By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By David Minsky
By Michael E. Miller
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.
"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.
The teacher never suspected Miller might be doing the same thing with a 14-year-old girl.
"The guy I knew had a great relationship with the kids personally," the teacher said in a sworn interview with Mintus. "You know, I never would have thought that it would have gone anywhere else, if it has."
Another teacher, whose name was withheld from police reports, said she had sex with Miller in the chorus room "on a handful of occasions." At first, the teacher told Mintus that Miller forced himself on her. But the detective investigated and concluded that their relationship was consensual.
Yet another teacher told Mintus that "it had been rumored and fairly well-discussed amongst the staff" that Miller had threesomes that sometimes involved teachers.
Perhaps the most telling incident came in September 2007, when Franklin King, the former Watkins band booster president, was arrested for molesting a 15-year-old girl over a period of several years. Miller and King, 42, were best friends. They took the band kids on field trips and helped each other maintain order at practices and performances. King served as booster president for two years, even though his son graduated after the first year. "Miller and King were together all the time," says the former band parent. "They were thick as thieves."
King, who had his own bathtub and tile refinishing business, spent long afternoons and evenings at Watkins and persuaded local businesses to help pay for uniforms and other needs. His wife, Cindi, who worked as a school secretary, also volunteered to help with the drill team at Watkins.
But the former band parent says she had a feeling that something wasn't quite right between Frank King and the students. As she watched King and Miller deal with the inevitable school-girl crushes, the men seemed to enjoy the attention.
"There were a lot of girls that were always hugging on him and hanging on him," she says of King. "It just felt really, really creepy to watch the two of them — primarily Mr. King — but the two of them, with these young girls."
Once, the former band parent says, King showed up at a practice with a young girl — the mother doesn't know if she was a Watkins student or not — and then disappeared with her. When they returned about half an hour later, King was wearing different clothing, and the girl was drinking a Slurpee.
Meanwhile, Miller once posed for a band picture by lying across the students' laps.
The girl who accused King of molestation was not a Watkins band student, but her father worked for King. Beginning when she was 11, the girl told Palm Beach County sheriff's detectives, King would repeatedly fondle her, expose himself to her, and force himself on her. In January 2004, she was staying at King's house while her father was out of town — it's unclear how old she was at the time — and awoke to find King pulling her pants down. He started having oral sex with her, but she got angry and stopped him, according to the sheriff's report.
Finally, in August 2007, the girl confronted King in a phone call that was recorded by sheriff's deputies. She seemed worried that her father would find out what had been happening for years.
"If he [her father] says something, you just got to deny it," King said. "We've never done anything."
"We have done something. I've been keeping [it] in for about five years," she said. "How come you've done it? It's bothering me."
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have. Even the things I did weren't right," King said.
"It's bothered me a lot. I just want to know why you touched me on my crotch and boobs," the girl persisted.
"I don't know," King said.
King was charged with lewd and lascivious molestation, sexual activity with a child, and transmission of harmful material to a minor. He initially confessed to the crimes, according to the sheriff's report, but has since pleaded not guilty. He's in Palm Beach County Jail awaiting trial.
Yet Miller stood by his friend. He took off work to speak on King's behalf at a bond hearing in 2007 and wrote a letter to the Palm Beach County court defending him.
King was "instrumental in the success of our program," Miller wrote. "He has shown himself to be a good father, husband and friend with great morals and respect for all those with whom he comes into contact. He has always exhibited appropriate behavior and a respectful demeanor around the 400-plus students in the band and chorus.
"It is my sincere belief that he is not a threat to this community," Miller added.
Less than two years later, Miller and King would land in the same jail cell.
On April 13, 2009, a 16-year-old girl broke down crying on a Watkins school bus. She told the driver, a woman, that Miller had been mistreating her and other female students.
The eighth-grade student was attracted to girls, she later told Detective Mintus, and had no interest in Miller. Yet he kept hitting on her, praising her looks and touching her butt. "You trust him so much, you don't think he will do you like that," she told Mintus.
She tried to avoid being alone with him in the band room. But on April 13, he asked her to come by. Frightened, the girl begged her sixth-period reading teacher not to excuse her from class when Miller came to the door. Wondering if the girl might be in some kind of trouble, the teacher instructed her to go to Miller's room after she finished her work.
The desperate girl spotted another teacher in the hallway and told her how much she didn't want to go. Yet this teacher escorted her to the band room and left.
Miller took her into the band equipment room, the girl told Mintus, and locked the door. He asked if she wanted to have sex. When she said no, he spun her around, bent her over a countertop, and forced himself on her from behind, according to Mintus' probable-cause affidavit.
Miller stopped only when he was interrupted by a knock at the door, court documents claim. He ordered the girl to stay quiet, grabbing the bracelets that were jangling on her wrists. She wiped the tears from her eyes and stayed silently in the room while Miller pulled up his pants and answered the door. When he came back, he told her to leave.
Two days later, as the traumatized girl sat in a school counselor's office crying, Miller banged on the door. "What's wrong, what's wrong?" he demanded, according to the counselor, Nicole Henesy, who gave a sworn statement to Mintus.
Henesy noticed that Miller's leg was shaking. He asked to speak to the girl in private. Henesy refused to leave, so Miller stormed out of the office.
A few minutes later, he came back with another female student. He turned to the second girl, asking, "Is [the 16-year-old] saying she's scared of me? Why is [she] saying she is scared of me?"
Neither girl would meet his eyes. Miller blustered out the door. Later, Henesy told Mintus, she saw Miller pacing the hallway, waiting.
The 16-year-old told Henesy that there were more victims, including at least one friend of hers who had said she had sex with Miller. It was the 14-year-old girl whom Miller drove to school every day, Mintus discovered, the one who said Miller was like a father to her.
At first, the girl told Mintus she'd never had sex with Miller. But three days later, on April 20, her mother called Mintus and asked him to come to their house for another recorded interview. This time, the girl admitted that she and Miller recently had sex twice in the band uniform room. She went with him willingly, she told Mintus, and the sex was "consensual" — although by law, a 14-year-old cannot consent.
Miller had her sit on his lap and then directed her to get down on all fours on the floor. Afterward, he would wipe up the evidence using a T-shirt or a blanket.
Two other 14-year-old Watkins students admitted that Miller had hugged and groped them as well. One was visibly frightened as she spoke to Mintus. Her cell phone kept ringing and beeping with text messages during her interview, and she looked embarrassed.
"I don't want nothing bad to happen," she said.
"What makes you think something bad is going to happen?" Mintus asked.
"Because this isn't right," she said.
Miller would sometimes keep her after class so she could straighten up the instruments in the band room, she explained. Once, when they were alone, he asked "if I feel like doing anything."
But "I don't like him like that, in that way," she told Mintus. Still, she allowed Miller to kiss and grope her several times. When it happened, she told Mintus, she felt "like I'm not there. Like my mind is not there."
She could never get the courage to tell her teacher that she wanted him to stop. "I agreed to him but..."
"But you don't, you don't want to do it anymore?" Mintus asked.
"No," the girl replied.
Miller grew more nervous as the investigation continued. In a recorded interview with Mintus, he twisted in his seat, asking anxiously, "What's this about?" Mintus wrote.
When pressed, he admitted that he kissed one girl. But he blamed it on the February shooting.
"I have been so fucked up lately," Miller said. "I've spent all my money. I've been... I've just been freaking out. I've been staying out late because, to be honest with you, I haven't quite got my mind right since February 16th."
"What's going on, man? I'm a Christian," Mintus said in the interview transcript. "I'm not here to judge you."
"OK," Miller replied. "A man took six shots at me, and I killed him. And ever since then... I haven't... I almost feel like I shouldn't have made it out of there. And I've been acting like that.
"I've been running around acting like I'm fine, and every time somebody gives me any affection, it's... I say I almost welcome it, but I haven't done anything to hurt these kids."
He explained that one girl would come and give him a hug and a kiss every day, and he was grateful for the compassion. "And I'm not saying that's right," Miller said. "But I don't walk around this place smiling, and I see people looking at me like he killed somebody. You have no idea what that feels like, when people are looking at you like he's a murderer."
He added: "I will do whatever you guys want me to do, but I have not had sex with any of my kids," he said. "I've not tried to molest them. I hope you believe me."
Yet two of his alleged victims said Miller pulled them aside and told them to stop talking to investigators because "he would lose his job if they were to tell the truth," according to Mintus' police report.
Miller knew that another student was saying he had sex with kids, but he denied it. "Now, y'all got to clear this up because y'all know I'd never hurt y'all," one of the alleged victims remembered Miller telling her. "And after that... he said he's not going to touch us no more, and he just like said he was going to give us a handshake."
Miller admitted to speaking with the kids, but he didn't see anything wrong with it. "I said, 'Just tell them nothing happened,' " he told Mintus.
"Why would you do that?" Mintus asked.
"Because nothing happened," Miller said.
As for any DNA evidence that Mintus might find in the band room, Miller explained that he "frequently masturbated" there.
Spooked by Mintus' investigation, Miller's cousin, Kevin Whitaker, allegedly called the girl Miller drove to school every day and asked her to wash her clothes. Miller also called the math teacher and asked her to remove a cell phone memory card from his classroom. She did, only because she thought the card contained naked pictures of her.
As he scrambled to cover his tracks, Miller also called another woman — not a Watkins teacher — with whom he'd been having an affair, according to court documents. She says he told her that if the police ever questioned her about a white shirt with DNA on it, she should say it was a shirt she had used to wipe herself after sex. This lover was a close friend of Miller and his wife, Mirelle, so close that she says Mirelle knew about the affair.
But Miller's lover was deeply disturbed by the allegations that Miller had sex with kids because she had a 14-year-old daughter herself. So she confronted him.
"I asked him, you know, Heath, is this true?" she told Mintus in a sworn interview. "And he said no, it's not true." But when she pressed him, he changed his story.
"Well, it's... it's true, but only one time when I... picked her up to take her to school, one time," the woman said Miller told her.
"Did he say he had sexual intercourse?" Mintus asked.
"He had sex with her in the band room... in the closet behind his desk," the woman said.
But Miller told his lover not to worry. Late one night, after being interviewed by Mintus, he had cleaned up any damning evidence from the band room.
Miller pleaded not guilty to felony charges of sexual activity with a child, lewd and lascivious molestation, and tampering with evidence. He's been in jail ever since. He was denied bail, and no trial date has been set.
In the band uniform room at Watkins, Palm Beach County sheriff's investigators found semen on the floor underneath a chair. The 16-year-old student who accused Miller of rape was examined by a nurse, whose overall findings were "positive for sexual abuse," according to Mintus' probable-cause affidavit.
DNA samples from that victim, Miller, and the 14-year-old with whom he allegedly had sex are still being analyzed, according to the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office.
In the wake of the sexual assault allegations, Palm Beach County sheriff's detectives began reexamining the shooting death that Miller said changed his life. Speculation swirled about possible connections between Robert Rashard Tomlin and the band teacher. The events leading up to the break-in only added mystery.
Tomlin, known to friends as "Shard," had roots in Pahokee. He had been living with a cousin in subsidized rental housing in Wellington, watching the cousin's kids during the day while she went to school. Investigators would later learn that Tomlin was living there illegally, because both he and his cousin had rap sheets, in violation of federal housing rules.
Tomlin was arrested in October 2006 for domestic battery, pleaded guilty, then was arrested for violating probation. In April 2007, he was charged with aggravated battery against a victim who was pregnant. Court records show he was convicted of a reduced misdemeanor battery charge. In January 2008, he was arrested again for violating probation.
On the night of February 15, 2009, Tomlin's sister, Toccara Thompson, told detectives that she and her brother were drinking at a friend's place in Wellington, down the street from Miller's home. Around 10:30 p.m., the party's host kicked them out because she wanted to go to sleep, Tomlin's friend, Sheldon Leung, told detectives.
Tomlin left with Leung and another friend, Darryl Woodson, to get more beer. But before the men went to the store, Tomlin offered to keep an eye on Leung's .40-caliber handgun. "Give it to me — I'll hold onto it until you get back," Leung remembered Tomlin saying, according to the sheriff's report.
After buying some Olde English, Woodson and Leung returned to find that Tomlin had disappeared, Leung told detectives. He came back, grabbed a beer, and left, still carrying the gun.
By around 1:30 a.m. the next day, Tomlin had broken into Miller's bedroom — a tenth of a mile away on White Pine Drive — wearing a mask and wielding the gun. Leung heard at least five shots, he told detectives, and immediately thought of Tomlin.
"Sheldon said Shard would do stupid stuff when drinking but didn't think he would break into a house," a detective wrote in the sheriff's report.
Tomlin was shot twice, according to the sheriff's report. A bottle of Olde English lay on the floor near his body. Nineteen bullet holes riddled the hallway, master bedroom, and sliding doors leading to the back porch. Crime-scene investigators found four spent casings from a .40-caliber gun in the house. The Millers were unharmed.
Sheriff's deputies said Tomlin's death was justified. "Justifiable circumstances: Felon killed by private citizen," reads the sheriff's report. "Justifiable code: Felon attempted flight from a crime."
But that doesn't mean the investigation is over. Last April, then-Principal Jose Garcia at Watkins told a sheriff's detective that he'd heard people at the school saying that Heath and Mirelle Miller "may have been" sleeping with Tomlin. The detective called Mintus, who said he'd heard the same rumors. Mintus and the other detective discussed their two cases "at length," the detective wrote, searching for any connection between the alleged sexual abuse and Tomlin's death. But they were stumped.
The Sheriff's Office pulled the cell phone records of Tomlin and the Millers, looking for any calls in common. They found none. The Palm Beach County Medical Examiner's Office refused to release Tomlin's autopsy report to New Times, saying the homicide investigation is ongoing.
Answering the door at his Pahokee home one recent afternoon, Tomlin's father said the family had never learned more about why Tomlin died.
Nearly a year after Heath Miller's arrest, Watkins is still reeling from the loss of its popular band teacher. Former students say the band program has fallen apart. The school has a new, stricter principal, and the math teacher who was having an affair with Miller has been moved to another job in the district.
On a breezy afternoon at a park playground next door to the school, three friends gather at a picnic table to wait for their rides home. Behind them, kids are streaming out of the sprawling Watkins campus toward the main road, laughing, running, trying to swagger on their way to the bus stop.
Carly Walls, a 15-year-old girl with an open face and frizzy brown ponytail, explains that she transferred to another middle school to finish eighth grade because there was too much bullying at Watkins. Sitting beside her is a girl with purple eye shadow and black geek-chic glasses. She's in the ninth grade and graduated from Watkins last year. Her eyes stay mostly on her cell phone and its constant stream of texts, and she declines to give her name. But she doesn't hesitate to chime in on the subject of Miller.
"Everybody loved Mr. Miller," she says, explaining that she was on the drill team. Recalling the field trips they took and the parties Miller threw at school, she sounds like she's remembering a friend or an older brother. "We were all really close with him," she says.
"I never liked the guy," counters another Watkins graduate, George Morales, who says he briefly played in the band. "He's just too happy." But that's the only criticism he can muster.
"We respected him," Carly says of Miller.
"He understood us," George agrees.
Some of the former drill team member's friends were among Miller's alleged victims. Yet she remains oddly neutral about the criminal case. She says she doesn't believe that Miller committed the crimes or that he didn't. Nor does she blame the girls who accused him.
"It wasn't their fault, and they knew it wasn't their fault," Carly says.
This ambivalence — a mixture of admiration, disappointment, and sometimes disgust — seems a common affliction for parents and children still struggling to reconcile the man they knew with the man in the booking photo on the news. When he was first arrested, one Watkins parent told the Palm Beach Post that the alleged victims might be lying. "He was one of my daughter's favorite teachers," Catherine Sampson said.
Other parents are stunned that no one raised suspicions about him earlier.
"He's impacted these young girls' lives forever," says one parent of a former band student. "It just breaks your heart to think that he had this whole playground going on... and it's like nobody came forward any sooner."
The one thing everyone can agree on is that Miller's arrest has left a painful mark on the kids who once adored him. There aren't many adults they can count on for inspiration, and now one more sits in a jail cell.
"Mr. Miller helped a lot of kids," says the former drill team member. "And then he kinda let us all down."