Agencies seen as the real bad guys in '93 death case

Rex Dalton

30-Mar-1998 Monday

EL CENTRO -- After deliberating just 15 minutes last October, an Imperial County jury acquitted a former sheriff's deputy of killing his pregnant wife and rebuked the county's law-enforcement agencies.

"This case should never have come to trial," jury foreman Frank Case said, reading a statement that lambasted authorities for "unprofessional performance."

Originally deemed an accident, the death of Kristi M. Miller in 1993 became a homicide five months later largely because of a medical opinion by top physicians in the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office, who have a contract to perform autopsies for Imperial County.

But her husband, Jeffrey P. Miller, wasn't charged and arrested in the case until more than three years later. He was accused of bludgeoning his wife to death and blaming the death on an attack by a cow.

Miller's supporters say the murder charge was a politically motivated vendetta. They say the Imperial County Sheriff's Office needed a scapegoat after being criticized for poor management. Sheriff Oren R. Fox adamantly disagrees, saying the charge was valid.

On March 17, another chapter in Miller's story came to a close. Although the jury found Miller not guilty in October, Imperial County Judge Christopher W. Yeager issued a rare order that declared Miller innocent. That means the murder charge will be removed from public records. The Imperial County District Attorney's Office opposed the declaration.

The murder charge and Miller's speedy acquittal focus attention on the performance of the key physicians in the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office, who rule on homicides, accidents, suicides and unusual deaths.

Critical decision

Dr. Christopher I. Swalwell -- in consultation with his boss, San Diego County Medical Examiner Dr. Brian D. Blackbourne, and the department's chief deputy, Dr. Harry J. Bonnell -- made the crucial decision to convert the cause of death from accident to homicide.

Initially, after Kristi Miller's body was found on the night of Aug. 23, 1993, in a pasture behind her home in the city of Imperial, Swalwell ruled the 28-year-old woman had died accidentally from numerous head wounds apparently inflicted by an ornery cow.

But five months later, the pathologist formally changed his opinion, calling the death a homicide.

Jeffrey Miller's attorney, Everett L. Bobbitt of San Diego, is blunt in his assessment of the Medical Examiner Office's role.

"They were incompetent," Bobbitt said. "They didn't spend the necessary time to determine what happened. Only after political pressure did they change their minds. They gave him (the sheriff) the opinion he wanted."

Blackbourne said, "That is absolutely not right. I don't think this has any effect on the Medical Examiner's Office."

Swalwell did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Fox, Imperial County's longtime sheriff, continues to believe in a theory that was offered in court during the trial: that Jeffrey Miller killed his pregnant wife -- beating her with an angle iron or a 2-by-4 so that he would get life insurance money and the freedom to be with a mistress.

Of the jury verdict, Fox, who is retiring this spring after more than 20 years in office, said:

"Those things happen. The jury was not aware of all the facts. We knew we would take a hit on the medical examiner changing his opinion. But we felt strongly that we had to go to court."

Miller, 34, has since moved to Yuma, where he has started a fencing company and is raising his 7-year-old son.

"It has been a nightmare, to say the least," he said of his experiences in the last few years.

Bloody encounter

Kristi Miller, who was an emergency medical technician, was pronounced dead about 11:30 p.m. Aug. 23, 1993, at El Centro Medical Center.

That night, her husband said, he went out to herd some cattle from a pasture into a night holding pen behind a garage. He heard a scream, ran around the barn and found his wife unconscious on the ground. He said a rogue cow was nearby with blood on its head and horns. He said he didn't know why his wife -- then 17 weeks pregnant -- had left the house.

Miller said he ran to the house to call emergency personnel, who arrived quickly, along with a patrolling deputy. Neighbors heard the commotion, too, but no one saw Miller do anything unusual that night.

Subsequent tests by sheriff's coroner personnel showed blood was on the cow's head, officials said, but the blood wasn't saved to determine if it was human.

At trial, another sheriff's deputy testified that the cow -- raised in the mountains east of San Diego -- was known for wildness and charging.

Not long after Kristi Miller's death, the cow died in an accident when it bolted out of a pen on the way to the slaughterhouse.

What kind of wounds?

Last May, during the preliminary hearing against Miller, the full extent of medical difficulties in the case became known publicly.

Under cross-examination by Bobbitt, Swalwell testified he had never examined anyone who might have been trampled by cattle. He also said he had little knowledge of cattle and didn't know what their hooves looked like.

"He didn't know what a cow hoof looked like, but he was ready to give the opinion that a hoof didn't cause the injuries," Bobbitt said. "It was absurd."

During the two-week trial, Bobbitt took a preserved cow hoof and showed how it could fit pictures of some of the wounds on Kristi Miller's head.

Blackbourne added testimony to Swalwell's that they believed the wounds were caused by blows to the head, possibly from a 2-by-4.

Typically, experienced investigators closely examine wounds and look for small particles to identify a weapon, and a death scene would be scrutinized immediately.

That wasn't done in this case, officials said, because sheriff's deputies -- who serve as coroner's investigators -- initially considered the death an accident.

"There was no question our people made mistakes," Fox said. There was no immediate probe because Miller was "part of the (law enforcement) family," he added.

Property-room problem

Kristi Miller's mother, Karen Taylor of Salton Sea Beach, testified in defense of her son-in-law. Kristi Miller's only brother, 37-year-old Kerry J. Taylor of Oceanside, also disagreed with the authorities in the case.

"I never believed Jeff did it from Day One," he said. "I thought it was a trumped-up charge. (The medical examiner) has a job, but he obviously didn't do a good job."

Kerry Taylor and Jeff Miller's other supporters say they believe the decision to press a murder charge was related to a potentially embarrassing problem for the Imperial County Sheriff's Department -- a loss of money and guns.

Nearly a year before Kristi Miller died, Imperial County Sheriff's Department records show that the department had begun an internal investigation into a loss of guns from the department's property room, where evidence is kept. Investigators also were checking into a loss of money from a variety of places within the department.

A number of sheriff's department personnel were scrutinized, including Miller, who then worked in the property room.

Eventually, the Imperial County Grand Jury became involved, issuing a report in June 1996 chastising the sheriff for failing for more than a decade to address faulty accounting practices. The grand jury found $200,000 in thefts and said procedures were so "lax and sloppy" that a full accounting was impossible.

In late 1993, Miller was charged with stealing about $10,000 and some guns.

Miller denies stealing money but acknowledges taking several guns, saying he had permission from his superior. It was common in the rural county for deputies to take unneeded guns from the property room, he said. Fox denies this practice was accepted then.

On Jan. 21, 1994, Miller pleaded guilty to one felony theft count. He was fined and sentenced to probation, and he lost his sheriff's deputy job.

The gun he pleaded guilty to stealing was an assault rifle, which he registered in his name and displayed above the fireplace in his home -- where relatives say deputies saw it the day of Kristi Miller's funeral.

Scapegoat claim

Bobbitt theorizes that Miller became a scapegoat for the sheriff's internal problems. After Miller didn't get jail time for the gun charge, Bobbitt argued, the sheriff used the murder charge as retribution.

Fox denies it.

Sitting in an office adorned with pictures of horses and cattle, Fox said, "I've seen all kinds of wounds," and there is no way Kristi Miller's injuries were "from cow hooves."

Although Kristi Miller's cause of death officially was changed from an accident to a homicide Jan. 28, 1994, her husband wasn't charged and arrested until April 1997.

When the District Attorney's Office repeatedly declined to file a murder charge, the sheriff sought assistance from state and federal officials. Neither the state Department of Justice's Bureau of Investigation nor the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Diego would prosecute, officials say.

Later, a new district attorney was elected and agreed to file the murder charge. The District Attorney's Office declined to comment.

Imperial County arrangement

The San Diego County medical examiner has held the contract to perform autopsies for Imperial County since 1991, officials say. With about 230 autopsy cases a year, sparsely populated Imperial County saw it as a way to get a big-city medical examiner at country prices.

Brian Blackbourne's contract with Imperial County pays him -- or a substitute -- from $700 to $540 per autopsy, depending on how many are performed on a trip.

When Imperial County authorities need an autopsy, they store the body in a cooler at a Brawley funeral home, with a pathologist from San Diego coming on Tuesday or Saturday for the exam.

When Blackbourne isn't able to perform the autopsies himself, he has paid one of his subordinates -- Swalwell or Bonnell -- to go to Imperial County.  Bonnell stopped going in June.

At Miller's trial, Blackbourne testified he made about $35,000 a year from the Imperial County contract. As San Diego County's medical examiner, Blackbourne is paid about $135,000 a year, records say.

The pathologists also are paid for trial testimony by the Imperial County District Attorney's Office -- $1,200 a full day, $600 a half-day or $200 an hour for trial consultation work.

San Diego County auditors said there is no prohibition against the physicians from the Medical Examiner's Office having the outside job.

Examining the medical examiner

Although lauded widely last year for the way it handled the autopsies of 39 Heaven's Gate members who committed suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, there have been a number of questions about activities at the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office in recent months.

An audit in San Diego County last year criticized the medical examiner's dealings with Imperial County but did not look into autopsies. The audit focused on what it said was inadequate administration of toxicology lab work that San Diego County performs for Imperial County. Auditors found it difficult to monitor what work was done for which county.

Blackbourne took a 15 percent pay cut in August in connection with these sorts of management issues.

County executives in December also installed an administrator to manage the facility, after the county audit in October found financial and administrative irregularities. Some of these management issues dealt with services for Imperial County.

It also was revealed this month in an East County criminal case that Bonnell -- the office's second-in-command -- is under investigation by the Medical Board of California.

Investigators are checking whether Bonnell ignored medical accidents in writing autopsy reports in three San Diego County cases, according to records and interviews.

Bonnell has acknowledged that an investigation is under way and that it involves the three cases, but he said he knows nothing about the details of the probe. The state Attorney General's office, which is assessing the medical board's investigative record, is declining comment.

The Imperial County case has not been added to the state's investigation, but Miller's attorney says there are grounds to do so.

"I am appalled at the performance of our Medical Examiner's Office," Bobbitt said. "I'm embarrassed for them."

Blackbourne insisted "My decision was correct" in the case.

Jury foreman Case agreed with the defense in reading the jury's statement to the court.

"We are shocked at the unprofessional performance of the sheriff's department in the initial investigation and the equally unprofessional presentation of this case by the prosecution," Case said. "We feel that this has been a waste of taxpayers' time and money, not to mention the grief inflicted" on the families.

Bobbitt said later that "there never would have been a case" without the changed autopsy report and death certificate.

"It is water under the bridge," Blackbourne said. "I accepted the jury's verdict."

Copyright Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

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