This was the hour of Heather Miller’s reckoning, and standing by her like a rock was her faithful husband, Kevin. When a jury foreman in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County courthouse proclaimed Miller guilty of attempted murder on Sept. 19, it was Kevin who reached out to hold and comfort his shaken wife. “I stuck by her because I love her,” he says. “There’s nobody who knows her better than I do, and I know in my heart she would never have gone through with this.”
The scene was certainly sad; it was also exceedingly strange. The man Heather Miller had been found guilty of trying to kill was…her husband. The 12 jurors needed just three hours to conclude what Kevin still refuses to accept: that Heather, 26, planned to poison him with belladonna, an herb she believed was toxic in large doses and would leave its victim appearing to have suffered a heart attack. According to several witnesses, secretly taped conversations and her own signed confession, Heather, the mother of three children with Kevin, was driven to dire action by frustration over her crumbling marriage. She also told others of her plans for Kevin s potential $750,000 life insurance payout—part of which she intended to spend on an elaborate funeral for him. “I don’t know why, when he has been confronted with all this evidence, he still contends she didn’t mean to do it,” says the prosecutor on the case, Bucks County Assistant District Attorney Michelle Henry. “She had in the past talked about cutting his brake line and hiring a hit man. She had a date, time, method and mode of how to do this. She got arrested on the way to pick up the belladonna. This was a plan in motion.”
Yet the dosage of the herb Heather prepared was not nearly enough to kill Kevin, which, she insists, was never her intention. “It was definitely all talk,” says Heather from inside the Bucks County Correctional Facility, where she was awaiting her sentencing, scheduled for this month. “I’m a big chicken. I could not do this.” Heather’s defense was that her rocky marriage, coupled with her lifelong battle with depression, led her to concoct the scheme as “an attention-getting thing,” says her lawyer John Fioravanti. “Basically,” agrees Kevin, “this was a domestic situation that got way out of hand.”
Whole Jerry Springer shows have been built around less dysfunction. Born in Sellersville, Pa., to a father who left when she was an infant and a mother who waited tables to feed her three children, Heather attempted suicide at age 13, then slipped into an abusive relationship that produced her first daughter when Heather was 18. Kevin, a Philadelphia native who graduated with a degree in accounting from Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s University in 1990, met Heather in 1993 in a Quakertown, Pa., seafood restaurant, where she worked as a waitress and he was a night manager. Soon he became the consoling friend Heather desperately needed. “We’d go play miniature golf or catch a movie,” he says. “I was just providing a way for her to get out of her mother’s house.”
The couple were married in April 1995 “in a typical fairy-tale wedding,” says Kevin, who tenderly recalls the birth of their first son, John, in 1995, one year before they purchased a two-story townhouse in Richlandtown, Pa. “We were enjoying ourselves,” he says. “Everything was fine between us.”
Then, two weeks after closing on the house, Kevin lost his job as a computer consultant; just a few days later Heather told him she was pregnant again (they had three children in all, now ages 2 to 5). “The stress was starting to build enormously,” says Heather. “The relationship went downhill from there.” Eventually Kevin found two jobs, as a part-time night manager at Wal-Mart and as an information-services director at a local manufacturing firm. Work kept him away from home 80 hours a week, while Heather, growing more and more depressed, neglected the housework and “basically became a zombie,” says Kevin. “I’d come home and completely lose my temper with her. I’d trash the house and expect her to clean it back up again.” Neighbor Sandy Miller (no relation) remembers taking in a pregnant Heather after Kevin threw her out following a vicious argument. “He’d only let her back in the house to change diapers,” says Miller. “You could always hear him screaming, always venting on somebody.”
Heather tried to seek counseling at a women’s shelter but says she was not helped because there was no physical abuse. What’s more, “I had no money,” she says, “so no attorney would talk to me.” Instead she spent long hours talking about her problems with friend Mindi Robbins, a practicing witch. Inspired by the 1998 Nicole Kidman–Sandra Bullock movie Practical Magic—about two sister witches who brew up a lethal potion—Heather hatched her plot to kill Kevin and shared it with Robbins, neighbor Diane Zielinski and several others. “She told me he was worth more dead than alive,” Nathan Bleam, the Millers’ babysitter, confided during Heather’s trial. Indeed Heather spoke at length about the full military funeral she would give Kevin, an ex-Marine, after collecting his life insurance.
On April 4 Heather bought 100 tablets of belladonna at a health food store, ground them into powder and gave it to Zielinski to hold. What she didn’t know was that Robbins and Zielinski had told police about her plan; Robbins had even worn a wire, which recorded Heather discussing her many affairs—including one with Robbins—and her murder scheme. On April 5 state troopers arrested Heather as she made her way to Zielinski’s house to pick up the belladonna, earmarked for the shepherd’s pie Kevin would take to his night job.
When police told Kevin that Heather had plotted to kill him, “my first response was, ‘I’m not pressing any charges, I want to see my wife,’ ” he recalls. He remained unconvinced that she would have carried out the plan, even after her four-day trial made public a mountain of evidence that she was desperate to escape him. “There is no doubt in my mind she would have gone through with this,” says Kevin’s father, John, 58, a retired policeman who was supportive of Heather until he heard the wiretaps. “Kevin doesn’t want to believe he can’t save the marriage. He is blinded by love.”
Several times a day Kevin talks to his wife on the phone, and the two write daily letters to each other. On Tuesday nights he spends 30 minutes across a table from her in the Bucks County Correctional Facility. Although she faces up to 60 years behind bars, Heather will most likely receive a five-year sentence. Kevin, however, thinks a year would be fairer. “The district attorney says Heather needs to sit in jail a while to come to terms with how serious this is,” he says. “Heather and I both understand that. But how long does she need to be away from the children to come to terms with how serious it was?”
What may take her even longer to comprehend is her husband’s unyielding loyalty. “In one aspect I love him for it,” she says. “But in the same breath he must be completely insane.” Still, sitting in her cell, she seems to have found the thing that was missing most of her life. “This shows me he actually, truly does love me,” she says. “For the very first time I can say that I feel loved.”
Matt Birkbeck in Doylestown, Pa.