she had described.  

The vast majority of her trial however was based on her character.  Arthwell Hayton would testify that yes, they had had an affair but that he had never had any intention of leaving his wife and broke off the relationship after Lucille became what he described as obsessive.  There would be questions about the death of Hayton's wife, which in my opinion was wrongly included in her trial.  It was said that Lucille had been the last person to see Hayton's wife alive and that she had been found face down in a pillow at her home.  She had apparently been very sick but I could find nothing that said anything specific.  Her cause of death would be listed as natural causes but sometime, whether it was before or after Lucille's trial, the case was reopened and it was said that there was a near lethal dose of barbiturates in her system.  The court already knew that both Lucille, and her dentist husband, had access to barbiturates.  Arthwell would testify that after the death of his wife that Lucille had almost a stalking behavior calling him often adn even once had threatened him.  He testified he had threatened back and authorities believe that while Lucille had filed for divorce from Gordon it was then that she stopped the divorce and supposedly attempted to reconcile with him.  The two had decided to have another child, hence she being pregnant at the trial.

The prosecutors would claim that Lucille had also given her husband barbiturates on the night of his death and that the car fire was staged in order to get the life insurance. Their daughter would years later claim that her father was addicted to the pill himself and had the ability to prescribe them to himself.  She would say that she would often take them to him herself when asked.  

One of the biggest witnesses at the trial was a woman named Peggy Fisk. She was described as an undercover officer in the department but I am unsure that she was nothing more than an informant but I could be wrong.  At any rate Lucille's lawyer, Harold Lance, had apparently made it clear and possibly posted someone at the jail to ensure this, that authorities were not to talk to Lucille without her lawyer present.  Instead authorities had Peggy Fisk pose as an inmate in the same cell as Lucille and attempt to get her to talk.  Fisk would talk to Lucille and then report back to the authorities. Apparently her goal was to get Lucille to confess.  Fisk would get to testify at her trial despite the fact that the defense argued that while her name in the witness list was "Jackie Doe," despite efforts to get her real name and address the prosecution had failed to give it to them. This made them unable to question her before she went on the stand. The judge ended up letting her testify anyway when some sort of agreement was made. A 1968 appeal (F. Lee Bailey was her appeal lawyer by the way) mentioned this and by the way I understood it, the courts believed that although the defense had argued against Fisk testifying in the end they had conceded and that any concerns about her testimony could have been brought up at trial and did not belong in the appeal.  In the end Fisk did not get Lucille to confess.  In fact, she told Fisk basically the same story she had told everyone else.  She did say at some point that she did not love her husband but that she did respect him.  She also told Fisk, likely due to all the publicity and what not, that once she was released she planned to take the insurance money, get her children and move to Europe.  The later appeal would argue that at no point did Fisk inform Lucille who she was or who she worked for.  The appeal was denied. 

Most believe that the only reason Lucille Miller was saved from the death penalty was the fact that she was pregnant, and that may very well be true.  The jury did convict her in March of 1965 in relation to the death of her husband. She was given a life sentence but only served seven years and was released in 1972.  

Little is known about Lucille after her release.  Her parole forbid her from residing in San Bernardino County.  She told the media she planned to change her name and would not release where she planned to live.  There is speculation that she may have been arrested for theft in 1973 and ordered psychiatric help while still in the confines of her parole but but I cannot state this for certain.  According to her daughter, she died on November 4, 1986.

I cannot say whether I believe Lucille Miller was guilty or not.  Her daughters account of their lives leading up to the death of her father tells of a very unhappy household in which both of her parents had their issues.  In the same respect the daughter was only fourteen at the time of her fathers death and I often attempt to stay away from things that have a child's perceptive attached to them.  I can say that much of the forensic evidence relating to arson and "burn patterns" that were largely used in that era have been hugely discounted.  There was a case in Texas against Todd Willingham in which these types of techniques had been used and there were large reports that they should not have been because even by the time of his trial it was known that they were not reliable testing.  In the same respect there was supposedly several tests done in this case to come up with the same patterns and determined how the fire experts determined an accelerant was used. I have to say that the wording used in her 1968 appeal is what makes me lean towards the fact that this case was more about her personality and her actions as opposed to the death of her husband.  It stated that there was overwhelming "evidence that the defendant was a selfish and avaricious woman."  And yes, I had to look of the definition of avaricious to which I found it means "having or showing extreme greed for wealth or material gain."  This likely came from the fact that there had been evidence that the couple had just built a home in which many say they could not truly afford and that Lucille had forged her husbands name on the documents and deed.  Gordon knew of it later apparently and went with it.  I agree that this was illegal and unethical but without knowing more I cannot say that it pointed to this "extreme greed" the courts discussed.  Gordon was a dentist who made between $25,000 and $30,000 a year which was an extreme amount in the 1960s.  Their daughter speaks of the couple's problems and while of course she obviously did not know or was privy to everything she says they both had issues in the marriage.  They were both apparently abusive to each other as well as their children.  

I severely disagree with the fact that Arthwell Hayton's wife's death was brought up in Lucille's trial.  Again, I cannot say that Lucille was not involved but I have difficulty believing that in a period of five months authorities had determined not just the cause of death of Gordon Miller but had obtained the things they needed, and the results, to change the cause of death of Hayton's wife, let alone have conducted a new investigation. No one was ever charged in the woman's death and it remains a mystery as to what truly happened to her which for me tell me this was more about sensationalism than it was about punishing someone for a crime.

To play devils advocate here however there are those who argue that to convict a woman, let alone a white, pregnant woman in the 1960s would have been difficult to do so and yet it happened here.  Many believe that indicates that the evidence was strong to convict her, but I am unsure that I agree.


Popular posts from this blog

Matthew Heikkila

The murder of Jarrod Davidson

Rebecca Simpson