Harry Miller, 69, of Anchor Bay, was held to answer on two counts of attempted murder last week in Superior Court for first shooting his neighbor Paul Palastrini, 62, also of Anchor Bay, and then trying to shoot Palastrini’s wife, Desiree, with a shiny little Smith & Wesson snub-nosed .357 Magnum/.38 Special pistol. Mr. Miller’s wife, Susan, was charged with accessory after the fact because she allegedly deleted some video clips in order to concoct a self-defense scenario for Harry Miller.
The Millers and the Palastrinis were not fond of one another. A long history of fear and hate simmered between them. So when the Palastrinis brought in a load of gravel to fill some potholes on the easement road through Miller’s Anchor Bay property in the late afternoon of March 26th, Harry grabbed his gun and Susan armed herself with a video camera and they went out to confront the Palastrinis.
Harry Miller’s lawyer, Santa Rosa attorney Monte Hansen, told the court that Paul Palastrini had previously broken Mr. Miller’s back (which accounted for, but didn’t really explain, why Harry shuffled awkwardly around the courthouse with a modified ski pole in each hand), and that Miller always carried the concealed pistol because he lived in fear of Palastrini. Mr. Hansen said that Palastrini, the day of the gun play, struck Miller in the leg with a shovel causing him to fall, and that he also had a gash in his forehead, but none of this was in the video clip played in court.
In the video we see the pile of gravel and Paul Palastrini industriously shoveling it into potholes. Then Palastrini yells for Desiree to get a rake and help. At this point Harry Miller appears on the gravel pile, ordering the Palastrinis to cease and desist, that they are trespassing, that he’s called the gravel company to come and get the gravel out of there, and that he’s called the cops. Palastrini tells Miller to get the fuck out of the way. Miller tells Palastrini to take his foul language elsewhere. Palastrini throws another shovelful of gravel. Miller rips out a gun and shoots Palastrini point-blank in the chest.
At this point Susan Palastrini appears to have dropped the camera. The filming had been reminiscent of the movie Blair Witch Project, but now all angles and perspectives were lost in the pandemonium. Finally, Miller reappeared on screen, a tall, gaunt man with his wild white hair back-lit by the sky, his face contorted in rage, as he whirled a quarter turn, extended his arm and fired two more shots, presumably at Desiree Palastrini, who was presumably scrambling desperately for cover.
Somehow, we were told, Desiree Palastrini got behind Miller and was holding him by the waist when Miller fired three more shots at her. This would have been materially impossible because the Smith&Wesson Model 640 only holds five bullets, not six, though all five shells in the cylinder were spent when Deputy Jesse Van Wormer recovered the gun from the Medical Center in Gualala where Miller had been taken to treat the injury to his forehead.
The gun had been emptied of all five shots, but how and where these last two shots, not three (as Desiree Palastrini said – yes, but who’s counting when a hail of bullets comes o’er your ears?), were fired during the melee was never made clear. Only one shot, the first, had hit anyone, and that was because it was fired at point-blank range. Although it has an internal hammer, the Smith&Wesson 640 is a double-action only revolver, which means that instead of the usual delicate little trigger pull of a fraction of a millimeter, you have to pull the trigger nearly three-quarters of an inch, in order to turn the cylinder and at the same time cock the hammer back and trip it. This is where we get the term “cranking off rounds” because it’s so much like turning a crank. To hold the gun completely steady meanwhile is extremely difficult, and with such a short little two-and-a-quarter-inch barrel — well, that’s why it’s generally used as a last resort self-defense weapon, much like a situation with the lady game warden I interviewed in Montana who used one with stunning success as she was being mauled by a grizzly bear.
But I digress.
How Harry Miller ended up with a long bleeding gash on his forehead was never made clear, either, but it wasn’t there when he fired the first three shots (because we could see him plainly), as the first report blasted into Paul Palastrini’s chest; and the next two – after our trusty cameraperson somehow recovered, and refocused – we got the gallery-worthy shot of Dear Old Harry Miller, looking like some wrathful Old Testament prophet, shooting with maniacal sincerity at some apparently infuriating target to the side. There were no pictures of the gash on the forehead, but there was blood on Harry’s jacket and on a towel Susan brought from the house. It may even have been Palastrini’s blood, for all that was shown in court.
These bloody items, the towel and jacket, were presented to Deputy Christopher King, when he arrived some 40 minutes after the shooting from Fort Bragg. This 40 minute interval would have (we can almost hear the cynics jeering) given the Millers time to assess the situation – certainly Desiree Palastrini would have gone to ground by now and been unlikely to peep out after four rounds had been fired at her in anger – and perhaps during this interval the Millers could put the incident into a plausible, no, not story, but a more lucid light, and in any case, Susan Miller told Deputy King that Paul Palastrini had started things by hitting her mister Miller in the leg with the shovel and knocking him down.
By the time Deputy King was on scene, the medical team had Harry Miller on a backboard. Deputy King said he never got close enough to Harry to see if his leg or head were injured. King said Susan Miller appeared angry, and when asked why she was angry she said it was because the EMTs had put her dearly beloved on a — dammit — on a backboard prior to transporting him to the hospital, and this angered Susan Miller, she said, because Harry Miller had a back injury.
Curiously, Susan Miller refused to give Deputy King the camera when he asked for it. In fact it was a few days before it was turned over, and by then selected video clips had been deleted.
Ukiah attorney Justin Petersen is Susan Miller’s lawyer. Petersen asked a series of detailed questions about these deleted clips and made a comment that proved to me how stupid and behind the times I am when it comes to these techno things.
Mr. Petersen said, “Judge, even a five-year-old knows that when you delete something on an electronic device like this it isn’t really deleted.”
District Attorney David Eyster said, “The People believe this was a premeditated murder, judge. [Palastrini was not killed.] Henry Miller was basically lying in wait to kill Paul Palastrini. So we would ask for a holding order on count one, intentionally discharging a firearm; one striking Mr. Palastrini and two more taken at Desiree Palastrini; and, judge, in self defense, she got behind him and three more shots were fired at her! As for count three, the Millers were setting up a self-defense story, and the court has heard about the deleted video clips.”
Justin Petersen said his client, Mrs. Miller, wasn’t lying about Palastrini hitting Miller with the shovel, she was just putting two-and-two together, and thought he had, and as to deleting the video clips, many people may have had access to the camera before it was turned over to law enforcement. In any case, his client was charged with a wobbler and he wanted to argue for a reduction to a misdemeanor.
Judge Ann Moorman said that it was already after 5:25pm and that Petersen would have to argue some other time. As to Harry Miller, Moorman said, “All this happened on the road so there can be no defense of private property and the Palastrini’s had an easement, and Mr. Miller was being an obstructionist, and getting visibly more angry, until he just pulls out a gun and shoots Mr. Palastrini in the chest. To me that’s a willful act intended to kill — and the look on his face! The evidence of being hit with a shovel is not on the video, there was no evidence of an injury to his leg, so I find no evidence of provocation; and there was no evidence presented that Mr. Palastrini had injured Mr. Miller’s back at some previous time. As for count three, Mrs. Palastrini told the dispatcher, or someone, that he, Mr. Miller, just shot my husband then tried to shoot me, so I’m going to hold him on all three counts.”
How Mr. Palastrini somehow miraculously survived the point blank shot to the chest was not made clear in court.