5 dead. 3 families. 1 man at the center. - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

5 dead. 3 families. 1 man at the center.

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Posted: Sunday, March 5, 2006 5:13 am | Updated: 4:10 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Full of bluster and bravado, behind the wheel of a fancy car, dropping $200 for dinner and living the high life in Scottsdale, young father and entrepreneur William Craig Miller seemed to have the world on a string.

For two years, his restoration companies appeared to thrive, specializing in cleaning up crime scenes, vandalism and fire damage. He moved his wife and baby boy into a half-million-dollar home north of Cactus Road. He held season tickets to the Phoenix Suns and a $10,000-a-year gun club membership.

And even after police called him an investigative lead in the Feb. 21 shooting deaths of five people in Mesa, Miller remained unflappable.

He regularly called Tribune reporters to shoot the breeze and joke about the phalanx of TV news trucks stationed outside his house. He clearly enjoyed the attention, hovering among the TV cameras as police searched his home last week.

The 28-year-old’s arrest late Friday on five first-degree murder charges ended the high life, at least for now, and capped a bizarre episode in one of the Valley’s most horrific crimes.

Police swooped down on Miller minutes after he finished dinner with his wife, Michelle, at Fleming’s Steakhouse, a trendy Scottsdale restaurant.

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge on Saturday denied bail for Miller and sealed court documents detailing the evidence against him. Court records show prosecutors sought to keep Miller behind bars because they believe he’s a flight risk, with “family out of state and access to large quantities of money,” and for the safety of witnesses.

In addition to frequent interviews with Miller, the Tribune spoke with family and friends of both Miller and the victims, and obtained court and business records from several states to understand how their lives collided, before screams in the night awoke neighbors and led police to the bodies of Tammy Lovell, her children Cassandra and Jacob; and brothers Steven and Shane Duffy.

AT LEAST TWO SIDES TO ACCUSED KILLER

There is a wide gulf between what William Miller claims and what can be proved. And there appear to be at least two sides to William Miller — the dark-haired charmer in expensive suits versus the man who lost three homes to fires and kept a loaded Glock 23 pistol behind the driver’s seat of his silver Audi.

He spent much of his formative years in and around New York and Washington, D.C. He was convicted of grand larceny in 1996 in Brighton, N.Y., and a relative said he served nine months behind bars. Details of his conviction were unavailable.

Last week, he told a Tribune reporter that he grew up in a typical “white bread” family. He says his father worked for DuPont and his mother was a teacher, his brother is a surgeon and his sister a police officer.

“We’re a normal family, you know?” he said.

He says he attended George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., but didn’t graduate. The Tribune could find no record of his attendance.

But there are records that place Miller in Alexandria, Va., for several years, beginning in mid-1999 and ending right around the time his first home caught fire, in 2002. Miller says a defective microwave oven sparked the blaze at his Alexandria townhouse, according to records of an investigation into another fire, an arson in November at his north Scottsdale home.

Miller met Michelle Bucci while she was working as a loan officer in Washington, D.C., he said. They married and in the fall of 2002 moved across the country and into a home in northeast Phoenix.

Michelle Miller was with her husband when police arrested him Friday, but she and their young son had been out of town for several months.

Sometime during that first year in Arizona, Miller met a hard-working former Navy firefighter who helped him get his first damage restoration job.

STEVEN CONSIDERED THE RESPONSIBLE ONE

Steven Duffy II, a 1993 Red Mountain High School graduate, joined the Navy soon after graduation, but was honorably discharged two years later for medical reasons, his siblings said.

Duffy worked for awhile at Special Devices Inc., an air bag manufacturer, then went into the carpet-cleaning business. It was back-breaking work, but it paid well and, growing up, his family never had much.

The second-born of six children, Duffy was the responsible one who looked out for everyone, his sisters and brother said. His parents divorced when the youngest, Shane, was 6. His father now lives in Wyoming.

“Steven always took care of all of us,” said the oldest Duffy, Stephenie. “He was more like my big brother.”

As teenagers, Stephenie said, the two of them spent a few days on the streets of Sacramento, Calif. “He made sure I ate and had a place to sleep,” she said.

When another sister’s daughter was denied medical care because she couldn’t afford the copayment, Steven dropped what he was doing to bring them the money.

Even during the leanest years, they said, Steven made sure they had a Christmas. He worked all his life, and it allowed him to indulge in coin collecting and amass hundreds of DVDs.

“Steven wanted to own his own business, and own a palace,” Stephenie said.

It was a cousin of Michelle Miller’s who first introduced Steven Duffy and William Miller, the Duffy family says. And it was Duffy who helped him launch a Puroclean franchise in February 2003 and a related business, Air Quality Associates.

Duffy became a valued employee and a good friend.

Within the year, Duffy brought another brother, Colen, to work at Puroclean. Colen and his wife, Trudy, soon took on another job — renovating an 80-year-old home the Millers bought near Carson City, Nev., where Miller owned another Puroclean franchise.

The young couple moved into the Nevada home in February 2004 with their two small children. At first, there was work mopping up after a wildfire in the area. They continued painting, installing insulation and making other improvements when the Puroclean business was slow.

They moved out and drove back to Mesa the day before Halloween 2004. The next day the house burned to the ground.

“William was on his way out there. He got there a couple of hours after we left, ” Trudy Duffy said. “Steven called and told us about the fire a day or two later.”

Neighbor Steve Zettler said the house at 105 Pintail Way burned down in the night after Miller and a friend left. During the day before the fire, a large tarp was pulled across the driveway so that neighbors could not see what was being removed, Zettler said.

“They were out there during the daytime with a U-Haul backed up to the house so you couldn’t see what they were taking in and out,” Zettler said. “That night, after they left, the place caught on fire.”

At the time, Miller said some boxes that had been left in the basement had apparently caught fire, Zettler said.

Miller told Scottsdale police the fire was caused by a defective basement light.

HIS FAVORITE JOB WAS BEING UNCLE SHANE

The youngest Duffy — Steven and Colen’s brother, Shane — was struggling to stay in school. Shane still lived with his mother and they moved a lot, the family says, because they couldn’t afford to stay in one place. Shane attended two charter schools but often had to work to support himself.

His favorite job was being Uncle Shane.

“Shane was just the baby, but he took on a lot of responsibility as far as our kids,” Colen said.

He moved in with Colen and Trudy during her two difficult pregnancies. “He was there when I went into labor with both of them,” a tearful Trudy recalled.

Shane took a job with Puroclean in January 2005 and bounced between Colen and Stephenie’s homes, helping them with their children and enjoying the idolization of his nieces and nephews.

Meanwhile, Steven was living in apartments in Apache Junction and Mesa, the last on Higley Road.

In May, Steven met Tammy Lovell through a friend who worked with her at a Bashas’ in Mesa. The mother of four had only been in town since March.

The two hit it off immediately, and Tammy and Steve would talk for hours on the phone. Lovell was living in Chandler with her sister, Luhanna Chesley, and it wasn’t long before the families brought their children together.

“Trudy and the kids went to Tammy’s every day and swam and played,” Stephenie said. Her children, too, enjoyed playing with the Tammy and Luhanna’s kids. Her son was just two weeks younger than Tammy’s son, 10-year-old Jacob.

SUBSTANCE ABUSE, BAD RELATIONSHIPS

By all accounts, Tammy Lovell lived a rocky life, filled with love and good times but marred by substance abuse and failed relationships.

When things were going well, she worked in nursing homes and was training to become a paramedic.

“She was very fiesty,” Luhanna said. “She was way smarter than me and always had way better jobs than me.”

Tammy and her husband, Paul, met and married in Manassas, Va., and had four children.

The oldest, 17-year-old Heidi, was raised by an aunt and is now the mother to month-old Jaydon. The second child, 16-year-old Derango, has remained with his father through his parents’ many separations. The youngest, Jacob, lived with his grandmother as a toddler and again last year.

Cassandra, 15, came to live with her aunt Luhanna when she was 11, on the verge of being taken into foster care, in part because of her grief over her parents’ breakup.

“She was hell-bent that her parents were going to be together,” Luhanna said.

During the two years she spent in Arizona, the adolescent settled into a routine and grew close to her aunt and cousins.

“She was a blessing in my life,” Luhanna said. “I was mad at her when she left.”

Cassandra returned to her mother in Virginia in the summer of 2003. A year later, the family tried to reunite once again in Ocala, Fla., where Paul was living. It lasted six months.

Tammy went back to Manassas for drug treatment in March, and took Jacob with her. But Cassandra stayed in Florida, building a life with new friends, writing poetry and getting to know her dad and brother again. She loved hanging out at the K’n’K club, her Florida friends say, with her favorite local band, Gettendeep.

In Virginia, Tammy fell in with the same old crowd. She called her mother in April.

“She said, ‘Mommy, I need your help.’ ” Pat Morehart said. “She couldn’t take care of the children, and she knew it.”

Morehart told her daughter to get on a plane to Arizona, while she flew to Virginia to fetch Jacob and bring him to her home in Sandy, Utah, a Salt Lake City suburb.

A month later, Tammy said she was ready for Jacob. Morehart loaded a rented trailer with some donated furniture and Jacob’s belongings and drove him to Luhanna’s house Memorial Day weekend. Cassandra came out for a visit soon after, met Shane Duffy, and never went back to Florida.

SUMMER WAS FILLED WITH HIKES, PARTIES

The summer was filled with hikes and birthday parties and lots of activity at the Chesley household as the Duffys and Lovells grew closer. Tammy and Luhanna, who fought often growing up, settled into a grown-up friendship and took long evening walks in the Chandler neighborhood.

“She brought me great joy,” Luhanna said. “I finally had someone, and she loved me and she loved my children.”

By September, Tammy had joined Steven and Shane working for William Miller at Puroclean. She and the children moved into Duffy’s Higley Road apartment and Cassandra and Jacob were enrolled in school.

Steven spent a month or more leading a Puroclean crew that picked up jobs following Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, and Tammy joined him for a few days toward the end.

Though the work should have been plentiful and lucrative, a Puroclean employee says they were unhappy with Steven’s record-keeping.

“William ended up having to go out there and sort everything out,” the employee said. “We’re still trying to figure out who we did jobs for that we hadn’t collected from.”

Tammy also was running into trouble at work, the employee said. All three were going to be terminated as soon as a new crew completed training.

In the fall, the Lovells and Duffy brothers moved into a two-story rented home in Barrington Estates, a gated community in east Mesa. It was quite a step up from the Higley Road apartment, with similar homes renting for $2,200 a month in Barrington Estates.

About 7:30 p.m. Nov. 25, William and Michelle Miller’s home on 79th Street caught fire, killing one of the family’s three dogs. A plasma TV, guns and Miller’s Toyota Tundra were missing.

“Several pour patterns were found throughout the house and gas cans were located inside,” the Scottsdale police report said.

In fact, the only place investigators didn’t find evidence of gas poured in the home was in their son’s bedroom.

Four days later, Tammy Lovell called Scottsdale police and arranged a meeting the next day at an east Mesa Arby’s. There, she told detectives that Steven and William torched the house. Police walked to the gas station next door and confronted Steven, who confessed, and told them where they could find the TV, the guns and truck.

Tape-recorded cell phone conversations between Duffy, Lovell and Miller the next day gave police enough evidence to arrest Miller as he pulled his silver Audi into the parking lot of Puroclean’s Scottsdale Airpark office.

Tammy Lovell and the Duffys quit Puroclean the same day. Miller said she was fired for “spreading rumors” and for bringing a gun to work.

“After William was arrested for arson, (Lovell) came in with a gun on her hip,” said an employee who asked that her name not be used. She said she quit briefly because of Lovell but has since returned to work.

Steven Duffy went back to carpet cleaning, while Tammy got a job at another restoration company in Mesa. The company, Valley Wide Water and Fire Damage, later hired Duffy and he was due to start work Feb. 24.

Miller awaited trial on arson and insurance fraud charges, while he scaled back his business.

The Millers had two other disaster restoration companies — the second Puroclean franchise in Carson City, Nev., and Advanced Restoration Solutions in Las Vegas. The Scottsdale office was closed in January and his assistant, Misty Cooper, began working out of Miller’s rented home, just blocks from his burned home on 79th Street.

The phone numbers to both Nevada companies have been disconnected. An eviction notice was posted on the door at the address listed for Advanced Restoration Systems in Las Vegas, notifying Puroclean of Scottsdale it had five days to move out and owed $2,900 in back rent.

Then came the early morning of Feb. 21.

“Hi. We just heard gunshots.”

Mesa 911 dispatchers received three calls in quick succession around 2:40 a.m.

“Three! Another gunshot! There’s another gunshot,” a woman says in the background as her husband talks to the dispatcher.

“Ryan heard some screaming next door to us. . . . He woke up and told me,” another neighbor reports. “And then I heard gunshots going off.”

When a SWAT team finally entered 2208 S. Barrington about 5:15 a.m., they found the bodies of the Lovells and the Duffys, and signs of a struggle. All had been shot to death with at least three of them shot in the head, according to family members who viewed the bodies. Tammy, in particular, showed signs that she had fought with her killer.

TAMMY, STEVEN KNEW HOW TO USE WEAPONS

Though court records and some family members indicate that Steven Duffy and Tammy Lovell were afraid for their safety because of the arson case, other friends and family say there were not. They say Tammy and Steven had many weapons and knew how to use them. And if Tammy were truly afraid for her safety, she would not have allowed her children to remain there, the family believes.

Last Monday, Miller called police after he came home about 1:30 a.m. and found his current Scottsdale residence torn up and burglarized. Miller said bullets had been fired into his bed, which he had made up with pillows to look as if someone was sleeping there.

In the following days, Scottsdale and Mesa police armed with search warrants collected items of “possible evidentiary value” from the home.

The Lovells and the Duffys mourned Tammy and her children at a Chandler memorial service.

The Duffys continue to hold carwashes and come up with other ways to pay for funeral expenses for Steven and Shane.

At a news conference announcing Miller’s arrest Friday night, Sgt. Chuck Trapani said, “Detectives are confident that Mr. Miller did not act alone.”

On Thursday, a day before his arrest, Miller told reporters he had an alibi. Friends — including a professional baseball player whose identity he must protect — would say he was with them, at his home, after a night of bar-hopping in Scottsdale, he insisted.

But one man close to Miller, 21-year-old Seth Ladner who also worked for Puroclean and at different times lived with both the Millers and the Lovells and Duffys, told the Tribune he was with Miller at his house the night of the killings but had passed out from too much drinking around 2 a.m. The slayings occurred about 45 minutes later.

Miller has said his alibi witnesses have given sworn statements to his attorney, but Miller won’t release the statements publicly.

The night he was arrested, Miller chatted with a Tribune reporter as he sat down to dinner at Fleming’s. The reporter mentioned that “America’s Most Wanted” would be airing a segment Saturday on the slayings.

“I may try to catch it. It just depends where I’m at,” Miller said. “If I’m near a television and I have nothing else to watch, I may watch it.”

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