Goshen News, Goshen, IN

October 7, 2012

A community tragedy, one year later

Faith in God keeps James Miller's widow, family going


GOSHEN — Even though the 2011 calendar had nearly flipped to mid-October, the air on the south end of Goshen still felt like summer, Linda Miller remembers.

It had been a warm and productive Saturday for Linda and her husband of 20 years, Jim. The unseasonable temperatures had topped out above 80 degrees that day and the humidity was still clinging to the night air. The Millers had completed some painting inside their home on Wildwood Court, which is a couple blocks east of the Goshen College campus, and just a few yards west of 15th Street.

“It was just a normal day,” Linda said this past Thursday. “The kids were at band. I had done some painting inside. It was a muggy night so we had our windows open.”

The Millers' teenage children — Leanne and Robert — both members of the Goshen High School Crimson Marching Band last year, were on a bus with their bandmates heading home from an invitational at Center Grove High School just south of Indianapolis.

The clock had clicked past midnight as the Millers waited up for the kids to return home. They knew they were going to be late. It was now Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011, and Jim and Linda were in their living room talking and petting their small dog, Frisky, a 6-year-old Shih-poo, which is a mix between a Shih Tzu and a poodle.

“We were just putzing around,” Linda said. “Jim was lying down in the living room. … We figured it was almost 1 (a.m.) and that the kids would be home soon. I decided to get washed up so when they got home we could talk and I would be ready for bed. So I went to the bathroom to wash up.”

Jim, a 58-year-old professor at Goshen College, apparently figured he’d have snack and went into the kitchen and poured himself a bowl of cereal, Frisky likely at his side. Jim was known for his early-morning cereal eating. This time, sadly, it would prove to be the last normal moment of his life.

A professor’s life

Jim Miller grew up in Holmes County, Ohio and earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Bluffton University. He went on to earn a Ph.D in medical biochemistry from Ohio State University. His first job out of college was at Goshen College in 1980.

In 31 years at the college, Jim advanced to become chairman of the chemistry department. He and Linda were introduced later by a friend. Linda, who grew up in Canada, was living in California at the time and she and Jim corresponded through the mail. The two would eventually marry in 1991.

Jim already had a daughter, Lisa, and the couple would add two more children to their family.

“People around the neighborhood would know him as someone who walked the dog every day,” Linda said. “He would try to get the kids to come with him and that would be their time together to talk about whatever.”

Jim would also walk to work. It was better for his back, Linda said, and would help ease the muscle spasms and pain. Jim suffered from chronic back pain for several years.

Jim loved flying radio-controlled airplanes and would often spend his Saturdays refining his flying skills at the flying field near Millersburg. One of his planes had two trapdoors that Jim could release from his radio control. He was known to drop candy out of the aircraft along with small parachute men.

The Millers kept “his” and “hers” workshops in their basement. Jim would work on his planes and Linda would craft furniture.  

Jim also enjoyed reading science fiction, an interest he shared with his daughter, Leanne, a 2012 Goshen High School graduate who is now a freshman at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Another one of Jim’s hobbies was following his old high school’s girls basketball games on the Internet. Linda said he would keep statistics of the Hiland Hawks games, analyze them and then send them to the coaches in his boyhood town of Berlin, Ohio.

“His dad was a stat man,” Linda explained. “When Jim was a little boy his dad would take him to basketball games and he’d sit there next to him and watch the game as his dad kept the stats.”

A couple times a year the couple would travel to Ohio to see the Hawks play. Jim was more often than not draped in “Hiland Hawks” spiritwear.

“All he’d ever wear is Hiland Hawks shirts,” Linda said with a chuckle. “On my birthday and during Christmas time he would honor me by wearing something else.”

Jim’s back hurt him something awful and he had trouble sitting for long stretches of time. When the family attended church services on Sundays at Clinton Frame Mennonite Church, Jim would pace back and forth in the rear of the sanctuary.

“By the end of the day he was pretty much done for,” Linda said. “Lying down was his best position. Once he got done with work he was lying down.”

The attack

As Jim poured his cereal that early-morning hour Oct. 9 in the kitchen and Linda washed her face in the master bathroom, a man was using a knife to slit open the screen to the Miller’s bedroom window. He entered through that window on the south end of the home the Millers have owned for the past 16 years.

He then walked through the dark bedroom and toward the light coming from the bathroom Linda was in. The door was partially ajar, she said. Normally the bedtime routine at the Millers includes Frisky nudging the bathroom door open with his little body to check things out.

“So when the door swung open I just assumed it was the dog,” Linda said. “I never even looked. He started stabbing me before I ever saw him.”

For an estimated 30 seconds the intruder brutally attacked Linda, landing most of his blows around her head, neck and shoulders. However, one stab wound was low enough to puncture Linda’s lung.

Jim had heard the screams and commotion by this time and ran down the hall to help his wife.

“As soon as Jim got there, (the attacker) turned and attacked Jim,” Linda remembers. “At that point I shut the door.”

Jim and the attacker continued to fight, making their way back toward the living room and the front door. After a few moments, Linda said, she opened the bathroom door and went to try and help Jim. She was injured badly but adrenaline and necessity propelled her to the living room.

“That’s when I saw his face,” she said softly of the attacker. “His eyes were sparkling and he smiled at me. … We believe that he was on meth. We don’t know that, but we believe that. He had such strength.”

At that point Jim was able to get off the floor before the two men started fighting again and ended up outside in the driveway and the front yard. Police were dispatched to the Millers’ home for a “robbery in progress.” They would arrive two minutes later. The perpetrator had fled on foot before police arrived.

“Jim died out there by the mailbox,” Linda said as she nodded her head toward the street. “A couple minutes and it was all done.”

At some point Frisky ran outside and sat next to Jim that brutal night until the police and emergency responders arrived.

The aftermath

Linda remained in the hospital for several days as Goshen police detectives scoured the Millers’ home for evidence. For three days police collected clues, much of which is still being processed at the Indiana State Police laboratory in Indianapolis and by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to Linda. The FBI is also nearing the conclusion of developing a profile of the attacker, she said.

As Linda lay in her hospital bed, she said she felt the enormity of the situation. She even had a vision of Jim, alive and well and wearing a silly grin. She said she turned to God to get her through it all a little bit at a time.

“Those first weeks when I wasn’t feeling very well I had a lot of pain in my back where my lung was punctured, there were days I just couldn’t pray,” Linda said. “And I would ask God for a word and he would give me a word to focus on for the day. It may be something like ‘grace’ or ‘faith’ or ‘hope.’ I would say, ‘God give me a word for the day. That’s all I can handle is one word.’”

In the days following the attack, the community paid its respects to Professor Miller with beautiful services at Goshen College and at Clinton Frame Mennonite Church, where the Millers were members.

Rev. Terry Diener, lead pastor at Clinton Frame, said the congregation pulled together immediately to do whatever it could for the Miller family.

“I remember we had such meaningful prayer services at that time,” Diener said. “When one of (our church members) suffers, we all suffer.”

Meanwhile, Linda decided her family would remain at their home on Wildwood Court. They would not move in the wake of tragedy.

“This house is home,” she said. “We have great neighbors. There’s no reason for us to move, really. I think moving would have been more traumatic than staying.”

It would be about six weeks after the attack before Linda and the children were able to move back into their home. It took that long for it to be properly cleaned.

“The police take part of your house with them,” Linda said. “They took the screen door and sections of carpet and linoleum. It cost $36,000 to clean the house after the attack. It is biohazard waste. Guys wore Hazmat suits and they put all your belongings in these huge plastic bags.”

There was much blood splattered around the home during the attack. Some of those stains, Linda said, have come through the freshly painted and wallpapered walls, which meant they had to be redone again.

“We had to buy new floor coverings and a new bed,” Linda said. “We had a new security system installed. It all takes time. Clothing in the bedroom had been splattered by blood and had to be replaced.”

Diener said of members of the church stepped up to help clean and repair the Millers’ home.

Before the Millers moved back they had a home blessing. People from the neighborhood and their church, along with friends, surrounded the house on the outside and asked the Lord’s blessing. Choir members from Clinton Frame sang a song they had been working on.

The blessing continued inside with prayer, stories and testimony.

“It was a significant event,” Diener said. “... As a pastor I have been able to see God’s hand in this, even if we don’t understand this.”

And, the Millers moved their husband and father back into their home with them.

“We unpacked all of Jim’s clothes and hung them back up in the closet. We moved all his books back in,” Linda said. “Maybe this winter we’ll deal with the clothes, but the kids just weren’t ready yet.”

Moving forward

Life goes on for the Miller family. Bills still need to be paid. Children still need to grow up. Since Jim’s death and her own healing, Linda has begun working more, about 25 hours a week as a youth pastor at Clinton Frame. It’s up to her to make up for loss of Jim.

She is still home in time to make dinner for Robert, a sophomore, before he has to scramble back to the high school for band practice. And back in August, Linda dropped Leanne off at Wheaton College in Illinois for her freshman year. She plays flute in the school band, Linda proudly proclaims.

“It’s hard for me to watch my children grow up without a dad,” Linda said with cracks in her voice. “I drove to Wheaton College and dropped my daughter off by myself. Everybody else had a mom and a dad.

“I’ve talked to a number of people about stepping up to the plate to help mentor my son, but people don’t really have a lot of time to give to that kind of thing,” she continued. “So, it’s hard when a boy needs a dad. I don’t need a husband, but he needs a dad or some kind of role model (to know) what does a Christian man looks like.”

And it’s Linda’s faith, she says, that keeps getting her and her family through to the next day.

“This year has been a year of pain,” she said. “I never knew that this could hurt as much as it did. I say that on the one hand. On the other hand, I have a deep faith in God. I would say that our grief, as a family, is different maybe from others because of our faith in God. I have never felt alone. I am alone, but I have always felt that God’s been with me.”

Linda said she harbors no anger toward God because of Jim’s death and that her church family has been an incredible part of her healing process.

“What we experienced that night on Oct. 9, 2011, was evil and I am sure God was weeping when Jim died,” Linda said. “God does not promise his people that life is going to be free of pain and sorrow. He promises that he’s always going to be there and that he’s never going to leave us. This has been incredibly hard, but I haven’t had to do it alone.”

The Miller family laid Jim to rest with some of his Hiland Hawks clothes. He will be remembered as the guy who walked the dog, dropped candy out of his radio-controlled airplane and helped guide many young minds at Goshen College.

Tuesday will mark the sad anniversary of his death. As much as Linda has strived to bring a normalcy back to her household since the attack, she knows it’s different now and there will always be a void to overcome.

“I’d say for a grieving family I think we’re doing OK,” Linda said with a slight smile. “We’re not like other families. I don’t think you can experience the kind of violence we experienced here and ever be the same.”