By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
The day after Valentine's Day last year, Heath and Mirelle Miller went to dinner with friends and arrived home to their Wellington duplex in high spirits. They were in their bedroom, celebrating the holiday properly, when Heath Miller thought he heard a noise outside. He pulled back the window curtain but saw nothing, he told sheriff's deputies. He went back to his wife.
Five minutes later, around 1:40 a.m., the Millers' dogs burst into frantic barking. Sensing that someone was in the house, Heath reached for the .38-caliber revolver he kept in his nightstand. As he turned his head, a man appeared in the bedroom doorway in a ski mask, pointing a gun.
"Get the fuck out of my house!" Heath screamed. "Mirelle, call the cops!"
A petrified Mirelle scrambled under the bed, huddled with one of the dogs, and listened to the exchange of gunfire as she dialed 911 on her cell phone.
"Someone just broke into my house," she sobbed, gasping for air. "And my husband just shot him."
She would later tell sheriff's deputies that the masked man slipped in through the sliding glass doors from the back patio and fired first, but Heath couldn't be sure. He just knew he fired until the gun was empty.
The masked man ran into another room. Heath Miller followed him, grabbing a .22-caliber rifle he kept in the hall closet. He needed to be prepared if the intruder began shooting again, he told deputies.
He discovered that the man had fallen in the kitchen. But he was still moving. Frantic, Miller thought his rifle had jammed. He fired off one round accidentally, then another.
By the time sheriff's deputies arrived, the intruder, 22-year-old Robert Rashard Tomlin, was lying in a pool of blood. He'd been shot twice. One bullet pierced his thigh, the other his heart.
Miller, 35, was a popular band teacher at H.L. Watkins Middle School in Palm Beach Gardens. He wasn't particularly glamorous — short, with crooked teeth and a goatee — but he exuded a magnetic confidence. More than 400 kids lined up to play the drums, dance, or sing for him last year, and he led them with a military pride.
After the shooting, strangers saw him as a hero who defended his wife and home against a common thug. No one suspected that the shooting would be the beginning of the end of his own secret life.
Two months later, Miller was charged with sexually assaulting four of his eighth-grade female students. The man who emerged from those accusations was violent and cruel, betraying the trust of children who adored him, trying to frighten one teenager into silence after he brutalized her. While playing the role of father figure and disciplinarian, police reports alleged he was having sex with teachers on school grounds and molesting teenagers in the band uniform room.
Miller has denied all the charges against him, insisting that he only kissed one student. He's in a Palm Beach County jail awaiting trial. And since the alleged crimes occurred after the shooting, he's blamed his downfall on the night a stranger broke into his home.
"I haven't quite got my mind right since February 16th," he told a school police detective last year. "A man took six shots at me, and I killed him. And ever since then... I almost feel like I shouldn't have made it out of there. And I've been acting like that."
Heath Miller grew up a prized son of Belle Glade. His father, Henry, runs Miller Mortuary, and his mother, Harma, was a longtime city commissioner and former mayor.
There was never a belief that their son would languish in the brittle poverty of his sugar-farming town. He attended Howard University and majored in music business. He served as drum captain of the college's acclaimed marching band for four years. Then he returned home to study the family funeral business and went to work for Dad. He also taught life skills to prisoners at the South Bay Correctional Facility. (Henry and Harma Miller declined to comment for this article. Heath Miller did not respond to a written request for comment.)
In 2000, he applied to be a music teacher in Palm Beach County, writing in his application that he anticipated "having wonderful relationships with my students as well as my co-workers."
Helen Rutledge, then-principal at Lake Shore Middle School in Belle Glade, was pleased to take a chance on him even though he had no classroom teaching experience. "Mr. Miller shows much enthusiasm and energy as he teaches," she wrote in a 2003 evaluation, after Miller had been teaching for three years but had not yet completed the requirements to be professionally certified.
His next principal, Watkins' Ann Wark, offered similar words of praise in 2007. "His leadership has fostered growth in every student," Wark wrote.
Watkins is a rough school, where three-quarters of the kids can't afford to buy a school lunch and bullying and fights are common. Yet Miller was the rare teacher they admired, former students say. He made the band kids run laps around the track or do push-ups when they misbehaved. Other teachers sent problem kids to him for discipline.