The email landed at 8:36 one recent morning, amid a tsunami of press releases and news tips residing in the Arizona Daily Sun’s inbox. But this one stood apart from the other submissions.
"Good morning. I hope this day finds you doing well. My name is Kevin Miller. I grew up in Flagstaff, but I have not lived there in almost 30 years. I'm writing you today because I would like to write a letter of apology to the City of Flagstaff.
"In 1992, I robbed the Burger King next to the university. I was convicted, served my time and never looked or went back to Flagstaff. Now, of course, when I did this act I was in my 20s, and when you’re that young, one does not think of the harm one can to another human being. I'm 50 now, and I realized I never took the time to apologize to the community that was so good to me. Will you please assist or direct me on how to do this task? Thank you for your time.
Consider that request done.
But that, by a long shot, is not the end of Kevin Miller’s story. Whether or not you, citizens of Flagstaff, accept his apology is up to you, of course. Before deciding, though, take a while to delve into his background and family life, the emotionally fraught reasons behind what he calls a desperate and stupid act, and the hard-won, thriving post-incarceration life he’s built in Tucson.
It is a tale of how a once-promising future can be derailed through a monumental judgment lapse that resulted in life-altering consequences for himself and others; of surviving in the harsh milieu of a maximum-security prison; of casting about for a job after his release with a felony conviction weighing him down like an anvil; of finding purpose and a steady paycheck as a commercial truck driver for more two decades; of his current challenge battling small cell lung cancer and fretting about the future for his three sons.
Miller isn’t asking for absolution, and he certainly doesn’t seek your pity. He simply wants the chance to apologize and, yes, explain. After all these years, with the guilt and remorse heavy on his mind, it’s something he feels he must do.
“I had no business doing what I did to that community, to Flagstaff,” Miller said by phone from his home in Tucson. “Flagstaff was good to me, and I’m man enough to own up to what I did. I believe I should come out and say to the city that I’m very sorry for the crime I committed.
“My motivation for writing that email is, of course, that I’m not in the greatest of health now. You get to this stage, and you look back at your life and confront things you aren’t proud of, things you’d like to make right. I’ve got to have some closure and make peace with it. I think about it often.”
A life derailed
Everyone knew the Millers in Flagstaff’s Smokerise neighborhood, just east of Highway 89. It was a big family, patriarch Harold Sr., a longtime supervisor first at Southwest Forest Industries and then at Ralston Purina. On Sundays, he served as a Baptist minister in Winslow.
Kevin remembers the community pulling together, looking out for one another. When his father suffered a serious hand injury at work that required him to spend considerable time in the Valley for surgery and rehabilitation, Kevin recalls, “every Friday, people came with bags of groceries for my mom.”
People there, too, kept an eye out on Kevin and his older brother, Harold Jr.
“In my neighborhood, if I got in trouble down the street, before I got home, everyone knew about it,” he recalled with a chuckle. “Looking back on Flagstaff, I think I grew up in the greatest town in the world.”
Harold Jr. wound up going to Northern Arizona University, majoring in criminal justice. Later, after playing football and basketball at Coconino High School and holding part-time jobs, including as a cook at the Burger King on South Milton, Kevin followed his brother to NAU.
But in the second semester of his freshman year, 1992, Kevin’s life was about to change, to spiral out of control swiftly and irrevocably.
“I had met a young lady earlier,” he said. “I ended up getting her pregnant. I’m African-American; she was Caucasian. I was not aware that her parents did not agree with our relationship. They withdrew her from NAU and sent her to her aunt in Chicago to have the baby.”
Custody issues and child-support payments ensued. Kevin said the young women’s parents threatened legal action to take away his parental rights. He said he owed $5,000 in child-support payments.
“I was 21; I panicked,” Kevin recalled. “That’s what led me to do the crime. That threw everything to… heck.”
He, his older brother and another NAU student came up with a plan to get Kevin the money.
“I had worked at Burger King before and knew the kind of money that went into that place every day, especially when school was in session,” he said. “I had no regards for the consequences, to be honest. My plan was get the money and, that weekend, fly out to Illinois and hand her the money and show her I was a responsible father.
“Obviously, that plan didn’t pan out that way. I mean, come on, what was I thinking? (Doing) that was a total contradiction. What ‘responsible father’ is going to do that, rob a Burger King?”
The night in question
Police reports and court records tell of a chilling, brazen raid at the Burger King at 1:04 a.m. on April 9, 1992.
The assistant manager, John Dechant, an NAU student like the Millers, opened the back door and were ambushed by three men in ski masks, two holding guns, a .22 and a .380. Dechant’s friend, Jack Schmidt, was in the Burger King that night to take home his buddy.
One gunman, believed to be Harold Jr., made Schmidt lie face-down on the floor and hogtied him with duct tape. The other gunman, later identified as Kevin, put the barrel of the .22 to the base of Dechant’s skull and led him to the safe. Dechant had trouble opening the space because of nerves, he later told police, and said the gunman threatened to kill him. After the safe opened, the gunmen emptied the money into a backpack. They duct-taped Dechant’s limbs, telling him that “the bloods from Phoenix were in town,” and fled.
The next afternoon, Harold was arrested while driving on Interstate 17. An hour later, Kevin was arrested after leaving a record store at the Flagstaff Mall. The third suspect was arrested later at NAU’s Rolle Activity Center. Police later recovered the two guns involved in the robbery at the Miller family home.
Court records showed all three men immediately confessed to the crimes. Kevin told police: I know I (expletive) up. I have a baby daughter I haven’t seen yet. It’s hard… I’m not a hard criminal like they’re trying to make me out to be.”
They faced charges that belied that notion: armed robbery, armed burglary, kidnapping, aggravated assault. They faced years, perhaps decades, behind bars.
Community members rallied to the brothers’ defense. This was their first offense and they were young, 21 and 22. Dr. Tony Ross, NAU’s dean of students at the time, wrote to Superior Court judge Charles D. Adams, seeking lenience and saying a long prison term would hinder their rehabilitation.
A family friend, Charles Milam, who happened to be a longtime NAU police officer, also wrote to the judge, in part: “I know their parents and their brothers and sisters have hammered at them — why? How could they? What is wrong with them? … These are bright young men who were absolutely stupid without excuse.”
A year later, 1993, at the resolution of the case — the brothers agreed to a plea agreement of aggravated assault — Adams sentenced them to 6½ years in prison, though eligible for parole in 4 years, 3 months.
DeChant, the victim, later graduated from NAU and became a detective with the Arizona Department of Public Safety in Phoenix.
Meanwhile, Kevin and Harold, Jr., were sent to a maximum security prison in Florence. Later, Kevin was transferred to a minimum-security facility in Douglas.
Kevin was paroled after 4 years, 4 months — “Super Bowl Sunday, 1997,” Kevin recalled.
Prison did not break Kevin. Or Harold Jr.
Asked what prison was like, Kevin paused three beats before answering: “Prison is a very — I don’t like to talk about this — a very negative environment. It’s a bunch of angry men frustrated at being locked up. And it’s very, very racial. You have no choice but to go along (among inmates). A huge plus for Harold and me was that we weren’t gang-affiliated. Both of us had high-profile jobs — I worked with the counselors and my brother with the medical team — and we minded our own business.”
Once paroled, Kevin found it difficult to find work that paid decently. (He had gotten married and had three sons; he has since divorced.) He worked at a car wash and other unfulfilling jobs.
“Coming out of prison, you’re not going to get a job that pays $100,000 a year – and I had a family to support. I talked to my sons’ mom and she said her mother knew of a vocational training program I could take. The vocational people said I should go to truck-driving school. I did it for 20 years. It paid well. I’m grateful to my mother in-law, Judy Lewandowski, for saving me.”
Bit by bit, Miller rebuilt his life. (Harold Jr., lives in Phoenix, works in the swimming pool industry). Kevin credits his Flagstaff attorney, Lee Phillips, for working for six years to restore his basic rights taken away as a felon, such as the right to vote.
“I’ve done everything I’ve needed to straighten out my life,” Kevin said. “Things are looking up.”
Small cell lung cancer is serious business, with a poor long-term survival rate, but Kevin said he recently received “good news” from his doctors.
This brush with mortality has affected him, though, giving him pause to assess his life and perhaps make amends.
His message to Flagstaff: “You guys were great to me, but I broke that trust. I am very sorry. Very.”