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By Allie Conti
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"If my son was misbehaving in another class, he got sent to Mr. Miller's class, and Mr. Miller handled it," said one parent of a former Watkins student who did not want her name printed for fear of retaliation.
The mother says she saw Miller order the kids to do pushups, move furniture, or clean the classroom, and they did it without complaining. He would boast that he ran his music program with military precision. "He was very strict with the children," she says. "When he spoke, they listened."
Kids were motivated, she says, because they loved Miller's class so much — the music he picked, his charisma, the faith he had in their talent.
"There was a payoff for them," she says. "Band class was fun."
"He always encouraged us," adds a 15-year-old girl who was on the Watkins drill team last year. She didn't want to give her name because some of Miller's alleged victims were her friends.
She and other students saw Miller as a father figure. He often talked about his days in Howard's marching band and told them to come to him when they needed college recommendations. They all had his personal cell phone number as well as his wife's.
Miller took them on trips to Fort Pierce and Orlando, racking up awards at music competitions in and out of the state. Back home in Palm Beach Gardens, the band and chorus groups would have "lock-ins" at Watkins — all-night, chaperoned school parties, organized by Miller, that included talent shows for the kids to show off their musical skills.
Sure, Miller occasionally got marked down on his annual evaluations for things like record-keeping and following "policies/procedures/ethics." Wark also kept him on a yearly contract, refusing to grant him tenure. Yet his flaws were outweighed by the sense of pride he brought to the school. "His focus on community involvement has been a great marketing tool for the school," she wrote in a 2008 evaluation. "He has a very positive relationship with his students."
There was almost no hint, in his personnel file or in his public persona, of the lurid crimes he would later be accused of committing.
"We always traveled together," the former drill team member said. "We didn't expect anything like that to happen."
Beneath the surface, Heath Miller had some strange habits. In June 2003, he left his full-time position as a Lake Shore Middle School music teacher in Belle Glade because he hadn't completed the educational and testing requirements to be a certified teacher.
For the next two years, he worked as a substitute in the district, including a brief stint at his alma mater, Glades Central High School. The gig didn't last long, because Glades Principal Edward Harris grew uncomfortable with Miller's choice of dance moves for the football halftime shows.
According to an investigative report by Palm Beach County School District Detective Vinny Mintus, Miller directed a show in which "heavyset" young women wearing skimpy "underwear-type garments" would bend over, "spread their legs and gyrate." They performed these dance moves with other female students lying directly underneath them, Harris told Mintus.
Harris said he was disturbed by this "booty dancing." But when he asked Miller to tone down the choreography, the music teacher came back a week later with an even more provocative show. Harris decided not to renew Miller's contract.
But the incident never appeared in Miller's school district personnel file. Watkins' then-Principal Dan Smith hired him as a full-time music teacher in August 2005. Miller was now a certified teacher but continued to flout traditional teacher etiquette.
He offered to drive an eighth-grade girl to school every day, picking her up at home, sometimes entering her bedroom, even when the girl's mother was not home. The girl — whose name was not released by the school district — told Mintus that Miller was like a dad to her.
Once, when Miller was driving her home, another woman was in the car, an adult with whom Miller was having an affair. The woman told Mintus that when Miller dropped the girl off, he ordered her to do some dance moves.
"She was very bubbly, very playful, and when she got out of the car, I'm like, 'Oh, she's so cute,' " the woman told Mintus in a sworn interview. "And [Miller] goes, 'Watch this. Halt!'
"And she froze. [The girl] stood still, and she did every little dance commandment," the woman said.
The woman was annoyed. "She needs to get home. We have to get my car. Why are you giving her commandments?" she remembers asking Miller.
"But... he was showing me how, 'Well, look, watch this. She'll do everything I tell her.' "
Miller's sex life was even more bizarre. Two teachers at Watkins said they would occasionally hook up with him on school grounds, even though he had been married since June 2006 to Mirelle, a City of West Palm Beach employee.
A math teacher told Mintus that she and Miller had an affair that his wife knew about. Twice, beginning around October 2007, they held their rendezvous in the band uniform room when no students were around. Sometimes, he would take pictures of her naked. Miller did not use a condom, the teacher said, instead withdrawing and using a paper towel to clean up any evidence that landed on the band-room floor.