Arsenic and…. well, mainly arsenic

by Alex

This author life takes you into some weird places. One place I never thought I’d end up is on Court TV. But this week I did a segment for that show, with two of my favorite mystery authors, Margaret Maron and Sarah Shaber – we were interviewed discussing a recent, notorious arsenic poisoning case, which I really have to share with you.

Here’s the story, ripped from the headlines:

In 2000, Eric Miller, a 30-year old pediatric AIDS researcher at UNC Chapel Hill with a lovely wife and one-year old daughter, went out bowling with three other men, including Derril Willard, Miller’s wife’s supervisor at Glaxo Smith Kilne laboratories in Raleigh. The four shared a pitcher of beer, after which Miller complained of stomach pains. He kept bowling, but later that night was in such pain that his wife, Ann Miller, took him to the hospital, where he was kept overnight. Miller was released from the hospital, but continued to sicken, and died a few days later.

An autopsy revealed significant levels of arsenic in his system.

(Okay, we’re mystery writers and readers, right? I’m sure your little twisted minds are racing.)

Now, apparently arsenic is not just a powerful, if illegal, pesticide, but also historically a popular spouse removal compound in North Carolina, and so there’s actually a state law that any arsenic poisoning that a hospital comes across must be turned over to law enforcement for investigation, as this case was.

So fairly quickly, police found:

– quantities of arsenic at the laboratory where Ann Miller and Derril Willard worked and

– phone records that showed over 50 calls between Ann Miller and Derril Willard (also married, also with a baby daughter) in the two weeks before and after Eric Miller’s death and

– e mails on both parties’ hard drives at work that strongly suggested a “romantic relationship” between the two.

Police went to Willard’s home to question him, and after they left, he shot himself to death.

That’s not too vague, right?

Now, that week, before the questioning and suicide, Willard had hired a prominent attorney, and had apparently implicated “a third party” in the death of Eric Miller. The police not unreasonably suspected the widow Miller had some part in this whole tragedy, especially, let’s face it, considering that for hundreds of years arsenic has been the murder weapon of choice for women who did not at the time have the option of divorce, and also, it had been uncovered that Willard had not been Ann Miller’s first infidelity, but that she had had at least two affairs since her marriage.

But – Willard’s attorney, Richard Gammon, refused to divulge what his client had confided to him on the grounds of attorney-client privilege.

Thus began a three-year court battle that worked itself slowly up to the North Carolina Supreme Court, over whether or not attorney-client privilege extends beyond death.

Finally, the NC Supreme Court ruled that since the confidences of Willard neither implicated him in the murder nor jeopardized his family nor his estate, that the attorney, Gammon, was compelled to divulge Willard’s statements.

And Gammon’s statements revealed that Willard had confided that Ann Miller had injected arsenic into Eric Miller’s IV while he was in the hospital.

Meanwhile, Ann Miller had moved to Wilmington, on the coast of North Carolina, and married a Christian rock musician (somehow I especially like that part).

Now, even though Gammon’s recitation of Willard’s statements was hearsay, it was damning enough to arrest Ann Miller on $3 million bond. She had engaged the top defense attorneys in the state, Wade Smith and Joseph Cheshire. And finally in 2006, after negotiations with the state prosecutor, she pled guilty to second degree murder and received a sentence of twenty-five to thirty-one years, which she is currently serving.

Now, this whole story is one of those that, as a mystery writer, you read and think – “WOW”. And then – “No way. No one would ever believe it – it’s almost too – TOO.” But then as you keep reading, it sort of works on you.

I mean, first of all – WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?

Okay, so there was a hot affair (at least I hope so, sheesh.). But, um, why in the name of heaven did they feel they had to kill this guy? This was the year 2000. Raleigh’s a blue city. These were educated, well-employed people. Wasn’t divorce invented so women wouldn’t HAVE to kill their husbands?

And I haven’t dug so deep I can confidently answer this, but there really doesn’t seem to be a money motive.

So – what? It was pure lust? Pure, murderous lust? Or maybe this is me, but I keep thinking that both of these people had very, very small children. Were the stresses of early parenthood so great that they went a little, well, insane? And could only think of the most direct way out?

Certainly they were not thinking this thing through. At all. They were having an affair, not covering their phone or e mail tracks, and POISONING HER HUSBAND. Over a period, of, it’s been speculated, looking at the levels of arsenic in Eric Miller’s body – months. Maybe as long as six months.

Were they sociopaths, just unable to think of anything but their own immediate gratification? Narcissists, thinking they couldn’t be caught? Just plain lazy, thinking arsenic was easier than lengthy custody battles? Was she an evil and hypnotic Black Widow who lured men to their deaths? (Apparently the lead police investigator called her “mesmerizing.”)

And, let’s just consider this. The new husband? The Christian rock musician? He marries a woman suspected of multiple infidelity and poisoning her first husband?

And oh, even better in some ways – when the police come to arrest Ms. Miller-Kontz– she has a new job at…. A pharmaceutical company.

A suspected poisoner. At a pharmaceutical company.

I just don’t get it. Really. On any level.

But I think it’s stories like this that might make us into mystery writers, and readers. Because the really frustrating thing is that – we’re never going to know. This whole mess will remain a mystery. On the other hand, the ironic and truly satisfying thing about a mystery novel is that at the end – it’s not a mystery at all, anymore. Everything has been examined, clarified, and revealed. You know EVERYONE’’s motivation. You understand EXACTLY why, how, and when things happened, and in what order. It is such a relief and release to KNOW. So very much more satisfying than life.

I’m sure I’ll use some piece of this case in my own work, eventually. It will probably be something about the daughters. (Can you imagine finding out that your mother poisoned your father? Or that your father killed himself after he’d helped poison his lover’s husband?)

It won’t look anything like reality, but I can feel it in there, like a grain of sand… waiting to be layered into a pearl.

And so, if you’re inclined… how would YOU treat this story, or like to see it? A thriller? A comedy? THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWIICE, or TO DIE FOR? Whose POV would you tell it from?

And for the love of God, Montressor… tell me WHY.

11 thoughts on “Arsenic and…. well, mainly arsenic

  1. Louise Ure

    Great idea to tell the story from the years-later POV of one of the children, X.

    I’d aim to write it from the POV of Willard’s attorney. Great angst and insight. And I do love legal thrillers.

    Can’t help you with the “why.” Does greedy-mean-stupid count as a motive for murder?

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Yeah, my sister mystery authors were all over the attorney’s dilemma, too. I guess I could get into that if he were secretly mesmerized by the widow as well, and protecting her out of some twisted longing.

    Greed, though, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with this. Unless I’ve completely missed it, there wasn’t any significant money going to anyone involved. That’s what makes it more interesting to me.

  3. Carol Baier

    I’d write a black comedy from the Christian rock musician’s POV. Problems: too many flashbacks and a lousy soundtrack.

  4. Jacky B.


    We are one hell of a fucking species, aren’t we.

    Motive? Not greed? Well then, let’s not overlook that good old, ever motivating, standby: Hate.

    She didn’t just want to leave him, she wanted to leave him: dead.

    Christian rock musician? What would have been the guy’s chances of rocking on, with the new Mrs. working with pharmaceuticals? Dude would have had to be sure he was forever playing to her beat.

    POV? Man, I’d write it in first person. A deathbed narative by the victim. A man broken by betrayal. A man who knew what was coming, and just didn’t give a shit, but, was leaving behind a nasty fucking surprise for his betrayers.

    Hey! I like that. Got rewriting to do on my recently completed novel, but for the future . . . ? Thanks Alex.

    Jacky B.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I know, Carol – there are just – possibilities – in that Christian rock guitarist. It’s an outrageous wild card in an already outrageous story.

    Jacky B., I’ve got to think Miller knew SOMETHING. His story fascinates me – who marries and stays with someone who serially cheats on him and ends up slowly poisoning him to death? It takes two to tango, and I would just so love to know his side of things. I like your take!

  6. Carol Baier

    >>Christian rock musician? What would have been the guy’s >>chances of rocking on, with the new Mrs. working with >>pharmaceuticals?

    I’m glad you asked.

    Act 1: Meets future bride at the Republican National Convention. (Charlie Daniels was unavailable and, dammit, Sonny Bono’s dead). Mentions to her that new album sales are going through the roof.

    Act 2: Is there something wrong with that curried chicken soup? Rest of act consists of jump cuts between the back story and reimagined scenes from Lust Caution.

    Act 3: Reverend James Dobson gives eulogy at funeral. The new widow catches his eye. Invites him for a nice home-cooked meal.

  7. pari

    In the mood I’m in today, I might try to write it from the arsenic’s POV. Make the arsenic sentient.

    Turn it into some kind of nifty science fiction deal.

    Great case, Alex. There was one many years back where a jail guard paid a hitman $500 to get rid of his wife just because he was tired of her. A jail guard. Someone who knew scads of policemen? Did he think it through? Nah. He was too damn cocky.

  8. a Paperback Writer

    I smiled at your allusion to Cask of Amontillado — and really, this does seem almost as insane as Poe’s Montressor, where we never actually learn why he walls the misnamed Fortunato up in the wine cellar/crypt.But, all the way through your retelling of this bizarre arsenic poisoning case, I kept thinking of So I Married An Axe Murderer. Thus, I’d have to say that this tale is so weird it would only work as a spoof in my mind.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Paperback Writer, I agree – that’s exactly why I referenced TO DIE FOR – that Buck Henry written, Nicole Kidman movie based on the true story of a high-school teacher who convinced a couple of her students to kill her husband. More of a satire than a spoof, but it would be really, really hard to play this arsenic story straight because of the combination of outrageous elements.

    It continues to fascinate me not just as a human drama but as a story problem: how the hell do you tell it?


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