Cleared After 12 Years on the Run : Fugitive and Victim Both Did Time for Texas Crime

Associated Press

Shortly before nightfall on June 11, 1974, a neatly dressed young man slipped into Janelle Kirby's garage apartment.

Pointing a pistol at her head, he pulled handcuffs from a pocket and ordered the young Texas Christian University student to place her hands on the bed in front of her. She did as she was told.

As he snapped a handcuff on one of her wrists, Kirby grabbed for the gun. They struggled and fell to the floor. She screamed. He clapped his hand over her mouth and ordered her to keep quiet.

She bit him.

"He pulled away, rising, leaving me on the floor and with both hands on the pistol started shooting at me," she recalled.

She was shot five times in the head and face with the cheap .22-caliber pistol. "You coward!" she managed to scream as he rifled her purse and headed out the door.

Bleeding, unable to walk and afraid she might be mortally wounded, Kirby dragged herself downstairs, where a neighbor found her and rushed her to a hospital.

Later, as she drifted in and out of consciousness, Kirby heard a doctor say, "She's almost gone."

But after a week under intensive care, she began to recover. Later, she would identify her assailant in a police photo spread.

"He had funny-looking eyes that I'll never forget," an officer later quoted her as saying.

The picture she chose was that of Kenneth Leslie Miller, 24, a veteran of the Army airborne infantry, a laid-back, brown-haired bachelor with a fondness for guns, dogs, women and motorcycles.

"I am positive that he is the man who shot me," Kirby insisted.

So began a twisted, 12-year drama that would send a young man on a cross-country odyssey to avoid imprisonment and condemn a young woman to a reclusive existence haunted by a phantom killer.

A jury convicted Miller of attempted murder six months after his identification in a police lineup, but before the panel could return a 70-year prison sentence, he was gone.

He slipped from the courtroom and skipped town, heading first to Michigan and then Georgia. With a girlfriend, he moved to Arizona and finally settled in Las Vegas, where he married and began a new life under an assumed name.

It was there last summer, 12 years after the shooting of Janelle Kirby, that a tireless Fort Worth police sergeant named Leonard Schilling tracked him down.

With his quarry arrested, jailed and awaiting extradition to Texas, Schilling and his buddies gathered to celebrate at the Albatross, a Fort Worth saloon popular with off-duty cops, lawyers and reporters.

But Schilling received an unsettling telephone call.

"You got the wrong guy," the caller told him. "Miller didn't shoot Janelle Kirby. Check out a man named William Ted Wilhoit."

That call spoiled the party and cost Schilling a night's sleep. And that was only the beginning.

Kenneth Miller was still a teen-ager when he returned from Vietnam in 1969 and told friends how he won a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, a Purple Heart and other military honors.

"Vietnam took its toll on him," said Lee Mulholland, one of Miller's closest friends then and now. "He is like a real-life Rambo, but he's always been warm and caring and lighthearted, like a great big kid."

It was Lee's husband, Sonny, who hired Miller as a route salesman for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Miller also sold guns part-time at a sporting goods store.

"He really loved guns," Mulholland said. "He had a fetish about them."

The Mulhollands believe this affinity for guns led Miller into his first brush with the law. A neighbor thought that Miller was dealing illegally in automatic weapons, and notified police.

On July 13, 1974, agents raided his apartment in search of drugs and illegal weapons, but found only a small amount of marijuana.

On Aug. 14, a squad of local and federal narcotics agents returned to Miller's apartment, again looking for drugs and weapons.

He was asleep when they arrived.

"They broke down the door and someone shoved a gun in my face," Miller said of events that night. "Two men yanked me out of bed and up against a wall. I was facing the wall, and they kept kicking my feet apart."

Miller said that a narcotics officer, later identified as Ray Armand, banged his head against the wall with such force that it punched a hole in the plaster. That night, in a hospital emergency ward, doctors surgically removed Miller's spleen.

The raid squad later insisted that Miller had damaged his spleen in a motorcycle accident, but Police Chief T. S. Walls ordered Ray Armand and a fellow narc, J. C. Williams, suspended indefinitely.

Two weeks after the raid, a police detective took a photo spread to the TCU campus and showed it to Janelle Kirby. It was then, on Aug. 29, 1974, that police say she first identified Miller as her assailant.

She says her mental state at the time was too muddled for her to know if anyone influenced her choice, but she does recall that the police "were very enthusiastic about me picking that particular photo. . . . . You got the feeling (Miller) was not well liked, to put it mildly, and they felt he had it coming to him."

Miller was not arrested at once. The police waited at least a month--until Sept. 30, a date that coincided with a Civil Service hearing on the appeals of the suspended officers, Armand and Williams.

Officer Unrecognized

Miller testified at the hearing that Williams had not hurt him. When he was asked to point out Armand in the crowded chambers, he was unable to do so.

A Star-Telegram article later explained that attorney Jerry Loftin had dramatically altered Armand's appearance.

"Whereas Armand, as a narcotics officer, usually had long hair, wore jeans and freely displayed his distinctive (protruding) teeth, Loftin dressed Armand in a suit, had his hair cut short and made the officer keep his mouth closed," the newspaper said.

Before the hearing ended, two homicide detectives approached Miller and arrested him in the attempted murder of Janelle Kirby. In a matter of seconds, the accuser had become the accused.

Armand and Williams were reinstated at about the time Miller was being led off to jail. It was Capt. Ray Armand who would head the powerful and sensitive Internal Affairs Division of the Fort Worth Police Department 12 years later.

He would point out that he had "stayed within the system" in 1974 and had "disproved the allegations."

He said he hoped that Miller had no lingering animosity.

"I surely don't," Armand said.

The state's case against Kenneth Miller centered exclusively on Janelle Kirby's testimony and a single piece of circumstantial evidence--a pair of handcuffs found in Miller's possession.

Miller's lawyer, Bill Magnussen, sought to show that Miller did not fit Kirby's physical description of the assailant. She had described the gunman as shorter and younger, clean shaven and neatly dressed, wearing casual shoes and a wedding band.

The jury twice appeared to be deadlocked before it returned a guilty verdict on March 28, 1975.

"I'm going," Miller told friends with him in the courtroom. With $1.25 in his pocket, he jumped into Lee Mulholland's car and sped away from the courthouse.

He stopped at a phone booth to call Star-Telegram reporter Evan Moore (now with the Houston Chronicle) and declare his innocence. He told Moore: "I don't know what I'm going to do. I think I'm leaving town."

Miller took refuge for the weekend in the home of a friend, Dianna Oppermann. It was there, on Monday, that he heard the jury had called for a 70-year prison term.

He remained with Dianna two weeks, then decided to run. Once that decision was made, Sonny and Lee Mulholland risked everything, including their own freedom, to aid his escape.

"We were all kids then, lighthearted and daring," Lee, now 40, would recall. "We were a lot younger and a lot more willing to stick our necks out for a cause.

"But to this day, I would do it over again."

At the time, she told Miller: "Even if man has failed, God will not." Forcing a smile, she added: "He is the God of the hopeless, and this is a hopeless situation. You've got it made. Yours is the perfect situation for him to act on."

Kirby had spent most of the trial in protective custody, but she was out with TCU friends at a picnic on Benbrook Lake shortly after Miller made his getaway.

"I was with my boyfriend, and we kept thinking someone was following us," she said. "I felt like everything that I had gone through was for nothing, that I was never going to feel safe again."

She was right.

Almost two years earlier, on the steamy morning of Aug. 27, 1973, a neatly dressed man had rung the doorbell at the home of a Fort Worth housewife. He said he had come to welcome her to the southside neighborhood.

Once inside, he pulled a knife and ordered the terrified young woman to undress. When she resisted, he took her forcibly, attempting but failing to commit rape in the legal sense.

Later, police arrested a young suspect. He was 5 foot 8 and 130 pounds, with light brown hair, a fair complexion and blue eyes. He was soft-spoken and neatly dressed. He was William Ted Wilhoit, and he had turned 20 that day.

Although he was acquitted of the attempted rape charge, Wilhoit's troubles mounted. Police Detective John Terrell arrested him for burglary and, after a jury freed him on probation, Terrell nailed him again for a rash of house break-ins. The second conviction got him five years in the state prison at Huntsville.

Terrell also was convinced that Wilhoit was the would-be rapist, and told colleagues he suspected Wilhoit in three other sexual assault cases.

Two of those other victims had been slain. One was strangled. The other probably was strangled, although her body was found too late to make certain.

Seen at Scene of Crime

On Feb. 24, 1976, Terrell talked with a witness who identified Wilhoit from a photo as a man seen at a southside bowling alley the night one of the women, Carla Walker, 17, was abducted, raped and killed.

Three days later, Terrell drove to the state prison and sat in as Wilhoit took a polygraph on the Walker slaying. He denied involvement but flunked the test, Terrell said.

Afterward, the detective recalled, Wilhoit offered the explanation that he had failed the polygraph because a similar case was on his mind, one for which he boasted he could never be prosecuted. Terrell theorized that he was talking about Janelle Kirby.

"Miller had flown the coop and was still on the run," Terrell said in an interview 10 years later. "So there wasn't anything I could do."

Terrell let the Miller case rest, but kept tabs on Wilhoit. In 1978 he learned Wilhoit had been released on parole and was living in the west Texas town of Abilene.

He was surprised to hear that Wilhoit's wife had stuck with him and was pregnant. He was even more surprised to hear that Wilhoit was studying for the ministry at Abilene Christian University.

Terrell telephoned an Abilene police detective and asked if any sex crimes had been committed by a man of Wilhoit's description. None had.

On a hunch, Terrell bundled up his file on Wilhoit and sent it to Abilene with a note that read, in part:

"He cleared at least 20 or 25 cases of burglary for me, one armed robbery, was brought to trial on rape . . . did take ladies' underclothing in at least one burglary.

"This guy will in my opinion commit some sexual offense if he has not already done so. To my knowledge, he did not receive any treatment for such while in the joint. He is a very cool customer and comes on as a very likable type."

Terrell ended the note:

"If his wife is pregnant, I'm sure he'll be on the prowl."

After an abortive trip to Michigan and a brief stay in Georgia, Kenneth Miller rekindled his romance with Dianna Oppermann, the spunky legal secretary who had taken him in after he fled the courtroom.

Now she was prepared to join him on the run.

"It was sort of like a challenge, and I wanted to be with him," she said later. "It was a chance to make life a little bit more exciting, but that wasn't much of an incentive. It was mostly just to help him.

"He was like a lost dog."

Aside from the more obvious pitfalls at the time, there was the delicate matter of her boss, Bill Magnussen, who was also Miller's attorney and who wanted Miller to surrender and appeal for a new trial.

Magnussen did not learn of Miller's alliance with Oppermann until 1986.

The fugitive couple headed to Arizona simply because they liked the lyrics of a song by the Eagles, "Take It Easy," that mentioned "standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona."

Years later, Oppermann recalled, "We left Texas with nothing, very little clothes, even. I wiped out my savings account, about $1,000, which was pretty good for a 21-year-old kid back in those days. Everything I had I sunk into him, monetarily and emotionally.

'Crazy in Love'

"I don't know if I was trying to make up for what Texas did to him or was just that crazy in love. Who knows?"

They lingered only a short time in Winslow before moving on to Flagstaff, where Oppermann found a job with a criminal law firm and Miller went to work as an auto mechanic. He knew nothing about fixing cars, but faked it by using an instruction manual on the sly. One day, his boss caught him with his nose in the book and fired him --not for poor work, but for lying about his mechanical expertise.

Under the name of his ex-roommate in Fort Worth, Allen McGinnis, Miller soon found a job with the biggest garage in Flagstaff, the one that maintained cars for state and local police and fish and game officials.

They took a liking to the young "mechanic." One state patrolman became an occasional dinner guest at Miller's apartment, and the young couple found time to socialize with a former police chief.

Oppermann also worked in the speech and theater department at Northern Arizona University and dazzled co-workers with her Texas twang and her "y'all." She later joined a law firm.

"We were real happy in Flagstaff," Miller said later, and Oppermann agreed.

After nearly a year there, Miller began to feel his past closing in on him. The couple had been smitten with the beauty of Santa Barbara on a trip to California, so he headed there in search of a job. He found work, but also got stopped by the California Highway Patrol in Van Nuys.

He thought he had been flagged for an improper lane change, but he was arrested for driving under the influence. The California authorities did not immediately link him to the Fort Worth shooting, but Miller knew it could happen at any moment.

He hocked his watch for bail money, quit his new job and dashed back to Flagstaff. A short time later, he decided to move to Las Vegas.

In Las Vegas, they would start still another life. They would find new and better jobs, marry, prosper and buy a house with a swimming pool. In a sense, they would taste the good life they once thought beyond their reach.

They did not dream it was the beginning of the end.

Janelle Kirby's world was coming apart. She returned to Florida and her divorced mother after the attempted-murder trial, but she could escape neither the horror nor the handiwork of her Texas assailant.

A bullet in her brain and the scars on her face and head were painful physical reminders, and she struggled to overcome difficulties with memory and speaking.

She said they cost her at least one job.

Doctors prescribed the anti-convulsant drug Dilantin for her occasional seizures, but the medication only contributed to the memory lapses and caused slurred speech.

She worried that her garbled words would cause people to think less of her. She worried that the bullet she carried in her brain would somehow shift and cause permanent damage.

Feared for Her Life

Mostly, she worried that the gunman would track her down and kill her.

"I don't answer the door if I'm alone," she said. "That may be antisocial, but I don't care. I'm not going to have that happen to me again."

Her constant fear was shared by her mother, who left Florida for New Mexico.

"I was afraid, and I think my mother was afraid," Kirby said years later, recalling her deep depression.

"My mother thought this shouldn't have happened to me," she said. "You know how some people believe that God punishes you? Somehow, I think my mother believes that I let it happen, or it was my fault that this man came in and shot me.

"Even when I was in the hospital, all she could think to say to me was something like, 'You've ruined yourself.' That's what she said. "You've ruined yourself.' "

Biting her lip, Kirby said she could not bear to think about her mother.

"I can't, because that would drive me crazy too, along with everything else."

Kirby's life brightened in early 1976. Still estranged from her mother and bouncing in and out of the hospital, she began dating a pleasant, protective young man named Jim who had moved to Florida from Chicago Heights, Ill.

"I liked her from the moment I met her," Jim remembered years later. "It didn't bother me that she had any problems."

Jim and Janelle were married in March of that year.

Resumed College Career

Jim worked at a variety of jobs and Janelle stepped up her recovery efforts. She persuaded her doctors to take her off Dilantin and went back to school with an eye on a nursing degree.

She soon realized that she had to study longer and more intensely than others to achieve the same results.

"When she made her first 'A' she cried all day," Jim said.

Sometimes she coped. Sometimes she didn't.

"I know there have been times when she wished she was dead," Jim said. "She said it would have been better for everybody."

One night, Jim returned from work late and slipped into the house without turning on a light, so as not to wake his wife. She awoke anyway.

"She had an ax and a knife on the bed and was pointing a spear gun at me," he said. "Then she broke down and cried in relief."

Although money was scarce, Jim bought her a gun.

Months later, he came home much earlier than expected, rattled around a bit in an anteroom, then entered the house to find Janelle pointing the pistol at him.

While blow-drying her hair in the bedroom of her Abilene, Tex. home, a 26-year-old woman turned to find an intruder pointing what appeared to be a toy gun or an antique pistol at her.

He demanded drugs and money and, when she said there was neither, ordered her to strip and lie down on the bed. Then he raped her.

She later described the man as clean shaven and in his middle 30s, with thinning blond hair and blue eyes. He wore a button-down shirt and double-knit slacks. He had bound her hands with thumbcuffs.

As Kirby had done four years earlier, the woman in Abilene spoke of the man's distinctive eyes.

The date was Sept. 20, 1978.

Abilene authorities recognized the physical similarities between the Abilene rapist and the ex-con described by Fort Worth detective John Terrell.

In a picture lineup, the victim, with her husband at her side, pointed to a mug shot of William Ted Wilhoit.

Her husband told police that they drove past Wilhoit's apartment after leaving the station and saw him walk out. He said his wife burst into tears at the sight of him.

A jury sent Wilhoit back to prison, this time for 40 years.

Kenneth Miller and Dianna Oppermann blended into the quiet flip side of glittery Las Vegas. He worked at several jobs in those early days, and she was hired by one of the top law firms in town. She also worked for Harry Reid, a popular Nevada politician later elected to the House of Representatives and, in 1986, to the U.S. Senate.

It was second nature now for Dianna to call Kenneth "Allen"--as in Allen Dwain McGinnis--and they had grown comfortable with one another.

"We used to cook a lot together, just stand around in the kitchen and, almost without saying what you wanted, he'd do one thing and I'd do the other," Oppermann said.

In the fall of 1977, more than two years after they left Fort Worth, Miller suggested that they get married. Oppermann was surprised and mildly curious. She was neither displeased nor keen on the idea.

Since Miller was not really Allen McGinnis, she wondered if she would be McGinnis, Miller or Oppermann.

'Normal' Life Elusive

"I would rather have just stayed Oppermann and not worried about changing my name, but he wanted to get married, and I don't know if it was to reaffirm his love for me or whatever, but we did."

Oppermann kept her name. She says she and Miller seldom discussed the events of 1974, explaining, "It was sort of something hidden in our past that we wished would go away.

"We just tried to live as best we could, like a normal couple, but you always have the extra obstacles, like, no real name or credit references."

Miller eventually landed a newspaper distribution job and, before long, was bringing home $1,000 or more each week.

Against his wife's wishes, Miller bought a four-bedroom house with a pool and an acre of land for their dogs and cats.

Parked outside, by the motorcycle, were a Bronco, a van and a small pickup.

But good fortune did not translate into happiness.

"Anytime, night or day, they could come take all this away and put me in jail and arrest my wife as an accessory," Miller said.

Drinking Bouts Increase

Although his driving arrest in California suggested otherwise, Miller had not been a problem drinker. That began to change, however, as one tragedy spilled over into another.

Miller's father died, and he could not risk returning to Fort Worth for the funeral. He suspected that the police would be waiting for him.

"His mom wrote us a tear-jerking letter asking for money," Oppermann said. "We sent her some for a while, only she ended up having a heart attack. And nobody was there to save her and she lay there on the floor all day long before somebody came and discovered the body."

Once again, Miller could not go back to Fort Worth.

That evening, Oppermann found her troubled young husband sitting in a chair, rocking and staring. He did not speak; he wouldn't cry.

"It was like he had suffered too much pain already. For a while you become numb. You don't know what to do anymore. I don't care if he's a guy, you've gotta cry, and he didn't.

"There's got to be a breaking point for everybody."

Fights Turn Violent

The Christmas holidays were always the most dispiriting times for Miller, and it was Christmastime, 1982, when the turbulence boiled over. During a shouting match, he handed Oppermann his pistol and asked: "Why don't you just shoot me and put me out of my misery?"

One night, Miller went too far.

"He grabbed me by my throat and pushed me up against a wall and told me he could hurt me if he wanted to," Oppermann said. She didn't stick around to see if he wanted to.

She filed for divorce, and rejected his pleas for reconciliation because he wouldn't quit drinking. The divorce was granted in June, 1983, almost eight years to the day from which they had left Texas for Arizona.

If Miller was miserable with Oppermann, he was devastated without her. In rapid order, he lost his house, his vehicles, his job and his self-respect.

Clutching for straws, he fled Las Vegas with a girlfriend and spent several months roaming through Utah, California, Colorado, Iowa, Idaho and South Dakota.

"He needs help," Lee Mulholland fretted. "He's never gotten over Dianna. She was the glue that held him together. She was his whole world."

Not quite, but fate quickly took what little was left. While playing beside the Snake River in Idaho, his dog, Gimlet, was injured and died. The brokenhearted Miller buried his Doberman beside the river.

Then he cried.

While Miller was alone and adrift in Nevada, Leonard Schilling, the Texas cop, passed the years scheming to catch him and send him to prison for 70 years.

"For some reason, I could not forget Kenneth Leslie Miller," he said. "I was convinced he was guilty of shooting Janelle Kirby."

When he made sergeant, Schilling was drafted for a job no one wanted: coordinator of Crime Stoppers, a program that pays cash rewards for crime-solving tips.

Bored silly with the job, Schilling hit on the idea of starting a Crime Stoppers "Ten Most Wanted" program patterned after the FBI posters he remembered from childhood.

In May, 1986, Schilling kicked off Fort Worth's Ten Most Wanted program, and Kenneth Leslie Miller was No. 1. His picture decorated newspaper pages and television screens and was hung in stores and other public places.

The wanted posters portrayed Miller as armed and extremely dangerous and offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.

Posters in Newspaper

As fate would have it, Oppermann was visiting in Fort Worth when Schilling launched his campaign, and she saw the poster in the Star-Telegram.

"I just died," she said. "My mom and dad didn't know."

Lee Mulholland saw the same newspaper. "I knew in my heart that things were coming to an end," she said with a shudder.

In early summer, Schilling received several telephone calls about Miller. One caller said that Miller had been back in town briefly in late 1985, using the name Allen McGinnis. Through a bit of luck and exceptional police work, Schilling tied Miller to a suburban traffic ticket and several pawn tickets, and concluded that he was indeed posing as his ex-roommate.

Then came what Schilling calls the blockbuster call.

An informant who wanted to claim the $1,000 reward said that Miller was in Las Vegas, that he had worked for a newspaper there and that he had married a legal secretary named Dianna Oppermann.

Schilling telephoned the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and said he wanted Miller-McGinnis found and arrested.

Police records there showed that an Allen Dwain McGinnis had been arrested three or four times on drinking charges and once for carrying a concealed weapon.

'McGinnis Is Miller'

"I think your McGinnis is my Miller," Schilling said.

Time finally ran out for Kenneth Miller on June 9, 1986. As he moved through the checkout line at a Las Vegas wholesale store, a suspicious clerk opened a box that supposedly contained an inexpensive fan.

Instead, it held two videotape recorders and two electric drills.

Miller insisted that he was no less surprised than the clerk. He said that the brother of a friend had asked him to pay for the item while he fetched his truck.

The store manager summoned police. An officer did a routine check and informed Miller that there was a drunk-driving warrant out on him. As they stood beside the police car, the radio crackled back to life.

"That cop went white, and then he went for his gun," Miller said. "He ordered me up against the wall and called for help."

Schilling's campaign had hit the jackpot.

"I know who you are. You're Kenneth Miller," a detective told him.

"No, I'm not," he replied. "I'm Allen McGinnis."

"We know who you are."

"I'm glad somebody does," Miller said with a sigh. "I don't."

That evening, with the news of Miller's arrest prominent in Texas and Nevada newscasts, Schilling headed for the Albatross and an impromptu celebration.

He met Bill Magnussen, owner of the saloon and Miller's lawyer 12 years earlier. Magnussen congratulated Schilling on the Miller affair, but told him: "You caught an innocent man."

Schilling laughed him off.

Shortly afterward, he received a phone call from a man who refused to identify himself.

"We need to talk. It's important," the man said, and gave a phone number.

Slightly perturbed at having to leave the party, Schilling went next door and placed the call.

"He didn't do it," the voice said.

"If he didn't do it, who did?"

"Look at a man named William Ted Wilhoit."

The caller told Schilling he could find Wilhoit in the state prison in Huntsville.

When word that Kenneth Miller was recaptured reached Janelle Kirby in Florida, she said, "All I felt was fear, because, one way or the other, I knew I was going to be dragged into it again."

She still could be frightened to tears by the sound of firecrackers exploding or a television gunfight. Jim had grown accustomed to checking out the slightest noise, night or day.

Feeling no less hunted than Miller, Janelle's world in June, 1986, centered on Jim, her studies, the novels she read, a cat named Morris and the movies the couple rented and watched at home. Rarely did they leave the small house they had built with money from the estate of Janelle's grandmother in Virginia, who had reared her from the age of 13.

The real shocker for Janelle was less than a month away.

After the anonymous phone call and a sleepless night, Leonard Schilling waded into police files the next morning, looking for anything he could find on William Ted Wilhoit. He found plenty.

He quickly realized that Wilhoit's description matched that of Kirby's assailant.

Schilling also learned there had been sexual attacks in Wilhoit's old neighborhood, and that in 1974 he had lived within blocks of Kirby's apartment.

"That lit the fire," Schilling said.

As he looked deeper into the 1974 investigation, he also discovered that Wilhoit was never a suspect in the Kirby case. He found that puzzling.

"I think my 13-year-old son would have looked at Wilhoit as a possible suspect," he would say later.

Schilling was joined in his new investigation by a Fort Worth homicide detective, Danny LaRue.

Working in part with the evidence burglary detective John Terrell had compiled years earlier on Wilhoit, LaRue concluded that police had arrested the wrong man.

Talk of a Frame-Up

LaRue was troubled by the 31 days between the time Miller was identified as Kirby's assailant and the time of his arrest. He picked up "under the carpet" talk among police that Miller might have been framed.

A confession from Wilhoit was unlikely, but without it they had no case because the only witness, Kirby herself, had identified another man. Schilling and LaRue struck a deal: Wilhoit would be granted immunity from prosecution if he would make a full confession.

Surrounded by detectives, investigators and lawyers, Wilhoit related for the first time what led to the attack 12 years earlier.

He told of driving around the campus area. He parked next to a church, walked down an alley and entered a gate leading to Kirby's apartment.

"Observing no one around, I climbed the stairs and entered the apartment," he said in a written statement. "Once inside, I was surprised by a white female that I later learned was Janelle Kirby."

He described the jewelry and blouse she wore.

Wilhoit said that as he handcuffed one of her wrists, "she started to fight me." He said he raised his pistol and she grabbed his hand. The pistol got tangled in her hair and discharged several times and she was hit, he recalled.

"She then fell to the floor."

Missing Piece of Evidence

LaRue marveled at Wilhoit's ability to recall so vividly Kirby's apartment, jewelry and clothing, but it was Schilling who asked the key question, one that only the gunman could answer. The assailant had left behind the ejection rod from the .22-caliber pistol, but crime scene investigators had overlooked it. Kirby's boyfriend later found it in the carpet and gave it to police.

An officer had tagged the rod and stuck it in the evidence room, where it remained for 12 years, until Schilling and LaRue stumbled across it. Schilling believed this to be the only facet of the investigation that had never been made public or mentioned at Miller's trial.

He asked Wilhoit if, upon returning to his car that evening, he had noticed anything strange about his pistol.

"I noticed the cylinder pin had come out of my gun," he replied.

The two detectives exchanged glances. "We knew we had the right man," Schilling said.

One night in early July, Schilling, LaRue and lawyer Bill Magnussen flew to Las Vegas to retrieve Miller from jail and return him to Fort Worth.

Miller was unaware of the Wilhoit statement and still insisted that he was Allen McGinnis, even in the face of fingerprint and handwriting samples that suggested otherwise.

At the Las Vegas jail, Magnussen entered the interview room alone. It had been nearly 12 years since the trial, and Miller did not recognize him.

"Bill?"

"Yeah," the lawyer said.

"What's going on?"

"It's all over."

Magnussen told him he had been cleared of the Kirby shooting. Miller didn't believe him.

"You'll be loose by Friday night," Magnussen said.

Schilling was stunned by the appearance of the man he once thought of as an arrogant and cold-blooded gunman.

"He looked so frail and so beat down, and nothing like my poster," he said. "He looked like a scared rabbit. He wanted to believe us, but it wouldn't compute. It reminded me of those movies where the POWs are scared of their liberators."

Tangle of Red Tape

The Texas lawyer and cops spent much of the night gambling in the Sahara Hotel casino. They returned early the next day to get Miller, but instead they became ensnarled in red tape.

One problem was the criminal complaints pending against Miller in Nevada. The most serious was a bad-check charge, not an insignificant offense in Las Vegas.

An unlikely source solved that problem. Dianna Oppermann, Miller's ex-wife, used the mortgage on her small house in Las Vegas to raise bond money.

While drinking beer on a layover in Denver, Schilling looked at Miller and was struck by irony: "I'm as amazed at him as he is at me."

The detective could explain it only in terms of fate.

"Kenneth, all this happened because it was meant to happen. You ran because you were meant to run. . . . You were meant to run and I was meant to catch you and to prove you innocent."

That did not satisfy Miller.

"But why did all this happen? Why did you want me arrested so bad?"

"It was just fate," said Schilling, admitting the answer sounded lame. "If you wouldn't have run, you would have done your time by now. I wouldn't have chased you, but you wouldn't be going back to Fort Worth an innocent man.

"You had to be caught to be found innocent."

Case Dismissed

Back in Fort Worth, lawyers, judges, prosecutors and police worked quickly to win Miller his freedom. Magnussen's 1975 motion for a new trial was still pending, and a judge was persuaded to grant it. Dist. Atty. Tim Curry then filed a motion for dismissal and the judge endorsed it.

"At best, we have an imperfect system, but it is directed toward justice," Curry said. "In this case it finally worked, even if it did take 12 years."

On July 11, 1986, Kenneth Miller, ex-fugitive, walked out of the courtroom to face newspaper, radio and television reporters and an uncertain future.

For Schilling, the Miller case marked the end of a colorful police career.

"This was the biggest thing in my life," he told a reporter on the eve of his departure from the Crime Stoppers program. "It really was an obsession, but police work ain't no fun anymore. I think I knew that Miller was my last deal."

He enrolled for the spring semester at the South Texas College of Law in Houston.

Regardless of what anyone would say then or later, Schilling left the police force convinced of Miller's innocence and Wilhoit's guilt.

"Beyond the slightest doubt," he said.

In the twilight of a recent Las Vegas evening, Miller looked out across the neon strip into the desert and the mountains beyond.

"No," he said. "I have no animosity. If Janelle Kirby really thought I did it, what can you say? If she really thought it was me, there is nothing to say."

Did he believe he was framed by Fort Worth police officers?

"Originally, I did," he said. He thought about it often and discussed it with Magnussen and others.

"I don't know now," said Miller, shaking his head.

Some Unanswered Questions

LaRue, promoted from homicide to major cases, concluded there had been no frame-up, that Miller was a victim of terrible coincidence. But he said his investigation did not determine "why Wilhoit was never looked at" as a suspect or why the police waited 31 days to arrest Miller.

Several police sources told the Associated Press that the department's Internal Affairs Division was ordered last summer to look into the events that led to Miller's arrest in 1974, but that the investigation fizzled or was canceled.

Chief Thomas Windham, who took the Fort Worth job in 1985, called the investigation satisfactory and said it uncovered no evidence of any police impropriety.

"From my perspective 12 or 13 years later, I'm satisfied we have looked into this about as deeply as we can," he said.

Las Vegas authorities dropped all criminal charges against him after Miller pleaded guilty to the bad-check complaint in exchange for a brief sentence of probation.

He said he neither knew nor cared about who had turned him in to Schilling's Crime Stoppers.

'Lightening the Load'

"It was a mixed feeling," he said of his arrest. "I didn't want to believe it at first, but, in a way, it was a lightening of the load, a relief.

"I hope they enjoy the $1,000 (reward)".

He began working again as a mechanic and was trying, he insisted, to rebuild his life. "I stay on a pretty even keel most of the time," Miller said.

But friends say he remains deeply troubled and emotionally erratic.

"This thing has totally wrecked his life," said Debbie, his most recent woman companion, who asked that her full name not be used. "He can't get a grip on it. He can't cope with it. For the last 12 years he's had to run so much and lie so much, and now he's drinking as a way to forget.

"I think he wants to help himself, but he doesn't know how. . . . I'd help him in a heartbeat if I thought I could."

She added: "He's headed for big-time trouble, and it scares me to death."

As news reports of Miller's release reached across the country, LaRue received a telephone call from Janelle Kirby in Florida. She demanded to know what was going on.

"For about an hour, I gave her the entire story over the telephone," LaRue recalled. "She never interrupted, never asked a question. No ifs, ands, buts or anything. Afterward, she just said she would like to get hold of Miller and apologize for the injustice."

A telephone meeting was arranged.

The next day, Miller sat in Magnussen's home awaiting a call from the person who had so dramatically altered his life.

The call never came.

Kirby was still stunned and confused by the news from Fort Worth.

"I just couldn't believe it," she said later. "I couldn't understand why."

She said she also felt that LaRue had badgered her into offering an apology that would have been premature.

"I didn't know enough about this thing to make a judgment," she said.

Victim's Reluctance

"The police had always been very kind to me, and treated me with such courtesy, but I felt (LaRue) was against me, that he disliked me without knowing me."

Jim was alarmed at how upset his wife had become. He insisted that she not call Miller.

"What am I going to do?" she asked.

"I don't know," he replied, "but don't call him. We're not sure yet. We haven't seen this Wilhoit guy."

They said they appealed to Texas authorities for a photograph of Wilhoit, but received nothing.

In January, an AP reporter flew to Florida with a 1974 photograph of Wilhoit and the old wanted poster bearing Miller's picture.

Jim noted the similarities and said he understood how difficult it might be for the critically wounded survivor of an attack to make a positive identification.

But he was supportive of his wife. "She's been in hiding every bit as much as Kenneth Miller," he said.

Brushing back tears, her hands shaking, Janelle compared the photographs for the first time.

"That man doesn't look a thing like the person who shot me," she said of Wilhoit's picture. "The nose and the mouth are completely different, and the man's eyes. . . . "

She said she vividly remembered the man's eyes.

"Does this look like the person?" the reporter asked, handing her the Miller poster.

After a long pause, she replied:

"If I say yes, now that they have declared him to be innocent, isn't that slander?"

"No."

"Then I've just told you what I believe."

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