I generally lie to parole officers and law enforcement… It’s just what we — men like me… it’s what we do. — Walter Miller
* * *
Walter K. ‘Kris’ Miller took the witness stand to try and convince his jury not to send him to prison for the rest of his life. He's a two-striker looking at a 100-mile an hour fastball of a third strike. If the jury finds him guilty of the attempted murder of a police officer he'll die in some dismal place like Corcoran or Pelican Bay.
Miller doesn’t think he deserves a cage for the rest of his life although his outlaw life suggests otherwise. His judgment seems faulty, and his taking the stand last week may have been ill-advised. Put it this way. He was not convincing. But leave a man with no hope, no options, and you've got a man who just might take a shot at a cop to avoid death by incarceration.
Miller came across as the brains of the drug-fueled crime sprees he and his partner Christopher Skaggs have been involved in over the years, and while we know Governor Jerry Brown is under federal pressure to clear out the state’s prisons, these two guys were going back there sooner or later anyway.
As recently as November 14th of 2012, Miller and Skaggs had led another high-speed chase that ended in Navarro in the Anderson Valley. The mystery is why they were out of jail to do another one in 2013.
In 2010, CHP Officer Hartlow had noticed some erratic driving by a red BMW about 10:20 that September night. The red Beemer was hurtling southbound on Highway 101 near the exit to Lake Mendocino Drive.
Hartlow pulled in behind the weaving, speeding vehicle and attempted to make a traffic stop. The Beemer pulled into the slow lane, with the right-hand signal flashing, having slowed to about 60 mph. Hartlow said he thought the driver was going to get off the freeway and stop on Ukiah's North State Street. But the red car kept going, and when Hartlow hit his siren, the Beemer driver hit the gas, and bombed on up Orr Springs Road, headed west.
The road was wet and the chase went on for more than 20 miles, with objects being thrown from the red Beemer as it swerved all over the road. At one point, Hartlow said, the car spun completely around and he came face to face with the driver, Christopher Skaggs. A man assumed to be Kris Miller, rode slumped down in the passenger seat, and a woman, a certain Miss Cox, was along for the ride in the back seat.
The Beemer whirled onto Flynn Creek Road at Comptche and the chase continued, with lots of near crashes with other vehicles. Sheriff’s deputies met up with Hartlow near Comptche and joined in the chase, along with another CHP vehicle crashed in hot pursuit.
The chase went onto Appian Road at Rancho Navarro, speeding out the other end on the old Masonite Road, and on down onto Highway 128 towards the Navarro Store, “flying through several stop signs.” Then it was up Soda Creek Road, just before the store where the driver’s door flew open as Officer Hartlow rammed the Beemer with his reinforced bumper and Skaggs took off running. Hartlow, reinforced by several other cops, tackled Skaggs who, of course, fought his capture until he was fully subdued with the help of his tazer. “I also had a flashlight,” Hartlow said, “an advantage the subject did not enjoy.”
Miss Tracy Cox, Bonnie to the two Clydes, remained seated in the Beemer.
Kris Miller, it was widely assumed, jumped out the passenger-side door and got away.
Three years later this fun-loving trio did it all over again, this time with shots fired.
Kubanis for the defense. He asked about the car chase involving his client Miller, the inevitable Miss Cox, and Mr. Skaggs in 2010.
“Wasn’t he driving a Honda Accord on that occasion?”
“Yes, I believe he was.”
“Do you have any experience with a Ford Thunderbird, vintage 1995?”
“I may have pulled one over.”
“But isn’t that a pretty fast car?”
“I don’t know, I just chase ‘em.”
Except for the shots fired, this year's chase up Highway 253, the one currently under consideration by a jury of Mr. Miller’s peers, was the same as the one in 2010.
Miller’s rap sheet is lengthy, to put it mildly. He has been stealing things for a long time, especially guns. “Grand Theft-Firearms,” pops up so often in association with Miller that Grand Theft-Firearms could be the guy's middle name.
The DA wanted the jury to hear about at least two of the gun thefts, especially one of a sawed-off shotgun Miller used in an armed robbery in Sonoma County, August 23, 2000.
While the jury languished in the cellar of a jury room of the musty old County Courthouse, the lawyers argued which of these transgressions would be allowed in court.
DA Eyster wanted as many as he could get.
Kubanis argued that discussion of Miller's legal history violated his client’s constitutional rights under the Second, Fourth and Fifth Amendments.
As an ex-con-felon on parole, Miller's right to bear arms, his, ahem, Second Amendment privilege, had already been lost, and he was also subject to search and seizure, ergo, no Fourth Amendment, and to achieve that status he’d had to waive his Fifth Amendment rights when he pled to the burglary.
Miller soon told the jury about kicking down a Potter Valley door and taking stuffs as if it were the most logical strategy to get some quick cash.
He'd already confessed to the burglary of the Haga residence in Potter Valley, so the defense must have felt there was nothing to be lost by going over this crime in detail. With his lawyer Al Kubanis asking the leading questions, Miller delivered a calmly detailed narrative of the Potter Valley events. He made it clear he was the go-to guy, the leader, in situations where his two compadres tended to hesitate. That day, our trio of ad hoc rogues — Miller, Skaggs and Miss Cox — was in Potter Valley, running low on gas and money. They were driving around in Skaggs’ father’s 1995 T-Bird and shooting up methamphetamine, not a known path to clear thinking. Skaggs and Miss Cox were wondering out loud what they ought to do about their dwindling resources. Miller said he knew of a “child molester” in the area he wanted to look up and put the squeeze on.
“What do you mean, when you say you wanted to pressure this guy,” Kubanis asked.
“I was going to force him to give us money and drugs,” Miller promptly answered. He didn’t elaborate. His eyes were hooded, as they say, half closed throughout his narrative, and he never showed any emotion whatsoever.
“How did you end up at the Haga residence on Van Arsdale Road?”
“We were driving by and I noticed there were no vehicles in the driveway, and with such a nice gate I thought maybe it would be a good place to try.”
“To try what?”
“A burglary is what I had in mind.”
“So what did you do?”
“I told Chris [Skaggs] to park across the street and wait a minute or two. There was no one around so we got out and went over there to look around.”
“What were you looking for?”
“I wanted to see if anyone was around, if there was any dogs, or anything like that.”
“Were there — any dogs or anyone around?”
“No. So I climbed up on the gate, but the board I was standing on broke and I fell on the other side. I hit pretty hard.” Miller looked expectantly to the jurors as if seeking sympathy for his fall, but saw none.
“Then Chris was there helping me up. We went up on the porch and found a big can of gas. I told Chris that he should go put that in the car, but first I told him to kick the door open so I could go in and have a look around.”
“Did Mr. Skaggs have any trouble kicking the door down?”
“No, not at all.”
“Did he have any trouble getting the big can of gas over the gate?”
“Not at all.”
“What did you do?”
“I went in the house and took the pillow cases off the pillows and started filling them with things. When Chris got back, the pillow cases were piling up, so I told him to start taking them out to the car.”
“How many pillow cases were at the gate?”
“I don’t remember any surplus pillowcases at the gate.”
Skaggs had been a marvel of efficiency, it would seem.
“Did you find any firearms?”
“Chris found the long guns and I found the AP-9 under the bed.”
“Several boxes of bullets, yes. We put the ammo in a red suitcase with the coins, a large jar of coins, and a man’s jewelry box; we put that in there, too.”
Too bad Mr. Haga wasn't in the courtroom. It would have been interesting to watch his reactions to this account of the plundering of his home.
“What was the point of taking the firearms?”
“Uhh… no real reason. They were just there. I’d taken them before, and found that they were always lucrative. Chris put the rifles and shotgun in the car, but the AP-9 — that stayed on my person, or on the floorboard right by my feet. And the lever-action, that stayed right by my leg.”
“Wasn’t that one of the long guns Mr. Skaggs had found?”
“Yes, but it wasn’t that long… it was nice and short. And I kept it right by my knee.”
“Did Detective Porter ask you about burglaries?”
“He did, yes. I told him I didn’t commit burglaries.”
“Was that a true statement?”
“Where was the stolen stuff placed?”
“In the car. When I went back to the car I saw the gas can down the side of the hill below the road; it looked like it had been thrown there. We went up the road a ways and pulled over to shoot up some crank.”
“You had syringes?”
“Yes, we bought them at Rite-Aid.”
“Where did you go then?”
“We went on a long journey, man. Way up in the mountains.”
“Up by Lake Pillsbury?”
“Yes, I think so. Chris was driving and we ended up at a casino.”
“What did you do at the casino?”
“We played the slot machines.”
“With the stolen money from the Haga residence?”
“No, I gambled with my own money.”
Mr. Kubanis smiled at this assurance, perhaps remembering his client had said they committed the burglary because they were broke.
“How much did you have?”
“And how much did you gamble away?”
“All of it.”
“Did Mr. Skaggs and Ms. Cox gamble also?”
“Yes, they sat together at one slot machine, and I sat at another.”
“Did they gamble the Haga’s money?”
“They took no money that I’m aware of.”
The hooded eyes, the calm assurance, the detached drone of Miller’s voice was causing some of the jurors to shift uncomfortably in their seats.
In a way, though, Miller's sociopathic assumptions differ only in their execution from those of Wall Street bankers, not to mention most lawyers. In a country dominated by criminals, the only surprise is that there aren't more guys like Miller.
“What about the stolen property?” Kubanis asked, digging his client in deeper with every question.
“All that property had been arranged in the car; the trunk was completely full and the rest arranged in the back seat.”
“Where did you go after you left the casino?”
“I was under the impression we were going to Santa Rosa. The sheriffs were looking for me for the burglary of Mark Bennett’s house and I wanted to get out of Mendocino County.”
“Did you eventually get to Highway 101?”
“Yes, it was dark and I was getting tired. I’d been up for several days. Then I saw the sheriff behind us. I know Chris well and I didn’t want him to panic and take off — he does that.”
“The sheriff got behind us and turned on the red light. Chris kept saying ‘What do I do? What do I do?’ Tracy told him to pull over, but I said, ‘We can’t stop with all this stuff in the car — we’re both on parole.’ Chris was looking for a place to pull over, and he stops and he’s looking at me, and I’m telling him, ‘When he [the officer] gets to the door, just go. I’m slouched real low in the seat… That was our biggest fear — to get pulled over.”
That’s why they took a car with expired plates? Bullpucky. These guys love this cops and robbers action. It’s better than xBox any day. That’s what they do at the jail: they get up early and swab down the pod, or cellblock, so the COs will give them the remote for the TV and they can watch America’s Dumbest Criminals all day.
“I was fairly well-known by the sheriffs,” Miller said, surprising no one.
“Did you make eye-contact with that officer?”
“Not at all. We were parked by Thrifty Nifty, and Chris was saying, ‘What do I do? What do I do?’ I said when he walks up, just take off, and we did.”
“Where were you going?”
“I mentioned the freeway because Chris was saying, ‘Where do I go? Where do I go?’ But he surprised me and turned on the Boonville Road. At that time the car wasn’t running very well.”
“Did the sheriff’s vehicle narrow the distance between you?”
“Yes, very quickly.”
“Was there some discussion in the car?”
“Yes. At that point I was very concerned.”
“Would you describe the people in the car as calm?”
“Not at all. We were arguing back and forth and the little dog was barking its head off.”
“What did you do?”
“I put the gun out the window thinking it would make the sheriff back off. Tracy said, ‘If you’re going to do that, do it before more cops get here.’ I was trying to figure out how to get away from this guy, but he stayed right with us, so I brought the gun back in and took the safety off. Then I reached out and tried the trigger. But I wasn’t trying to hit the car.”
This was the point of the whole gambit of taking the stand, to convince the jury that a reasonable guy like Kris Miller certainly wouldn’t shoot a cop.
“Any explanation on how that bullet hole got in the Deputy’s radiator?”
“Man, I just don’t know. I’ve been thinking on that over and over, and I just don’t know.” He surmised it was a ricochet.
Miller went on to tell how he took off on foot when they pulled the car over; then he hid out in a trailer house over night. He said he was freezing, but again, there was zero evidence of sympathy in the room.
The trial resumed Monday, the jury got it that afternoon, and two hours later they were back with the verdict — guilty of first-degree attempted murder. And assault with a firearm, first-degree burglary, witness intimidation, being a felon in possession of a firearm and special allegations that he personally used the semi-automatic, AP-9 pistol from which five or six rounds were fired the night of the chase in February of this year.
“It was pretty straight-forward,” juror Raymond Gates told Tiffany Revelle of the Ukiah Daily Journal. “Eighty-five to 90 percent of what we were arguing, he had admitted to most of that. I wanted to believe some of the stuff he said, but he incriminated himself. Sometimes he didn't say enough; sometimes he said too much, and he lied about stuff. I feel sorry for a guy like that, but I didn't put the gun in his hand,” Gates said.
Miller will be sentenced on February 7th