The Hunting Grounds is a multi-part series on the predators who made Fort Worth a dangerous place to be a woman in in the early to mid 1980s. I strongly recommend you read the first four parts of the narrative. Preview sets the scene, followed by Part One, Stranger in the Dark and Part Two: Cold Hit which discuss serial killer Curtis Brown and how the advances in science uncovered his crimes. This article is a continuation of Part Three: The Devil You Know.
Identifying the killer of Retha Stratton was the easy part. Within 48 hours of her murder, he was behind bars, but keeping him there would become a struggle. The typical time lapse from arrest to trial is on average a year in Tarrant County, but only 10 months after his arrest, Wesley Wayne Miller was on trial. Due to the intense publicity, the trial was moved to Ector County. There almost wasn’t a trial. Concerned with the lack of physical evidence as the trial date loomed, prosecutor Steve Chaney offered a plea of 35 years just one week before the trial to Miller’s defense team, attorneys Jack Strickland and Bill Lane.
Miller did not accept immediately and the plea offer was nixed by then District Attorney Tim Curry. Judge Gordon Gray intervened, saying Miller must be afforded the opportunity to accept or reject the offer before it could be withdrawn. He told the attorneys that he would honor the 35 year offer if Miller was inclined. He was not. The case would go to trial.
On one side were the citizens of River Oaks who firmly supported the Stratton family, sister Rona, parents A.J. and Doris. On the other, sat Miller’s parents Morris and Carol who believed in their son’s innocence. Carol repeatedly told the media that her son had been ‘tricked by the police’ into confessing. She did not believe he was responsible for the murder or the two sexual assaults he had been charged with.
He was charged with the rape of L.V., the 19 year old Saginaw woman after fingerprints at the scene were linked to Miller. He was a stranger and there was no legitimate reason for his prints to be in her house. He was also charged with rape of D.O. after a shoe print was determined to belong to a size 7 1/2 Kinney sneaker, a shoe Miller owned. She was one of the women who said her attacker ‘was built just like Miller.’ Miller was never charged in the other cases. Again, this was pre-DNA and there wasn’t any physical evidence. The cases discussed in The Devil You Know were all linked by identical M.O.: the victim was home alone, receiving mysterious calls and hang ups, they were attacked in their bedrooms by a man with dark hair, very muscular body but short, around 5 foot 9 inches, who wore a stocking over his head and said the same things to them and forced them to perform identical acts. The victims all had similar appearances and ages. Police had no doubt Miller was the rapist, but there just wasn’t the evidence to charge him in all the cases.
In fact, the judge ruled that evidence of the serial rapes was not admissible, and not just at the guilt or innocence phase. It wasn’t coming in at all, not even when deciding punishment. After a two week trial, the jury deliberated for five hours before finding Miller guilty. His attorneys fought hard on his behalf, doing what they were supposed to do. They challenged the voluntariness of Miller’s confession, but Retha’s family and friends were all smiles, holding hands as the verdict was read, sure this part of their nightmare was at an end. The punishment phase was short. Without the rapes to talk about, there was nothing else the prosecution could bring up to show Miller belonged behind bars. At that time, anyone not previously convicted of a felony was eligible for probation, even for murder. There was nothing else in Miller’s past they could argue. He had no issues with drugs or alcohol, no other crimes, no problems in school. He was the smiling, all American athlete, voted “Best All Around Student” of his class just the year before.
Not allowing the jury to know about the sexual assaults left them with only Miller’s version of events, his statement where he painted Retha as a “tease” who provoked him to violence with her actions. We will never know what truly caused Miller to escalate to murder, but a more likely scenario is that he broke in to rape Retha, but she recognized him and her killed her to shut her up. Her jammed her underwear in her mouth to make her be quiet, then stabbed her 38 times before slitting her wrists to make sure she would never tell his secrets. The facts were brutal, and they were all the prosecution had.
Steve Chaney argued for life in prison. Jack Strickland begged for probation, portraying his client as a scared kid. The jury compromised on 25 years. Both sets of parents burst into tears. As Strickland went over to comfort Miller’s parents, the judge remarked “That’s a win, Jack.” Privately, Strickland and Lane agreed. Everyone knew it was a light sentence. Tim Curry publicly promised Miller would be tried for the rape cases and Chaney assured the family that it would be more than seven years before Miller became eligible for parole. Because Miller had been convicted of a crime involving a deadly weapon, he would have to serve what was called ‘agg time’ meaning he would serve at least a third of his sentence before he became eligible for parole.
There was a clerical error at the Texas Department of Corrections. Even though an affirmative deadly weapon finding was listed on the judgment and sentence, Miller wasn’t listed as a an “agg” offender in their system. Due to prison overcrowding, the actual time served was often brief. Miller came up for parole in just two years.
At the time, victims weren’t notified and the parole hearing came and went without Retha Stratton’s family being aware, but Miller would come up for parole on a yearly basis and keeping Miller, and other sexually violent predators would become the life’s work of Retha’s sister, Rona Stratton, and her friend Lisa Gabbert, also a victim of Miller’s serial rape spree.
For years, they flooded the parole board with letters, petitions, even graphic photos of the crime scene, anything to remind them of what Miller had done. Instead of taking the rape cases to trial as promised, Tim Curry’s office allowed Miller to plead to one case, with a charge of Burglary with intent to commit sexual assault. The punishment was 20 years to run concurrent with time he was already serving. He would receive no additional time. Even worse, the clock was ticking because eventually Miller would be eligible for mandatory release.
Mandatory release is exactly what it sounds like. All prisoners were allowed to accrue “good time.” If Miller behaved himself in prison, he must be released when his years served plus good time equaled a specific number. For Miller, that came in 1991.
Rona and Lisa didn’t stop fighting. They fought Miller’s release back into the same community where he had lived. The idea of running into him at the local store, knowing he walked the same streets was unacceptable. He would not be allowed to return to Tarrant County. TDC had trouble finding a county willing to accept Miller. Each time after the public learned of Miller’s potential release to their community, the outcry forced them to find another location until Miller was quietly placed in Wichita Falls. Rona Stratton compared Miller to the New Jersey garbage barge that couldn’t find a place to dock. “Nobody wants this guy and I don’t blame ’em.”
Miller was finally free, but that wouldn’t last long. June 7, 1992, in Wichita Falls, Laura Barnard had done some late grocery shopping. It was 11:00 p.m. when she parked in front of her home to unload her car. She noticed a stranger, a man with long, dark hair standing near a white truck across the street. There was something in the way he stared at her that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She stared back and then man got into the truck, but as she came back out for another load of groceries, there he was again. Again she stared back, wanting the man to know she had seen him. Again, he acted as though he was leaving. She turned back to the car and as she was lowering the trunk, she heard footsteps. Startled, she looked up in time to see him charging at her, running full speed. She dropped the paper towels in her hands and ran into the house, calling for her husband.
They went outside to look. At first they didn’t see anything, but then she felt the stare and pointed him out. He was trying to hide behind a tree. “That’s him.” Both got a good look at Miller as he walked briskly away. They also got the license plate of his white truck. The truck was registered to his father, Morris. Miller was tried and convicted for Attempted Assault, and he was sent back to prison.
Rona and Lisa thought Miller would now serve the rest of his sentence, but five years later he was released again–sort of. This time he was required to spend most of his day in the Tarrant County jail, only being released for short periods with a GPS monitor on. Miller was escorted to counseling and job interviews. As a condition, the parole board ordered Miller to complete a Sex Offender Treatment Program. Miller refused. His attorney, Jeffrey Gooch called a press conference where he complained about his client’s treatment. He claimed that Miller had not technically been convicted of a sexual offense and therefore the parole board had overstepped their bounds.
Miller had pled guilty to that Burglary with intent to commit a sexual offense, so the requirement stuck. He had only thought he was getting a good deal, but it came back to bite him with a vengeance.
Senator Mike Moncrief declared “He will be the most monitored man in Texas.” Everyone was tense, waiting to see what would happen next. What happened, was that Miller refused to participate. The parole board revoked his release and he was sent back to prison for his refusal to participate in a Sex Offender Treatment Program. For the next six years, this would be the pattern. Each time he was given parole, he was immediately revoked for his stubborn refusal to agree to the rules, most particularly treatment. He seemed content to wait out his sentence. He would be released in 2007 with his entire sentence done. There would be no rules to follow, no monitoring, no counseling. Miller would be free.
But Rona Stratton and Lisa Gabbert had one more card to play, Title 11 of the Texas Health and Safety Code, also known as Civil Commitment of Sexually Violent Predators. Civil Commitment is a response to public frustration over the danger of repeat offenders. It’s a way to confine those with a high risk of recidivism after the completion of their criminal sentences and force them into treatment and monitoring. The first such legislation was in Washington in 1990. Texas passed Title 11 in 1999 with Rona Stratton and Lisa Gabbert as passionate advocates. Twenty states have Civil Commitment legislation which has been extremely controversial because they allow indefinite confinement for people deemed predatory through a “mental abnormality or personality disorder”. For a thorough discussion of the issues, see Kansas v. Hendricks in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legislation providing there are sufficient procedural safeguards and that such legislation is for public safety and not merely punitive or Miller’s appeal from his Civil Commitment proceedings which challenged the Texas statute.
The Title 11 of the Texas Health and Safety Code begins with a legislative statement:
The legislature finds that a small but extremely dangerous group of sexually violent predators exists and that those predators have a behavioral abnormality that is not amenable to traditional mental illness treatment modalities and that makes the predators likely to engage in repeated predatory acts of sexual violence.
The law requires a person be a repeat sexually violent offender, meaning the person must be convicted of two or more offenses deemed “sexually violent.” Miller claimed not to be a sex offender but he had pled guilty to the Burglary with intent to commit sexual assault. That was one conviction, but Murder does not qualify unless it is found to have been sexually motivated. That specific language was added to the statute in 2005 as Miller’s release date drew near. Again, Retha’s sister was instrumental in seeing that legislation passed.
The procedure for declaring someone a Sexually Violent Predator is as follows. When a potentially eligible person grows close to release, they are referred for an evaluation by a multidisciplinary team for psychopathy and ‘behavioral abnormalities.’ If the committee decides the person meets definition of Sexually Violent Predator, they issue a petition to commit him. A jury trial follows in which both the state and the person are represented by counsel. The program is overseen by the Texas Civil Commitment Office.
In Miller’s case, the jury would have to hear the facts of Retha’s murder and make a determination if the crime was sexually motivated. The family would have to endure another trial. No murderer had yet to be committed as a sexually violent predator. The statute had only been used for pedophiles.
In 2006, Miller was sent for evaluation. He didn’t have many of the normal risk factors. No violent family history. No substance abuse. His refusal to admit guilt and refusal to participate in treatment could be used against him. He also refused to cooperate with the evaluation, insisting that he didn’t remember the actual murder. But the main evidence would be Retha’s crime and the other sexual assaults. Several of the women would finally have their chance to testify. It would be their only day in court, their only opportunity to confront Miller about what he had done. They sat in the courtroom where he could see them, even as the prosecutor showed the jury graphic photos of Retha’s body.
On Miller’s side was his father, brother, and an aunt. His mother had passed after a battle with Alzheimer’s. Morris Miller testified on his son’s behalf. “No matter what he’s done, he’s still my son. And I’ll love him forever. I feel like Wes has paid his debt to society. I believe he should get out, not one day more than the 25 year sentence at the most.”
The state offered the testimony of Dr. Kenneth Price, a forensic psychologist who labeled Miller a “sexual psychopath” and offered his opinion that he was likely to offend again.
After hearing about Miller’s full history, this jury took less than two hours to declare Miller a sexually violent predator. Upon release, he would be civilly committed with a long list of rules to follow and intense supervision. He would be ordered to undergo treatment. If Miller ever wanted to be released, he would have to attend treatment.
In 2007, Miller was released from TDC and required to live in a secure facility. He first went to another facility but was moved to live in Tarrant County’s Cold Springs Unit. He should have where he couldn’t prey on anyone else. After all, he had a long list rules and constant supervision. Although he was 46 at the time, he somehow began a romance with a female jailer who was only 21.
She wasn’t supposed to have contact with him. Any contact with Miller had with woman had to be approved by Miller’s supervising officer. But they could see each other, especially when she parked her truck so that he could past and see it. They would smile and wave at each other. The contact escalated to passing messages and sneaking conversations on the intercom. At the time she was still 20 and dazzled by this man everyone told her to stay away from because he was dangerous. They worked out a system to circumvent his phone privileges and the relationship began in earnest. When they were caught in the relationship, he was arrested and charged with violating his Civil Commitment. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He is still serving that sentence, but after that he will return to Civil Commitment, still unrepentant, still uncooperative. He has refused to discuss his crimes. But if he ever convinces the Texas Civil Commitment Office that he has been rehabilitated enough for release, you can be sure that Rona Stratton will be watching.
Next week, The Hunting Grounds will finally discuss one of the most notorious serial killers from Fort Worth, Juan Meza Segunda.
Miller’s appeal from his commitment: https://caselaw.findlaw.com/tx-court-of-appeals/1410329.html
The Odessa American: https://www.newspapers.com/image/300183013/?terms=wesley%2Bwayne%2Bmiller
The Fort Worth Star-telegram: https://www.star-telegram.com/news/state/texas/article27002044.html
Health and Safety Code Title 11, Civil Commitment of Sexually Violent Predators: https://statutes.capitol.texas.gov/Docs/HS/htm/HS.841.htm
Kansas v. Hendricks: https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/521/346/