Death in the Desert:

The Debra Milke Story


Ingo Hasselbach

"Welcome to the Canyon State," reads the sign as we drive over the California state line into Arizona. The West is at its wildest here, the landscape at its most inhospitable. Arizona is the state of the Grand Canyon, bare cacti, cliffs of red rock, rattlesnakes and heavy smokers (or at least for the cigarette ad makers) ... and for fans of the death penalty.

Traveling to Arizona on business is not always pleasant, especially if your business is journalism and your assignment is to do a piece on the death penalty. Right away we notice the green interstate signs, an indication that a prison is near: "Don't stop for hitchhikers." There are lots of prisons in Arizona and lots of signs like these, but never any hitchhikers.

There is a prison in Goodyear, too, a dusty town west of Phoenix. We reach it via Interstate 10. The facilities, visible from a distance, are doused in pale floodlight -- the Arizona State Prison in Perryville. "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World" by Neil Young is playing on the radio, but Perryville marks the end of the free world. Here you're either guarding the complex or locked up inside.

Take Debra ("Debbie") Jean Milke. Her life can be summed up in a few lines that might go something like this: born in Berlin in 1963, raised in Phoenix, Arizona, died in Florence, Arizona in 1999. Cause of death: lethal injection.  Debbie Milke, 34, has been on death row for nine years -- on a highway that now only has one exit: the execution chamber.

Debbie Milke is something of an exotic creature in Arizona. She is the only female inmate on death row in Perryville and the only woman now awaiting execution in Arizona. She will be the second woman ever to be killed in the history of the state. She is also the prestige project of former district attorney Grant Woods and, if one is to believe the "Arizona Republic," the state's largest daily, she is the most hideous monster in the country: a cold-blooded child killer who had her four-year-old son "executed" for a measly 5,000 dollars from an insurance policy. In Arizona, people want to see this woman strapped to the execution table -- so say the gas station attendant and the sheriff. So say the politicians too -- and many wouldn't mind administering the injection themselves.

Not that child killers are rare in Arizona. Just about every month the media report on some "valley woman" who has gone wild, murdering and cutting up her children. None end up on death row. But that's a whole different story.

One's first impulse when driving by Perryville Prison is to accelerate. A lot of locals would like to do the same and speed right out of town. The cheapest motel here is a Best Western with inflated rates. Late in the evening, in the bar, the friendly waitress wants to know what we're doing in Goodyear.  "Writing a story about Debbie Milke," we answer. The atmosphere suddenly becomes frosty despite the sweltering heat. "But the weather sure is nice, isn't it?" she remarks before leaving us to our drinks.

Debbie Milke's story is that of a young woman caught in a spiral of love, disappointment, hatred and drug abuse. It started out harmoniously enough in the "GI" district of Zehlendorf in Berlin. Debbie's German mother, Renate, fell in love with the American soldier, Richard "Sam" Sadeik. They married and had a daughter who spent her childhood in the divided city, sheltered by the occupying forces. In her letters from prison, Debbie recalls her German grandparents in Tempelhof, the forests around Krumme Lanke Lake as well as strolls down the Ku'damm and visits to the Berlin Zoo. If she's ever allowed to lead a normal life again, it'll be in Berlin ... "please!"

Next, Sam Sadeik is transferred back to the USA, to Phoenix, Arizona. Here, Debbie's sister is born. Both parents work as ground personnel at Luke Air Force Base in Goodyear, located directly behind Perryville Prison. Renate looks after German star-fighter pilots who are stationed at the base for training. The world is still intact.

Today, as we drive along Lichtfield Road to visit Debbie's mother, Renate Janka, Air Force jets still thunder over the prison complex. Renate has been back in Goodyear for more than a year now, living just a few hundred yards from the cell where her daughter awaits execution. Debbie doesn't like having visitors -- she has to sit in a cage and undergo a strip search in front of the male guards. So mother and daughter talk on the phone for about five minutes each week. Renate Janka spends the rest of her time fighting to have her daughter's case reopened, writing letters, briefing lawyers, preparing interviews and keeping the international community of supporters up-to-date via internet. She's in touch with "Spiegel" magazine, ZDF (German Television 2), Amnesty International and donations committees. Perhaps it is her uneasy conscience that drives Mrs. Janka to continue the almost futile battle with Arizona's legal system, for she left her daughter alone in the United States many years ago...

The Sadeik's marriage is over. The dream GI is now an alcoholic, a cynic and a family tyrant. "No one leaves Sam Sadeik," he tells his wife when she files for divorce. "One day you'll pay for this." Renate doesn't take him seriously. Years later she'll find out just what she will pay.

First she moves to a new apartment with her two nearly grown up daughters.  The girls have never had much in common. Debbie is good at school, her sister isn't. Debbie is attached to her mother, Sandy favors their father. As a result, there are many family fights. When Sandy steals and forges her mother's checks, Renate Janka, at the end of her tether, sends Sandy back to Sam Sadeik. In the meantime he's gotten a job as a prison guard in Florence, one of the toughest prisons in Arizona. It is in Florence that the desert state's executions take place.

Renate Janka then meets a new man, a German, and returns to Europe with him.  Debbie stays in Phoenix. She is 19, single and has no contact with her family. A love-hate relationship connects her with her sister, grief with her mother: "I never understood why she left me. Sure, I was old enough to take care of myself. But in my gut there was a feeling of loss and emptiness."  It is about this time that Debbie Milke falls in with a fateful circle of friends, a circle of drug addicts and dangerous psychopaths.

It's December 2, 1989. A man is in a shopping mall, trying to explain to the police that he's lost a young boy -- Christopher Milke, aged four, dressed in jeans and a yellow sweatshirt with a green triceratops embroidered on the front.

James Lynn Styers is the man's name. He explains that he's come shopping with a friend and the boy to get some pictures of Santa Claus. Christopher was excited. He wanted to shake Santa's hand. Then, suddenly, he disappeared.

The officer is suspicious. Styers seems unfocused and nervous. There are contradictions in what he says about times and places, so the officer takes him in to be questioned. A little later the police also question his friend, Roger Scott. The detective in charge is Armando Saldate, an ambitious Hispanic-American with a brutal demeanor and bullish face. Shortly before his
retirement, Saldate senses a spectacular case.

Drug addict Roger Scott is the first to break down after two hours of questioning. He admits that, instead of going to see Santa, he and Styers drove out to the desert with little Christopher to 99th Street, north of Happy Valley Road, to a place where you'd sooner stumble over rattlesnakes than St. Nick. What followed was a true execution. Scott states that Styers took the child to a dried-out river bed. Shortly afterward Scott heard three shots. Styers returned, saying, "That small bastard won't be getting on my nerves any longer."

In confused words, Scott tells the detective one other detail: Debbie Milke, Styers' roommate, put them up to the crime. "What did she say, as far as you can remember?" asks Saldate.

"That she wanted to get rid of him, that she wasn't born for motherhood and that we should take care of it," answers Scott.

Next, Scott leads the policemen to the spot in the desert he described.  There the police make a gruesome find.

Saldate tells his superiors of the murder and says he wants to question an additional suspect, Debbie Milke. He is told to use a tape recorder because of the importance of Debbie's statement. Saldate ignores these instructions and flies to Florence just as the media are jumping on the story. There, Debbie has been waiting with her father, Sam Sadeik, for word of Christopher.  Earlier, she was at home sitting by the phone, her mood swinging from hysterical worry to dull agony, but her stepmother persuaded her to drive to Florence.

When Saldate arrives at the police department, he storms into the medicine room where Debbie is being kept. He sends everybody out and pulls a chair within inches of his suspect. He begins the questioning with the words: "Your son was found in the desert, shot to death. And you're charged with murder."

"What, what?!" screams Debbie Milke -- though without a single tear, according to Saldate's later testimony.

"I won't put up with your hysterics," says Saldate. "I'm here to find out the truth."

Debbie is subjected to a half-hour round of questioning that according to Saldate leads to a full confession and to this day is the sole piece of evidence supporting the murder charge. Yet the confession is not recorded on tape, there are no witnesses and Debbie Milke has signed nothing.  The notes Saldate claims to have made during his interrogation of Debbie don't exist either. Later he will explain to the court that he threw them away. Instead, he presents ten pages of notes dated December 6, 1989, made from memory. According to these, Debbie confessed to getting the two men to murder her son and described in detail her relationship with her family, the child's father, Mark, her stepparents, her mother and God. She also explained her motive for the crime: "I didn't want Christopher to grow up like his father." All this in thirty minutes, punctuated by bouts of hysterical crying! Impossible, claim Renate Janka's lawyers.

After questioning, Debbie Milke is taken to jail. She is not allowed to make phone calls or receive visitors. Debbie is despondent but clueless. She still believes she is only there because she neglected her parental duties. Only after a few days does her court-assigned lawyer inform her that she has been charged with killing her son. Only then does she learn of her alleged "confession."

Arizona is up in arms. The district attorney and politicians call for the death penalty. The media are rubbing their hands over "the crime of the 1980s" and dissecting the "Santa Claus Case."

Later the entire Sadeik clan will form a unified front against Debbie in court -- sister Sandy, father Sam and his second wife, Maureen, as well as Debbie's stepsister, Karen Smith, ex-husband Mark Milke and her former best friend, Dorothy Markwell. They will portray Debbie Milke in separate testimony as a monster mother who beat her son, a hedonist and alcoholic, a resentful wife who begrudged her husband his role as father, the devil incarnate. "If she were pregnant again, she would kill the child again,” says Sam Sadeik. And then they will unanimously demand the death penalty for Debra.

It is the complete moral bankruptcy of a family, of her family, that makes Renate Janka's blood run cold. She used to believe in the Arizona legal system and in her daughter's "confession." Maybe shame kept her in Germany, or perhaps the fear of having to see her daughter alone in the dock, the fear of having to look her daughter in the eye.

A cry for help wakes Renate. From prison, Debbie sends a desperate letter to the only person she still trusts: "Grandma and Grandpa," she writes in broken German on the cover, "is not true. For my mother and Alex. Please, Grandma!! Please!!" By then she has already been sentenced to death.

Renate flies to Arizona and fights to have the case reopened with new lawyers and new evidence. But first she must grasp what has happened in her absence.

After her mother leaves, Debbie tries out her newfound independence and her life soon becomes a walk on the wild side. She meets carpet-layer Mark Milke in a biker bar. He is an unstable character, a good-looking but unpredictable drug addict. Debbie falls in love with him, they marry and she becomes pregnant. "I thought that if I had a child, I wouldn't feel so lonely and empty. And I thought that it would give Mark the strength that we all needed so badly." She is wrong. During her pregnancy Mark is thrown into prison for drug possession. Once released, he spends his time in bars or shooting rattlesnakes out in the desert. Debbie works, sometimes holding down two 
jobs to make ends meet. Little Christopher is often with Sandy, who, as a homemaker, has time to care for the boy. She asks Debbie to let her adopt him, but Debbie refuses, hoping Mark Milke will eventually become a responsible father. With these hopes dashed, she finally files for divorce in

Mark turns out to be like Sam Sadeik. He can't accept the divorce. He beats up Debbie and threatens to kidnap the child. One day he steals her car keys and shouts, "Take your lousy brat and get the hell out of my life."

Debbie flees with Christopher to James Styers, one of Sandy's former boyfriends. At first glance, Styers is the exact opposite of Mark -- inconspicuous, reticent, almost shy. He attends church regularly, studies the bible and takes care of the neighbors' children as well as a daughter from
his first marriage.

Slowly Debbie recognizes that her solicitous new roommate is a sick psychopath haunted by terrible ghosts. As a Vietnam soldier, Styers took part in massacring civilians, including women and children. He once shot an eight-year-old, unarmed Vietnamese boy who was trying to climb onto the bed of his military truck. "Self-defense" was how he justified the killing before an military commission.

These victims won't leave Styers alone. After his discharge from the army, he has nightmares. He incurs serious head injuries from a fall and must receive regular medical treatment. He is given lithium and navane. According to tests, he has an IQ of 84, well below average.

Debbie's living arrangement with Styers becomes a nightmare for her. She discovers weapons and ammunition under tables and in closets. She must put up with Styers' friend, Roger Scott, a sick junkie who suffers from paranoid delusions. Scott is as devoted to the Vietnam veteran as a loyal dog. He sees Styers as the great "Alpha Wolf."

Sensing that Styers not only wants to share the apartment with her, but her bed as well, Debbie secretly rents a second apartment. Once she signs the lease, she tells Styers she is moving out. It's Thanksgiving. For Styers, a world collapses.

No one knows what this Vietnam vet, who conceals his demons behind a pious facade, really feels for Debbie. Is he a man like Sadeik or Mark Milke who cannot accept a separation? Is he hoping she will stay with him if he destroys the last tie to her ex-husband? On death row, the child killer unburdens his heart. In a letter to Debbie at Perryville Prison, he confesses his love for her and quotes the Bible, Psalm 51: "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest."

A few days after Debbie talks with Styers about moving out, Christopher begs to go see Santa Claus, and Styers offers to take him to the mall. Debbie agrees, and Christopher puts on his favorite clothes. Styers picks up Scott and all three stop at Peter Piper Pizza, where the boy eats his last meal.  Debbie is at home doing her chores, ironing, chatting with the neighbors.
Styers and Scott take Christopher out to the desert. In their car is a snub-nosed 22 caliber revolver.

The police never find out who fired the shots or what weapon was used. The bullets are too deformed to be traced. Thus, both Styers and Scott are sentenced to death and even Debbie finds herself on trial for murder, although there is not a single scrap of evidence for her complicity. There is only a single police officer's assertion and a confession that is not taped, not witnessed by a third party nor signed by the suspect. Saldate is still proud of this confession today.

The motive ascribed to Debbie is greed. The prosecutor claims she was after 5,000 dollars from a life insurance policy. But Debbie didn't sign the contract. Her employer, an insurance company, signed it as part of her usual social-welfare benefits. Monthly premium: two dollars.

Judge Cheryl Hendricks later rejects all evidence in Debbie's favor: psychiatric reports, a lie-detector test, testimony by neighbors and coworkers who describe Debbie as a solicitous mother, the contradictions in Saldate's questioning of Roger Scott, and even Styers' assertions that Debbie had nothing to do with the murder. "It's very difficult to fool a group of observers twenty-four hours a day for fourteen months," says Dr. Bunuel, director of the prison psychiatric services. "As time passed, the whole team came to believe in Debbie's innocence, and it was a shock when she was convicted."

None of this interests the judge or the district attorney. When no substantial evidence is found, they have the entire Sadeik clan testify in court. When even this proves ineffective and there is the risk of a hung jury, Judge Hendricks -- in violation of courtroom procedure -- sends a tape
into the room where the jury is deliberating. It is evidence that was not used in the trial.

The tape is of the questioning of Debbie's sister, Sandy Pickinpaugh.  Despite his usual forgetfulness, Saldate made a point of recording Sandy. On the tape, Sandy, a jealous, embittered woman, describes her sister as cold and unemotional. The district attorney regarded the tape as insufficient for use in court, but now it helps the jurors reach a verdict: "Guilty on all counts." The public breathes a sigh of relief and the *New Times* runs the headline: "Hi, my name is Debbie Milke. I'm on death row for killing my little boy." Welcome to the prison state of Arizona!

Nine years have now passed; six appeals have failed. They kept landing on the desk of the same judge, Cheryl Hendricks, until she was transferred due to other complaints. Renate Janka has collected mountains of files, including revelations about Saldate's previous life: in 25 (!) cases, the court found fault with his interrogation records, which had apparently been  manipulated.  In the case of Debbie Milke, no one raised any objections. On the contrary,
based on his newfound popularity, Saldate was elected to the office of county constable, a kind of justice of the peace. Even Sam Sadeik called Saldate a "liar," though that was later, when Sadeik, on his death bed, also expressed regret about his courtroom testimony.

At the beginning of 1998, Debbie's time had come. An execution date was set for January 29. Debbie was allowed to choose between the gas chamber and lethal injection but, unlike the LaGrand brothers, she chose injection. She was given a so-called dry run: her veins were marked and her reaction was recorded on video. Shortly before the actual date, Debbie received another postponement so her case could be reviewed again. 

All opportunities for appeal have now been exhausted. Debbie's lawyer, Anders Rosenquist, sees only one way to prevent her execution. A state court is now looking into the trial using the writ of habeas corpus. Facts don't count, nor pieces of evidence, only the question of whether or not Debbie's human rights were violated in the trial. If the court rules in her favor, the verdict will be overturned and a new trial will be scheduled. Judge Broomfield is regarded as a fair, level-headed man. But the country wants a lynching.

"I have no scruples whatsoever about asking the state to proceed with the execution," Randall Howe, the assistant to the district attorney, recently said. "She killed her four-year-old son at Christmas time. A pardon would cause a public outcry. She has little sympathy here."

We drive to Florence, to Debbie's last home. A friendly police officer shows us the way to the execution building. We're only allowed to take pictures from a distance of 400 meters, but even here an FBI agent comes over and wants to confiscate our camera.

In the prison outlet store we can buy souvenirs, prison clothes, metal bowls and T-shirts printed with "I survived the Arizona State Prison."

We talk to Debbie several times on the phone although prison spokesman Michael Arra warns us: "Debbie is very wishy-washy. She doesn't speak with everyone." We don't tell him we've been corresponding with Debbie for a while now and have also exchanged tapes.

Debbie's mood alternates between hope and despair. She talks about her daily routine, about the occasional visits to the courtyard in chains and in a cage, about small vices like smoking, the curses she must endure from her fellow inmates. A talk lasts ten minutes, maybe half an hour if we're lucky.

The internet is the new battleground for the "Debbie wars." Renate Janka, with Berlin web-master "Frankie," has created a home-page with a guest book, but in addition to the email left by supporters, people post the vilest curses. A former juror from the trial who uses the anonymous code name "Juror," has spearheaded a counter-movement by starting a Debbie Milke hate-page. Not only does it attract notorious advocates of the death penalty, but the usual suspects as well: Debbie's sister, Sandy, Mark Milke and a few scattered members of the Sadeik clan. Hackers keep trying to crack the page of their adversaries and Sandy once again is able to demand "just" punishment for her sister, this time on the internet.

A Harvard study, just published, has documented over 100 executions in which the alleged criminals were later proved to be innocent. A government study even goes so far as to assume that every sixth death-penalty case contains errors. A group of journalism students who recently took part in a practical law course, saved a man from the executioner with their investigative work.  But in this vast country, public opinion still holds that it's better to execute three innocent people than to let ten guilty people go free.

Fortunately, there are other voices. One of Arizona's largest magazines, the *Phoenix,* published a long article about half a year ago re-examining the case. Their thoughtful conclusion: "Should we really execute a prisoner based on the unsubstantiated testimony of a single police officer? Are these the rules by which we judge life and death in Arizona? In such a confused case we need certainty. We need a signature, a witness and a tape recorder." How true -- but wouldn't it be a whole lot easier if in Arizona it wasn't a question of life or death?

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