Decade-old murder case still casts spell in Genesee County

It's been just a shade more than 10 years since a blue-collar worker at GM was killed in the Genesee County junkyard he owned. It's been nearly nine years since his wife was convicted of conspiring with her Internet lover to commit the murder.

And yet, the case still resonates with crime-watchers to this day.

The past decade has seen the case depicted in a New York Times best-selling true crime book by two reporters who covered the trial. The book, in turn, served as the basis for a made-for-television movie starring Anne Heche, an Emmy Award winning actress who now is featured in the HBO series "Hung." For good measure, the woman convicted in the murder-conspiracy plot has been released from prison awaiting a new trial.

But while the endgame of this bizarre saga remains unknown, the case still has relevance, and occasionally surfaces in the public eye.

On a recent Monday, during a criminal law class at ITT Technology near Swartz Creek taught by Genesee Circuit Court Judge Geoffrey Neithercut, co-author Paul Janczewski of the book "Fatal Error" was the featured guest speaker. Janczewski, a former reporter for The Flint Journal, now writes for The Detroit Legal News and its related publications.

Judge Neithercut has known Janczewski for years, continually crossing paths with him as the reporter covered cases in Flint District Court and later in Genesee County Circuit Court.

"Mr. Janczewski's presentation was very relevant to our study of the laws of conspiracy and criminal solicitation," said Judge Neithercut, who has taught at ITT for two years. "The class and I were able to apply the facts of his book and the criminal trial, and the changes that have developed over the years. And since this woman's conviction was overturned, we also had serious discussion on how she would be re-prosecuted under the new evidence rules."

The case began Nov. 8, 1999, when Bruce L. Miller, 48, was found dead at his business, B & D Auto Parts, with a shotgun wound to his neck. Police believed initially it was a robbery gone bad, and the case remained unsolved for months.

But on Feb. 11, 2000, a suicide 700 miles away in Missouri energized the case in a totally unexpected manner. Jerry L. Cassaday, 39, left behind a briefcase, with a suicide note and other items, including a printout of an instant message conversation he had with Sharee P. Miller hours before the murder of her husband. In the IM, Sharee told Cassaday how to get to her husband's junkyard, and where to park so it would not arouse his suspicions. She also arranged to make a series of telephone calls, first to her husband to make sure he was alone, and then back to Cassaday to let him know it was time to drive into the junkyard.

In his suicide note, and numerous e-mails found on Cassaday's computer, he implicated Sharee Miller, 29, of Mount Morris, in the murder plot.

"I drove there and killed him," Cassaday wrote in his suicide note.

He told relatives that his lover was in on the murder plot, and asked them to turn over his evidence to police.

In those communications, Cassaday detailed how Sharee Miller enticed him to murder Bruce Miller by using sex, lies, and videotapes. Sharee Miller made several trips to Reno, Nev., where Cassaday, a former cop himself, was working as a casino pit boss.

Over the course of several months, Sharee Miller and Cassaday also exchanged hundreds and hundreds of e-mails. He fell in love with her and wanted her to leave her husband and get married. In her e-mails, Sharee Miller told Cassaday she was a business owner, and that her husband was involved in the Mafia, and that through their in-person flings in Reno, she had gotten pregnant with Cassaday's child.

But shortly before Bruce Miller was murdered, Sharee e-mailed Cassaday that she had beaten and raped her by her husband, and lost their child. Enraged, Cassaday plotted the murder with Sharee in an IM.

In truth, Sharee Miller could never get pregnant, because she had undergone a tubal ligation years earlier. She was the mother of three children from several different fathers, and her marriage to a man 19 years older than her was viewed suspiciously by Bruce Miller's relatives.

After the murder of Bruce Miller, Sharee basically cut off communications with Cassaday, spent large amounts of cash refurnishing her home, and became romantically involved with another Genesee County man.

Cassaday fell into a spiral of more drinking and drug use, left his job in Reno, and returned to Missouri to rehab with relatives. But despondent over his break-up with a woman who used him and lied to him, and overcome with grief over the murder of an innocent man, Cassaday committed suicide.

Armed with this information, police arrested and charged Sharee Miller for the murder of her husband.

Her trial began in December, 2000, and prosecutors laid out for jurors dozens of witnesses who testified to Sharee Miller's lies, hundreds of e-mails detailing the path of Sharee and Cassaday's relationship and, of course, the suicide note and IM plotting the murder.

Attorney David Nikola, who represented Sharee Miller at trial, claimed that the IM could have been made up by Cassaday. Nikola portrayed Cassaday as gullible, suicidal, drug-addicted, and a "loser" who set up his client to avenge being jilted.

Sharee Miller testified over three hours that she had an affair with Cassaday, had fed him dozens of lies, and admitted to exchanging hundreds of e-mails with him, telling him twice that she was pregnant with his child. She also sent Cassaday a sonogram she claimed was their child, a videotape of her masturbating, as well as another videotape showing the junkyard and her children, and telling Cassaday one day this "would all be his."

But Sharee Miller denied plotting to kill her husband, and said her entire online affair with Cassaday was just the stuff of fantasy and nothing more.

After deliberating 15 hours over two days, jurors convicted her, and Genesee Circuit Judge Judith Fullerton later sentenced Miller to life in prison for first degree premeditated murder.

The trial, billed as the first Internet murder case, attracted the interest of local and national media. Court TV covered the trial gavel-to gavel, as did Janczewski and Mark Morris, a court reporter for The Kansas City Star.

A few months after the trial, Janczewski and Morris decided that the story was ripe for a detailed telling, and collaborated on a book about the case. A literary agent hired by the two tried to peddle the idea to a number of publishers, eventually agreeing to a contract with Pinnacle Books of Kensington Publishing Corp.

Janczewski and Morris found they had a similar take on the case, and one of their stories for their respective newspapers were mirror images. The two spent more than a year researching and writing, and on several occasions Morris took a leave of absence from his job, devoting a total of more than two months in Flint as the two worked on the book. The co-authors also spent dozens of hours on the telephone and on computers discussing the case, fine-tuning the manuscript and answering publisher's questions.

In January 2003, the book, titled "Fatal Error," was released in paperback.

"As reporters, we live to write, it's our passion," said Janczewski. "But deep inside, we all want to write a book. I was fortunate enough to be in the right place when this case came along, and lucky to have a fabulous reporter and great writer like Mark to complete this project. We each brought our own life experiences, personalities, and style to the book, which made this something neither of us will ever forget."

"And it had everything a writer could possibly ask for - sex, lies, murder, suicide, and a woman behind the whole sordid mess," Janczewski said. "You just cannot make this stuff up."

In early 2003, the book made The New York Times best-seller list in the non-fiction paperback category for one week.

"Professionally, the story was a slow motion hurricane," Morris said.

"After 'Fatal Error' was published in February 2003, each of us shamelessly called in every media favor we could to promote it and, for one shining week, we sat on The New York Times Best Sellers List. That was a short stay, but long enough for us to now be called 'New York Times bestselling authors,'" Morris said.

The case was covered in a number of ways on television. It appeared on Court TV three times, with Janczewski and Morris in segments serving as commentators. Janczewski also appeared on "American Justice" on the Arts and Entertainment network (A&E), and the Oprah Winfrey network on its series titled "Snapped." The case also has been featured on NBC's "Dateline" and "Inside Edition."

In 2006, Janczewski and Morris saw their book come to life when the rights were picked up by Lifetime and aired in a made-for-television movie called "Fatal Desire."

The movie was filmed in late 2005 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Janczewski and Morris were there for several days watching the filming, meeting actors and the crew, and the film's producer and director.

"Our movie agent connected us with a remarkable producer - Jane Goldenring - who loved and respected the material and produced a TV movie in April 2006 that emerged much better than most book-to-movie transitions," Morris said.

"The highlight of that was meeting Anne Heche and Eric Roberts, who starred in the movie, and joining dozens of people at a wrap-party," Janczewski said. "A bonus came when Mark and I were added as extras in the film. You can see us for about one second, in the background of a crucial scene, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience." Morris agrees.

"Our first non-fiction book not only was published, but appeared on The New York Times list and was made into a decent movie," he said. "That's an incredible trifecta."

The conviction of Miller was later upheld in state court appeals. But when it was appealed in federal court, a judge ruled in 2008 that Miller was entitled to a new trial, based on the erroneous admission of the suicide note and the IM plotting the murder.

State prosecutors are appealing that federal ruling, but Miller was released from prison in 2009 and is awaiting a new trial.

"The case has lingered for as long as it has because Mrs. Miller has excellent legal representation and benefited from Crawford v. Washington, a landmark Supreme Court ruling that changed how courts deal with the confrontation clause of the U.S. Constitution," said Morris, who continues to work at The Kansas City Star. "It's amazing to me that checking up on the Bruce Miller story is still part of my daily routine."

He said the case may eventually go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Nothing in her appeals should be dismissed as a legal 'technicality,'" Morris said. "It's all about what evidence should go before a jury, which lies at the heart of our trial courts' fairness. If her case can help clarify how evidence is to be admitted in court, I'm completely fine with that, even though it's hard on the Miller family. They have suffered so much. This was a difficult case from the beginning and judges have struggled with it and come to varied and remarkable legal conclusions."

Janczewski added that beyond all the legal wrangling and interpretation of law, the sad bottom line is that two men, Miller and Cassaday, are dead.

"Neither of those men deserved to die, and the Miller and Cassaday families are still left with a grief and emptiness that no court ruling can satisfy," he said.

Published: Fri, Jan 1, 2010

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