The Hunting Grounds, Part Four: Caging the Predator

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.

Reatha YearbookIdentifying 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 trial 2.jpg
Miller with attorneys Jack Strickland and Bill Lane in Criminal District Court Number Four of Tarrant County, Texas. Photo courtesy of UTA digital archives.

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Gordon Gray intervened, saying Miller must be afforded the opportunity to accept or reject the offer before it could be withdrawn.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.

Miller trialSteve 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.

Miller 1988
Miller, May 16, 1998 Courtesy of The Monitor

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.

At the Civil
Rona Stratton and Lisa Gabbert, CBS 48 hours, Dangerous Reunion

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.

Gary Fountain for The Chronicle File
Miller at his Civil Commitment hearing. Photo Courtesy of The Chronicle by staff photographer Gary Fountain

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.

 

 

Source Notes:

Miller’s appeal from his commitment: https://caselaw.findlaw.com/tx-court-of-appeals/1410329.html

https://mylifeofcrime.wordpress.com/tag/retha-stratton/

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

https://www.star-telegram.com/opinion/editorials/article21512208.html

https://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/community/fort-worth/article67027062.html

https://www.dallasnews.com/news/crime/2011/05/05/two-violations-of-civil-commit

https://www.khou.com/article/news/local/convict-to-return-to-prison-for-jailhouse-romance/285-342720631

https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2008/nov/15/romance-with-jail-guard-lands-sex-offender-back-in-prison/

Health and Safety Code Title 11, Civil Commitment of Sexually Violent Predators: https://statutes.capitol.texas.gov/Docs/HS/htm/HS.841.htm

https://www.cbsnews.com/video/extra-wesley-wayne-miller-deposition/

Kansas v. Hendricks: https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/521/346/

 

 

 

 

Garden of Angels: The Murder of Amy Robinson

In the northeast corner of Tarrant County, tucked at the end of a rough roadway, there is a field of crosses, each cross remembering a life stolen by violent crime. Hours of labor have transformed that weed-choked field into Our Garden of Angels, a place of peace and remembrance with paths, benches, and a gurgling waterfall. Families gather there occasionally, just to be in a calm place where they don’t have to shoulder the burden of grief alone. There, they are among those who truly understand.

This unique memorial for murder victims began with a single cross to remember a beautiful, young woman named Amy Robinson.

Amy-Robinson.jpg

Nineteen year old Amy Robinson had dreams of going to college and becoming a teacher, but that hope was far away. She was doing well learning to live on her own and hold a job. Amy had been born with Turner’s syndrome, a chromosomal disorder which inhibits physical and mental growth. She was extremely petite, only four feet five inches and she had the mental capacity of a 14 year old. But she was learning how to live on her own and every day she rode her bicycle to her job sacking groceries for Kroger in Arlington, Texas. Amy was sweet and trusting. She was very social and didn’t like to be alone and had no reason to be suspicious when two of her co-workers stopped to offer her a ride on her way to work one day.

Robert Neville, Jr. and Michael Hall had both been fired by Kroger, but Amy didn’t know that. Two hours after she was supposed to be at work, her supervisor called to say Amy had never arrived. Alarmed, her family called police immediately. Police spoke with current and former co-workers. Neville admitted knowing her and even meeting her socially, but he denied having seen her in months.

Neville was someone Amy would never have trusted if only she’d known his background. He had prior convictions for burglary and had only been out of prison for 8 months. As a juvenile, he had been prosecuted for molesting younger children including an 11 year old girl, a 9 year old boy, and a 7 year old boy. He also had a history of abusing animals. When Neville was 14, he threw kittens off a roof. Two years later he tied a cat to a tree by its tail and repeatedly hit the cat with a pole. He had been fired for ridiculing a mentally challenged co-worker and had refused to sack groceries for minority shoppers. He had a fascination with white supremacy. That was the tie that bound Neville and Hall together.

Hall also didn’t like people of color. He was a follower, not a leader, and he was happy to let Neville take the lead. As they were drinking at a house belonging to Neville’s grandmother, Neville mentioned how he would like to go “just go out and kill somebody.” Hall suggested they purchase guns. They bought a pair of .22 caliber rifles and practiced shooting. They formed a plan to be serial killers and selected their first victim, a mentally impaired black man whom they worked with. Neville would later claim in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram interview that they had “a bet to see who could shoot and kill the most people between the two of us.” They particularly wanted to kill “blacks or Mexicans—anybody as long as they weren’t our color.”

On February 15, 1998, the duo made a decision. Upon checking the work schedules, they learned the black coworker wasn’t going to be at work that day, but Amy would be and she was part Native American. They found her riding her bike to work and offered her a ride which she accepted. These weren’t strangers to her and she didn’t know they had been fired. They promised her that they were going to take a ride and then they would drop her off. Instead of taking her to work, they drove her to a field in the Northeast corner of Tarrant County, an isolated place tucked off a rough, pitted road. Amy worried she would be late for work.

Neville stopped at the field, pretending to have a flat tire. Neville and Hall took their weapons out into the field while Amy sat in the car listening to the radio until Hall came back. He convinced her that she needed to go talk to Neville, that he was waiting for her over by a tree. Neville was waiting for Amy, and he was armed with a crossbow. He shot at her several times, grazing her hair with an arrow. She fled for the car but Hall shot her with a pellet gun in the leg. She cried from the pain as he began peppering her with pellets. Neville then brought up the .22 caliber rifle. They took turns shooting Amy. Neville shot her in the chest with the rifle and Hall shot her in the chest multiple times with the pellet gun.

She went to the ground, shaking and crying, then she called Neville by name. It was the last thing Amy would ever say. The pair became worried someone would overhear them so Neville shot Amy in the head to finish her. They had maneuvered her back into the field where she wouldn’t be readily visible from the road. They abandoned her body and left her bicycle with her.

Meanwhile, Amy’s family and friends were frantically looking for her. Her face stayed on the nightly news. It occurred to Hall and Neville that they might have missed a chance to rob Amy, so they went back to her body and took the small amount of cash from her pocket. They then used her body for target practice.

As so many narcissists do, Hall just had to brag about what they had done. He told his step-brother who went to the Arlington police. As police focused on Neville and Hall, they made for the border, but were arrested in Eagle Pass trying to cross into Mexico on March 3rd. Once detained, both men spent a lot of time boasting to reporters and investigators. They openly laughed about torturing Amy. Hall went so far as to imitate the sounds she was make and act out his shooting of her. He described how she begged to live, but died with Robert Neville’s name on her lips.

The interviews would come back to haunt them. Both men claimed diminished mental capacity as a defense, but the juries saw the videos of them laughing it up about torturing and killing Amy. The described her as “easy prey” and talked about how they wanted to be serial killers. Hall specifically mentioned that they chose Amy “because I didn’t have to put bruises on her to get her in the car.”  He bragged about being the one to convince Amy that she was safe with them and even getting her to leave the car and walk over to Neville. He said she might have gotten away if he hadn’t been there to help Neville.  Asked if he had any remorse, on the Fox 4 video that was played, he laughed and said “I wouldn’t want to be her. She had to take a lot of pain.”  The juries sentenced both men to death.

Amy’s grandmother, Carolyn Barker wasn’t satisfied. For her, the media was too focused on the perpetrators and not on the victim. It seemed to her that Hall and Neville wanted to be famous. Every time the murder was covered, she had to look at their faces, hear their words, listen to everyone talk about their upbringings and mental status. What about Amy? Amy was the one who should be remembered.

cross

Carolyn went to find the place in the weed-choked field where Amy had died. She says that part of her Native American beliefs are that a person’s spirit separates from the body and ascends to the afterlife at the place of death and that place becomes sacred. She marked that sacred spot with a cross. Amy had never liked being alone, and when other families in a grief support group expressed interest, she encouraged them to place their crosses beside Amy’s. This was no ordinary support group, but Families of Murdered Victims, and from there the unique memorial to crime victims was born.

Neville was executed February 8, 2006. Hall was executed February 15, 2011, thirteen years to the day from when he murdered Amy Robinson. Although it was financially and emotionally draining, Amy’s mother and sisters made the journey to see the executions. Her grandmother Carolyn did not, choosing instead to celebrate Amy’s life among her fellow angels. Her mother Tina said that she needed to see their final justice for herself. Both men expressed regret and apologized to the families.

Neville claimed to have become a Christian and told them he would see Amy on the other side and apologize to her and tell her how much her family loved and missed her. Hall also claimed to have found Christianity and said he wished he could make things right.  Amy’s sisters weren’t interested in forgiving him. Amanda expressed that she believed he was not remorseful but playing for cameras right to the end. Ruth said she felt like a weight had been lifted from her and she was glad Hall died the same day Amy did. It felt right to her.

From the four original crosses, Amy’s field is now home to more than 160 crosses, tangible reminders of lives taken in violence. Carolyn Barker’s love for her granddaughter transformed her grief into something beautiful. She wanted Amy’s memory to live on and she has succeeded. The memorial has been named Our Garden of Angels. You can take a visual tour from their website and read more about some of the precious lives remembered there at http://ourgardenofangels.org/.

 

 

 

SOURCE NOTES:

http://ourgardenofangels.org/

http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/html/death/US/neville1011.htm

Neville’s Appeals: Neville v. Dretke, Not Reported in F.Supp.2d, 2004 WL 2049335 (N.D. Tex. 2004) (Habeas)
Neville v. Dretke, 423 F.3d 474 (5th Cir. 2005) (Habeas)

http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-5th-circuit/1209854.html

http://www.murderpedia.org/male.N/n1/neville-robert-james.htm

Hall v. State, 67 S.W.3d 870 (Tex.Crim.App. 2002). (Direct Appeal)
Hall v. Texas, 537 U.S. 802, 123 S.Ct. 70 (2002). (Remand)
Hall v. State, 160 S.W.3d 24 (Tex.Crim.App. 2004). (Direct Appeal After Remand)
Hall v. Quarterman, 534 F.3d 365 (5th Cir. 2008). (Habeas)

http://www.murderpedia.org/male.H/images/h/hall_michael_wayne/06-70041-CV.pdf

http://www.murderpedia.org/male.H/h1/hall-michael-wayne.htm