TO OUR READERS: As quintuple homicide suspect William Miller awaits trial, Tribune assistant editor Daryl James recounts an unusual twist: How the newspaper staff handled bizarre encounters with Miller.
Murder suspect William Miller disguised his identity in the days after Mesa’s Barrington Estates slayings and conducted a smear campaign from the shadows against his alleged victims.
He called himself “Richard Nixon” in e-mails and asked me and another Tribune reporter to put his allegations in print. Instead, we used the anonymous source as a tip service of sorts as we tried to confirm or disprove the tidbits he shared about the Feb. 21 quintuple homicide.
“I know almost as much as the cops about this whole situation,” he assured us. “I probably know more.”
We later learned we weren’t the only ones interested in what the source had to say.
Court records made public in July show that Mesa police secretly listened to 27 hours of phone conversations involving Miller without the Tribune’s knowledge. The wiretaps would have included our Nixon conversations as well as calls between other Tribune reporters and Miller when he used his true identity.
Defense attorney Carmen Fischer said she and another lawyer representing Miller have not yet decided whether to challenge the legality of the wiretaps. “This case is still young,” she said.
Fischer declined to speculate about whether the Nixon charade would come up at Miller’s trial which is not yet scheduled.
Miller turned down a request for a jailhouse interview and did not respond to a letter sent last month to Maricopa County’s Fourth Avenue Jail in Phoenix, where he is awaiting trial in the deaths of Steven Duffy, his girlfriend, Tammy Lovell and three others: Duffy’s 18-year-old brother Shane, and Lovell’s children, 15-year-old Cassandra and 10-year-old Jacob.
NIXON ON THE SCENE
The mysterious source first contacted us via e-mail three days after the slayings and claimed to be one of Miller’s former employees with inside information on the crime.
He used “notsodeepthroat” in his e-mail address and registered the account to “Richard Nixon.” On the telephone he berated the victims’ personal and work lives and even smeared the children.
But the source directed his harshest criticism at Tammy Lovell and Steven Duffy, both of whom worked with Miller at his Scottsdale business.
“Steve Duffy and Tammy Lovell were no angels,” the source wrote. “Duffy was not a well-liked coworker, lazy, arrogant, showed up to work late all of the time.”
When we requested face-to-face meetings with the anonymous caller, he became evasive. So we did not know who he was until two or three days passed and we started to connect the dots.
MILLER AND THE MEDIA
Miller granted several interviews prior to his arrest on March 3. But none came during the first few days after the slayings.
When one Tribune reporter contacted Miller on Feb. 23 — before police named him an “investigative lead” in the case — he said almost nothing.
“I just do what my lawyer tells me to,” he said. “That’s why I pay him money. He’s the professional. He tells me to say, ‘No comment,’ I say, ‘No comment.’ ”
But Richard Nixon apparently had no lawyer preventing him from chatting.
He contacted Tribune reporter Kristina Davis the next day and talked at length. Then he called me on Feb. 25 — and anonymous phone calls, faxes and e-mails followed.
“He didn’t want me to know who he was,” recalled Davis, who now works for a San Diego newspaper. “That much was sure.”
But the source kept us interested with the promise of exclusive information.
He seemed to have access to Miller’s phone records, confidential files in Miller’s office and the e-mail account of Miller’s secretary. He even knew where Miller sat during Phoenix Suns games.
And he knew about Miller’s relationships with the victims.
“Miller did not like Tammy,” he wrote. “He has files almost three inches thick on just Tammy. He has private investigators all over the U.S. digging up dirt on her.”
Gradually, Miller himself started opening up to the media. He talked to certain Tribune reporters almost nightly in the week before his arrest.
THE CHARADE ENDS
Nixon and Miller were like Spider-Man and Peter Parker. Were they the same person? Some in the newsroom said yes, but I didn’t think so.
Small details seemed to rule out such a possibility. For example, Nixon knew what Miller’s brother-in-law looked like but said he did not know his name. And Nixon shared incriminating information about Miller.
He said Miller had attached a GPS tracking device under Duffy’s vehicle and secretly videotaped members of the Duffy and Lovell families inside their home.
I did not believe Miller would leak this information about himself. And I did not believe he could talk about himself so long in the third-person point of view without stumbling.
Finally, we remembered that Nixon had left at least one clue: A voice mail on Davis’ telephone.
We played this message for another reporter who knew Miller’s voice, and he declared a match. Davis later met Miller outside his Scottsdale home and also recognized the voice.
“I introduced myself, and there was an awkward moment,” Davis said. “He knew that I knew.”
And then the calls stopped.
WORLD OF INTRIGUE
Before that day came, Nixon provided a glimpse into a bizarre world filled with people out to get Miller.
He told stories of thugs and assassins, disloyal friends and “dirty” Scottsdale cops. One story even included a transvestite Nazi gun collector who committed suicide in his water bed “and was there for several weeks.”
This is where Nixon said all the trouble started.
The Duffy brothers and Tammy Lovell worked for Miller at Puroclean, a crime scene and disaster cleanup company. Puroclean got the contract at the transvestite’s house, where workers found several automatic weapons the firm was allowed to keep.
Nixon said Steven Duffy later got into financial trouble and stole the automatic weapons and other items from Miller’s house and then burned it down with an accomplice in November.
Scottsdale police came to a different conclusion: They named Miller as a suspect in the arson with Duffy.
That’s when Nixon said the “love/hate” relationship between the former friends fell apart.
On Dec. 20, Nixon said, two men in a white truck shot at Miller outside his business near Scottsdale Airpark. He said Miller shot back and likely hit the passenger.
“Is it possible he missed?” I asked.
“Not likely,” Nixon said. “When William Miller aims at something, he hits it. I’ve seen that man slice a piece of paper from a hundred yards.”
Nixon speculated that the attacker was Duffy.
“Duffy knew that Miller would eventually bring him down one way or another for the arson,” Nixon wrote.
The next alleged attack came the night after the slayings.
Nixon said unseen thugs followed Miller to a restaurant and slashed his tires when he went inside. Phoenix police looked at the tires and concluded they had only been deflated.
The next alleged attack is the one that got Miller into trouble.
He told police that someone broke into his Scottsdale home one week after the slayings and shot bullets into his bed.
Nixon called Davis that morning and told her about the incident. Then he e-mailed photographs to me from a camera phone that showed apparent bullet holes in a mattress.
Police now allege that Miller invented those burglars and shot bullets into his own bed using the same gun linked to the Barrington Estates slayings. His arrest came later in the week.
NOT A ‘DEEP THROAT’
The caller with the Nixon e-mail account made it clear he wanted to be quoted in our coverage of the quintuple homicide.
“Cite me as an unnamed source close to the investigation,” he requested on several occasions.
But we never made that agreement.
An “unnamed source” is someone the reporter knows but chooses not to identify in print. This is usually done to protect someone such as a government whistle-blower or sexual assault victim who could face retaliation for sharing information.
Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward knew the identity of “Deep Throat” during the 1970s Watergate investigation involving President Richard Nixon.
Our own “notsodeepthroat” refused to meet us and thus was categorized as an anonymous source. Tribune policy and journalism standards in general forbid reporters from quoting such a person.
So we never wrote anything from this source until after we established his identity.
This probably frustrated Nixon, who wanted stories in the paper about the phantom attacks he described following the November arson.
“This is only known by five or six people, so please find a way to work into a story without indicating where you found this out,” he wrote.
Well, here is the story. But I don’t think this is what Nixon wanted.
The short life of ‘Richard Nixon’
Feb. 21: Five people are shot and killed in Mesa, and William Miller is later named as a suspect.
Feb. 22: Miller tells Phoenix police that somebody has slashed the tires on his car.
Feb. 23: Miller declines to talk to Tribune reporters.
Feb. 24: “Richard Nixon” contacts the Tribune and talks for about an hour. Feb. 25: Nixon calls again and then faxes Puroclean files to the Tribune.
Feb. 27: Miller reports a burglary at his Scottsdale home. Nixon e-mails photos to the Tribune showing apparent bullet holes in a mattress. Police later accuse Miller of staging the burglary.
Feb. 28: Police identify Miller as an investigative lead in the slayings.
March 3: Police arrest Miller. Contact with Nixon stops.
For the record
“Richard Nixon” contacted the Tribune as an anonymous source, not an unnamed source. The distinction is important.
Unnamed source: The newspaper knows the identity of the person but chooses not to publish the name. Reporters sometimes use unnamed sources to protect the identity of a child abuse victim, sexual assault victim or whistle-blower who might face retaliation.
Anonymous source: The reporter does not know the identity of the person. Newspapers should not publish information from an anonymous source unless the information is corroborated through known sources.
Off the record: Some people talk to reporters on the condition that certain comments remain “off the record.” Nothing a person says off the record is printed unless the reporter finds the same information elsewhere. William Miller often spoke with reporters off the record, but he did not negotiate this condition while posing as Nixon.