|A Shot In The
Who Killed The Surgeon's Wife?
"I was a suspect absolutely from day one. Why
would I do it? I didn't have a motive."
(CBS) This story originally aired on Jan. 8, 2005.
Williamsport, Pa., is a small, picturesque town known
around the country for the Little League World Series –
and not much else.
In a town that averages one or two homicides a year,
it's a pleasant place to be a cop. But there is one
all-consuming case that has puzzled investigators in
this sleepy town.
Pennsylvania State Trooper William Holmes and Cpl. John
McDermott and have spent four years trying to solve the
riddle of who killed 47-year-old Miriam Illes, a woman
who didn't seem to have an enemy in the world.
Correspondent Susan Spencer reports in this 48 Hours
Miriam and her husband, heart surgeon Richard Illes,
were once one of Williamsport's most prominent couples.
The Illes, who married in 1991, lived in a spectacular
mansion on a hill.
"We were embraced by the community very nicely. And I
was compensated probably more than I was worth. But
everything was wonderful here in Williamsport for us,"
recalls Illes, who was considered one of the best
doctors in the area.
In the early '90s, Illes met Miriam Zambie while working
as a resident at St. Louis Medical Center. Miriam was a
surgical assistant. Within a few years after they
married, they had a son, Richie, and moved to
Williamsport, where the Illes worked side by side
together. Miriam was active in her community as well,
volunteering at the symphony and at church. She was a
dynamic, exuberant personality who made friends wherever
Despite the money and the status, Miriam's friends say
she was very down to earth. "They were one of the
wealthiest people in Williamsport, if not the
wealthiest," says Dottie Bailey. "Miriam drove a green
van. Miriam went to the dollar store," adds Karen Young.
"You wouldn't think, 'Wow, that's a doctor's wife."
Miriam decided to become a stay-at-home mom when Richie
was 2. She quit her job and never looked back. "She was
a wonderful mother," says Illes. "I couldn’t have hoped
for anyone better than her to take care of my son."
But Miriam’s friends, who say they rarely saw the
doctor, had the impression that he was becoming
increasingly distant and demanding.
"Miriam was controlled by her husband," says Leslie
Smith, who saw a marriage under serious strain. "He
wanted his dinner at a certain time. He wanted his house
perfect. If she didn’t please him, she paid a price."
Friends say Illes' emotional distance made Miriam
miserable. And in the winter of 1998, she hired a
divorce attorney, Steven Hurvitz, even though she seemed
to not really want a divorce.
At the same time, friends say Miriam was growing
suspicious. "She had the feeling that her husband was
having an affair because she really highly suspected the
way he was acting that something was going on," says
Miriam and her lawyer soon discovered that Illes was
involved with his assistant, Katherine Swoyer, whom
Miriam had hired. Their relationship became a scandal at
Illes, however, remembers those days fondly. "I had a
pretty perfect life there for a little while. I had a
girlfriend who I loved. And we had a great time," he
says. "I had a beautiful son who was being taken care of
by his mother, who was the best mother in the world.
There’s no doubt about that, everyone will tell you
that. And I had my freedom."
Miriam moved out with her 5-year-old son, Richie. Her
friends say she would have reconciled, but that Illes
wasn't interested in rebuilding the relationship.
"I wasn't interested in the beginning," admits Illes.
"But as time went on, the thoughts occurred in my mind.
You don’t talk about them, of course, because your
girlfriend that you’re having a relationship with
certainly isn't going to appreciate those thoughts."
A reconciliation, however, would never happen. Because
on the night of Jan. 15, 1999, Miriam was found murdered
in her own home.
sisters, Romaine and Sue, had spoken to Miriam
the night of the murder.
Romaine says Miriam was pleased that Illes'
girlfriend wasn’t going to be around for a few
days: "She's away and perhaps he's going to see
this is not what he wants. He wants to be back
with his family."
In their call, Miriam said Richie had just left with his
father for a weekend visit with Illes' sister – who
lived three hours south of Williamsport. But when Miriam
failed to show up to teach Sunday school, worried
neighbors checked the house, looked through the kitchen
window and, horrified at what they saw, called police.
"The residence was locked and we had to kick in the
door. And Miriam was lying on the kitchen floor,"
recalls Holmes. "There was a cordless phone very close
to her as she lay on the floor."
Miriam had been shot once through the heart. Within
hours of the discovery of his wife’s body, Illes arrived
to drop off his son after their weekend out of town.
"Two policemen came out, and they said, 'Who are you,'
and I told them," recalls Illes. "They said, 'She was
killed.' And I said, 'Oh, my God,' and I said, 'How was
she killed?' And they said she was shot."
The police remember it slightly differently. "Certainly
one of his first questions was 'What evidence was
found,'" says Holmes. "It was interesting to us at that
point that he would ask that question."
But investigators were too busy to think much of it
then, because they were awash in evidence. They found a
cigarette butt behind the house, what appeared to be a
homemade silencer for a rifle, and footprints in the
snow from a size 14 basketball shoe.
The initial working theory was that a sniper, with
weapon in hand, snuck along a drainage ditch to enter
the property from the back. Stopping near the spot where
the cigarette butt was found, approximately 70 feet from
the house, the killer had one shot in the dark – through
the only window with open blinds. Then, the killer ran
away, discarding the silencer along the way.
What turned out to be one of the best clues was found
next to Miriam’s body. Phone records showed she’d been
talking with a friend in Montana, and the friend
remembered being puzzled when their conversation ended
abruptly. It was exactly 10:37 p.m.
District Attorney Michael Dinges says that without that
call, investigators never could have pinpointed the
exact time of death: "It's my belief that the killer
didn't know she was on the phone. And it was one of the
fatal mistakes in this case, on the killer's behalf."
But knowing when the shot was fired still didn't tell
police who fired it. "I was a suspect absolutely from
day one," says Illes, even though he had a solid alibi
for the weekend. "Why would I do it? I didn't have a
Investigators, however, saw an excellent motive, and
they think that money had a lot to do with it. The
couple hadn’t yet begun to split up property, but
already a judge had ordered Illes to pay Miriam $13,000
a month in child support.
Illes insists that, given his income, this was no big
deal: "There's plenty of money to go around. My
lifestyle wasn’t cramped."
"He was going to lose this divorce," says Holmes. "He
had already lost money, and was certainly going to lose
more. He may lose custody of this son."
"This is a guy who spent his life as a heart surgeon,"
adds Dinges. "He was always in control. In this
separation, he was no longer in control. … He had lost
control of Miriam and of his finances."
Did Illes kill Miriam? "Of course not," he says. "And I
have no idea who did."
(CBS) Illes told
investigators that he had been on the road with Richie
when Miriam was killed. Investigators videotaped and
timed the route under good and bad weather conditions.
"The numbers just don't seem to add up as far as the
distance he traveled and the time that it would've taken
him to travel," says Holmes.
Key was a stop at McDonalds, 35 miles from the crime
scene. Witnesses saw Illes there, but were vague as to
when. Then, Holmes said Illes' story, about where he was
when his wife was killed, changed.
One person, the Illes' son Richie, may know the truth
for sure. But it would take two years before he would be
interviewed. "The problem there was that he was afraid
of the police," says Illes.
When Illes finally did let Richie talk, the boy had
little to say, and Dinges thinks he knows why. "Dr.
Illes, as the physician, it would have been easy for him
to get access to narcotics or something -- any kinda
drug that could put a five-year-old to sleep."
But speculation isn’t evidence, and the evidence wasn’t
adding up to much. The cigarette butt and three hairs
found in the silencer were sent off for DNA analysis.
But one of the earliest real leads came from Miriam, who
made a video inventory of household possessions, as do
many people during a divorce.
Police took special note of Illes' workshop. "He had
drill presses," says Dinges. "He had saws, that he had
grinding material. He had all the types of woodworking
equipment that would of been necessary to construct this
"Oh yeah, I could have made it [the silencer]. But I
would have made a silencer that was good," says Illes.
"That silencer that they found is very amateurish."
Armed with a search warrant, police found traces of
material in his workshop to make even an amateurish
silencer. Police also took their own pictures in Illes’
house. On his nightstand, Dinges says they found a book
titled "They Wrote Their Own Sentences. The FBI
Handwriting Analysis Book."
It was a strange book for a doctor to have, but the case
got a lot stranger when the anonymous letters began. The
first letter was sent to Illes' attorney, and it
proclaimed that the writer, not Illes, had killed Miriam
because she was a racist. It was signed "Soldier of God,
Soldier of Equality, Soldier of Death."
But Dinges was still suspicious: "The anonymous letter
shows up. … It's postmarked four days after Illes finds
out what we took from his house. It's a huge
The letter was also written just as the book on Illes'
nightstand had recommended – in pencil. "Unlike ink, you
can't track pencil," adds Dinges. "And you write in
block printing so it can't be tied to your other
In May 1999, four months after the murder, a second
letter arrived. This time, the author talked about
himself. It fit the description of Illes' partner, Dr.
Nche Zama. "I was shocked," says Zama.
Dinges, however, said Zama had an ironclad alibi, and
since he was a very good friend of Miriam's, he had
absolutely no motive.
"I think that it's probably just some nut," says Illes.
But the police thought it was someone who was
methodically leaving false clues. In fact, the last
anonymous letter arrived with another hair stuck in the
envelope flap. Search warrants had allowed the police to
take a sample of Illes’ DNA and by now, they had a lot
to compare it to.
"The DNA from the cigarette doesn’t match the hair in
the silencer. None of the hairs in the silencer match
each other. They all come from different people and the
hair in the anonymous letter comes from somebody else,"
says Dinges. "So we’ve got five sources of people that
supposedly were involved in this crime and none of them
are Dr. Illes. It led us to the conclusion that there
was clearly a planting of evidence."
However, investigators got a break in the summer of
(CBS) Fisherman Matt
McKay was walking 40 feet from a road just off the route
Illes said he drove that night. "I didn't notice the gun
first. I had tripped over it and thought it was
driftwood," recalls McKay. "But I looked down and
driftwood doesn't have a scope. So I took a second look,
and it looked like a rifle."
"There's no doubt this is the murder weapon," says
Dinges, of the loaded rifle with a sawed off barrel and
stock. It was a rare savage 23D rifle, its serial number
obliterated. The gun was last sold in 1949, before
records even were kept.
Investigators needed to tie the rifle to Illes, who had
a long history with guns. By fall of 1999, Dinges was
sure Illes had used his hunting skills to shoot his
Nearly a year after the rifle was found, investigators
stumbled on a photo of Illes' late godfather, Joe
Kowalski, who had taught him to hunt and had left him
many of his guns. They showed him a photo Kowalski
holding a groundhog in one hand and a bolt-action rifle
in the other.
The rifle looked just like the murder weapon. And it was
the biggest break in the case so far. "When I saw that
photograph, I knew that we definitely had the right
guy," says Dinges.
Two months later, police discovered basketball shoes in
the woods -- same as the footprints at the crime scene.
They were found very near where the gun was spotted.
"The killer chooses to discard the murder weapon and the
shoes a quarter of a mile from the route that Dr. Illes
says he took that night," says Dinges. "It’s a huge
coincidence. A huge piece of evidence here."
But still, the DA felt there was not enough evidence to
charge Illes, who was married to his girlfriend six
months after Miriam's murder. In November 2000, he hit
the road, and headed to Laredo, Texas, for a job as a
heart surgeon in a hospital very close to the Mexican
border. Was Illes planning to make an exit?
"If I was on the run, I wouldn’t be in the United
States," says Illes. "I’d be in south Mexico in a villa
somewhere. But I didn’t want to give the impression to
anybody that I was guilty of anything."
But the job didn’t work out and Illes soon left for
Spokane, Wash., where he applied for a position at a
heart surgery practice. Administrator Cathy Austin says
she received a mysterious anonymous package stuffed with
newspaper articles – and a letter warning anyone to
think twice about hiring Illes.
"I realized that wherever he went, that packet followed.
Many institutions received that packet," says Austin.
Ultimately, he was turned down.
In time, Illes' new wife divorced him, too, and the
once-prominent heart surgeon dropped from sight, only to
resurface in the Spokane newspaper, with a completely
new career – cosmetic surgery.
But newspaper reporter Carla Johnson says she also
received the anonymous package. "There was a suspicion
that maybe some of Miriam's family was tracking him and
just letting people know in a friendly way what was
going on. But I don't know that for sure."
Meanwhile, Spokane police were watching the doctor's
house, day and night, and keeping tabs at the request of
Pennsylvania investigators, who finally decided in
December 2002 that they had enough circumstantial
evidence to prosecute Illes.
Holmes and McDermott flew to Spokane for the arrest. The
stakes were high. "Four years of work," says McDermott.
"We wanted to be there when he's finally taken into
The plan was for plainclothes detectives to quickly nab
Illes at his office. But it didn't work out that way.
While Holmes and McDermott waited nervously at the
sheriff’s department, Illes eluded his pursuers.
Luckily, he was spotted again and officers followed him
to the freeway. Illes headed right into the heart of
downtown Spokane, where he suddenly pulled over.
"This is our last shot," recalls Holmes. "We have to get
(CBS) After four long years, it was finally over. Illes
was sent back to Williamsport and charged with Miriam's
At Illes' trial, Dinges argued that Illes killed his
wife to avoid a messy divorce, in which he might well
lose both his fortune and his son.
But Illes says the evidence clearly points to someone
else. "The murderer had size 14 shoes. I wear a size
9.5. They found DNA on a cigarette butt that only the
killer could have left there," he says. "If you're the
murderer, you don't want to leave a silencer behind that
has evidence. You don't want to leave evidence in
letters that can be traced to you. I'm enough of a
scientist to know that."
Illes also says he never saw the gun. However, when
police searched Illes' home in Spokane, they found a
manuscript on his computer. The title was "Heart Shot:
Murder Of The Doctor's Wife." Even the characters had
the same names as those in the real murder
"He thought he got away with a perfect crime, and this
was almost his way of venting," says Dinges. "It's a
Why would he write the book from the killer's
perspective? "I thought it would generate more interest
and more widespread knowledge of the actual facts of the
case, which were not being disseminated by the police.
That was my motive," says Illes.
Illes never took the stand. And after a five-week trial,
the jury began its deliberations. Then, after 2.5 days,
the jury found Illes guilty of murder in the first
degree. For the investigators, it’s justice five years
in the making.
Illes never wrote the final chapter in his book. But in
the real world, a judge wrote it for him:– life in
"Dr. Illes was a brilliant guy. There's no doubt about
it. He's smarter then me," says Dinges. "He's probably
smarter then any of the individual police officers. But
he's not smarter than all of us together."
A week after his conviction, Richard Illes attempted
suicide by gouging his wrist with a paper clip.
Illes has exhausted his appeals and is seeking a new
trial claiming ineffective counsel.
Illes’ son Richie, now 13, lives with relatives. He
hasn’t seen his father in more than two years.