- Associated Press - Saturday, May 21, 2016

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - For more than two decades, people have been trying to get inside the mind of Joseph D. “Joey” Miller. In a way, the convicted serial killer from Steelton has become his own Rorschach test for the detectives, defense attorneys, prosecutors, psychologists and judges who played a role in his protracted, high-profile case.

For more than two decades, people have been trying to get inside the mind of convicted Steelton, Pa., serial killer Joseph D. “Joey” Miller. Is he a murderous monster or mentally challenged?

Some look at him and see a mentally challenged, parentally abused, perennially bullied victim whose rage is a product of his environment, upbringing and post-traumatic stress.

Others take into account the manner in which Miller maintained a domestic home life, complete with a wife and three children, while simultaneously getting away with the rape and murder of up to five women, and brutal assaults of two others. They see a cunning killer leading a duplicitous double life who was always careful about procuring victims from society’s margins, packing a murder kit complete with beer, and then disposing of the bodies; some of the remains wouldn’t be found for a decade.

Miller’s mysterious, murderous mind has been the subject of two murder trials covering three of his victims and resulting in three convictions and a double death sentence. Then came a flurry of capital punishment appeals that reached all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Miller confessed to a fourth murder, for which another man had been convicted. That man was later released, yet Miller was never charged. Then in April - three decades after 26-year-old Kelly Ann Ward disappeared - Miller was charged in Dauphin County with her murder, as well.

If the allegations are true, Joseph Miller stands, at 5 feet, 9 inches, as the midstate’s most prolific killer ever. He ranks as a genuine serial killer, bearing all the signature traits straight out of a horror movie, according to the detectives who profiled him and district attorneys who prosecuted him.

“It was more Hollywood than Harrisburg,” Dauphin County District Attorney Edward M. Marsico Jr. remembered of the Miller case, which broke in the early 1990s, just after the hit horror film, “The Silence of the Lambs,” turned Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of serial killer Hannibal Lecter into a pop-culture sensation.

This was the age of the serial killer as celebrity, and sure enough, Central Pennsylvania had spawned one of its own.

“Ted Bundy was still fresh in our minds,” recalled Marsico. “Son of Sam. All of that. Now we had in Dauphin and Perry counties someone who was a true serial killer. He targeted a certain type of victim, and raped and killed them. He would keep a trinket or memento of the victim and have a little shrine to them. He would go back to where the bodies were.”

Dauphin County Judge Richard Lewis, who as county district attorney won twin murder convictions and secured the death penalty against Miller, is more succinct:

“His crimes were monstrous,” Lewis said. “It defied description what he did.”

Now, with the Ward case, Miller is again capturing headlines, adding to the hundreds of law enforcement hours already spent on his case and the thousands of words written about him.

Yet the mystery of Miller’s mind endures.

Is it that of a mentally challenged man incapable of fully understanding his horrible crimes? Or is it the mind of a cold, calculating serial killer driven by a compulsion to rape and murder his minority victims?

More than two decades later, insight into Joseph Miller’s mind remains as confounding, conflicting and as polarizing as ever.

Two Sides of Joseph Miller

Time has transformed Joseph Miller from the wiry, short-statured, tattooed murder suspect into a wizened, haunted, hollowed-eyed convict staring out in a state prison mugshot at age 51.

His thousand-yard prison stare seems to defy the viewer to project upon him any view they wish. So does his conflicting tattoos, which include ink of both Jesus and the grim reaper.

And how about Miller’s pronounced lisp, caused from a boyhood fall after leaping from a couch, a la Superman. Does it intone meekness or snake-like duplicity?

History shows that Miller can be the taciturn type who confesses to several of his murders with such relish and emotion that it becomes a physical performance.

Conversely, Miller isn’t above laughing in the face of investigators desperately attempting to tie up loose ends from a 30-year-old homicide in which the victim, Kelly Ann Ward, wasn’t found for a decade, and remained faceless and nameless for almost two more decades.

Joseph Miller remains a conundrum. This, despite the best attempts of detectives, defense lawyers, prosecutors, psychologists and even judges to define him by peering into that murky mind of his.

“Who can explain what goes on in the head of a fellow with a fourth-grade education and a low IQ?” Perry County Public Defender Shaubut Walz once asked during Miller’s murder trial for killing victim Kathi Shenck with his car at a Duncannon dumping ground after she tried to flee his sexual assaults in 1990.

After examining Miller, Camp Hill psychologist Stanley E. Schneider, now retired, testified that he found a mix of borderline mental retardation, emotional difficulties and learning disabilities, raised in a “violent, abusive, alcoholic home.”

Despite this, Miller, a mentally challenged man with a criminally checkered past, managed to get his life together and achieve a degree of seeming normalcy.

In the end, Miller’s marriage and his role as a father would prove a mirage, if not an elaborate double life.

For in Uptown Harrisburg, young African-American and minority women began disappearing, one by one.

The Victims

Shortly after Joseph Miller began his own family, women began vanishing from their families. Despite some clues and maddening coincidence, it would be years before the cause and effect could be tied together.

On May 16, 1987, Selina Franklin, 18, of Harrisburg, disappeared, last seen by friends with a man named “Joey” who gave the girls a ride.

Stephanie McDuffey, eight months’ pregnant, failed to return to her Bellevue Street, Harrisburg, home on Nov. 6, 1989. The 23-year-old woman’s mother reported her missing, but police turn up nothing.

On Jan. 11, 1990, Jeannette Thomas, 25, disappeared after leaving an Allison Hill bar with a man fitting Miller’s description. She was never seen alive again.

The body of Kathy Novena Shenck, also known as Phoenix Bell, was found at a roadside dump in Penn Twp., Perry County, on Feb. 27, 1990. The Harrisburg woman was run over by a car several times, until dead.

On June 30, 1992, a Harrisburg woman with a history of prostitution staggered to a secluded home in Perry County, telling a horrific story of rape and forced oral sex. Her assailant stabbed her more than 25 times in the head with a screwdriver, then left her for dead. But she lived to tell her tale.

Before all of them, there was Kelly Ann Ward, police say. The 26-year-old Harrisburg woman disappeared in 1986, but her skeletal remains were not found until 1997. Even then, those remains would not be positively identified as Ward’s for decades.

Throughout the string of disappearances and the many intervening years during which those cases went unsolved, Joseph Miller emerged as a common denominator.

Miller was questioned in Selina Franklin’s disappearance but told police he dropped her off following their ride.

In the Jeannette Thomas case, Miller fit the suspect’s description, but a mentally challenged 31-year-old man confessed to her homicide.

In the screwdriver assault in Perry County, Miller was photographed withdrawing money from an automated teller machine at Harrisburg’s Uptown Plaza with the victim in his car. This prompted state police to place him under surveillance for the first time.

Yet for years, Joseph Miller was able to maintain his double life.

“I think it’s a fair description,” Judge Lewis agreed.

For Marsico, who fought Miller’s death sentence appeals all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the murderer’s duplicitous nature proved to be the prosecution’s main argument that Joseph Miller had adequate mental capacity to be executed.

“We focused on his adaptive functioning,” Marsico recounted. “The fact that he was married, with kids and a job, and he planned and carried out these crimes without being caught for years, including the case he was just arrested on 30 years later. That’s not what you think of when you think of mentally retarded.”

Miller’s murderous reign might have gone on longer. But law enforcement was about to get a major break in the case.

Call it luck. Or call it a serial killer going for one victim too many.

The Beginning of the End

The date is Aug. 6, 1992. By this time, Joseph Miller has gotten away with the murders of five women, police say. (He has since been convicted of three, confessed to a fourth and been charged with a fifth.)

Miller’s compulsion for sex, rape and murder has brought him to the seemingly quiet, deserted Conrail property in Susquehanna Township. Then fate intervenes.

Headlights approach along a service road. A startled Miller flees on foot, leaving his car and everything else behind.

A Conrail security guard encounters the scene, but doesn’t immediately recognize the significance. At first, the guard doesn’t see the nude victim, already bound and gagged and lying in the dirt near the burial hole. Then, she begins squirming for help.

“The woman who lived only lived by a miracle,” recounted Lewis, who was district attorney when Miller was prosecuted. “The hole was already dug. It was a matter of seconds. It was by the grace of God that headlights came up the road. Joe panics and runs, and the security guard finds the woman bound and gagged who couldn’t make a sound. She moved around in the dirt to make noise.”

Miller’s so-called murder kit, left behind at the Conrail scene, contained a knife, duct tape, a cooler of beer and mats to lay the victim on. But it was his car that led police to Miller and his Steelton residence. There, Miller engaged in a rooftop standoff with police, threatening suicide before ultimately surrendering.

Shortly after his capture, Miller seemed eager to confess.

“You could see the veins on his neck pumping,” Brennan told the Patriot-News in 2000, describing how Miller would relive his murders while recounting the attacks to interrogators.

“It was almost like he was working out in a gym,” Brennan said.

On Aug. 12, 1992, Miller led police to the skeletons of McDuffey and Franklin, admitting to bludgeoning both to death following sex.

By the time he was finished, Miller had admitted to four murders, confirming a predilection for preying upon young minority women from Harrisburg, some of whom may have been prostitutes. The pattern proved to be the quintessential signature of a serial killer.

“He is cold and calculating,” Marsico said of Miller. “Look who he selected. He purposely selected African-American (and minority) females, usually bigger women. He figured there wouldn’t be an outcry or much attention paid to their disappearance. He went to secluded areas to torture and kill them. There was some planning and thought that went into this. Cunning is a good word.”

But knowing what Miller had done and proving it to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt were two different things.

Miller’s double-murder trial in Dauphin County would come down to the testimony of the surviving victim from the Conrail property. The woman’s narrative of her near-death experience at the hands of Joseph Miller would rivet the jury and cinch both convictions, as well as his dual death penalty punishment, Lewis recalled.

As a result, Joseph Miller was now a twice-convicted murderer, condemned to death. A conviction for Kathy Novena Shenck’s murder in Perry County would make it three murder convictions.

But Joseph Miller was about to turn the tables on the justice system, itself. And none other than the U.S. Supreme Court would lay the legal groundwork that just might spare his life.

Mind Games

If the disturbing tours of Joseph Miller’s mind were peripheral issues during his murder trials, they became the central focus in his death sentence appeals.

Joseph Miller was cooling his heels on Pennsylvania’s Death Row when, in 2002, a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court changed everything. The land’s highest court ruled that killers suffering from mental retardation could not be executed.

The legal shockwaves of that ruling soon reached Dauphin County, where Judge Jeannine Turgeon, who presided over Miller’s trial and sentencing, acted to vacate the double death sentence she had handed down. This converted Miller’s punishment to three life prison sentences, two from Dauphin County and one from Perry County.

The reaction to Turgeon’s ruling was both immediate and sharp.

Marsico, now Dauphin County’s district attorney, was livid in vowing an all-out appeal:

“Joey Miller is a poster child for the death penalty,” Marsico proclaimed at the time. “He cold-bloodedly planned his rapes and murders, choosing a particular type of woman, luring them to a secluded location where he would rape, torture, and kill them.

For the defense, however, Miller’s flawed mind, for once, worked in his favor. It literally would keep him alive under the law:

“He was diagnosed mentally retarded before he even started elementary school,” Robert Dunham of the Defenders’ Association of Philadelphia countered at the time. “This is nothing new. This is something that has been well documented for many, many years.”

The legal battle over Joseph Miller’s mind would last another six years. In the end, when the appeal reached the Pennsylvania’s highest court in 2008, Turgeon’s ruling would stand.

Joseph Miller would live.

It’s an outcome with which Judge Lewis, the original DA in the case, has long since made peace. Even if Miller’s death penalty had stood, Lewis said the state was already moving away from executions, meaning Miller likely would have remained alive anyway.

As for the conundrum of Miller’s mind, Lewis saw both sides.

“There is an element of cunning in his psyche. That was evident,” Lewis said. “But the experts felt strongly that he has this mental retardation. It may be a combination of both.”

In an interview, Turgeon rejected the notion of citing Miller’s murders as evidence of intelligence.

“The reality is that sort of animal-like behavior doesn’t indicate intelligence,” she said. “We see animals all the time stalking and killing. He was sort of raised like an animal. He had a horrible childhood. He had none of the human social intelligence that we would want for people to function.”

By contrast, Marsico remains adamant, insisting that if anyone should be put to death, it’s Joseph Miller.

“Our stance has been consistent that Joey Miller was not mentally retarded to the degree necessary that would prohibit capital punishment,” he said. “I’m disappointed that Joey Miller will not receive the death penalty.”

Yet, if the ultimate punishment had been carried out, Joseph Miller wouldn’t be around to answer for Kelly Ann Ward and her cry for justice from beyond the grave.

Ever the Conundrum

Kelly Ann Ward has the distinction of being the first and the last.

If Miller is convicted, the 26-year-old from Harrisburg would become his first murder victim, having disappeared in 1986. Yet, because her skeletal remains were not found in Swatara Township until 1997 and then not positively identified until recently, Ward would be the last to get justice.

Identification of her remains in spring 2014 heated up a cold case and led investigators to the state prison at Smithfield, where Joseph Miller is serving multiple life sentences.

Similarities between Miller’s known homicides and the Ward case are more than eerie: Ward’s skeleton was found near a site where Miller had discarded two other bodies. What is more, Ward closely matches the type of victim Miller preferred to prey upon: Young. African-American. Living on the margins in Harrisburg.

This time, however, a taciturn Miller is being no help by providing a confession. Instead, Miller, ever the conundrum, laughed in investigators’ faces as they attempted to question him about Ward in May 2015.

In arrest records and notes from the interrogation led by Swatara Township police Lieutenant Darrell Reider, Miller is described as “very hesitant to speak.” Yet when asked if he had killed Ward, Miller “did not deny doing anything, but stated, ‘I don’t remember, I was in a dark place then, doing a lot of drugs.’ “

Just as quickly, Miller dismissed the detectives, saying in effect, “don’t call me, I’ll call you.”

Detectives may not have been able to get inside Miller’s head, but they did listen to recordings of his phone calls to family members, including a conversation in which he talked about his other murders in detail. During the call, Miller “indicates that there was another body that was found, but he didn’t do that one,” the arrest affidavit in the Ward case states.

Was this Miller being cunning, knowing cops could be listening?

It was worth another prison visit, this time with retired Dauphin County Chief Detective Tom Brennan in tow. After all, Brennan helped elicit Miller’s confession in the pair of Dauphin County homicides in 1992. Could he do it again?

At first Miller puts up a solid front, flatly denying killing Ward: “It’s just a coincidence, a mere (expletive) coincidence. I am not the only serial killer that was killing girls,” he is quoted in court papers as saying.

Then Brennan shows Miller a photo of a metal pipe found near Ward’s remains. The retired detective adds that Ward was killed by a blow to the head, just like Miller’s known victims.

This seems to catch the convicted killer’s attention.

“That pipe looks pretty big,” Miller is quoted by detectives as responding.

Later, Miller allegedly tells the officers that the pipe he used was smaller, before once again retreating to his blanket denials regarding Ward.

“There are other serial killers out there,” Miller is quoted telling the detectives. “You just haven’t caught them yet. I didn’t do this one.”

More mind games from a serial killer? Or confusion on the part of an intellectually disabled man, imprisoned for the past 24 years?

For detectives working the Ward case, the pieces are all there - and they fit.

Court papers also refer to Miller’s original 1992 statement. In it, Miller allegedly told Brennan that he had disposed of another woman’s body but said he didn’t know her name. Miller claimed to have picked up the victim at a city restaurant, before driving her to the same landfill, having sex with her, and then killing her with a pipe and covering her corpse with tires and shingles.

At the time, Miller told Brennan that her body was “the one by the road.”

Now, all these years later, authorities believe Miller was actually describing the murder of Kelly Ann Ward.

Could she be the first - and now the last victim - who even the convicted serial killer had forgotten?

Only time, and the wheels of justice, will tell.

As for the mystery of Joseph Miller’s mind and the still-unknown source of his compulsion to rape and kill? Perhaps this quote from a seen-it-all detective comes closest to providing an answer:

“What our society has to learn is that there are individuals out there who commit these kind of crimes for no other reason than they like it,” Brennan told the late Patriot-News investigative reporter, Pete Shellem, in April 2000.

“They enjoy seeing the fear that they place in the victim and the control that they hold over that victim,” the detective added. “And finally, they really enjoy that godlike feeling of taking a life.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1XsKxXC

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Information from: Pennlive.com, https://www.pennlive.com


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