In this New Journalism classic, a suburban California woman is convicted of burning her husband to death in their family Volkswagen.
By Joan Didion
Editor’s Note: Below is an excerpt from The Stories We Tell, an anthology of literary journalism by America’s great women journalists.
This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country. The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by way of the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal the California of subtropical twilights and the soft wester-lies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mohave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at one hundred miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.
The Mormons settled this ominous country, and then they abandoned it, but by the time they left the first orange tree had been planted and for the next hundred years the San Bernardino Valley would draw a kind of people who imagined they might live among the talismanic fruit and prosper in the dry air, people who brought with them Midwestern ways of building and cooking and praying and who tried to graft those ways upon the land. The graft took in curious ways. This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew. This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book. This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and return to hairdressers’ school. “We were just crazy kids,” they say without regret, and look to the future. The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer. Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers. The case of Lucille Marie Maxwell Miller is a tabloid monument to that new life style.
Imagine Banyan Street first, because Banyan is where it happened. The way to Banyan is to drive west from San Bernardino out Foothill Boulevard, Route 66: past the Santa Fe switching yards, the Forty Winks Motel. Past the motel that is nineteen stucco tepees: “sleep in a wigwam—get more for your wampum.” Past Fontana Drag City and the Fontana Church of the Nazarene and the Pit Stop A Go-Go; past Kaiser Steel, through Cucamonga, out to the Kapu Kai Restaurant-Bar and Coﬀee Shop, at the corner of Route 66 and Carnelian Avenue. Up Carnelian Avenue from the Kapu Kai, which means “Forbidden Seas,” the subdivision flags whip in the harsh wind. “half-acre ranches! snack bars! travertine entries! $95 down.” It is the trail of an intention gone haywire, the flotsam of the New California. But after a while the signs thin out on Carnelian Avenue, and the houses are no longer the bright pastels of the Springtime Home owners but the faded bungalows of the people who grow a few grapes and keep a few chickens out here, and then the hill gets steeper and the road climbs and even the bungalows are few, and here—desolate, roughly surfaced, lined with eucalyptus and lemon groves—is Banyan Street.
Like so much of this country, Banyan suggests something curious and unnatural. The lemon groves are sunken, down a three- or four-foot retaining wall, so that one looks directly into their dense foliage, too lush, unsettlingly glossy, the greenery of nightmare; the fallen eucalyptus bark is too dusty, a place for snakes to breed. The stones look not like natural stones but like the rubble of some unmentioned upheaval. There are smudge pots, and a closed cistern. To one side of Banyan there is the flat valley, and to the other the San Bernardino Mountains, a dark mass loom-ing too high, too fast, nine, ten, eleven thousand feet, right there above the lemon groves. At midnight on Banyan Street there is no light at all, and no sound except the wind in the eucalyptus and a muffled barking of dogs. There may be a kennel somewhere, or the dogs may be coyotes.
Banyan Street was the route Lucille Miller took home from the twenty-four-hour Mayfair Market on the night of October 7, 1969, a night when the moon was dark and the wind was blowing and she was out of milk, and Banyan Street was where, at about 12:30 a.m., her 1964 Volkswagen came to a sudden stop, caught fire, and began to burn. For an hour and fifteen minutes Lucille Miller ran up and down Banyan calling for help, but no cars passed and no help came. At three o’clock that morning, when the fire had been put out and the California Highway Patrol officers were completing their report, Lucille Miller was still sobbing and incoherent, for her husband had been asleep in the Volkswagen. “What will I tell the children, when there’s nothing left, nothing left in the casket,” she cried to the friend called to comfort her. “How can I tell them there’s nothing left?”
In fact there was something left, and a week later it lay in the Draper Mortuary Chapel in a closed bronze coffin blanketed with pink carnations. Some two hundred mourners heard Elder Robert E. Denton of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church of Ontario speak of “the temper of fury that has broken out among us.” For Gordon Miller, he said, there would be “no more death, no more heartache, and no more misunderstandings.” Elder Ansel Bristol mentioned the “peculiar” grief of the hour. Elder Fred Jensen asked “what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” A light rain fell, a blessing in a dry season, and a female vocalist sang “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.” A tape recording of the service was made for the widow, who was being held without bail in the San Bernardino County jail on a charge of first-degree murder.
Of course she came from somewhere else, came off the prairie, in search of something she had seen in a movie or heard on the radio, for this is a Southern California story. She was born on January 17, 1930, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the only child of Gordon and Lily Maxwell, both schoolteachers and both dedicated to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church whose members observe the Sabbath on Saturday, believe in an apocalyptic Second Coming, have a strong missionary tendency, and, if they are strict, do not smoke, drink, eat meat, use makeup, or wear jewelry, including wedding rings. By the time Lucille Maxwell enrolled at Walla Walla College in College Place, Washington, the Adventist school where her parents then taught, she was an eighteen-year-old possessed of unremarkable good looks and remark-able high spirits. “Lucille wanted to see the world,” her father would say in retrospect, “and I guess she found out.”
The high spirits did not seem to lend themselves to an extended course of study at Walla Walla College, and in the spring of 1949 Lucille Maxwell met and married Gordon (“Cork”) Miller, a twenty-four-year-old graduate of Walla Walla and of the University of Oregon dental school, then stationed at Fort Lewis as a medical officer. “Maybe you could say it was love at first sight,” Mr. Maxwell recalls. “Before they were ever formally introduced, he sent Lucille a dozen and a half roses with a card that said even if she didn’t come out on a date with him, he hoped she’d find the roses pretty anyway.” The Maxwells remember their daughter as a “radiant” bride.
Unhappy marriages so resemble one another that we do not need to know too much about the course of this one. There may or may not have been trouble on Guam, where Cork and Lucille Miller lived while he finished his Army duty. There may or may not have been problems in the small Oregon town where he first set up private practice. There appears to have been some disappointment about their move to California: Cork Miller had told friends that he wanted to become a doctor, that he was un-happy as a dentist and planned to enter the Seventh-Day Adventist College of Medical Evangelists at Loma Linda, a few miles south of San Bernardino. Instead he bought a dental practice in the west end of San Bernardino County, and the family settled there, in a modest house on the kind of street where there are always tricycles and revolving credit and dreams about bigger houses, better streets. That was 1957. By the summer of 1964 they had achieved the bigger house on the better street and the familiar accouterments of a family on its way up: the $30,000 a year, the three children for the Christmas card, the picture window, the family room, the newspaper photographs that showed “Mrs. Gordon Miller, Ontario Heart Fund Chairman. . . .” They were paying the familiar price for it. And they had reached the familiar season of divorce.
It might have been anyone’s bad summer, anyone’s siege of heat and nerves and migraine and money worries, but this one began particularly early and particularly badly. On April 24 an old friend, Elaine Hayton, died suddenly; Lucille Miller had seen her only the night before. During the month of May, Cork Miller was hospitalized briefly with a bleeding ulcer, and his usual reserve deepened into depression. He told his accountant that he was “sick of looking at open mouths” and threatened suicide. By July 8, the conventional tensions of love and money had reached the conventional impasse in the new house on the acre lot at 8488 Bella Vista, and Lucille Miller filed for divorce. Within a month, however, the Millers seemed reconciled. They saw a marriage counselor. They talked about a fourth child. It seemed that the marriage had reached the traditional truce, the point at which so many resign themselves to cutting both their losses and their hopes.
But the Millers’ season of trouble was not to end that easily. October 7 began as a commonplace enough day, one of those days that sets the teeth on edge with its tedium, its small frustrations. The temperature reached 102 degrees in San Bernardino that afternoon, and the Miller children were home from school because of Teachers’ Institute. There was ironing to be dropped off. There was a trip to pick up a prescription for Nembutal, a trip to a self-service dry cleaner. In the early evening, an unpleasant accident with the Volkswagen: Cork Miller hit and killed a German shepherd, and afterward said that his head felt “like it had a Mack truck on it.” It was something he often said. As of that evening Cork Miller was $63,479 in debt, including the $29,637 mortgage on the new house, a debt load which seemed oppressive to him. He was a man who wore his responsibilities un-easily, and complained of migraine headaches almost constantly.
He ate alone that night, from a TV tray in the living room. Later the Millers watched John Forsythe and Senta Berger in See How They Run, and when the movie ended, about eleven, Cork Miller suggested that they go out for milk. He wanted some hot chocolate. He took a blanket and pillow from the couch and climbed into the passenger seat of the Volkswagen. Lucille Miller remembers reaching over to lock his door as she backed down the driveway. By the time she left the Mayfair Market, and long before they reached Banyan Street, Cork Miller appeared to be asleep.
There is some confusion in Lucille Miller’s mind about what happened between 12:30 a.m.., when the fire broke out, and 1:50 a.m., when it was reported. She says that she was driving east on Banyan Street at about 35 m.p.h. when she felt the Volkswagen pull sharply to the right. The next thing she knew the car was on the embankment, quite near the edge of the retaining wall, and flames were shooting up behind her. She does not remember jumping out. She does remember prying up a stone with which she broke the window next to her husband, and then scrambling down the retaining wall to try to find a stick. “I don’t know how I was going to push him out,” she says. “I just thought if I had a stick, I’d push him out.” She could not, and after a while she ran to the intersection of Banyan and Carnelian Avenue. There are no houses at that corner, and almost no traffic. After one car had passed without stopping, Lucille Miller ran back down Banyan toward the burning Volkswagen. She did not stop, but she slowed down, and in the flames she could see her husband. He was, she said, “just black.”
At the first house up Sapphire Avenue, half a mile from the Volkswagen, Lucille Miller finally found help. There Mrs. Robert Swenson called the sheriff, and then, at Lucille Miller’s request, she called Harold Lance, the Millers’ lawyer and their close friend. When Harold Lance arrived he took Lucille Miller home to his wife, Joan. Twice Harold Lance and Lucille Miller returned to Banyan Street and talked to the Highway Patrol officers. A third time Harold Lance returned alone, and when he came back he said to Lucille Miller, “O.K. . . . you don’t talk any more.”
When Lucille Miller was arrested the next afternoon, Sandy Slagle was with her. Sandy Slagle was the intense, relentlessly loyal medical student who used to babysit for the Millers, and had been living as a member of the family since she graduated from high school in 1959. The Millers took her away from a difficult home situation, and she thinks of Lucille Miller not only as “more or less a mother or a sister” but as “the most wonderful character” she has ever known. On the night of the accident, Sandy Slagle was in her dormitory at Loma Linda University, but Lucille Miller called her early in the morning and asked her to come home. The doctor was there when Sandy Slagle arrived, giving Lucille Miller an injection of Nembutal. “She was crying as she was going under,” Sandy Slagle recalls.
Over and over she’d say, ‘Sandy, all the hours I spent trying to save him and now what are they trying to do to me?’”
At 1:30 that afternoon, Sergeant William Paterson and Detectives Charles Callahan and Joseph Karr of the Central Homicide Division arrived at 8488 Bella Vista. “One of them appeared at the bedroom door,” Sandy Slagle remembers, “and said to Lucille, ‘You’ve got ten minutes to get dressed or we’ll take you as you are.’ She was in her nightgown, you know, so I tried to get her dressed.”
Sandy Slagle tells the story now as if by rote and her eyes do not waver. “So I had her panties and bra on her and they opened the door again, so I got some Capris on her, you know, and a scarf.” Her voice drops. “And then they just took her.”
The arrest took place just twelve hours after the first report that there had been an accident on Banyan Street, a rapidity which would later prompt Lucille Miller’s attorney to say that the entire case was an instance of trying to justify a reckless arrest. Actually what first caused the detectives who arrived on Banyan Street toward dawn that morning to give the accident more than routine attention were certain apparent physical inconsistencies. While Lucille Miller had said that she was driving about 35 m.p.h. when the car swerved to a stop, an examination of the cooling Volkswagen showed that it was in low gear, and that the parking rather than the driving lights were on. The front wheels, moreover, did not seem to be in exactly the position that Lucille Miller’s description of the accident would suggest, and the right rear wheel was dug in deep, as if it had been spun in place. It seemed curious to the detectives, too, that a sudden stop from 35 m.p.h.—the same jolt which was presumed to have knocked over a gasoline can in the back seat and somehow started the fire—should have left two milk cartons upright on the back floorboard, and the remains of a Polaroid camera box lying apparently undisturbed on the back seat.
No one, however, could be expected to give a precise account of what did and did not happen in a moment of terror, and none of these inconsistencies seemed in themselves incontrovertible evidence of criminal intent. But they did interest the Sheriff’s Office, as did Gordon Miller’s apparent unconsciousness at the time of the accident, and the length of time it had taken Lucille Miller to get help. Something, moreover, struck the investigators as wrong about Harold Lance’s attitude when he came back to Banyan Street the third time and found the investigation by no means over. “The way Lance was acting,” the prosecuting attorney said later, “they thought maybe they’d hit a nerve.”
And so it was that on the morning of October 8, even before the doctor had come to give Lucille Miller an injection to calm her, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office was trying to construct another version of what might have happened between 12:30 and 1:50 a.m. The hypothesis they would eventually present was based on the somewhat tortuous premise that Lucille Miller had undertaken a plan which failed: a plan to stop the car on the lonely road, spread gasoline over her presumably drugged husband, and, with a stick on the accelerator, gently “walk” the Volkswagen over the embankment, where it would tumble four feet down the retaining wall into the lemon grove and almost certainly explode. If this happened, Lucille Miller might then have somehow negotiated the two miles up Carnelian to Bella Vista in time to be home when the accident was discovered. This plan went awry, according to the Sheriff’s Office hypothesis, when the car would not go over the rise of the embankment. Lucille Miller might have panicked then—after she had killed the engine the third or fourth time, say, out there on the dark road with the gasoline already spread and the dogs baying and the wind blowing and the unspeakable apprehension that a pair of headlights would suddenly light up Banyan Street and expose her there—and set the fire herself.
Although this version accounted for some of the physical evidence— the car in low because it had been started from a dead stop, the parking lights on because she could not do what needed doing without some light, a rear wheel spun in repeated attempts to get the car over the embankment, the milk cartons upright because there had been no sudden stop—it did not seem on its own any more or less credible than Lucille Miller’s own story. Moreover, some of the physical evidence did seem to support her story: a nail in a front tire, a nine-pound rock found in the car, presumably the one with which she had broken the window in an attempt to save her husband. Within a few days an autopsy had established that Gordon Miller was alive when he burned, which did not particularly help the State’s case, and that he had enough Nembutal and Sandoptal in his blood to put the average person to sleep, which did: on the other hand Gordon Miller habitually took both Nembutal and Fiorinal (a common headache prescription which contains Sandoptal), and had been ill besides.
It was a spotty case, and to make it work at all the State was going to have to find a motive. These was talk of unhappiness, talk of another man. That kind of motive, during the next few weeks, was what they set out to establish. They set out to find it in accountants’ ledgers and double-indemnity clauses and motel registers, set out to determine what might move a woman who believed in all the promises of the middle class—a woman who had been chairman of the Heart Fund and who always knew a reasonable little dressmaker and who had come out of the bleak wild of prairie fundamentalism to find what she imagined to be the good life—what would drive such a woman to sit on street called Bella Vista and look out her new picture window into the empty California sun and calculate how to burn her husband alive in a Volkswagen. They found the wedge they wanted closer at hand than they might have at first expected, for, as testimony would reveal later at the trial, it seemed that in December of 1963 Lucille Miller had begun an affair with the husband of one of her friends, a man whose daughter called her “Auntie Lucille,” a man who might have seemed to have the gift for people and money and the good life that Cork Miller so noticeably lacked. The man was Arthwell Hayton, a well-known San Bernardino attorney and at one time a member of the district attorney’s staff.
In some ways it was the conventional clandestine affair in a place like San Bernardino, a place where little is bright or graceful, where it is routine to misplace the future and easy to start looking for it in bed. Over the seven weeks that it would take to try Lucille Miller for murder, Assistant District Attorney Don A. Turner and defense attorney Edward P. Foley would be-tween them unfold a curiously predictable story. There were the falsified motel registrations. There were the lunch dates, the afternoon drives in Arthwell Hayton’s red Cadillac convertible. There were the interminable discussions of the wronged partners. There were the confidantes (“I knew everything,” Sandy Slagle would insist fiercely later. “I knew every time, places, everything”) and there were the words remembered from bad magazine stories (“Don’t kiss me, it will trigger things,” Lucille Miller re-membered telling Arthwell Hayton in the parking lot of Harold’s Club in Fontana after lunch one day) and there were the notes, the sweet exchanges: “Hi Sweetie Pie! You are my cup of tea!! Happy Birthday—you don’t look a day over twenty-nine!! Your baby, Arthwell.”
And, toward the end, there was the acrimony. It was April 24, 1964, when Arthwell Hayton’s wife, Elaine, died suddenly, and nothing good happened after that. Arthwell Hayton had taken his cruiser, Captain’s Lady, over to Catalina that weekend; he called home at nine o’clock Friday night, but did not talk to his wife because Lucille Miller answered the telephone and said that Elaine was showering. The next morning the Haytons’ daughter found her mother in bed, dead. The newspapers reported the death as accidental, perhaps the result of an allergy to hair spray. When Arthwell Hayton flew home from Catalina that weekend, Lucille Miller met him at the airport, but the finish had already been written.
It was in the breakup that the affair ceased to be in the conventional mode and began to resemble instead the novels of James M. Cain, the movies of the late 1930s, all the dreams in which violence and threats and blackmail are made to seem commonplaces of middle-class life. What was most startling about the case the State of California was preparing against Lucille Miller was something that had nothing to do with law at all, something that never appeared in the eight-column afternoon headlines but was always there between them: the revelation that the dream was teaching the dreamers how to live. Here is Lucille Miller talking to her lover sometime in the early summer of 1964, after he had indicated that, on the advice of his minister, he did not intend to see her any more: “First, I’m going to go to that dear pastor of yours and tell him a few things. . . . When I do tell him that, you won’t be in the Redlands Church any more. . . . Look, Sonny Boy, if you think your reputation is going to be ruined, your life won’t be worth two cents.” Here is Arthwell Hayton, to Lucille Miller: “I’ll go to Sheriﬀ Frank Bland and tell him some things that I know about you until you’ll wish you’d never heard of Arthwell Hayton.” For an aﬀair between a Seventh-Day Adventist dentist’s wife and a Seventh-Day Adventist personal-injury lawyer, it seems a curious kind of dialogue.
“Boy, I could get that little boy coming and going,” Lucille Miller later confided to Erwin Sprengle, a Riverside contractor who was a business partner of Arthwell Hayton’s and a friend to both the lovers. (Friend or no, on this occasion he happened to have an induction coil attached to his telephone in order to tape Lucille Miller’s call.) “And he hasn’t got one thing on me that he can prove. I mean, I’ve got concrete—he has nothing concrete.” In the same taped conversation with Erwin Sprengle, Lucille Miller mentioned a tape that she herself had surreptitiously made, months before, in Arthwell Hayton’s car.
“I said to him, I said ‘Arthwell, I just feel like I’m being used!’. . . He started sucking his thumb and he said ‘I love you. . . . This isn’t something that happened yesterday. I’d marry you tomorrow if I could. I don’t love Elaine.’ He’d love to hear that played back, wouldn’t he?”
“Yeah,” drawled Sprengle’s voice on the tape. “That would be just a little incriminating, wouldn’t it?”
“Just a little incriminating,” Lucille Miller agreed. “It really is.” Later on the tape, Sprengle asked where Cork Miller was.
“He took the children down to the church.”
“You didn’t go?”
It was all, moreover, in the name of “love”; everyone involved placed a magical faith in the efficacy of the very word. There was the significance that Lucille Miller saw in Arthwell’s saying that he “loved” her, that he did not “love” Elaine. There was Arthwell insisting, later, at the trial, that he had never said it, that he may have “whispered sweet nothings in her ear” (as her defense hinted that he had whispered in many ears), but he did not remember bestowing upon her the special seal, saying the word, declaring “love.” There was the summer evening when Lucille Miller and Sandy Slagle followed Arthwell Hayton down to his new boat in its mooring at Newport Beach and untied the lines with Arthwell aboard, Arthwell and a girl with whom he later testified he was drinking hot chocolate and watching television. “I did that on purpose,” Lucille Miller told Erwin Sprengle later, “to save myself from letting my heart do something crazy.”
January 11, 1965, was a bright warm day in Southern California, the kind of day when Catalina floats on the Pacific horizon and the air smells of orange blossoms and it is a long way from the bleak and difficult East, a long way from the cold, a long way from the past. A woman in Hollywood staged an all-night sit-in on the hood of her car to prevent repossession by a finance company. A seventy-year-old pensioner drove his station wagon at five miles an hour past three Gardena poker parlors and emptied three pistols and a twelve-gauge shotgun through their windows, wounding twenty-nine people. “Many young women become prostitutes just to have enough money to play cards,” he explained in a note. Mrs. Nick Adams said that she was “not surprised” to hear her husband announce his divorce plans on the Les Crane Show, and, farther north, a sixteen-year-old jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and lived.
And, in the San Bernardino County Courthouse, the Miller trial opened. The crowds were so bad that the glass courtroom doors were shattered in the crush, and from then on identification disks were issued to the first forty-three spectators in line. The line began forming at 6 a.m., and college girls camped at the courthouse all night, with stores of graham crackers and No-Cal.
All they were doing was picking a jury, those first few days, but the sensational nature of the case had already suggested itself. Early in December there had been an abortive first trial, a trial at which no evidence was ever presented because on the day the jury was seated the San Bernardino Sun-Telegram ran an “inside” story quoting Assistant District Attorney Don Turner, the prosecutor, as saying, “We are looking into the circumstances of Mrs. Hayton’s death. In view of the current trial concern-ing the death of Dr. Miller, I do not feel I should comment on Mrs. Hayton’s death.” It seemed that there had been barbiturates in Elaine Hayton’s blood, and there had seemed some irregularity about the way she was dressed on that morning when she was found under the covers, dead. Any doubts about the death at the time, however, had never gotten as far as the Sheriff’s Office. “I guess somebody didn’t want to rock the boat,” Turner said later. ‘These were prominent people.”
Although all of that had not been in the Sun-Telegram’s story, an immediate mistrial had been declared. Almost as immediately, there had been another development: Arthwell Hayton had asked newspapermen to an 11 a.m. Sunday morning press conference in his office. There had been television cameras, and flash bulbs popping. “As you gentlemen may know,” Hayton had said, striking a note of stiff bonhomie, “there are very often women who become amorous toward their doctor or lawyer. This does not mean on the physician’s or lawyer’s part that there is any romance toward the patient or client.”
“Would you deny that you were having an affair with Mrs. Miller?” a reporter had asked.
“I would deny that there was any romance on my part whatsoever.”
It was a distinction he would maintain through all the wearing weeks to come.
So they had come to see Arthwell, these crowds who now milled be-neath the dusty palms outside the courthouse, and they had also come to see Lucille, who appeared as a slight, intermittently pretty woman, already pale from lack of sun, a woman who would turn thirty-five before the trial was over and whose tendency toward haggardness was beginning to show, a meticulous woman who insisted against her lawyer’s advice, on coming to court with her hair piled high and lacquered. “I would’ve been happy if she’d come in with it hanging loose, but Lucille wouldn’t do that,” her lawyer said. He was Edward P. Foley, a small, emotional Irish Catholic who sever-al times wept in the courtroom. “She has a great honesty, this woman,” he added, “but this honesty about her appearance always worked against her.”
By the time the trial opened, Lucille Miller’s appearance included maternity clothes, for an official examination on December 18 had revealed that she was then three and a half months pregnant, a fact which made picking a jury even more difficult than usual, for Turner was asking the death penalty. “It’s unfortunate but there it is,” he would say of the pregnancy to each juror in turn, and finally twelve were seated, seven of them women, the youngest forty-one, an assembly of the very peers— housewives, a machinist, a truck driver, a grocery-store manager, a filing clerk—above whom Lucille Miller had wanted so badly to rise.
That was the sin, more than the adultery, which tended to reinforce the one for which she was being tried. It was implicit in both the defense and the prosecution that Lucille Miller was an erring woman, a woman who perhaps wanted too much. But to the prosecution she was not merely a woman who would want a new house and want to go to parties and run up high telephone bills ($1,152 in two months), but a woman who would go so far as to murder her husband for his $80,000 in insurance, making it appear an accident in order to collect another $40,000 in double indemnity and straight accident policies. To Turner she was a woman who did not want simply her freedom and a reasonable alimony (she could have had that, the defense contended, by going through with her divorce suit), but wanted everything, a woman motivated by “love and greed.” She was a “manipulator.” She was a “user of people.”
To Edward Foley, on the other hand, she was an impulsive woman who “couldn’t control her foolish little heart.” Where Turner skirted the pregnancy, Foley dwelt upon it, even calling the dead man’s mother down from Washington to testify that her son had told her they were going to have another baby because Lucille felt that it would “do much to weld our home again in the pleasant relations that we used to have.” Where the prosecution saw a “calculator,” the defense saw a “blabbermouth,” and in fact Lucille Miller did emerge as an ingenuous conversationalist. Just as, before her husband’s death, she had confided in her friends about her love affair, so she chatted about it after his death, with the arresting sergeant.
“Of course Cork lived with it for years, you know,” her voice was heard to tell Sergeant Paterson on a tape made the morning after her arrest.” After Elaine died, he pushed the panic button one night and just asked me right out, and that, I think, was when he really—the first time he really faced it.” When the sergeant asked why she had agreed to talk to him, against the specific instructions of her lawyers, Lucille Miller said airily, “Oh, I’ve always been basically quite an honest person. . . . I mean I can put a hat in the cupboard and say it cost ten dollars less, but basically I’ve always kind of just lived my life the way I wanted to, and if you don’t like it you can take off.”
The prosecution hinted at men other than Arthwell, and even, over Foley’s objections, managed to name one. The defense called Miller suicidal. The prosecution produced experts who said that the Volkswagen fire could not have been accidental. Foley produced witnesses who said that it could have been. Lucille’s father, now a junior-high-school teacher in Oregon, quoted Isaiah to reporters: “Every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn.” “Lucille did wrong, her affair,” her mother said judiciously. “With her it was love. But with some I guess it’s just passion.” There was Debbie, the Millers’ fourteen-year-old, testifying in a steady voice about how she and her mother had gone to a supermarket to buy the gasoline can the week before the accident. There was Sandy Slagle, in the courtroom every day, declaring that on at least one occasion Lucille Miller had prevented her husband not only from committing suicide but from committing suicide in such a way that it would appear an accident and ensure the double-indemnity payment. There was Wenche Berg, the pretty twenty-seven-year-old Norwegian governess to Arthwell Hayton’s children, testifying that Arthwell had instructed her not to allow Lucille Miller to see or talk to the children.
Two months dragged by, and the headlines never stopped. Southern California’s crime reporters were headquartered in San Bernardino for the duration: Howard Hertel from the Times, Jim Bennett and Eddy Jo Bernal from the Herald–Examiner. Two months in which the Miller trial was pushed off the Examiner front page only by the Academy Award nominations and Stan Laurel’s death. And finally, on March 2, after Turner had reiterated that it was a case of “love and greed,” and Foley had protested that his client was being tried for adultery, the case went to the jury.
They brought in the verdict, guilty of murder in the first degree, at 4:50 p.m. on March 5. “She didn’t do it,” Debbie Miller cried, jumping up from the spectators’ section. “She didn’t do it.” Sandy Slagle collapsed in her seat and began to scream. “Sandy, for God’s sake please don’t,” Lucille Miller said in a voice that carried across the courtroom, and Sandy Slagle was momentarily subdued. But as the jurors left the courtroom she screamed again: “You’re murderers. . . . Every last one of you is a murder-er.” Sheriff’s deputies moved in then, each wearing a string tie that read “1965 sheriff’s rodeo,” and Lucille Miller’s father, that sad-faced junior- high-school teacher who believed in the word of Christ and the dangers of wanting to see the world, blew her a kiss off his fingertips.
The California Institution for Women at Frontera, where Lucille Miller is now, lies down where Euclid Avenue turns into country road, not too many miles from where she once lived and shopped and organized the Heart Fund Ball. Cattle graze across the road, and Rainbirds sprinkle the alfalfa. Frontera has a softball field and tennis courts, and looks as if it might be a California junior college, except that the trees are not yet high enough to conceal the concertina wire around the top of the Cyclone fence. On visitors’ day there are big cars in the parking area, big Buicks and Pontiacs that belong to grandparents and sisters and fathers (not many of them belong to husbands), and some of them have bumper stickers that say “support your local police.”
A lot of California murderesses live here, a lot of girls who some-how misunderstood the promise. Don Turner put Sandra Garner here (and her husband in the gas chamber at San Quentin) after the 1959 desert killings known to crime reporters as “the soda-pop murders.” Carole Tregoff is here, and has been ever since she was convicted of conspiring to murder Dr. Finch’s wife in West Covina, which is not too far from San Bernardino. Carole Tregoff is in fact a nurse’s aide in the prison hospital, and might have attended Lucille Miller had her baby been born at Frontera; Lucille Miller chose instead to have it outside, and paid for the guard who stood outside the delivery room in St. Bernadine’s Hospital. Debbie Miller came to take the baby home from the hospital, in a white dress with pink ribbons, and Debbie was allowed to choose a name. She named the baby Kimi Kai. The children live with Harold and Joan Lance now, because Lucille Miller will probably spend ten years at Frontera. Don Turner waived his original request for the death penalty (it was generally agreed that he had demanded it only, in Edward Foley’s words, “to get anybody with the slightest trace of human kindness in their veins off the jury”), and settled for life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. Lucille Miller does not like it at Frontera, and has had trouble adjusting. “She’s going to have to learn humility,” Turner says. “She’s going to have to use her ability to charm, to manipulate.”
The new house is empty now, the house on the street with the sign that says
The Millers never did get it landscaped, and weeds grow up around the fieldstone siding. The television aerial has toppled on the roof, and a trash can is stuffed with the debris of family life: a cheap suitcase, a child’s game called “Lie Detector.” There is a sign on what would have been the lawn, and the sign reads “estate sale.” Edward Foley is trying to get Lucille Miller’s case appealed, but there have been delays. “A trial always comes down to a matter of sympathy,” Foley says wearily now. “I couldn’t create sympathy for her.” Everyone is a little weary now, weary and resigned, everyone except Sandy Slagle, whose bitterness is still raw. She lives in an apartment near the medical school in Loma Linda, and studies reports of the case in True Police Cases and Oﬃcial Detective Stories. “I’d much rather we not talk about the Hayton business too much,”’ she tells visitors, and she keeps a tape recorder running. “I’d rather talk about Lucille and what a wonderful person she is and how her rights were violated.” Harold Lance does not talk to visitors at all. “We don’t want to give away what we can sell,” he ex-plains pleasantly; an attempt was made to sell Lucille Miller’s personal story to Life, but Life did not want to buy it. In the district attorney’s offices they are prosecuting other murders now, and do not see why the Miller trial attracted so much attention. “It wasn’t a very interesting murder as murders go,” Don Turner says laconically. Elaine Hayton’s death is no longer under investigation. “We know everything we want to know,” Turner says.
Arthwell Hayton’s office is directly below Edward Foley’s. Some people around San Bernardino say that Arthwell Hayton suffered; others say that he did not suffer at all. Perhaps he did not, for time past is not believed to have any bearing upon time present or future, out in the golden land where every day the world is born anew. In any case, on October 17, 1965, Arthwell Hayton married again, married his children’s pretty governess, Wenche Berg, at a service in the Chapel of the Roses at a retirement village near Riverside. Later the newlyweds were feted at a reception for seventy-five in the dining room of Rose Garden Village. The bridegroom was in black tie, with a white carnation in his buttonhole. The bride wore a long white peau de soie dress and carried a shower bouquet of sweetheart roses with stephanotis streamers. A coronet of seed pearls held her illusion veil.