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Free to Kill Again

            We are supposed to trust our judicial system to keep known predators off the streets. What happens when that system fails? What happens when that system fails? This is the story of a man who was arrested and placed in prison, only to be released early and cement his title as a serial killer. This is the story of Joseph Robert Miller.

            Joseph Robert Miller was born January 15th, 1955, as Joseph Robert Tarczon. He was abandoned shortly after his birth at an orphanage. Luckily, Joseph was adopted. He was adopted by a Chicago couple who changed his last name to match theirs: Miller. His adoptive parents were strict disciplinarians. It is reported that he was often beaten and subjected to other forms of corporal punishment. As a result of this upbringing, Joseph had anger issues from a very early age.

            In addition to having anger issues, Joseph began demonstrating a criminal mentality from a very young age. He began committing petty crimes, such as theft, as a young boy. His criminal tendencies followed him into adulthood. By the time he was twenty-three-years-old, Joseph had been arrested eleven times. His crimes included theft, carjacking, and sexual assault. Somehow, he was able to negotiate plea deals following his arrests and only served short stints in prison.

            Joseph moved around a little during his early adulthood, living in Bloomington, Waukegan, and the State of Virginia. When he was twenty-three, he settled in Skokie, Illinois, and married his wife, Marsha. He started working as a pizza delivery man. It seemed, perhaps, that Joseph Miller was starting to build a life as a productive member of society. But everything was not what it seemed.

            On October 25th, 1977, a thirty-one-year-old known prostitute named Martha Ryan, also known as Martha Kowalski, was reported missing from Chicago. Martha was last seen in the company of a young man who drove an orange Chevrolet Vega. Martha’s friends said she had a “date” that evening. She had been wearing blue jeans, brown high heels, and a red jacket lined with a fur collar. Eight days after she was reported missing, her body was found wrapped in a blanket in the bushes behind a liquor store in Skokie.

            Joseph Miller was known to the police department and was suspected as he drove an orange Vega. For starters, he lived just down the road from where the body was found. He was currently in the county jail serving a sixty-day sentence for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. While still investigating Martha’s death, another body was found the following day. The second body was that of twenty-two-year-old known prostitute Ann Manham.

            Both women had been strangled and were known prostitutes. The investigators hit the streets to question other prostitutes. One woman claimed that Joseph Miller and his wife Marsha frequently hired prostitutes, including herself. She claimed that she knew one of the victims and that she was a frequent customer of the Miller’s. Joseph Miller was arrested and charged with two counts of murder on November 5th, 1977.

            While in police custody, police obtained a search warrant for Miller’s car and apartment. Inside, police found evidence linking Miller to an armed robbery in Skokie, a kidnapping in Cook County, and an aggravated batter in DuPage County. With this evidence, Miller became the prime suspect in several other unsolved murders in the area dating back to 1976. Prosecutors told the media they planned to seek the death penalty.

            Joseph Miller did not deny his involvement. In fact, he confessed to the two murders. He said he had strangled the women when they asked for payment following sex. He wrapped them in bed sheets and towels, later dumping their bodies in isolated areas. He said his wife Marsha had assisted with disposing of the bodies, and she was charged with felonious concealment of a homicide. It is unknown what sentence, if any, she received for her involvement.

            During court proceedings, the judge ruled that the evidence found inside Miller’s home and apartment was inadmissible due to procedural errors on the part of the police during the arrest process. Prosecutors wanted to compel Marsha Miller to testify against her husband, but she refused. Fearing they lacked evidence to convict, Cook County prosecutors offered a plea deal to Joseph Miller, Joseph Miller was convicted of two counts of murder, aggravated battery, kidnapping, and armed robbery. He was given a thirty-year sentence, with a chance of parole after fifteen years.

            Joseph Miller began serving his sentence at the Illinois River Correctional Center in Canton, Illinois. He participated in sex offender rehabilitation programs and was known to be a “model prisoner”. In the mid 1980’s, Joseph suffered a severe injury to his leg. This caused permanent disability, and the confessed murderer began to draw a disability pension from the State of Illinois.

            After serving the minimum of his sentence, fifteen years, Miller applied for parole. The parole board considered his record as a “model prisoner” as well as his disability. It was determined that Mr. Miller was no longer a threat to society, and he was released on parole in April of 1993. Upon his release, Miller decided to move to Peoria at the suggestion of a prison chaplain.

            Once in Peoria, Joseph resided in a senior living community with several elderly residents, despite only being in his late thirties. He was known to be very friendly and active in activities. He attended church and went to nursing homes with other residents to pray for the nursing home patients. He was well liked in the community, but many did not know of his dark past. Joseph began seeking work as a day laborer to supplement his disability income from the State of Illinois. He would perform odd jobs around elderly people’s homes.

            In August of 1993, eighty-eight-year-old Bernice Fagotte hired Joseph to do some home repairs. A few weeks later, the newspaper deliverer notified police that several newspapers were piling up at Bernice’s home. Police did a wellness check, but Bernice was not in her home. She was reported as a missing person. Police interviewed her neighbors, family, and friends. Police worked feverishly to find the elderly woman.

            Around this same time, the bodies of three women were discovered in a ditch outside of Peoria. The woman had all been murdered and were in various states of decomposition. They were eventually identified as thirty-four-year-old Marcia Logue, twenty-six-year-old Helen Dorrance, and forty-two-year-old Sandra Csesznegi. Marcia had been bound and gagged. Her cause of death was determined to be a result of blunt force trauma and multiple stab wounds. The other two victims had been strangled. All three were known prostitutes in the Peoria area.

            According to witnesses, Marcia Logue was last seen September 15th, 1993. She was getting into a dark maroon van driven by a white man described as approximately forty-five years old. Sandra disappeared the exact same day. Helen disappeared just a few days prior. A staff member at the correctional center in Canton, Illinois, heard about the murders and notified Joseph Miller’s parole officer of the crimes and similarities to his known murders in Cook County.

            On September 23rd, 1993, Bernice Fagotte’s vehicle was found in a parking lot near the senior living community that Miller resided in. Joseph was brought in for questioning a few days later. He gave permission for officers to search his apartment and vehicle. He denied being involved in the crimes.

            Police didn’t need Miller’s confession this time. Inside Bernice’s car, police located a knife with Miller’s fingerprints on it. When confronted with this evidence, Miller admitted it was his. He said he had dropped it while driving and was not sure how it ended up in Fagotte’s car. With this evidence, police secured a warrant for his arrest under the charge of burglary. Meanwhile, Bernice was still missing.

            Continuing their investigation, police found numerous pieces of evidence linking Miller to the three murders. Police seized women’s clothing, blood-stained sheets, a mattress covered with dried blood on it, and blood stains on the bedroom wall. Several strands of human hair and other fibers were also collected. Forensic examiners used this evidence to collect DNA evidence, which positively linked Joseph Miller to the murders of all three women.

In Bernice’s vehicle, police also found a rug and knife in the trunk of the car and dried blood stains on the back seat. A witness and neighbor of Bernice Fagotte identified Joseph Miller as a repairman hired by the elderly woman to do house repairs around August 28th, when she was last seen. A security guard at the senior living community where Miller lived told detectives that he saw Joseph Miller driving the maroon Oldsmobile on multiple occasions. At the time, the guard had no idea it belonged to a missing person or that it had been identified as the vehicle picking up one of the murdered women. A friend of Miller’s also came forward, stating he had been in the vehicle with Miller and found Fagotte’s Social Security card in the glove box. According to this witness, Miller admitted to stealing the vehicle and said he wanted to sell it to “get rid of it”.

Peoria prosecutors vowed to seek the death penalty against Joseph Miller, but skeptical newspaper reporters pointed out that Cook County had also made this statement in 1977. The defense quickly filed for a change of venue, sighting publicity. The motion was granted, and the trial was moved to Springfield, Illinois. With a plethora of evidence against him, Miller initially entered a guilty plea. He later changed that plea to not guilty by reason of insanity. Miller’s defense claimed that he suffered from multiple personality disorder and dissociative amnesia resulting from childhood abuse.

The jury didn’t take long to convict Joseph Miller of six counts of first-degree murder, two for each victim. In court, Miller smugly said, “It’s kind of hard to do the same thing twice” (Chicago Tribune, 1994).  He was not charged for Bernice Fagotte’s murder as her body was never found. While she is presumed to be another murder victim of Joseph Miller, the whereabouts of her remains are still a mystery.

During the sentencing phase, the state presented the aggravating factors including the sexual assaults of the victims, Miller’s history of two murder conviction, and the fact that he was paroled in April of 1993 and killed just a few months later in September of 1993. The defense presented evidence that Miller was abused and suffered from mental illnesses as a result. Nevertheless, the jury agreed that the mitigating factors did not outweigh the aggravating factors, and sentenced Joseph Miller to death.

Joseph Miller was transferred to Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Illinois, to await his punishment on death row. In the early 2000’s, former Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted all death sentenced to life in prison, including that of Joseph Miller. Illinois later abolished the death penalty. Joseph Miller was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

In 2004, Miller contacted Cook County prosecutors and claimed responsibility for the murders of eighteen-year-old Valerie Sloan and twenty-five-year-old Stacey Morrison. Both women had disappeared from the Peoria area in 1993. He told the authorities where he buried the bodies, but no remains were ever found. Authorities believe this was a false confession, but he has not been ruled out in those disappearances which remain unsolved.

Joseph Miller, listed in the Illinois Department of Corrections as Joseph P. Miller, is currently incarcerated at the Dixon Correctional Center in Dixon, Illinois. He is currently sixty-eight years old. He has no chance of freedom ever again, but the second chance he was given in 1993 resulted in the murders of at least four more women. The system has failed.




 

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