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On Sunday, Oct. 9, 1977, six days after her parents reported her as a runaway, Lisa Elaine Miller, 15, was found dead in a wooded area off lower Sullivan Slough Road near the Iowa Southern Utilities generating station 3-1/2 miles southeast of Burlington, Iowa.
The area, about 1-1/4 miles east of Summer Street Road, is a popular recreation spot.
The teen had been reported missing Oct. 3, 1977.
Authorities said the girl’s body was discovered about 1:10 p.m. Sunday by two teenagers.
Donald Crandall, 1314 Perkins, and Phillip Nelson, 1300 Perkins, both 17, had been trying to push their vehicle out of a ditch along old Highway 61 south of Burlington when they spotted “what they thought looked like a body” in a clearing about 20 feet off a path, state trooper Bob Porter told the Hawk Eye in a story published Monday, Oct. 10, 1977.
Rather than stopping to investigate, Nelson and Perkins drove toward town to summon help and flagged down Porter, who was on routine patrol on Summer Street Rd. south of the airport.
The three returned to the scene about 20 minutes later, where Porter radioed Des Moines County Sheriff Robert D. “Bob” Glick.
The teen lay face down in the brush, clad in jeans, earth-type shoes, a hooded sweatshirt and a blue jean jacket, the Hawk Eye reported.
Glick said there appeared to be bruises on the chest and throat and possibly some facial injuries, but said based on the preliminary investigation, there didn’t appear to be a “sexual connotation” to the death.
Because of the “suspicious nature” of Miller’s death, Glick said the department was treating it as a homicide. The teen’s body, he said, had apparently been lying in the woods for a couple of days before being discovered.
Glick said the body, which he described as “just sopping,” appeared to have been drug into the brush from the path.
In an AP story published Oct. 10, 1977 in the Muscatine Journal, officers said it appeared the girl had been beaten around the head, but an exact cause of death had not yet been determined.
Officials sealed off the area and waited for the BCI’s mobile crime lab team to arrive from Des Moines.
According to the Hawk Eye, a Burlington police officer on scene recognized the girl and summoned juvenile probation officer John Wauters to make a tentative identification.
Deputies and state troopers searched the surrounding area and discovered some shotgun shells “some distance” from Miller’s body, but said it was unknown if they were connected to the crime as there were no apparent gun wounds on the girl, Glick said.
The Hawk Eye also reported:
During the search, four youngsters walked up from the Mississippi river where they had been fishing. They told officials they had noticed something in the brush about noon but had not gone over to take a look at what turned out to be the body.
BCI agents arrived about 8 p.m. and made a preliminary investigation before moving the body to Burlington Medical Center about an hour later, the Hawk Eye story said.
Deputies made a makeshift campfire and guarded the area overnight until investigators returned Monday.
Burlington police said Miller, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Gerald B. Miller of 648 S. Central, was a “repeated runaway,” and had been reported missing on Monday, Oct. 3, 1977.
In the Hawk Eye’s Oct. 10 story, juvenile probation officer Wauters, who had the girl under his supervision, said that although she’d been under “protective supervision” by the courts for more than a year, that she’d never been involved in crime.
“She was a very quiet girl that had runaway problems,” Wauters said. “We were never able to get to the real root of the problem.”
Wauters said Miller hadn’t attended school since the previous spring.
An autopsy was performed Monday, Oct. 10, 1977.
In a Des Moines Register story published Tuesday, Oct. 11, 1977, Glick said he was still uncertain whether or not the Burlington teen had been murdered.
Glick said authorities wouldn’t be sure until they received the autopsy report and tests from the State Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) crime laboratory.
Although authorities originally believed Miller might have been beaten to death, Glick said further examination of the body showed “no extreme or severe injuries.”
Authorities had no suspects in the case, he said. And, though there was no precise evidence of a homicide, Glick said “we will continue to treat it as a homicide until we know the results of the tests.”
The sheriff couldn’t confirm how long Miller had been dead, but said there were a number of suspicious aspects about the case, including the remote area where the body was discovered, and with no indication of a means of transportation.
“There are a number of things about this that appear out of order,” he told the Register.
In a Hawk Eye article dated Oct. 11, 1977, State BCI agent John Jutte said test results from specimens taken during the autopsy should be returned from the state lab in Des Moines Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.
Jutte declined to comment further on the investigation.
Glick told the Hawk Eye that, pending results from the autopsy completed at Prugh’s Chapel Monday afternoon by Macomb, Ill., pathologist Dr. Edward Harrow, “We still do not have a homicide.”
Glick said initial observations were done under poor visibility conditions, and that later observations showed no injuries he’d call extreme or severe.
Glick asked that anyone who might have seen Miller or known of her whereabouts after she was reported as a runaway to contact his office.
Gerald Miller described his daughter as “real quiet” and a girl that “everybody liked. I still can’t believe it,” he told the Hawk Eye.
Gerald Miller said he last saw his daughter at supper time on Monday, Oct. 3, when she came home with a note from her boyfriend breaking off their relationship, he said.
She left to go to a girlfriend’s about 6 p.m. and never returned home, he said in the Hawk Eye’s Oct. 3 story. Two days later, he said he reported her as a runaway to her juvenile probation officer.
Wauters had the girl under supervision because of habitual runaway and school truancy problems, Gerald Miller said.
Lisa Miller had “pretty much settled down,” after she quit Apollo school in the spring, Wauters told the Hawk Eye. He said she’d previously been out of school while she was placed by the courts in the Quad Cities Children’s Center in Davenport for about nine months.
Also according to the Hawk Eye’s Oct. 11 report:
Wauters said he didn’t notify police of her absence, adding that it’s “a lot more effective” with runaways to go “through the grapevine” and reach her through friends that usually hid her from authorities.
“We thought she just may come back on her own,” Wauters said. “I never thought anything like that had happened.”
“We have reason to believe that it wasn’t” a homicide, state BCI agent Sam Swain said in a Hawk Eye story published Wednesday, Oct. 12, 1977.
Swain said results from the state crime lab wouldn’t be back for at least four more days, but there was no evidence of a violent death.
“We are considering it at this time what we call a questionable death,” Swain said.
Swain said special tests were being done on specimens taken during the autopsy, which take longer than those usually performed. He said he didn’t know what all the tests involved.
BCI agent Larry Goepel said officials were “still appealing for help” from anyone with information about Miller’s whereabouts after she went missing, and that callers would not be required to identify themselves.
On Friday, Oct. 14, 1977 — just two days after Lisa Miller’s funeral — her 2-year-old brother, Bradley, was struck by a pickup truck after running into the street to retrieve a ball.
“I just buried my daughter,” Ila Miller sobbed as ambulance attendants treated her son on scene just after 3 p.m. in front of the Millers’ family home.
The boy was in good condition Saturday in University hospitals, Iowa City, where he’d been transferred an hour after the accident, the Hawk Eye reported on Oct. 15. The toddler had suffered a head laceration and other injuries.
Johnny R. Kennedy, 41, of Middletown, was heading southbound on S. Central and slowed when he saw the boy on the side of the street, but didn’t think the boy would dart in front of him, patrolman Carl Thomson told the Hawk Eye.
Thomson said Bradley N. Miller was struck by the pickup’s steel bumper and rolled underneath but missed the wheels. No charges were filed.
“There were no skid marks or anything that showed excessive speed. He, Kennedy, just couldn’t stop,” Thomson said.
Laboratory results from Lisa Miller’s autopsy, returned to Sheriff Glick’s office on Monday, Oct. 17 from the state BCI lab in Des Moines, proved to be disappointing for all involved in her mysterious death.
“We don’t have a homicide. I’m not sure what we have,” Glick said in a Hawk Eye article dated Tuesday, Oct. 18, 1977.
Glick said autopsy findings and lab testing were “inconclusive” on cause of death, showing “nothing which would have been indicative of a homicide or violence.”
Nothing in the report, however, indicated just how Miller died.
Glick said blood seen on Miller’s face at the scene was thought to be the result of natural membrane breakdown in the nose and mouth area after death, and that a state toxicologist’s report showed no traces of drugs in Miller’s blood.
Glick said there are “a number of drugs that are not discernible in the bloodstream” and that evidence of fluid in Miller’s lungs was “not inconsistent” with conditions of death by drug overdose, viral pneumonia or exposure.
The investigation showed Miller was taken to the Sullivan Slough area by someone, Glick said, but officials didn’t know if she was dead or alive at that time. Rumor and conjecture, he said, had made the investigation that much more difficult.
“I’m satisfied that she didn’t get where she was by herself,” Glick said in the Oct. 18 story. “If the pathologists in the laboratory can’t explain the death, I’m at a loss to do so.”
In her article “Authorities stymied in girl’s death,” published in the Hawk Eye Sunday, Oct. 30, 1977, reporter Elaine Oberlander summarized what the paper had learned so far through interviews with BCI agent Sam Swain, pathologist Dr. Edward Harrow, and others regarding Lisa Miller’s death.
Oberlander’s overview included the following bulleted lists (as printed by the Hawk Eye):
- The death of Miller, 648 S. Central, was not a homicide victim (death at the hands of another).
- No determinable natural causes for her death have been found.
- The possibility exists that a crime or crimes were committed in connection with her death.
- She was not sexually assaulted.
- There was no alcohol in her blood.
- There were no traces of drugs in her system. Not all drugs can be traced.
- There was no evidence of bruises or injury. Body discolorations were attributed to post mortem lividity (settling of blood to lowest points). Other marks on the body were attributed to insect damage.
- Some fluid was found in her lungs. Viral Pneumonia, overdose of drugs or exposure are among the possibilities that could cause fluid in the lungs.
- She did not arrive at the spot where her body was found (3-1/2 miles south of Burlington) by herself.
- Lisa left home with her purse Oct. 3, but the purse has not been found.
- A death certificate, which could list the cause of death, had not been filed in Des Moines county district court by Friday afternoon (Oct. 28).
Among points of information that authorities are believed to know but refuse to disclose are:
- Complete contents of the autopsy report.
- Approximate time of death.
- Where and by whom she was seen during the last week of her life.
- What, if anything, was found by lawmen who combed the area where her body was found.
Points of information that lawmen apparently do not know are:
- Whether Lisa was dead or alive when she arrived at the spot where her body was found.
- How she died.
- Who took her to the spot where her body was found.
- How she was transported there.
The BCI’s Swain told the Hawk Eye the teen was last seen in Mel’s Food Store, 1000 S. Central, three blocks from her home, between 5-6 p.m. the Friday before she was found.
Dr. Harrow said autopsy reports don’t always pinpoint how someone died.
“Sometimes an autopsy doesn’t give you the answer,” the pathologist told the Hawk Eye. “We’re not certain exactly what happened. The agent that caused her death has not been determined.”
County Attorney Steve Hoth told the Burlington paper it was very possible there could be charges filed. He said a “wide array of possible charges” including drug-related charges or a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor might be involved.
The final 7-1/2-page autopsy report, released by Dr. Harrow to Des Moines county medical examiner Dr. Joseph Stoikovic, did little to clarify the mystery behind Miller’s death.
According to a Hawk Eye story published Nov. 9, 1977, the autopsy report said death was attributed to “circulatory failure of unknown etiology” — meaning that Miller died when her heart and other vital organs stopped functioning for an undetermined reason.
Miller’s estimated time of death was 30-36 hours before her body was found — sometime between 1:30 and 7:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 8, 1977.
Lisa would have celebrated her 16th birthday three weeks later on October 31.
On Monday, Dec. 14, 1977, two months after Lisa Miller’s death, 18-year-old Jerri Lee Connelly was found face-down at the bottom of the Gunnison street flood gap, a storm and sanitary sewer between Washington and Agency streets in Burlington. Connelly died of a gunshot wound in the chest and severe head injuries.
Connelly and Lisa Miller knew each other.
BCI agent Sam Swain, involved in both investigations, said in a Dec. 14, 1977 Hawk Eye article he is convinced “there is no connection between this incident and the Miller case. And we’re not investigating it that way.”
Police chief Ted Behne, while saying he is not sure the deaths are related, said “we have to keep all of our options open, and that’s one of them.”
Connelly’s parents, Cecil and Wanda Connelly of 116 S. Gunnison, told the Hawk Eye they didn’t believe either of the teens’ deaths were suicides.
“I just hope it doesn’t take another kid’s death before they (the police) realize that,” Cecil Connelly said in the Dec. 14 article.
Four months later on April 16, 1978, Patrice Waddell, 18, also of Burlington, died of what the Des Moines county medical examiner’s office called a drug overdose. Waddell’s death was later linked to the seizure of records from Donnellson physician Dr. K.S. Kaboli and four area pharmacies.
In a Hawk Eye article dated April 12, 1979, Burlington police Capt. Jay Holley, whose office was involved in the investigation, said he didn’t know if the death of Lisa Miller was related to the current case.
Lisa Elaine Miller was born Oct. 31, 1961, in Burlington, Iowa, to Gerald B. and Ila LaVon (Long) Miller.
Memorial services were held at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 1977 at Prugh’s Chapel with the Rev. Norman Wenig officiating. Lisa was buried in Burlington’s Memorial Park Cemetery in Des Moines County.
In addition to her parents, survivors included three brothers, Terry Stephenson, Bradley Miller and Jerry Miller, all of Burlington; three sisters, Mrs. Ila Jacobs, Mrs. Diana Thompson and Mrs. Mary Stewart, all of Burlington; grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Brown, Oquawka, Ill., and Joseph Long, Keokuk.