Two Women Fight To Keep A Killer Behind Bars
(CBS) In River Oaks, Texas, in 1982, the only
thing more shocking than Retha Stratton's murder
was the fact that Wesley Wayne Miller did it.
"He’s not the kind of person that if you see him
walking down the street, you’re gonna cross to
the other side of the road for your safety,"
explains prosecutor Joey Robertson.
But as correspondent
Susan Spencer reports, Robertson will try to convince a
jury at a hearing that if he's simply freed, Miller will
kill again. It's a fear that has driven Retha’s sister
Rona and her best friend Lisa Gabbert to fight for two
decades to keep Miller locked up.
It all began when Rona and Lisa were just two small-town
girls. In 1981, Lisa was a senior at Castleberry High;
Wesley Wayne Miller was a pal and captain of the
football team, voted best all around during his senior
As always in high school, the cheerleaders were at the
center of everything; Lisa and her good friend, Retha
Stratton were both on the squad.
Like Wesley Miller, Retha Stratton is all over the
yearbook, beaming in the cheerleaders' official picture,
a picture that over the next year would take on a grim
On January 23, 1981, a girl seen just below Retha in
that very yearbook photo, Susan Davis, was sexually
"I'm standing there, and he walks in and with a stocking
over his head, his face, no shirt on, jeans, with you
know, his zipper open. And at that point I realized that
something really bad was about to happen," Susan
She was 16 at the time and home alone. "My instincts
took over and I just ran. And he caught me. And at that
point, he began to threaten me," Susan recalls.
Her attacker, Susan says, told her to shut up and be
quiet. "Don't scream or I'm going to hit you. It became
physical, hitting me in the face, ripping my panties
off…going at that point it was sexual. I prayed to God,
you know, 'Watch over me.' And then at that point, he
got up and walked away," Susan remembers of the ordeal.
Having failed to actually rape her, the attacker fled.
At the time, Susan says she didn't know who had attacked
The man was probably someone she knew, police said, but
with no physical evidence or suspects, the case stalled.
For them, that was that, but not for Susan. "I had to go
back into cheerleading. And I was paranoid all the time
about, 'Is this person in the stands watching me?'" she
At Castleberry High, life went on. Lisa and Retha
graduated that May, and then that November, a man raped
another young woman in the nearby town of Saginaw.
Again, the victim was alone, and like in the Davis case,
the rapist wore a mask. He left a fingerprint but police
couldn’t identify it. In River Oaks, the case got little
"It's just very much that teenage mentality that 'It
doesn't affect my world. That can't happen to me,'" Lisa
But on Dec. 7, 1981, it did, and the attack is as vivid
when she visits the vacant house today, as it was back
then. Lisa, who was just 18 years old at the time, was
awakened when someone opened her bedroom door.
"And when I looked over I saw that someone was standing
in the doorway with a mask and a red ski mask and panty
hose over the mask," she remembers. "And he leapt on me.
And we struggled. There was some choking. And then he
tore back the covers. Opened my robe. And we struggled
some more. And so he proceeded to rape me."
Lisa was sure her attacker knew her, because he didn’t
give a second thought to walking right past her ailing
mother, who was an invalid.
"And you’ve always thought that was important, that the
person who did this to you knew that your mother who was
sitting here a few feet away couldn’t move?" Spencer
"Absolutely, because anyone else would have seen her as
a witness," Lisa explains.
Still, she had no idea who the attacker was. Robert Lynn
Hicks, then a rookie patrolman, interviewed Lisa that
day. He distinctly remembers one telling detail. "She
stated, 'If you'll find someone that looks similar to
Wesley Miller, it would be, you know, a good place to
start as far as looking for a suspect,'" Hicks recalls.
|Lisa says she
thought of Miller because the attacker was built
like the football player and had similar arms.
The very next day, another rape happened just
across the street from Lisa’s house and the
circumstances were strikingly similar. The
victim was the sister of another cheerleader,
Roxy McDonnell, who just happened to be dating
"And we had just said to
the dad, 'Well, he's built like Wesley. And has arms
like Wesley's.' And he says, 'Wesley, come here.' And he
said, 'Let me see your arm.' And he pulls his arm over.
He said, 'You mean it look just like this?' And we're
like, 'Yeah,'" Lisa recalls. "And Wesley yanked his arm
back and went upstairs. Without saying a word."
Even Roxy had doubts.
Officer Hicks had reported what Lisa had said, but no
one connected the dots. "And it was a situation where if
I think if we ignore it, it will go away. That was the
impression that I got," he remembers.
Police had a sketch of a man seen fleeing the
neighborhood after attacking Lisa. Inexplicably, the
police never showed the composite to the victims.
Officer Hicks, at some point, had even made a telltale
notation at the bottom on that composite: he wrote
"Believed to be Wesley Miller." But Hicks says no one
ever questioned Miller.
Then again, Wesley’s friends, and not even his victims,
could imagine he had anything to do with these crimes.
Amy Moody went to Castleberry High with Retha Stratton,
a pal since childhood. The longtime friends graduated in
1981, ready to take on the world. "And we couldn't wait
for that day that we graduated so that we could be on
our own," Amy remembers.
They moved into a small house, blissfully unaware that a
rapist in the area was targeting one-time-cheerleaders,
although they had heard some rumors about the rapes.
Amy and Retha changed the locks on their new place, but
six weeks had passed since Lisa and her neighbor were
raped. Nothing had happened and fears faded.
"Everything got quiet again and that week was the first
time that she had started comin' back home by herself
again," Amy recalls.
But on Jan. 21, 1982, Amy came home only to make a
"She was on the floor. Like maybe he had pushed her in
the closet and the closet door opened so she fell out.
And she was completely bloody. The knife was still, he
had left the knife stickin' in her chest. He had slit
her wrists. Her panties were wadded up in her mouth,"
Fort Worth Police Detective Dennis Timmons was first on
the scene. "You could follow the blood trail easily out
of the living room into the hallway and into Retha's
bedroom, and into the closet, and where her body was
found," he recalls.
Retha had been stabbed 38 times with a kitchen knife.
"She had a look on her face as if to say, you know,
'Vindicate me. I wasn't supposed to die this way.' And
I'll never forget that," Timmons remembers.
It took the detective only five hours to zero in on his
one and only suspect: Wesley Miller.
A neighbor had seen Wesley's pick-up near Retha’s house
at the time of the murder. Police determined that Retha
was killed in the late afternoon, between 5:15 and 5:30
p.m. Shortly after that, Wesley showed up at his
girlfriend Roxy’s house nearby.
"She lets him in the house. He goes to the bathroom, and
she can hear him lock the door. And she said that was
unusual for him to lock the door," Timmons explains.
Even more unusual, Wesley asked Roxy to wash his jeans,
which had blood on them. "He had told her that he had
been playing touch football with some of his friends and
brothers friends and one of the boys had gotten a nose
bleed and bled on them," Timmons tells Spencer.
But after they heard of Retha’s murder, Roxy’s parents
turned the jeans over to the police.
Within 48 hours, police charged 19-year-old Wesley
Miller with the murder of Retha Stratton. At first, he
denied everything. But then, when confronted with the
evidence, he abruptly confessed.
"I said, 'Why did you cut her wrists so bad?' 'Oh, I
wanna make sure she's dead.' And a big light went on in
my brain, then when he told me that," Timmons recalls of
his interview with Miller.
There was no evidence Retha had been raped, but, within
days of his arrest, police matched Wesley’s fingerprint
to one from the unsolved rape case in Saginaw.
Horrified, Lisa and the other victims began putting two
and two together. Miller was suspected of committing
four rapes and one attempted rape, but prosecutors only
charged him with two of the rapes, including the Saginaw
case, while they investigated the others. But their
immediate concern was Retha’s murder. Miller’s trial
began in October, 1982.
"He looked more like a scared 15-year-old kid than … a
savage murderer," remembers Wesley’s attorney, Jack
But Wesley faced the possibility of life in prison; the
trial lasted less than two weeks.
Assistant District Attorney Pam Lakatos wasn’t worried
for a second. After all, Wesley Miller had confessed,
and in fact the jurors took less than an hour to find
They then spent more than twice that time deliberating
his sentence. Since he was only on trial for the murder,
the jury was not allowed to hear anything about the rape
The sentence was a shocker: Miller got just 25 years.
Retha's sister Rona was horrified. "Not even a year for
every time he stabbed her," she remembers.
Apparently, the jury decided Wesley Miller, football
star and “best all around student,” deserved a second
"Did the D.A. assure your family that, 'Okay. You didn't
get the sentence that we thought on the murder. But
there's still these rape charges that we're gonna get
this guy on?'" Spencer asks Rona.
"'We will take him to trial to get additional time,'"
It didn’t happen. Back then, there was no DNA testing
and in the end, prosecutors only went forward with the
most air-tight case, the Saginaw case where police found
his fingerprint. All the other cases, including those
involving the girls from Castleberry High, never went
The decision completely devastated Lisa. "To find out
that they wouldn't make a case out of this. That they
didn't do something," she says.
Not only that, prosecutors agreed to a plea deal – 20
years to be served concurrently with the murder
sentence. Bottom line: Miller got no additional prison
Pam Lakatos acknowledges that decision had enormous
ramifications. "But, I don't think anybody could have
foreseen it back then," she tells Spencer.
Especially not Retha’s grieving family, who would be
devastated to discover how soon Wesley Wayne Miller
would be up for parole.
Miller, sentenced to 25 years for murder, was up for
parole after only two years; his request was denied
before Rona and Lisa even knew about it.
They were only in their 20’s and couldn’t imagine back
then this would become their life’s work, but when they
found out Wesley Miller would now be up for parole every
year, they had to do something.
Rona and Lisa bombarded the parole board with petitions.
"I think we ended up with, probably about 5,000
signatures before we were done," Rona remembers.
The petitions contained information about who Retha was,
and what Wesley Miller had done to her. Rona also
included some of the gruesome crime scene photos.
That worked for awhile, but soon Rona and Lisa had new
problem: Texas, it turned out, had a mandatory release
law, passed to ease prison overcrowding.
With enough credit for good behavior, inmates would be
released early, and by 1991, Wesley Miller qualified.
"Which meant it didn't matter whether they saw that he
wasn't really a good candidate to be released on parole
or not. He was getting out," Lisa remembers.
When the time came, they did manage to make sure he
didn’t get out in River Oaks, then got him banned from
13 other counties. His release finally was to a halfway
house in Houston, 260 miles away. But it wasn't far
enough for Rona and Lisa.
Their protests forced the board to move Miller three
times, finally to Wichita Falls.
His adversaries got there first, remembers District
Attorney Barry Macha. "They just wanted me to know that
that was the kind of individual who was comin' to our
community on parole," he recalls.
Macha filed that away. Then, one summer night about a
year later, a woman named Laura Barnard was startled by
a stranger, running toward her, as she was unloading her
Laura was not hurt and her husband Charlie raced outside
to confront the guy. "I told Laura to go get the keys to
the car. So I run and jump in the car, and we take off
down the street," Chalie remembers.
The stranger headed for his truck. The attacker got
away, but Laura got his license plate number, and wrote
it on her grocery list. The next morning, Charlie, an
attorney, called his pal the District Attorney Barry
The pick-up was registered to a Morris Miller, Wesley’s
father. But after looking at a photo line-up, Charlie
Barnard had no question who was driving. "It took me
three or four seconds to ID him. And I'll never forget
his eyes. He had very piercing, evil eyes," Charlie
The district attorney charged Miller with attempted
assault and even prosecuted the case himself. A guilty
verdict in the Barnard case landed Miller back in prison
for five more years, but in 1998, the same old story
happened and he was released again.
This time, thanks to Rona and Lisa, it wasn’t much of a
release: they got officials to force him to wear a GPS
monitor 24 hours a day, even though he was housed in the
most secure location they possibly could come up with,
the Tarrant County Jail.
Having someone paroled from state prison to a county
jail was a first for Sheriff Dee Anderson.
Anderson says Miller spent 23 hours a day in his cell,
which was "grim by design, grim by necessity."
So grim, Miller even held a press conference claiming he
was being treated unfairly. Not only did his parole
board disagree, it ordered him to take sex offender
counseling, which for Miller was the most unfair
requirement of all. "I refuse because I've never been
convicted of a sex crime," he said in 1998.
True, no jury convicted him, but remember that after his
murder trial, Miller did plead guilty to that one rape,
the one where police found his fingerprint.
Why does Rona think he refused? "That acknowledges that
all those crimes that he thinks he got away with. Like
Lisa's and the rest. That he was never even charged
with. That it associates him back with those," she
Over the years, his steadfast refusal to go to sex
offender classes has cost him dearly, since it always
means returning to prison, where he insists he doesn’t
"I've done whatever's required to do, by law. And I've
done my time. And there's no reason to be afraid of me,"
Miller has said. "I would hope to just be able to get
out and to live a normal life, and spend some time with
Rona and Lisa concede they’ve taken great satisfaction
in thwarting that homecoming. "Knowing that we were the
ones doing this to him. That was sweet. That was the
best thing ever," Lisa says.
But now the clock is ticking – the state soon will have
set him free, with no strings attached, unless his two
adversaries succeed in a last extraordinary move to stop
Wesley Miller’s 25-year sentence was about to end, but
Chief Prosecutor Joey Robertson was determined Miller
wouldn't simply walk out of prison.
"My job is to prove that Wesley Miller is a sexually
violent predator," he explains.
Because if Miller meets that legal definition, the state
can put him under what’s called civil commitment, so
that when he finally is released, he’ll be subject to
the same intense monitoring as the worst sex offenders.
Rona was instrumental in getting this law passed. The
law they helped pass requires two convictions for sex
crimes, before someone can be committed.
Miller’s rape plea counts as one. Now prosecutors must
convince a jury that, even though Retha wasn’t raped,
her murder was a sex crime as well. If they succeed,
Wesley Miller will be the first murderer ever civilly
committed. If they fail, he’ll soon simply walk out of
prison, and they say, strike again.
Miller’s lawyer Bob Mabry refused to discuss his
strategy, and in fact went to extraordinary lengths to
refuse. He even convinced the judge to close the actual
hearing to cameras.
Before it starts, Lisa and Rona take seats just a few
feet from Miller, who certainly knows that they are the
main reason his freedom may be denied.
Wesley Miller never was charged with assaulting Susan
Davis, but she is sure he did it, and has come to face
him for the first time since high school. "When I saw
him, I looked him straight in the eye. And just thought
you know, 'What an awful person you are for all these
things that you've done,'" Susan says.
Robertson argues that Retha’s murder was simply the last
barbaric act of a serial rapist, one who, as the famous
cheerleader photo shows, picked his victims carefully.
But Miller denies it, both in his testimony and in this
earlier deposition, shot by the state.
Retha’s murder, Robertson continues, is the very
definition of a sex crime. Robertson even enlarged the
very gruesome crime scene photos of Retha to show the
jury. "I had to. It's important those are her own
blood-soaked panties that are stuck into her mouth," he
On the stand, Miller admitted that he was sexually
attracted to Retha. Miller claims that he went to
Retha’s house for sex but that when they fought, she
"We argued and it just led to her going to grab for the
knife," he claims.
When it comes to the details of the actual murder,
Miller’s memory fails him; he told the court he couldn't
recall Retha's stabbing.
"I refer to it as a very convenient amnesia," says Dr.
Randall Price, a forensic psychologist hired by the
state to evaluate Wesley Miller. "He can remember the
details. Up until the point that the details become,
those that would add to his culpability. And then, he
Dr. Price says he doesn't buy that story "at all."
"I think he was there to commit a sexual assault on her.
To rape her. And he lost control of the situation," Dr.
Price tells Spencer.
And, Dr. Price says, Wesley wasn’t used to that. "He was
Mr. Castleberry High. He was football star. I think
there was a certain sexual entitlement that he had. That
he thought that he was, you know, in some way entitled
to have sex with the popular cheerleaders of the
school," Price explains.
Asked what he thinks is wrong with Wesley Wayne Miller,
Dr. Price says, "I think he's a psychopath. I think he's
a sexual psychopath."
And how does popular high school football star morph
into a sexual psychopath? Are there clues in his
The oldest of three, his father Morris says he was
athletic, and a good kid. He also idolized his dad, who
worked for the railroad. "I was proud of Wes because he
was a go-getter, and he tried to be number one all the
time," his father explains.
Morris says when he was injured in a terrible train
accident during Wesley’s junior year, Wesley took it
very hard. "I had my right leg cut off. And extensive
brain damage. They say I'm lucky to be even talking to
you right now."
Speaking to prosecutor Joey Robertson, Wesley Miller
told him his father's accident affect his home life
"I knew it mentally, it hurt my son Wes. As much as it
did me, if you know what I mean. It seemed like he cried
a lot," Morris remembers.
The accident also took a toll on the Miller’s marriage.
"It seemed like my family –slowly—started drifting
away," Morris says.
But he has no idea if the resulting family chaos somehow
led to murder. "No matter what he's done, he's still my
son. And I'll love him forever," Morris tells Spencer.
"I feel like Wes has paid his debt to society. I believe
he should get out, not one day more than the 25 year
sentence at the most.
Back at the hearing, the defense argues just that,
bringing in an expert witness, Dr. Jason Dunham, who
tells the court he finds nothing, including those
photos, to prove this was a sexual crime.
Wesley Miller surprisingly agrees with the prosecution
on one thing – his 25 year sentence, he says, was too
light. "It wasn’t fair because I was guilty and it’s a
very bad crime," he said.
And, when prompted, he says he’s sorry for what he did
and asks for forgiveness.
Testimony lasted four days; soon the jury will speak. 25
years ago, sympathetic jurors gave Wesley Miller the
break of his life and this jury could set him free.
The jury is deliberating Wesley Miller’s future and
prosecutor Joey Robertson is tense.
His biggest concern? "The burden that is put on us. To
prove the motivation of a murder that happened 25 years
ago," he tells Spencer.
And he says that with Miller’s sentence about to end,
the stakes are huge. "If Wesley Miller is walking around
unsupervised, Texas is a little more dangerous place to
Pam Lakatos helped prosecute Miller for Retha’s murder
25 years ago, but she is now a defense attorney, and
generally, not happy with civil commitment.
"What do you say to the idea that you know what? This
guy served every minute of what a jury of his peers said
he should. And he has paid his debt to society, leave
him alone?" Spencer asks.
"I would agree with that. I use that argument quite
frequently," Lakatos says.
But not even she hastens to add, when it comes to Wesley
Wayne Miller, "If you were talking to me about somebody
else besides Miller, it'd be different. All right? If I
didn't feel so strongly, it'd be different."
Win or lose, Rona and Lisa say they’re grateful this
trial finally showed the world the real Wesley Miller
and all he did.
"We might not win it, but it was all said in court. It’s
all wrapped up and that’s up to that jury to decide
that," Rona tells Spencer.
And in a little under two hours, the jury had decided.
Anxious to hear the verdict, Lisa and Rona join Susan
Davis in court.
On question one, whether Wesley Miller is a repeat,
violent, sexual offender, jurors ruled "Yes."
And there was more vindication to come for these three
women, whose lives Miller altered forever 25 years ago.
On question two, jurors agreed that Miller suffers from
a behavior abnormality, that makes him likely to engage
in a predatory act of sexual violence.
The ruling states that Miller is a sexual predator and
means that the minute he walks out of prison he’ll be
subject to strict supervision.
While Rona feels relief, Lisa says, "It’s such
validation. He really was there to sexually assault
her…and murder her, and she didn’t ask for that. And I
was raped, and I did know it was him, and now he has to
answer for that."
Susan Davis, too, is enormously relieved. "This whole
week has been hard for me, I mean it’s been, I’ve had to
listen to everything over again—and, this, I feel like I
got some answers."
Through it all, Wesley Miller remains apparently
un-phased; he is fingerprinted and dons prison garb for
his return to prison.
So what is life like under civil commitment?
"When he is released, he'll be released to a half-way
house. He will have GPS monitoring. He will have
required counseling sessions that he's to attend. And
he'll be closely supervised," Robertson explains.
He’ll be monitored 24/7 and have to abide by more than
40 restrictions: no alcohol, no driving a car, random
drug tests and polygraph exams.
Under the new rules, Miller will be re-evaluated every
two years, but one violation, like again refusing sex
offender treatment, and he could be back in prison for
That would be fine with Rona and Lisa.
"Does a day go by when Wesley Wayne Miller doesn't cross
your mind?" Spencer asks.
"No. Not mine," Rona says. "And the sad thing is, the
really sad thing about all of that is maybe a day goes
by that Retha doesn't."
But it is the memory of what happened to Retha Stratton
and all the others that has made this decades-long
struggle worth it.