Three weeks after they met, Dolores Watson Hodges McGee George Downey Kaufman Wilcox Phillips Turner Jordan Miller squeezed into her blue-and-white 1977 Oldsmobile and drove her new husband Erroll Miller 100 winding miles upstate, through the snow-dusted foothils of the Ozark Mountains to a hospital in Columbia for surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor.
It was hardly the sort of honeymoon voyage lovers dream about.
Then again, this was no ordinary romance; more the final chapter in a harlequin tale of loves and passions, hot guns, bounced checks, burned houses, missing jewels, a dwarf and even murder.
Erroll--a slight, withdrawn TV repairman, retired at 59--was known around town as Crash Miller: four car wrecks in three years, all because he'd black out behind the wheel from the tumor, first diagnosed three months back. So he took to staying home most of the time, and started writing lonely hearts letters to a Memphis dating service called Love Unlimited.
Dolores Phillips--obese, 5 foot 2, red hair, green eyes surrounded by heavy-framed spectacles, a sometime nurse, now a secretary at Love Unlimited--wrote back.
A few months later, Roy Miller, as he was known, sent 52-year-old Dolores Phillips $100 in travel money, along with the admonition, "please go under 140 pounds for your visit"; all 195 pounds showed up in Dixon on Jan. 15. In six days they were married: Roy gave Dolores a ring he said cost $6,000; Dolores refused to wear it, claiming it was worth only $6. "Why wear a cheap-ass ring when I can wear diamonds?" she explained after the wedding.
She loved jewelry, and for their nuptial portrait, Dolores offset her flowing floor-length purple dress with plenty of diamonds from her past. In the picture, she is smiling broadly for the photographer, who placed the couple behind a prop rail fence and in front of a painted pastoral backdrop.
Roy Miller is wearing a blue-checked suit.
He is not smiling at the camera.
Five weeks later, Roy Miller was dead--not from the tumor, but murdered, police say, by his new bride.
Dolores Miller refuses to discuss any of this, according to her lawyer Patrick Eng. She is being held in the Boone County Jail in Columbia, where her trial is set to begin Aug. 17. The charge against her is capital murder, the only crime in the state of Missouri that still carries the death penalty. She has pleaded not guilty.
When the phone rang at Columbia Police Headquarters at 1:50 p.m. on March 8, Detective Sgt. Dale Richardson had an unlit Marlboro between his lips. A cop for 20 of his 43 years, his main concerns of late were twofold: not smoking and boredom.
But right now, Dr. David Gardner was changing all that with a troubled call from the Harry S Truman Memorial Veteran's Hospital. A patient named Erroll Miller had successfully undergone brain surgery, Gardner said. He had cleared all his post-operative hurdles, and then suddenly snapped into a coma after being returned to his room. His blood sugar had taken a precipitous dive, the doctor reported, which suggested an overdose of insulin.
Richardson fumbled around for a match. He remembered an article he had read in People magazine about Claus von Bu low and lethal injections and celebrity trials. He lit the cigarette, his first in months.
Gardner told Richardson that Miller's wife had been bragging around the hospital about how her new husband had signed all his money over to her. He also said she had been taking bets from personnel and patients about when he would die. She had talked about several previous marriages, saying some of her past husbands also had died, and even had called Parker's Funeral Home to inquire about cremation--before Roy Miller had gone into his coma. Gardner wasn't suggesting that Dolores was guilty of a crime. But in his eight years of experience as an endocrinologist, he had never seen the spouse of a patient behave in such a cavalier manner.
The detective started making some routine calls. He discovered that on Feb. 4, the day after Roy Miller went into the hospital, his wife withdrew $18,000 from his savings account in Dixon. Two weeks later he wrote her a check, drawn on a bank in Boston, for $12,000.
There was hardly a crime involved in that. But the town marshal down in Dixon, population 1,402, convinced Richardson that Roy Miller was certainly a bit dotty. The marshal had responded to a few of Roy's wrecks, and got to know some things about Miller while filling out all those accident reports: how he had run away from the wife and kids back in Frankfort, Ill., and brought with him to Dixon his $50,000 life savings--which he seemed to be depleting on a regular basis with the purchase of successive replacement cars. One day he came into the town office to pay a water bill and tripped over a stand-up ashtray. "Roy, you okay?" the marshal asked. And Roy Miller snapped back, "How'd you know my name? You spying on me?"
As batty as Richardson thought Roy Miller might be, he was a pillar next to his wife, Dolores.
Two days after Dr. Gardner's initial contact with Detective Richardson, he called again to announce that Roy Miller was dead.
Gardner said it would be several days before the pathology lab could complete its autopsy report. An insulin overdose was still suspected as the cause of death, although there was no toxological proof at this point. But Gardner wanted Richardson to know that Dolores Miller objected to the autopsy, and wanted her husband's body cremated immediately.
Richardson was convinced he had only one suspect in the case: Dolores Miller. He went over to Opal Duncan's rooming house on Rosemary Lane, where Dolores Miller paid $5 a night for a bed while her husband was in the hospital, and noticed that Miller's Oldsmobile bore Tennessee tags . . .
And on the morning of March 11, as the Widow Miller pulled out of Opal Duncan's driveway, Richardson and several other Columbia cops were waiting for her. She was arrested under a statute that prohibits residents of Missouri from owning vehicles with out-of-state registrations.
By the end of the day, Dolores Miller had signed a statement that on the afternoon of March 4 she walked down a corridor to a nursing station, picked up a hypodermic syringe and a vial of insulin, returned to her husband's room and injected into his intravenous supply tube 100 units of insulin.
This was the most bizarre thing Richardson had come across since an evangelical minister south of Columbia stuffed his just-deceased mother into an upright freezer and hauled her around for two weeks on the back of his pickup truck, waiting for the woman to rise from the dead. Of course, that was legal in Missouri. "As long as you keep a stiff on ice, you're not breaking the law," says Richardson.
As the detective started to sift through the disparate past of Dolores Miller, he found that she had been born near the little rural town of Truman, Ark., on Aug. 3, 1929, two months before the bottom fell out of the American economy. Her father, Jesse James Watson, was an itinerant carpenter who left and returned to her mother five times before Dolores was 10. The girl finished her education through grade 10, then left school and married her first husband, Willie Lee Hodges, in Jonesboro, Ark. on May 30, 1945, when she was 15 years old.
"I wasn't with her very long," her father says now from San Jose, Calif., where he moved in 1954. "I was always looking for work. She was a very nice child, very sharp in school. I guess you could say we had a falling out. I lent her some money, she never paid me back. I heard about this; I was real surprised. I had a letter from her after she was arrested. She asked me to call her. I couldn't. I always felt I didn't have anything to say to her."
In a box at Opal Duncan's rooming house, Dolores Miller had kept a fading 2-by-3-inch, black-and-white photograph of herself and her younger brother Leon Earl. They are seated together in a field. He is still in diapers; she is wearing a little white dress, with a costume jewelry pin stuck in the bib, and is holding her brother's baby bottle. In the background, a group of farmhands is being driven to work on a flatbed truck, which is passing in front of an old Lucky Strike billboard. It is an image that conjures up the poverty of the South, a photograph that could have been taken by Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange, who roamed through America's Dust Bowl and recorded the dashed dreams of an era.
"She talked about her younger brother a few times," says Opal Duncan. "She said she could never understand why her mother loved him more than she loved her. It was like she wanted so much sympathy. But all the women who come in here to room have loved ones in the hospital, and after a while we all got tired of her asking for special attention. She had all these diamond rings, maybe a dozen on her fingers. Everybody wants something out of life, but I could never figure out what Dolores Miller was interested in."
On the day of her arrest, Dolores Miller seemed an anomaly, right down to the $2,560 cash in her purse and her grandmother's wedding band, pinned in her bra close to the heart. Richardson began to go through the boxes in the trunk of her car, and found: various marriage and death certificates; cartons full of prescription drugs; piles of photographs bound with rubber bands; jewelry cases overflowing with rings and watches and brooches; letters addressed to different Doloreses--Wilcox, Phillips, Turner, Jordan; the names and addresses of hundreds of men; a set of snapshots of what appeared to be a female dwarf dressed in doll's clothing; and a .32 Colt automatic handgun.
The serial number was still on the gun, and Richardson keyed the digits into the FBI's stolen-goods memory bank. It was there. The detective started toying around with some of the names on the marriage licenses and the envelopes addressed to her. He discovered that in Georgia there were 10 outstanding warrants for the arrest of Dolores Jordan on check-writing charges. Dolores Kaufman had actually served three separate, six-month sentences in Shelby County, Tenn., for writing bad checks.
In Memphis, Dolores Phillips had been living in a rooming house run by a woman named Flossie Barker. Phillips was working as a nurse at Baptist Memorial Hospital there, and met Barker through the Nurses Association.
"She told me her husband had died of a heart attack, and she came to live here," Barker says. "She liked to eat and sleep. Didn't talk much. She bought everything she could buy, always seemed to have money. She told me she had been fired from the hospital for attitude problems and that she took a job with this dating service called Love Unlimited. I know she started writing to this man Miller in Dixon. I guess she got his name from the dating service. Then one day she just up and left. She took my ring and the ring my husband had given me, and I didn't want nothing to do with her after that."
Within a week, Richardson assembled a list of 10 men who had been married to Dolores Miller. During her interrogation, she told police that her first husband, Hodges, had been shot dead in a car while committing adultery. Richardson could find no record of the incident and no trace of Hodges. Nor could he find any information on Cleo McGee, the second husband, or Raymond George, the third. Her father told Richardson that Dolores once claimed her fourth husband, John Downey, had died in a truck accident. And the fifth, Fred Kaufman, had divorced her in Memphis after she was convicted of writing bad checks, although Richardson could not locate the man.
The sixth husband, Don Dix Wilcox, died in Memphis of a heart attack. Richardson located the eighth husband, Jack William Turner, who said he had met Dolores Phillips in a hospital where he was recovering from an injury and living on workman's compensation. They were married in April of 1978, and Phillips said Dolores divorced him after the disability payments stopped in July of 1979. The ninth husband, Henry Crawley Jordan, said he had married Dolores Turner on April 16, 1979, not knowing she was still married. They were divorced in October of 1980, after which, Jordan told Richardson, his former wife fled Georgia for Memphis to avoid the warrants for her arrest. Roy Miller, the 10th husband, was in the Boone County morgue.
But Richardson was most intrigued by a conversation he had with Thurmond G. Phillips, the seventh husband, who said he had met Dolores Wilcox in Memphis during the fall of 1969. She told him that she had come home one night from work only to discover her husband dead on the living room floor. Phillips told Richardson that he and the Widow Wilcox started dating that fall. They were married in Shelby County on June 19, 1970.
The detective phoned the coroner's office in Memphis. Yes, he was told, Don Dix Wilcox had indeed died of a heart attack--on March, 3, 1970.
She told Phillips that her husband had died of a heart attack five months before he really did, he thought.
Richardson hung up and stared at the mug shot of Dolores Miller on a cork bulletin board over his desk.
He took a pad from his desk drawer and scrawled a few words across a piece of paper. Then he tacked it below the mug shot:
BLACK WIDOW CAPER.
Thurmond Phillips remembers many of the details about his brief marriage to Dolores Wilcox. "We all make mistakes," he says. "Mine was gettin' involved with her."
They met in a Memphis laundromat, and went next door to talk in a bar "about a block and a half off Union Street. I was working for the American Bakery Co., making Taystee Bread. She told me that she was a private duty nurse and that her deceased husband had put down tile floors. She took me back to their apartment. This had to be the fall, because I remember it starting to get chilly. We dated for about eight months. Sometimes we'd stay at her place, sometimes mine. After a while she told me she didn't like staying at her place, what with the memories of her dead husband. We got married the next June and moved to South Carolina, where I had got a job with a tire company.
"She loved to make money; she loved to spend money. She always wanted to be number one, the center of attention. I said, 'Somebody's got to be number two; it's just as easy.' But she could pull things off as number one. One time we went down to the Grand Ol' Opry. Bobby Lord was there, and after the show she takes my kids off, and the next thing you know they're back there talking to Bobby Lord. She'd read a lot. I remember her reading 'A Tale of Two Cities,' and she'd study 'The Physician's Desk Reference.' She could just look at a pill and tell you what it'd do. She loved to cook, about anything other than rice. I don't believe we went to the movies more than a dozen times, but she'd watch anything on TV except cartoons. She did have a temper. And she would have made a good salesman: She could make you believe the moon was blue.
"Everybody always called her 'that woman.' They thought she was strange. She said she had two daughters. One had committed suicide. She said the other said if she married me she'd never talk with her again. 'Course she also had sort of a split personality, always contradicting herself. Once she told me her former husband had stabbed her and killed twins in her belly. But her mother told me she didn't know anything about her having children or being pregnant.
"The end of our marriage came to a head over a garden. Mom lived up the road 700 yards, and I had put a garden in for her. The beans was ready to pick. Dolores said the first time one of my brothers got a bean out of that garden, I got a divorce. Well, they picked the beans and I got my divorce. Problem was, I had been in the hospital for a while and, being as I had been married once before, she convinced me that it would be best for everything to be in her name. So when she threw me out, she said she'd kill me if I ever came back. I got the deputy sheriff to go down to the house with me, and she met us with a .38 special, made in Brazil. I had found it one day, and she just claimed it. She also had a little .25 she always carried in her purse. I got my clothes out and that was it. She got everything else. And then a couple of weeks later, Mom's house burned down. She was seen around the house a few hours before the fire. Mom was in the hospital.
"There was one other thing. She always talked about adopting a mentally retarded girl. She brought the girl to the neighbors across the way once, to show it to them. It looked like a baby a couple of weeks old. She said she wanted to dress it up like a little baby doll, that her Momma never bought her dolls when she was a little girl. I didn't believe that. There was usually a motive behind everything she did."
Richardson kept digging. One of the things that didn't make much sense to him--never made any sense to Thurmond Phillips--was how Dolores Phillips used to go off and testify at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit in Ladson, S.C. Phillips had nothing against religion; his mother had raised him as a God-fearing man, and he was known to read the Bible and attend a church service now and then . . .
But driving 35 miles to assemble with Christians who spoke in tongues and laid on hands was another thing altogether. Thurmond Phillips was content to stay home and let his wife go off alone to the services run by the Rev. Dub--short for the W in Warren P. Phillips, no relation to Thurmond Phillips. The Rev. Dub also ran the Bible College of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit and radio station WKCL. ("We Know Christ Lives, full-time gospel but not commercial, praise God," says the Rev. Dub.) Dolores Phillips would show up regularly for services. She was friendly with a church member named Dot Gray.
"I first met her through the CB radio," Gray says. "Her handle was the Silver Slipper. Mine was the Wicked Wahinni. Wahinni just means woman. I got it off a perfume bottle from Hawaii. Anyway, we started talking, and I discovered that she worked at the Coastal Center, a home for retarded children, where I had a child. I invited her to come to the church, and she seemed like a very nice woman, a devout person. I've seen her prophecy. Only one thing didn't jibe. She wore diamonds like you couldn't believe, and being sanctified, that didn't seem quite right. One day she announces that she's gotten divorced and was going to get married again to a man named Hub Harrison. She met him through the CB radio, too. His handle was the Blanket Warmer, and Dolores invited all the members of the church to a wedding reception. The next thing we know, she wants to adopt a retarded baby from the center. It was a little girl dwarf. Praise God she never got to adopt it."
Hubert Harrison doesn't like to talk about it much these days. In fact, he regrets the day he pulled his truck over to the side of the road to help Dolores Phillips fix a flat tire. Harrison is still married to the same woman he was married to a decade ago when he attended the reception with Dolores Phillips. "She had gotten divorced from Phillips," Harrison says, "and told me she wanted to adopt this baby because its parents had left a lot of money for anybody who would take care of it. She had already tried to adopt it, but the agency said she had to be married. She thought if she faked getting married, and just had a reception, and got a story in the paper about the reception--which she did--then the agency would believe she was married. She was a smart cookie. Dolores had a little bit on me. I would shack up with her every now and then, and she threatened to tell my wife if I wouldn't go through with this deal. So she convinced the people at this church that she had married me, and damn if they didn't all come to the reception."
Even her father, Jesse James Watson, flew in from California for the event. "I don't know how she did it," he says now, "but somehow she got me to pay several thousand dollars for the party."
"That was a doozy," says the Rev. Dub. "It seemed at the time that her motives were pure. We stick to the Scriptures here, and when a member asks us to bear witness so she can adopt a child, we bear witness. She told us they had gotten married at Walterboro. Of course, we believed her. It seemed a little bit unusual, not to be married at the church, but judge not that ye be not judged. It turned out that there wasn't a marriage, we found out later. She would take money from anyone she could, including the parents of this poor child of God. But that's Monday morning quarterbacking."
Jack Turner, the eighth husband:
"I was a painter. I twisted my knee loading a spraying rig and wound up in the doctor's hospital, where I met her. She was a sweet thing, until I married her. I told her one day, after I got out of the hospital, that I had this much money coming to me, and she said, 'I know. I pulled your files in the hospital.' After that, I caught her taking money out of my pocket. And I was getting sick again, vomiting all the time." Turner says she was puting stuff in his food.
"What she went after she got," Turner says. "I had this damned old Chevrolet, and she turned it in and got me a new Ford truck. She had the Georgia Railroad Bank snowed! I owed the bank for the car, and she got a down payment on it. She didn't have anything to live for except to buy stuff, mostly clothes and especially jewelry. I had four full-blooded poodles and their mother. She decided I took up too much time with the dogs. One day she said, 'If these dogs are here when I come home, I'm gonna kill them.' I said, 'You might as well kill me first.' She said she would, and then come over to me and give me a kiss. I said, 'You are the happiest kissin' son-of-a-bitch fool I ever met. I've spent the last night with you I ever will.' And it was the last night. We had only spent a few months together--married in May or June, split in the fall. She filed for divorce. The following July, I was gonna get married again. I went to the clerk's office, and he told me I was still married! So I called up Dolores to ask her what had happened. She hadn't paid for the divorce. Of course, it hadn't stopped her. She was already married to some other sucker."
"I had no idea she was married when I married her," says Henry Crawley Jordan, the ninth husband, "and I am a stupid-ass bastard for it. I wasn't really initially attracted to her. I had a dry-cleaning plant, Snow-Quick Cleaners, and she was a customer. She pushed herself on me. She said she lived with another nurse and couldn't stand the cats there. She didn't have a car, and one night her friend Eva dropped her off at the plant. 'Where the hell you gonna sleep?' I asked her. 'How you gonna get home?' 'I'm staying with you,' she said.
"Well, I was kind of lonely. My wife had died in 1975, and I started shacking up with Dolores. She told me she was from Memphis, that she was related to Elvis Presley, drove an 18-wheeler, ran a whorehouse in Alaska. She started feeding me some sort of drugs. I didn't weigh but 129 pounds, and I'm 5-foot-8 1/2. I told her I didn't need no pills, and she said, 'I'm a nurse and I know what you need.' Turned out she knew nursing but was barred from nursing at two hospitals . She'd go to sleep on the job and talk back to patients.
"She was money hungry, a compulsive spender. She subscribed to every magazine in the world. I still get the bills. She had enough clothes to live 400 more years, God forbid, and enough Avon things in her possession to fill a whole damn five-room house.
"Then she started bugging me about the house. Said there were too many memories of Mildred. Started asking me about the insurance. She found out, and the next thing I know the place burned down.
"By this time I lost my equilibrium and I couldn't stand up. My friends kept telling me I was doped up and drugged up. I sold the plant. I checked myself into the hospital. She started asking me about life insurance. She wanted me to sign over the payments on the plant and my Social Security benefits. I had $3,900 in my checking account when I went in. I called the bank to write a check to the hospital, and they told me I was $12.95 overdrawn.
"We were living in a hotel after I got out of the hospital, while we were building a new house. She flew her mother in to visit us. Her mother told me, 'Don't ever let Dolores have any amount of money at one time. When she was a child, the other children would buy candy, and she would buy costume jewelry. She's fanatic about jewelry.' Well, I can't tell you costume from class, but she had drawers full of it. Anything that had a butterfly on it, she'd buy. And she must have had 15 or 20 watches."
Dolores Jordan bought some of her baubles at Friedman's Jewelry Store in Augusta. She had procured a number of pieces there and was fairly well acquainted with salesman Tom Woods. She knew from their conversations that Woods had also worked at hospitals and that he had a reputation for being well-connected in town. One day she approached him with a strange request.
"I knew her the way a salesperson knows any regular customer," says Woods, now an ad salesman for the Augusta Chronicle. "She was a shifty, 50-ish woman. She didn't seem to know jewelry. She was the kind of middle-class person who would like to have money and buys diamonds to make people think they have money. It must have been about October 1979 that she came in the shop and asked me if I could get her a drug that would kill someone and leave no trace. I can't remember the name of the drug, but she knew it and could describe in great detail how it worked. Of course, I wouldn't do it. I knew Crawley. I'm a Mason and he's a Mason and I used to feel bad when she'd bring him in the shop to buy her things. She was taking him to the cleaners. I didn't really trust her. I always suspected that she had stolen--shoplifted--a $2,500 ring from the store. But I couldn't prove it. Then she bought another $2,500 piece on credit and disappeared from town."
In the course of his investigation of Dolores Miller, Dale Richardson contacted Woods. Richardson had been told that she had purchased a number of pieces from him, and the salesman chuckled.
"Let me ask you a question," Woods said. "Do you have her jewelry there? Okay, I'm going to describe two pieces to you. One was stolen from Friedman's, one was never paid for." And Woods proceeded to provide Richardson with very specific details about two rings.
The detective sifted through the cases of jewelry that had been in Dolores Miller's trunk. Both rings were in one of the cases.
She left Augusta for Memphis, and Flossie Barker's rooming house, and took a job at the Baptist Hospital but was dismissed for attitude problems. So she started working at the Love Unlimited dating service. People would send in $18 and a few pictures of themselves, and they'd get four or five names and addresses in return.
William Robbins of New Madrid, Mo., sent in his money one day, and pretty soon he was getting mail from Dolores Phillips, as she called herself.
"She would send me general question-type letters," he says. "She said she was working as a maid at a little hotel outside Merryville, Mo., and wanted to know if I ever came up that way. I told her I was a biomedical engineer, and she wanted to know what that meant. I told her it meant that I fixed medical equipment, and she said she had worked in hospitals. She asked me about my income, and what kind of insurance I had. That seemed weird, so I didn't write anymore."
Dolores Phillips also stopped writing, but she kept in her purse an SX-70 Polaroid print of Robbins sitting in front of his house and hugging a small puppy. And she started corresponding with another client of Love Unlimited, Erroll Miller of Dixon. In her letters she said that her husband had died of a heart attack, and she had just sold his hotel in St. Louis for $400,000. She also had inherited his farm in Tennessee. She encouraged Roy Miller to stand fast in his atheism, and told him that she was looking for someone who would love her.
Miller wrote every day for a couple of months, about how he had been a B17 gunner in World War II, graduated from the University of Missouri in 1949 with a degree in agriculture and recently retired from a career as a TV repairman. He, too, was looking for someone to love him. "Hi Sweet Desire," the future husband would write, signing off with "Love Forever and Always, Roy Miller."
"P.S.," he asked in one letter, "Why are you always sending pictures of when you were 16?"
Dolores Miller left a map of her past in the memorabilia she carted around.
"It was almost as if she wanted to be discovered," says Richardson, "as if that would be some sign that someone really cared about her."
One of the scraps in Dolores Miller's purse was a page torn from a copy of the Mother Earth News published in December of 1981. She had circled a notice from a self-described "considerate Christian gentleman" of 49 years who listed a phone number on the Gulf coast of Mississippi.
Christian Gentleman says he received more than 400 responses to his ad and, being a retired marine colonel, kept careful notes of all his conversations.
"The amazing thing I found out from this," he says, "is the incredible loneliness of people. I'm no introvert. I'm an auctioneer. I have to get up in front of people and perform. And yet I sensed, when these women would call me, how hard it was for them to speak to me, and for me to speak to them.
"Dolores--she called herself Kaufman--phoned me on a Sunday, Jan. 17. She said her husband had died of a heart attack. She said she was overweight, but not eating herself to death anymore, taking some of it off now. I didn't find her considerate. My notes say I gave her no encouragement, thanked her for calling. I gave her a D on my score system.
"Good thing she didn't marry me," he says nervously, after learning the tale of Dolores and Roy Miller, and about the presence of his ad in her purse. "Everybody's got to go sometime, but I'm in no hurry."