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MASTERS OF TRUE CRIME
CHILLING STORIES OF MURDER AND THE MACABRE
Copyright © 2012 R. Barri Flowers
All right reserved.
Chapter One TERROR IN EAST LANSING
The Michigan State University Serial Killer
by R. Barri Flowers
In the latter part of the 1970s, Michigan's Big Ten school Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing was the place to be for higher education, athletics, sexual experimentation, keggers, smoking pot, and expressing oneself. The school had a well-deserved reputation for partying. And MSU in the 1970s also turned out to be the place and time for a brutal serial killer to emerge, one who would take aim at young women, sexually assaulting them before violently ending their lives.
Donald Miller was not just another serial killer. The twenty-four-year-old graduate of MSU's renowned School of Criminal Justice once seemed to be on track for a totally different connection with the criminal justice system. But at some point, destiny took a deadly turn, and Miller achieved the distinction of becoming East Lansing's and MSU's only known serial killer—a distinction the community would prefer to forget. But Miller left a mark that seemingly makes such a thing impossible in the halls of academia and the surrounding area.
* * *
Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justice, founded in 1935, is the country's oldest continuous program for granting degrees in criminal justice. Originally known as the School of Public Administration and Public Safety, it followed the "land-grant philosophy" established by Michigan State Agricultural College. This philosophy is derived from the Morrill Act, signed in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln to provide a generous "grant of land to each state, the revenue of which was to be used for the development and support of agriculture schools."
Within this context, the land-grant institution became the first college in the nation to offer a bachelor of science degree in police administration, the intent being to use scientific education and training to properly prepare students for careers in law enforcement, in private investigation, and in other areas of criminal justice.
By 1977, MSU's School of Criminal Justice had presented undergraduate and graduate degrees to thousands of students under the direction and tutelage of such criminal justice and criminology legends as Donald Bremer, Arthur Brandstatter, Ralph Turner, Robert Scott, Louis Radelet, Zolton Ferency, Leon Weaver, Vincent Hoffman, and Robert Trojanowicz, among others.
Donald Miller was among those graduates to receive a degree in criminal justice from Michigan State. But rather than use it to pursue a career in law enforcement, government, or perhaps teaching, he took a decidedly different and dark path, turning into a psychopath, rapist, and serial killer.
* * *
Born on December 28, 1954, Donald Gene Miller was described as the "quintessential boy-next-door." Having grown up in a peaceful, middle-class area in the college town of East Lansing, Michigan, during the rebellious 1970s, it would have been quite easy for him to have gotten caught up in the type of crowd among which long hair, drug use, and sowing one's oats was fairly common. Instead, by all accounts, Miller walked the straight and narrow, respected his elders, kept his hair short, and was a youth minister at the local church. He attended Michigan State University, majoring in criminal justice. It seemed like he was well on his way toward finding a successful career in law enforcement or some other impressive occupation within the world of law and order.
Adding to this picture of apparent perfection, Miller had started dating a girl from his church, Martha Sue Young, who lived down the street and was friends with Miller's older sister. By the winter of 1976, Miller, twenty-one, and nineteen-year-old Young, who also attended Michigan State, were engaged. The couple seemed to be headed toward matrimony and a good life as two bright students in love with life and each other.
But that all changed rather abruptly. Just before New Year's Eve 1976, Young called off the engagement. According to her mother, Sue Young, there were a number of reasons her daughter did not go through with the marriage, such as "the fact that Don was twenty[-two] years old and never had a job," apart from a brief stint working in a resort community the previous summer.
The two also differed in their attitudes about education. Whereas Young loved college and was serious about studying and getting good grades, Miller felt just the opposite. "Don never studies, and his grades aren't good," Martha told her mother. Sue Young noted that her daughter enjoyed athletics and socializing in college but complained that "it's not only that [Don] doesn't, but he doesn't want me to either."
Whatever the reasons, or combination thereof, for breaking off their engagement, an embittered Miller had no intention of fading into the woodwork as Young sought greener pastures. Miller was able to convince her that they should remain friends at the very least, insisting that she keep the engagement ring, no strings attached with regard to the promise of future romance.
Young, who may have been wary of such an offer, chose to give her exfiancé the benefit of the doubt and maintain the friendship. Based on Miller's clean record with the law, on their being members of the same church, and on the strong camaraderie between their families, it seemed there was no harm in giving Miller at least this much.
But Young could not read Miller's devious mind. Nor did she realize that he was anything but a safe bet—not until it was too late to change the dark destiny in store for her.
* * *
New Year's Day 1977 marked the start of the winter term at Michigan State University, with students streaming back on to the campus from Christmas break, prepared to resume their march toward fulfilling necessary requirements for degrees. Then, of course, there was catching up with old friends, making new ones, and partying—both to welcome in the New Year and simply for the sake of keeping up with campus traditions.
It was on that cold day that Martha Sue Young went missing. East Lansing police officer Kenneth Ouellette had just begun his shift when the call came in. It was from Gene Miller, Donald's father. Ouellette knew the Millers because he and Donald had sometimes gone to a local sportsman and rifle club together.
Gene Miller was calling the station at the request of Sue Young, Martha's mother. The young woman was missing after allegedly being dropped off at her home by Donald a few hours earlier, having gone out with him as friends.
Ouellette went to Young's house, initially believing there was probably nothing to worry about. "Typically, most of these things turn out to be that they stayed at a friend's house or their date's house," the officer suggested. "It's that college-town type of thing you associate with it."
But Ouellette changed his tune once he got to the house. Martha Sue Young's disappearance suddenly struck him as anything but normal. As he homed in on some of the things about her and Donald, such as that they did not drink, that neither were known to be active in the party scene, that both still lived at home, and that both attended church regularly and held religious views that were conservative, the officer grew increasingly concerned about Martha's unexplained absence.
* * *
In 1985, Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justice celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. With a rich history of producing graduates who went into fields across the criminal justice spectrum and around the world, there was reason to celebrate.
When the new program began in 1935, there were a mere twenty-three freshman and eleven sophomore and junior enrollees. By 1985, enrollment in the school had soared to six hundred undergraduate students, one hundred and fifteen students seeking master's degrees, and twenty PhD candidates.
Among the school's accomplishments was the first annual Institute on Police Community Relations in 1955 and a designation by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration in 1973 as a national center of excellence. According to a 1979 article in the Journal of Criminal Justice, "Michigan State University ha[d] the highest known reputation among the almost 1,200 criminal justice programs in the country." Moreover, the Joint Commission of Criminology and Criminal Justice Education and Standards had consistently rated the School of Criminal Justice as one of the top two such programs in the nation.
In all, nearly six thousand students had graduated from the School of Criminal Justice in the program's first fifty years, many going on to distinguished careers in law enforcement, government, criminology, and other related fields.
* * *
A few days before Martha Young's disappearance, the coed had expressed relief that Donald Miller had seemingly accepted the end of their engagement with no hard feelings. As a result, she even agreed to attend Miller's birthday party at the home of a friend of his grandmother the following evening as previously planned, if only to keep up appearances for his family.
On Friday afternoon, New Year's Eve 1976, Young stopped by the Great Steak Restaurant in East Lansing, where her mother was having lunch with a friend, to show the two women the shoes she had purchased for a party she planned to attend on New Year's Day. It seemed as though 1977 was destined to get off to a great start for the college student.
That evening, Sue Young was in the kitchen when Martha came in to give her a kiss good-bye before leaving for what was supposed to be a fun night that she and Donald Miller were sure to enjoy.
It would be the last time Sue Young would ever see her daughter alive.
* * *
Police officer Kenneth Ouellette was worried about the missing Martha Sue Young. And there was plenty to consider when it came to her health and safety. "We started to focus in on the fact that Donald was not a drinker or a partier," Ouellette said. "Martha Sue was not a partier, they both lived at home, they both had conservative religious views, they were active in the church. As I would eliminate some of these things, the concern grew."
As a result of the officer's alarm over Martha Young's inexplicable and uncharacteristic absence, he focused his investigation on the last known person believed to have seen her alive: Donald Miller.
* * *
At midnight on January 1, 1977, Peter Houk took his place as Ingham County's new prosecuting attorney. His very first case turned out to be one of the most important and publicized of his career. It also laid the groundwork in forever changing the facade of innocence and safety that had seemed a given across the beautiful campus of Michigan State and the surrounding community. A killer was on the loose and hidden in plain sight.
The spotlight was squarely on Donald Miller, whose alibi would be discredited over the coming months. Evidence indicated that Miller had not told police everywhere he had been on the day Martha Sue Young disappeared. He took two polygraph tests and failed both. The lack of emotion shown by the suspect about his ex-fiancée's disappearance gave the authorities and family members of the missing young woman further cause for suspicion.
Houk and the lead investigator, East Lansing police detective Rick Westgate, had little doubt that Martha Young was the victim of foul play and that Miller was behind it. Unfortunately, there was no solid evidence to build a case. Without such, Miller was able to remain free, which would cost other young women their lives. For the time being, there wasn't anything the authorities could do about it.
The suspect lived with his parents, who staunchly supported his innocence, much to the chagrin of the police, who were convinced otherwise. Westgate would later say, "If the parents hadn't been so stubborn and they had listened to all of the information we had regarding where he had been, if they wouldn't have blocked us, there wouldn't have been three other homicides."
Miller found work as a security guard after graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in criminal justice. To law enforcement and prosecutors, this was surely a slap in the face. Miller, who should have been on the road to becoming one of their own, had instead thumbed his nose at them, almost daring them to prove what they knew before he killed again.
* * *
Almost a year passed before the authorities finally got a break in the case that had gone nowhere. A high priority had been given to the case in an effort to reassure coeds that the college campus was safe with a normally low rate of violent crime in East Lansing, in spite of the unsolved mystery of Martha Sue Young's disappearance.
In October 1977, clothing belonging to Young was found in Bath Township, just north of East Lansing. According to police, it had been "systematically placed as if she'd levitated out of her clothes."
"That's when our office, in particular, and East Lansing knew we were dealing with something out of the normal," Houk recalled. "We were convinced we were dealing with some type of psychopath."
Unfortunately, this crime took place in the pre-DNA-technology era, making it difficult to cull any useful evidence from the clothing and crime scene. Minus the solid physical evidence needed, authorities were unable to charge Miller with anything. Once again, the case was stalled, and the killer continued to plot his strategy for more victims right under the noses of the police.
* * *
On June 15, 1978, twenty-eight-year-old Marita Choquette went missing from her apartment in Grand Ledge, Michigan, a city west of downtown Lansing, the state's capital, and popular with rock climbers because of its ancient sandstone and quartzite rock ledges. Choquette worked for WKAR, a television station in East Lansing.
Twelve days after Choquette's disappearance, her mutilated remains were found in Holt, southeast of Lansing. The same day, June 28, 1978, Wendy Bush, a twenty-one-year-old student at MSU, disappeared. She was last seen alive on campus outside of Case Hall, home to James Madison College in the South Complex.
It was obvious to authorities, students, and East Lansing residents alike that a killer was on the loose, targeting young women and almost daring the police to stop him in his tracks. But before they could do so, another life was claimed.
On August 14, 1978, Kristine Rose Stuart, a thirty-year-old middle-school teacher who happened to live just blocks from Donald Miller's house, vanished. This, in addition to the other cases of murdered and missing women, caused hysteria on and off campus, with the local media feeding the flames, fury, and fear of a serial killer at large.
"It was very unnerving," Detective Westgate recalled. "You just don't have things like that go on in the community."
For the thousands of coeds and other women in the normally tranquil college town, that fact was small consolation, as a murderer had obviously made his presence felt and intended to strike fear into the hearts of those most vulnerable.
* * *
As with most serial killers, overconfidence and a brazen, reckless nature proved to be this one's undoing. On August 15, 1978, with the disappearance of Kristine Stuart still very fresh, Donald Miller randomly picked a house in East Lansing where he sexually assaulted and attempted to murder fourteen-year-old Lisa Gilbert. Her younger brother Randy came home during the attack, and Miller went after him.
Lisa managed to escape from the house and go for help. A local fireman spotted Miller's car leaving the scene and called the East Lansing Police Department.
With several eyewitnesses, the police were finally able to get what they needed to arrest Donald Miller. Having worked the case for many months and coming up empty, a relieved Westgate took the suspect into custody.
Former prosecuting attorney Houk was especially pleased that Miller had been apprehended. "I had a wife, I had a young daughter, and I used to be terrified at night when Donald Miller was on the loose because I was certain he was a serial killer," he recalled. "I used to take to sleeping down on my couch in the living room."
In 1979, after a trial by jury in Eaton County, Donald Gene Miller was convicted of "two counts of assault with intent to commit murder and one count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct" in the attacks on Lisa Gilbert and Randy Gilbert. Miller was sentenced to three concurrent terms of thirty to fifty years behind bars.
Miller's imprisonment notwithstanding, the police still did not know the whereabouts of the four young women they were convinced he had murdered. In an attempt to put closure to the cases for families of the victims, the decision was made to offer Miller a plea deal, with the cooperation of Sue Young, Martha's mother, and Ernie Stuart, the husband of Kristine Stuart.
In addition to his earlier convictions, Donald Miller pleaded guilty in 1979 to two counts of manslaughter in the deaths of Young and Stuart, and he assisted authorities in locating the remains of the murdered, missing women.
Excerpted from MASTERS OF TRUE CRIME Copyright © 2012 by R. Barri Flowers. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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