The Hunting Grounds, Part Five: A Friend of the Family

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 1980s. I strongly recommend you start from the beginning of the narrative. Preview sets the scene, followed by  Stranger in the Dark and Cold Hit which discusses the creation of CODIS and the first Fort Worth Cold Case Unit. The Devil you Know and Caging the Predator address the issue of serial rapists who escalate to murder, and the first killer confined under the Sexually Violent Predator Act.


Vanessa Villa_familySomething was bothering Vanessa Villa on August 3, 1986. The 11 year-old Fort Worth Worth girl had been out of sorts all day and now she didn’t want dinner. She didn’t want to go to the store with her mother and aunt. She just wanted to lie in bed listening to a cassette of sad, Spanish songs. She might have been nervous about the school year that was about to start. School was hard for Vanessa. She was bubbly and outgoing and teachers liked her enough to make her an office helper, but her English was limited and so even though she was a bright child who loved art and history, she struggled. At times, she wanted to leave and go back to Mexico. She wrote in her diary, “Momma take me from this place. I’m scared.” But at other times she dreamed of being a cheerleader and had exchanged kisses with a boy. She lived a normal life for a girl on the Northside.

The Northside of Fort Worth has a long history of being a tight knit Mexican community. School might be hard, but Vanessa’s family had found a welcoming home in the neighborhood. Their extended family was all here. Vanessa made money selling Western belts and boots at the Bernal Flea Market, something she did earlier that day. Her friends and family remember her as not being her cheerful self. That night, she excused herself from the dinner table without eating. Vanessa’s mother stopped by her bedroom to check on her before leaving. The baby needed diapers and another child need new shoes for school. Vanessa was lying on the bed wearing blue jean shorts, listening to the sad music as a fan hummed in her open window, keeping the heat at bay. She repeated that didn’t want to go. Her seventeen year old brother was in his room, so her mother let Vanessa and the youngest children stay home while ran her errands.

Vanessa’s mother and aunt weren’t gone long, just a trip to the store and maybe stopping to talk to friends. Upon arriving home, the first thing Vanessa’s mother noticed was that her bedroom door was closed, which was strange because it was hot. The door had been open when they left in order to let the air flow through. She opened the door and was startled to find her daughter naked from the waist down. Her first instinct was to snap, “Cover yourself up!” But on closer look , she realized something was very wrong. Then she started screaming and Vanessa’s brother ran into the room.

It was a crime that shocked the community. There had been a steady creep of the problems facing the rest of the city, but a eleven year-old girl raped and strangled in her own bed? Chris Cook, a senior detective was called out to the scene, but he quickly called for another detective, one who spoke Spanish. Manny Reyes would always recall the first murder case he worked.

Vanessa had been brutally attacked, with ligature marks around her neck and half-moon cuts from finger nails dug in her thighs, yet no one had heard anything. Outside her window, police found a white bucket, the type markets used to sell pickles. The bucket was turned over and the fan had been pushed out of Vanessa’s window. Police believed her attacker had come in through that window.

At first, police pursued leads hard. There was a neighbor with a history of sexually abusing children, but he proved to have an alibi. This was the same year the discovery of DNA was announced. The idea of using it solves crimes was far away. The best police could do was test the semen for secretions. The neighbor was excluded from being the killer, but that didn’t bring police any closer to answers. Vanessa was laid to rest in a dove grey coffin with a lace veil over her face. Reyes watched people shuffle past to pay their respects and he wondered if one of them had done it.

Segundo1

The fifth name in the visitation book at the funeral is written in shaky hand, Mr. and Mrs. Juan Segundo. Juan and his wife, Rosa Maria were friends of the family. Rosa Maria worked with Vanessa’s mother at a nursing home. Juan, who went by Johnny, used to visit there until he was accused of molesting one of the residents and banned from being there.

Johnny was considered harmless by most people. He was small and soft spoken, but Rosa Maria knew he had a darker side. He drank heavily and could be abusive. In 1983, he came home covered with blood and refused to talk about it.  She went out to his car, looking for clues. Under the seat she found a woman’s purse. Segundo had been in and out of jail, mostly for marijuana and drunk driving, but also burglary. If she had any suspicions then about just how dangerous her husband was, Rosa Maria kept them to herself. She did leave him soon after.

People were eager to leave the neighborhood after Vanessa was killed. Too much violence and they were now suspicious of each other. Police were sure the killer was local. Everyone knew each other on the Northside. Vanessa’s killer was able to walk up to her house and away again without anyone noticing even though the heat of the evening had driven many outside. He belonged. A stranger would have been seen. Without any meaningful leads, the police moved on to new crimes and the tight knit community broke apart, but no one forgot, not Vanessa’s family or friends, and certainly not that young detective.

October 6, 1987, Irene K. was separated from her husband and staying with a friend on North Houston Street. She woke in the night to the feeling of someone touching her. Startled, she turned on a lamp to find a man with his pants down, kneeling over her. She screamed and he began punching her in the face. The man seemed very drunk to her as she fought back. Fortunately, Irene wasn’t alone. Irene’s screaming brought her friend running. The friend also fought the man who ran off and the women immediately called the police. Juan Segundo might have gotten away with the brazen attack if the friend hadn’t recognized him. She had worked with Segundo and considered him a nuisance. He was was always “hitting on” her and making sexual comments. Perhaps Segundo was actually looking for the friend that night when he broke in.

Thanks to her friend having recognized him, a warrant was issued for Segundo. Police were already looking for him because he had just made bond on his most recent DWI. Segundo was quickly arrested and charged with Burglary with intent to commit sexual assault. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison on June 28, 1988. Thanks to overcrowding and mandatory early release, he was back out in less than a year.

Ripley Arnold
Ripley Arnold Housing Complex before it was torn down in 2003.

His parole didn’t last very long. Sharon H. lived in the Ripley Arnold Housing Complex right across the street from the Tarrant County Courthouse, the very place Segundo had pled guilty to trying to rape Irene K.

Like Irene, Sharon woke to a naked man in her room. To keep her from screaming, her grabbed her around the throat and began strangling her. Later police would discover that he had removed a window pane to make entry into her bedroom. Sharon fought Segundo and was able to get free. Ripley Arnold Housing was a series of duplexes that were close on top of one another. Her screams brought neighbors running. They weren’t able to catch Segundo but they got a good look at him and were able to tell police who he was. Segundo was well known in the neighborhood. As one man told the police, “Johnny gets crazy when he drinks.”

How a convicted sex offender who had attacked a woman after being out of prison for less than a year was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor is a real mystery, but that is exactly what happened. Although Segundo was again charged with Burglary with intent to commit sexual assault and was eligible to be punished as a Habitual Offender, meaning he could have gotten anywhere from 25 years to Life, Segundo was only given a sentence of one year.

Segundo’s parole was revoked and he was sent back to prison where he was again released in 1993. Five days later he was arrested for threatening another man with a gun at a bar over a woman. He was released on bond because the courts were slow. Then in 1995, while drunk Segundo ran a red light and led police on a high speed chase through the streets of Fort Worth. He was once again released on bond. This DWI, Segundo’s third, was a felony. Apparently, DWI is more serious than rape, because when he pled guilty on September 14, 1995, he was sentenced to five years.

While on bond for the felony that would send him back to the pen, Segundo killed at least three times, crimes that wouldn’t be revealed for a decade, not until Fort Worth created it’s first Cold Case Unit and assigned a veteran detective, Manny Reyes, who had never forgotten that first case he had been assigned. For 19 years he had stayed in touch with Vanessa Villa’s family and when CODIS made DNA a formidable weapon in solving old crimes, hers was one of the very first cases he sent off for testing.

The results would shock everyone. Without DNA, Fort Worth police would never have discovered that four seemingly disparate crimes were actually the work of a serial killer and that he was loose on the streets, free to kill again.

Coming soon: The Monster’s Disguise.

 

SOURCE NOTES:

https://www.dallasobserver.com/news/caught-cold-6405623

https://www.lubbockonline.com/filed-online/2011-07-02/police-say-dna-links-1994-slaying-23-year-old-woman-death-row-inmate

http://murderpedia.org/male.S/s/segundo-juan.htm

https://law.justia.com/cases/texas/court-of-criminal-appeals/2008/17554.html

https://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/community/fort-worth/article219680490.html

https://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/community/fort-worth/article219680490.html#storylink=cpy

There are numerous other articles, especially from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram from reporters Melody McDonald and Deanna Boyd. Many of these articles are not online and must be accessed through Fort Worth Public Library Archives.

 

 

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/

 

 

 

 

The Hunting Grounds, Part Three: The Devil you know

The Hunting Grounds is a multi-part series on the predators who made Fort Worth a dangerous place to be a woman in the early to mid 1980s. I strongly recommend you read the first three parts of the narrative, Preview which sets the scene, and Stranger in the Dark and Cold Hit which discuss serial rapist and murderer Curtis Don Brown. Originally part three was intended to Juan Mesa Segundo, but we will return to his story later. Instead we are moving out into the suburbs which seemed safer than the city, but that veneer of civility was an illusion.

 

Yearbook both

Looking at their senior pictures side by side, Wesley Wayne Miller and Retha Stratton are the perfect, couple, the American ideal. Although the two were not dating, they were friends. Retha was a popular, bubbly cheerleader at Castleberry High. Miller was captain of the football team, a three-sport athlete voted “Best All Around Student” in 1981, their senior year. Miller wrote in Retha’s yearbook, “I’d like to get to know you better. Your [sic] the best looking girl in our school and I hope to see a lot of you this summer, Love Always Wesley.”

Castleberry ISD is in River Oaks, a small suburb north of Fort Worth known as a bedroom community for blue-collar families and for the nearby Carswell Airforce Base. Seniors are always glad to escape the confines of school, but for the class of ’81, they were especially glad to leave. Since the start of that year, a rapist had stalked the senior girls.

 

January 23, 1981, Susan Davis, 16, was home alone when a man entered her room. “He walks in with a stocking overt his head, his face, no shirt on, jeans with, you know, his zipper open. And at that point I realized something really bad was going to happen.” Dangerous Reunion, 48 hours

Susan ran, but the man caught her and began threatening her. “Don’t scream or I’m going to hit you.” The man began punching her in her face. He ripped her panties off. At some point, however, instead of completing the rape, he fled. She never found out what spooked him.

River Oaks police took a report, but with little physical evidence, there wasn’t much else they could do– but they did tell Susan it was likely someone she knew. “I had to go back into cheerleading. And I was paranoid all the time about ‘Is this person in the stands watching me?’”

The record isn’t clear what led police to this conclusion. A masked intruder would make most people think this was an attack by a stranger, but from the very start, police thought it was someone who knew the victims. Was it the assailant’s familiarity with the house? The fact he struck at a time when she would be alone? Or did they know that just by playing the odds, they were likely to be right, because most sexual assaults aren’t committed by strangers. In the 1980’s, the terminology was “date rape” which is an unfortunate choice. Rape and sexual assault have nothing to do with a “date gone wrong.” They are predatory, deliberate acts of violence. Now, the preferred terminology is “non-stranger” sexual assault. See, research and studies by Dr. David Lizak

In 1979, clinical psychologist Nicholas Groth set out to categorize different types of rapists. After working with both victims and offenders, he set out three specific types.  First is the power rapist who derives comfort and satisfaction from dominating his victim. The second type is the anger rapist, who rapist is driven by rage against a specific group, women or men, causing him to lash out with violence. The third sort is the sadistic rapist who receives sexual gratification by causing pain to the victim. The types blend and rapists are most often a mix of these different elements.

The man who assaulted Susan showed multiple types. He gave specific orders to her, demonstrating control, but then hurt her, even as she complied. He left without completing the attack, which could have been a lack of confidence which is often found in power rapists.

Fortunately, studies have shown that most men aren’t rapists. How then do we account for the high level of rapes committed? One in four women is a victim of sexual assault. The answer is that most rapists are serial offenders. Studies show they often begin in adolescence and continue throughout their lives. This pattern held true here. The River Oaks Rapist wasn’t done with his one aborted attempt.
Reatha

Retha Stratton graduated in May along with close friends and fellow cheerleaders Amy Moody and Lisa Gabbert. Retha and Amy got an apartment together and Retha went to work doing data entry for the Ralston Purina company . Unknown to them, another young woman was raped in November.

L. V. (a pseudonym), 19, was home alone on November 11, 1981 in the nearby town of Saginaw, when she received several mysterious phone calls. Each time, a male voice asked for a person she didn’t know and she told him that no such person was there. She fell asleep and when she awoke, it was to a nude man with a stocking covering his face kneeling over her in the bed. He ripped the phone from the wall and told her he was going to rape her. She struggled, even though the man said he would kill her if she didn’t do what he told her to. He physically assaulted her for some time before finally leaving. She immediately ran to her parents’ room and called her boyfriend.  Sagniaw police processed the scene and came up with the first solid bit of evidence: a fingerprint on the telephone and in her bedroom. There were semen stains in her room, but this is before DNA. She described the man as muscular but only around 5 foot, six inches tall.

Police had a fingerprint, but the person it belonged to wasn’t in they system and without a known person to compare it to, that wasn’t much help. But it was something. The attack didn’t make the news.

It never occurred to Retha and her friends that they could become victims. Then on December 7, the unthinkable happened. Lisa woke up to find a man in her house, “And when I looked over I saw that someone was standing in the doorway with a red ski mask and panty hose over the mask. And he leapt on me. And we struggled. There was some choking. And then he tore back the covers. Opened my robe. And we struggled some more. And so he proceeded to rape me.” Dangerous Reunion, CBS 48 hours
Once again, the River Oaks Rapist demonstrate knowledge of his victim and her specific living situation. He walked right past Lisa’s disabled mother, who couldn’t move or speak, as if she were not even there, as if he knew she couldn’t interfere or become a witness. The rapist reminded Lisa of someone. She told a rookie patrolman that the man was built just like Miller, especially his arms. She didn’t think it was Miller. It couldn’t be Miller, of course,  but she wanted the police to know that the attacker had the same exact build.

Miller’s girlfriend, Roxy McDonnell lived just across the street from Lisa and the very next day, her younger sister became a victim of the River Oaks rapist. Again, the rapist struck when the girl was home alone and once again, he reminded her of someone. According to the CBS 48 hours:

“And we had just said to the dad, ‘Well, he’s built like Wesley. And has arms like Wesley’s.’ And he says, ‘Wesley, come here.’ And he said, ‘Let me see your arm.’ And he pulls his arm over. He said, ‘You mean it look just like this?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah,'” Lisa recalls. “And Wesley yanked his arm back and went upstairs. Without saying a word.”

Everyone was careful for a while. Shocked by the attack on their close friend, roommates Amy and Retha changed their locks, and didn’t come home alone, but gradually, they relaxed their guard. The River Oaks rapist stayed quiet for six weeks and life returned to normal for most people.

In 1982, Curtis Don Brown was still in prison for auto theft. Ted Bundy’s trials had faded from view. Instead recent news was the marriage of Lady Diana to Prince Charles, the identification of the AIDS virus, and the shooting of the Pope. The serial raps of teen girls in Texas suburbia was barely a blip on the local radar, much less the bigger news markets.

That would change on January 21, 1982. Amy came home to a scene of horror. A trail of blood led from the livingroom, down the hall into Retha’s room and back to the closet where her brutalized body lay partially in the closet as if she had fallen backwards. She had been stabbed 38 times with the majority of the wounds to her left breast. Her wrists had been slit and her bloody panties crammed into her mouth. She was nude from the waist down. The knife still protruded from her chest.

Locating the culprit wouldn’t take long. Miller’s pick up truck was spotted at Retha’s house around the time of the murder and he turned to his girlfriend, Roxy to help him hide the evidence. Claiming he had bloodied someone’s nose in a game of touch football, he handed her a pair of bloody jeans to wash. She took the jeans, but as soon as news of Retha’s murder broke, Roxy handed those jeans to the police. Police immediately began looking for Miller.

Miller lie detector
Wesley Wayne Miller being transport to take a lie detector test following his arrest and confession. January 23, 1981. Photo courtesy of UTA digital archives

January 23rd, just two days after Retha’s murder, there was a sexual assault of a woman in Lake Worth. She received several phone calls from a male voice asking if  “Ed” was there. The woman said there wasn’t a man in the house and hung up. Soon after, a young, athletic man around five foot nine inches and wearing a stocking over his head broke into the house and sexually assaulted her.

Miller was arrested later that day.

Within 48 hours, Miller was charged with Retha’s murder. He confessed to the Fort Worth detective C.D. Timmons, although he tried to lay much of the blame on Retha for her own murder. He told police that he went over to the house and Retha was “coming on to him.” He said they were kissing, but she refused to go further. Miller said this happened twice, that she would make sexual advances on him, but then back away. He said he lost his temper the second time and refused to stop “And we started fighting.” Next, he claimed Retha grabbed for a ‘ledge’ that was between the kitchen and the bedroom and a knife just fell to the floor. He thought she was maybe going to grab it, so he grabbed the knife instead and stabbed her. “I kind of lost my mind and I do not remember how many times I stabbed her . He said he hid her body in the closet and washed the knife, but then went back and slit her wrists to make sure she was dead. “I didn’t want her to tell on me,” he said. Then he thrust the knife into her chest and drove home.

As Retha’s heartbroken family and friends laid her body to rest, they at least had the relief of knowing that her killer wasn’t roaming free. What they couldn’t know, was that this was just the beginning of a decades long battle to keep Miller behind bars, a struggle that would make new laws and result in permanent changes to the way we treat sexually violent predators.

Next week, I will return with the next installment of the Hunting Grounds: Caging the Predator.

Jan 26 Funeral
Retha’s family at her funeral, January 26, 1982, photo courtesy of UTA digital archives

 

Source Notes:

Information for this article came from the archives of numerous newspapers, chiefly the Fort Worth Star-Telegram , the Dallas Morning News, and AP stories. Additional information came directly from parole records and police reports.

Dangerous Reunion, CBS 48 hours: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/dangerous-reunion/

The research and studies of Dr. David Lizak, https://davidlisak.com/wp-content/uploads/pdf/RepeatRapeinUndetectedRapists.pdf

https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications/2018-10/Lisak-False-Reports-Moving-beyond.pdf