By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The prisoner's dream starts with such promise. "They're letting me out and I'm going to meet Christopher," Debbie Milke says. "He's alive! I'm free!"
Suddenly, the dream becomes a nightmare. "The only way we'll be together is if we get attached by handcuff. Forever. That's the only way he'll stay with me."
Debbie is on Arizona's death row for having been convicted of murdering the little boy she keeps dreaming about. He was her four-year-old son, Christopher Conan Milke.
She is one of only thirty women on death row in the United States. She's the first woman condemned to die in Arizona since 1932, when trunk murderess Winnie Ruth Judd was sentenced. Almost overnight, Debbie has become infamous. Mention her name and people will use the words "fry," "gas," "torture," "maim." Most can comprehend, if not sympathize with, the inner rage that might lead a deeply troubled mother to hurt her child. But Debbie's case was about something far more terrible than that. She was convicted of having cold-bloodedly sent her little boy to his execution under the pretext of having him visit Santa Claus.
"In each individual," poet Maya Angelou once wrote, "there is a good and a bad, an evil and a good." If Debbie orchestrated the killing of her only child, hers is an evil that surpasses understanding.
The facts of Christopher's murder will be familiar to many: On December 3, 1989, Phoenix detectives found Christopher's body in a far-northwest Phoenix desert wash. The cause of death: three hypervelocity bullets to the back of the boy's head from close range. Christopher's chewing gum was clenched between his teeth. He was curled in the fetal position.
Prosecutor Noel Levy argued at the trial that Debbie had considered motherhood an inconvenience that was interfering with her career and her romantic ambitions. She also wanted Christopher dead because he reminded her, in looks and temperament, of her hated ex-husband, Mark Milke.
Debbie used as instruments of her son's death, Levy argued, James Styers and Roger Scott--unemployed west-side Phoenix pals.
The pair took the boy to a Peter Piper Pizza and wolfed down a pie--medium special, no onions. They let Christopher ride on the restaurant's mechanical horse that cost a quarter. Then the three drove out in Debbie's car to a remote desert wash near 99th Avenue and Happy Valley Road.
Styers and Christopher got out of the car, ostensibly to look for snake holes. The boy bounded down the wash as the 43-year-old Vietnam veteran pulled out a gun. Moments later, Christopher was dead.
The conspiracy cracked thirty hours later when Roger Scott confessed. The 42-year-old implicated Styers and Debbie, and led cops to the little boy's body.
Debbie had promised Styers most of the $5,000 from a life insurance policy on Christopher, Scott confessed. Scott was to be paid $250 for driving the getaway car. The men left Christopher's body where it would eventually be discovered. If the boy had remained "missing," the insurance payoff would have remained on hold.
Debbie confessed a few hours after Scott, police say. But even with that confession, the prosecution's case wasn't ironclad. Phoenix homicide detective Armando Saldate didn't tape his interrogation of Debbie. (See related story.) And Debbie's jury wouldn't get to hear Roger Scott's incriminating statements. Killer Jim Styers still hasn't implicated her.
And then there was Debbie's personality. In numerous jailhouse interviews with New Times, Debbie would look directly at her visitor with hazel eyes big and sad enough to fit into a painting by Ted De Grazia. "I'm not the heinous one, I'm not the depraved one, I'm not the cruel one," she'd say. "Nothing makes sense. I did not deceive my son by telling him he was going to see Santa Claus. I know there are women who kill, but I'm not one of them. I'm not guilty."
Many who spend time with her want to believe in her innocence, especially men who become entranced, if only briefly, by her pretty smile, apparent vulnerability and friendly personality.
Even Noel Levy, an able veteran of the County Attorney's Office, admits he had doubts during the trial about Debbie's guilt. "I was starting to feel sorry for her, the way she would be sitting in the judge's chambers shaking like a cornered rabbit," Levy says.
Soon after Debbie took the witness stand, however, it became apparent to most onlookers that she was sinking herself with her seemingly heartless testimony. She was like steel when Levy handed her the little cowboy boots Christopher was wearing when he died. Her descriptions of unspeakably tragic events bordered on the banal, reminiscent of what she had allegedly said of the murder in 1989 to Detective Saldate: "I just made a bad judgment call. I'm just an emotionally troubled 25-year-old girl who needs help in dealing with her problems."
The longer Debbie was on the stand, the worse things got for her.
"She was hard as a rock, cold as a stone up there," Noel Levy says. "She gave me the case. When she was testifying, I couldn't help myself. I walked up real close to her and I looked into her eyes and it hit me. Behind the shield, I was looking at consummate evil. Her eyes were dead."