Everyone in the quiet Jersey Shore Town of Silver Bay knows the story: On a Sunday evening in September 1991, Ramsey Miller threw a blowout block party, then brutally murdered his beautiful wife and three-year-old daughter. But everyone is wrong. The daughter got away. Under the name Melanie Denison, she has spent the last fifteen years in small-town West Virginia as part of the Witness Protection Program. She has never been allowed to travel, go to a school dance, or even have access to the Internet at home. Precautions must be taken at every turn, because Ramsey Miller was never caught and might still be on the hunt for his daughter. Despite strict house rules, Melanie has started a secretive relationship and is ten weeks pregnant. She doesn't want her child to grow up in hiding as she has had to. Defying her guardians and taking matters into her own hands, Melanie returns to Silver Bay in hopes of doing what the authorities have failed to do: find her father before he finds her.
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My White Whale, Set Free
September 22, 2006 * by Arthur Goodale * in Uncategorized
Three weeks since my last entry, and I don't know if I'll be writing again any time soon. So please forgive me for today's lack of brevity.
Anyone who's followed this blog for any amount of time knows the premium I place on honesty and candor. So here's my disclosure: I'm writing today from a hospital bed in the critical care unit at Monmouth Regional Hospital. Last Sunday — all day, apparently — I was suffering from congestive heart failure. But who knew? Look, I'm a smoker and always have been. (Readers of this blog know all about my failed attempts to quit). For years, decades, I've awaited the numb left arm, tightening in the chest, those unambiguous precursors to a fast demise, or at least a stagger to the telephone before collapsing, maybe bringing down the living room curtains on top of me. Something dramatic. But mild back pain?
I had spent most of that day bent over the garden, pulling weeds and tying a few droopy tomato vines to their stakes in the hopes of keeping my plants productive until the first hard frost. Why wouldn't my back be aching? In the past, my cure was always three Advil and a couple of James Bond flicks on the TV while I lounged on the recliner. So that's how I treated my symptoms this time — with international intrigue and soothing British accents. And a couple of vodka martinis.
When Tuesday afternoon rolled around and the pain was no better, I called my doc. He said come in. I came in. Now I'm here in the hospital, where I'm told I might not leave.
Maybe if I had swallowed a couple of aspirin instead of those Advil, the attending cardiologist tells me. Maybe if I had driven straight to the hospital or dialed 911instead of waiting two days. But why would I have done any of those things? That's not what you do when you're an old fool with a back sore from overdoing it in the vegetable garden. You don't dial 911. You watch television. You take a nap.
Who will pick my last tomatoes?
I'll stop being macabre. You deserve better than that. And there are some of you — both here in New Jersey and beyond. Last month this blog had 2,300 views, about 75 per day. I can hardly imagine 75 people being interested in my musings, but you're real, my readers, and apparently you're from all across the country and as far away as Vietnam and Australia. I'm constantly amazed. Such a contrast from my newspaper days, with its ceaseless and frantic scramble to increase paid circulation — that is, before we became a free paper in order to focus on ad revenue, and before we gave that scheme up and sold out to Kingswood Holdings, Inc.
So, my 75 loyal followers, please know that I'm deeply grateful to you for reading my postings these past three years and for sticking with me through my frequent meanderings and digressions. Despite my abiding respect for the strict conventions of newspaper writing, I've come to derive deep satisfaction and enjoyment from maintaining this blog, where word limits don't matter, where impartiality is besides the point, and where I may freely indulge in conjecture, parentheticals, and serial commas.
For obvious reasons, I hope this won't be my last post. But if it is, it is. I'm 81, a ripe age by any measure. I suppose that no age ever feels old enough, but with my daily cigarettes (a habit I picked up almost seventy years ago) and, with the exception of my own tomatoes, the takeout-menu-diet of a lifelong bachelor, I know I'm lucky to have made it this far. I don't regret never marrying or having children. If I had met the right woman and passed up the opportunity to spend my life with her, I'd feel different. Maybe it was the long hours on the job, or maybe it was my comically long nose. Regardless of the cause of my lived-alone life, the fortuitous effect is that my departure, when it happens, will be met with the sadness of quite a few, but the genuine grief of none.
Was I married to my work? This cliché might be true. If so, I ask that you don't pity the relationship. It was a strong marriage. I have loved being a newspaperman — publisher and editor and, above all, reporter. I can recall no better feeling than those moments when I was in thrall to a story that finally snapped together — the facts, and my particular way of telling them. Better than striking oil, I tell you.
What a shame that this time-honored industry is rapidly vanishing and becoming overrun by ideologues and illiterates. Our democracy requires better. But this is a problem for younger minds than mine to solve.
The title of today's post alludes, of course, to the unattainable object of Captain Ahab's obsession. This morning, a young male nurse entered my hospital room to check my vitals and the wounds in my chest and leg. (I had bypass graft surgery on Wednesday morning.) I asked this nurse what day it was, and he said, Friday, September 22. I told him that today was the fifteen-year anniversary of the Miller killings.
"The what?" he asked.
I was taken aback, though I shouldn't have been. The young man would have been a child when the murders took place. Still, Silver Bay is a peaceful town, even today, and the crime had been a major story in the news for weeks. I told him so.
"I guess maybe it sounds a little familiar," he said, having the sense to be kind to his loony, dying patients.
Faithful readers of this blog know that the Miller case is my white whale. In all the years I have lived in this town, there have been only five homicides. One man dialed 911 himself within hours and turned himself in. Three times, the men (they were all men) were booked within a couple of weeks and pled guilty to lighten their sentences. Ramsey Miller is the only accused who got away.
I lived — live — just one neighborhood away from where the Millers once did, and I was on the scene that morning only minutes after hearing the blaring of the first-response vehicles. I drove my car the few blocks to Blossom Drive and witnessed the aftermath of a terrible event, one that I've never fully been able to get past.
It shook us all. A couple of days after, I remember ordering my cup of coffee and plate of eggs at the Good Times Diner, same as every morning, and the waitress (Tracy Strickland, who always wore a "kiss my bass" pin on her waitress uniform) sat in the booth across from me, placed her elbows on the table, cupped her head in her hands, and wept. She was about Allison's age. I didn't pry. But you see, Silver Bay is a small community, and Allison Miller was the sort of woman you couldn't help admiring, and Meg was a girl just shy of three who deserved to grow up.
A couple of months earlier, while shopping in the Pathmark one afternoon, I happened to find myself in the same aisle as Allison and Meg. Allison, pushing a full shopping cart, was following her daughter, who was running in my direction and calling out the colors of the floor tiles. Finding herself beside me, Meg tugged the leg of my slacks, and commanded: "Pick me up!"
I hadn't held a small child for many years, maybe even decades — not since my niece and nephew were small.
"Up!" the girl repeated.
"You'd better do it," her mother said.
I lifted the girl — she was amazingly light — and for thirty seconds, maybe a minute, I held her, breathing in the smell of baby shampoo, while her mother hastily pulled items from the shelf and placed them into her cart. Meg seemed content to be held, watching her mother.
"Thank you, Arthur," Allison said, taking back her daughter and flashing a smile.
We had introduced ourselves not long before, while waiting together at the dentist's office. I hadn't expected Allison to remember my name or who I was, and now I didn't know what to say. Despite the countless interviews I've conducted, I've never been much good at small talk — especially with someone who was, even when harried in the supermarket, a knockout. So I nodded, maybe mumbled something. She coaxed her daughter back to sitting in the shopping cart and rounded the end of the aisle. I finished my shopping and paid. When I went outside, Allison was loading bags into her car. Meg was in the cart, kicking her legs. I considered strolling over and saying something neighborly. But it was late afternoon, and the sun was making this pretty image of the two of them — mother and daughter — and I decided not to ruin the tableau.
I never saw either of them again.
From time to time, when it seemed appropriate, I have posted pertinent public documents about the case, notable media coverage, and my own musings (here,here, here, and here, and less articulately in perhaps a dozen other posts). If you are a new reader of this blog (unfortunate timing, if so), here is a brief summary:
On Sunday afternoon and evening of September 22,1991, the Miller family hosted an outdoor block party. As many as fifty people were in attendance over the course of several hours. The party ended around 9p.m. Sometime later that night, after the guests were gone, an inebriated Ramsey brutally murdered his wife, Allison. (I won't rehash those details; the curious can read about it here.) The next day, authorities found her body in the backyard and began a search for Ramsey and their young daughter. Two witnesses placed Ramsey at the Silver Bay Boatyard the night before, around 10 p.m., and one of them saw him board his motorboat carrying a bundle the size and shape of a small child. Neither Ramsey nor Meg was ever seen again. The boat was never found. The prevailing theory — the correct one, in my view — is that Ramsey took the boat out to sea and threw his daughter overboard, either alive or already dead.
Because of the condition of Allison Miller's body when it was found, the time of death can only be estimated, and some experts disagree on which came first, the murder or the boat ride. The order matters when trying to create a chain of causality. Had Ramsey planned to commit both murders? Or did one horrible deed make the other, after it was committed, seem unavoidable?
(Writing this, I feel nauseated all over again. Apparently it's possible to feel ill on top of already being critically ill.)
I don't believe the case will ever be solved. Scratch that. As far as I'm concerned, the case was solved long ago: Ramsey committed two murders and fled. So what I mean is, I don't believe there will ever be sufficient answers that might get to the heart of what happened, and why. Nor do I believe that Ramsey's whereabouts, assuming he's still alive, will ever be known — especially now that Detective Esposito, who worked the case diligently and always had the good grace to return my phone calls, has retired to South Carolina, where the weather is better and the golf plentiful. He has earned his retirement, and I suspect he's making the most of it. Unlike the bitter and lonely protagonists of many detective novels, Danny always planned to spend his golden years on the fairways with his lovely wife, Susan. He knows better than to waste his time on a sad, frustrating, and hopelessly cold case.
It really is the strangest case.
If there was a motive, no one could ever uncover it. The family had no history of violence. Ramsey was, as far as anyone knew, a devoted husband and father. His run-ins with the law were long behind him. There isn't even a satisfactory explanation for the party that preceded the murders. Most news reports claim it was to celebrate Ramsey's 35th birthday, but that wasn't for another week. Others claim it was simply a block party — but the neighborhood never had one before, and the Millers apparently footed the whole bill. Was the party yet another part of Ramsey's elaborate plot? And then there's the mysterious fact of Ramsey's big rig, which he inexplicably sold the Friday before the murders. The truck was his livelihood. Why would he sell it?
Some in the community hold on to the hope that after Allison's murder, the little girl was kidnapped by her father and spared. That maybe she's still alive somewhere. I understand why people would choose to believe that, preferring to avoid thinking the unthinkable. But I've never believed in fantasies and refuse to start now. The man who just murdered his wife did not then motor out to sea to go stargazing with his young daughter before disappearing with her. It didn't happen that way.
The unthinkable is what happened.
Can I prove it? Not without the little girl's body, which is never going to be found. You can't dredge an ocean. But everything about this case has felt like dredging an ocean. Violent as it was, the crime was small-town. Ramsey Miller was no mastermind. Why did he do it? How did he vanish? The not-knowing has kept me awake for more nights than I care to recall. Only recently have I begun to admit to myself that the absence of proof is, in this case, a permanent condition — or at least a condition that will outlive me.
It helps to remind myself that supplying proof is the problem for a district attorney or maybe a newspaperman, and I haven't been a newspaperman for years. I'm simply a blogger and an old man who, approaching his own big sleep, feels done with all the hedging and the caveats and deigns to tell the plain truth.
So here it is: 15 years ago on this day there was a party, two murders, and a boat ride. Other than that, I know not one damn thing and never will.
My doctors are demanding that I rest, not type. I need to focus on my health, but they're asking me the sort of questions that lead me to conclude that "my health" is a euphemism for "my death." Which means that the time has come for me to close the laptop and bequeath my white whale to some younger, cleverer sea captain.
Bon Voyage, Arthur Goodale
P.S. Please forgive me for disabling the "comments" feature on this particular post. Should these be my last written words, I'd prefer they not be followed by off-topic political sniping.
Posted by Old Man with Typewriter At 9/22/2006 2:23 PM | Comments are disabled.CHAPTER 2
September 22, 2006
Melanie Denison — for that was her name now — had ruined breakfast.
Otherwise, it was an ideal fall morning. There was no better time of year in Fredonia, West Virginia, everything still growing and sweet smelling, one last push before the first hard frost.
Her uncle Wayne stood by the window overlooking the backyard garden, where tomatoes and peppers clung to worn stalks. "You know I love you," he said, turning to face her, "but what you're doing ..."
Most mornings, one of them would say grace and then they would eat together as a family. Then Melanie would clean the dishes, Kendra would shower and dress for work, and Wayne would go outside to weed or cut the grass or spray dirt off the trailer's vinyl siding with his power washer — anything to be outdoors for a few minutes before driving to the Lube & More in Monroeville to work underneath cars for eight hours.
"You really don't have to worry," Melanie said. "I'm being careful."
"I don't doubt that, honey," he said. "But you have to see it's still dangerous."
Maybe. But the fact was, she was nearly eighteen. And the family's rules, in place for so long, were becoming harder than ever to abide.
You go straight to school. When school is done, you come straight home.
In high school, she could understand. But last Tuesday she'd stayed on campus at the community college to get lunch with some fellow freshmen. A couple of days later, she'd driven alone to the JC Penney in Reynoldsville to find jeans that fit her better. She actually had to convince herself that these weren't major transgressions.
"It's just that a newspaper, of all things," her aunt said.
Melanie didn't like keeping secrets from them. She had told them about joining the staff of the college paper as a way of testing the waters: see how they react, then decide what else they could know.
Well, they were flunking the test royally. Melanie set the glasses of juice on the table and asked her aunt, "What do you mean, 'of all things'?"
But she knew. She was a seasoned pro at imagining how her father might find her even after all these years.
Her aunt and uncle? Also pros.
"Does the paper have a website?" Uncle Wayne asked.
"I don't think so," Melanie said — though of course it did.
"Still," he said, "your picture could end up on the Internet."
It all sounded so paranoid, it was easy to forget that her aunt and uncle hadn't chosen to live like this, hidden away in a remote hamlet in West Virginia. But the U.S. Marshals had determined that this was best place for them all to "relocate," which meant to hide. Which was why, at seventeen, Melanie had never been to a city, had never stayed in a hotel or traveled farther than Glendale for its music and hot-air ballooning festival. She'd never ridden in an airplane or seen the ocean. Never met a famous person. She had hiked in the Allegheny Mountains but had never eaten sushi or a fresh bagel. She had twice seen tornados funneling in the distance but had never attended a dance or a football game.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Before He Finds Her"
Copyright © 2015 Michael Kardos.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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