Miller Poisoning Case Dramatically Changed Lives
Posted November 13, 2005
RALEIGH, N.C. — For nearly five years, their lives were held together by a single question: Who killed Eric Miller?
A father waited to learn who fatally poisoned his son with arsenic. A police lieutenant toiled with a complicated case that at times appeared stuck, with no progress made for months at a time. A widow lived silently in the shadow of suspicion, refusing to talk as she raised the couple's young daughter, left town and remarried.
The question hung over nearly every moment of every day, the longing for an answer intensifying last year after prosecutors charged the widow -- Ann Miller Kontz -- with murder.
When that answer came, it came quick: Kontz stood in open court and surprised many by admitting she conspired with her lover to poison her husband. And suddenly, lives tied together by tragedy were freed by truth, each dramatically changed by the murder of Eric Miller.
"I don't think anybody is happy about any of this," said Chris Morgan, who led the police investigation and remained involved in the case after his retirement. "But I think there's some sense of resolution."
The 35-year-old Kontz will spend the next 25 to 31½ years in prison for poisoning Miller, a 30-year-old pediatric AIDS researcher at the University of North Carolina. He died in December 2000 after ingesting poisoned food and drink served up by his wife and her lover, Derril Willard, who worked with Kontz at drug maker GlaxoSmithKline. Willard committed suicide about a month after Miller's death.
Kontz expressed remorse in a
read by defense attorney Joseph B. Cheshire V at the hearing Monday when she pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.
"I think Ann has always felt that she could never really be free if she did not accept responsibility and face the truth," said her other attorney, Wade Smith. "And I think she wanted to do that."
But Verus Miller, Eric's father, called her statement "empty words" that offered no reason why she committed the crime.
Now, Miller and his wife Doris, who live in Cambridge City, Ind., are focused on his granddaughter, Clare. She turns 6 in January and is being cared for by Kontz's sister in Wilmington, where Kontz eventually moved and remarried. He said it is too soon to talk about what comes next for her.
"The motivating factor in this was that it removed (Kontz) from Clare's life, guaranteed for 25 years," Miller said. "And we felt that was an important enough reason to agree to the plea. This way, she will not be able to influence or harm Clare."
The Millers have remained close to Morgan, a determined investigator who often wore fedora hats straight out of old detective movies. He delayed retirement for more than a year to keep working on the case, and remained involved after he left the force in late 2004.
Miller's death stayed with him like few others. He saw Eric Miller's name each day on the list of unsolved slayings posted on a wall at the Raleigh Police Department; a picture of a smiling Eric, Ann and infant Clare hangs on his bulletin board at home. He told Miller's parents he would not leave the case until it was "going where it needed to be," and even faced pressure from his mother to solve the case.
"She would say, 'Those poor Miller folks. What can you do for them?'" Morgan said of his late mother. "I don't think my mama would have let me put it down."
Years ago, his wife made him stop buying a new hat for each tough homicide case he solved -- he was buying too many. But Morgan made an exception to celebrate Kontz's arrest, adding a Panama straw hat to his collection. An unburdened retirement awaits.
For Rick Gammon, Kontz's plea brought relief that he wouldn't have to testify at a trial. Gammon, an attorney who spoke with Willard several times before his suicide, was ultimately forced to reveal details of those conversations to authorities despite his claims of attorney-client privilege.
Gammon lost his fight before the state Supreme Court, eventually turning over information that implicated Kontz and led to her indictment on a first-degree murder charge a few months later. Gammon said his client learned from Kontz that she had injected the unknown contents of a syringe into her husband's IV bag while he was hospitalized.
Now Gammon -- who has worked in private practice for about 25 years -- said he cautions clients there's always the chance that he could be compelled to talk about their conversations. He called the fight "stressful," but said it was the right decision to try to keep the information private, even though it proved to be the key to the case.
He said authorities and other attorneys reacted positively to his fight, and there are apparently no bad feelings between Gammon and the Miller family. Verus Miller has long said he did not fault Gammon for protecting the information, and Gammon said the Miller family was gracious during a past courthouse encounter.
"I felt as if they understood that I wasn't trying to keep information away from solving their son's murder," Gammon said. "I've had a lot of people, whether they agreed or disagreed, say they thought I handled it properly. And that was a good feeling."
The case wore heavily on others as well. Willard left behind a wife and young daughter, while defense attorneys Smith and Cheshire remained quiet as years of suspicion mounted against their client. Prosecutor Rebecca Holt worked on the case exclusively for a year to prepare for a January trial, which Wake District Attorney Colon Willoughby admitted would have been a "fascinating" case to try.
But closing the case -- and providing the final answer to the lingering question -- was most important.
"It's been a long, hard road," he said. "I'm satisfied that we've done the right thing, and we have to move on."