By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"Over all the years, I have hurt people and used people to get my way," Debbie wrote to her ex in October 1988. "I sometimes wonder if there's anything left for us. Could we ever become a real family? Granted, I haven't been the best mother, but at least I don't get into trouble, Mark."
She continued, "I messed around a lot and partied and didn't stop to think about Chris. I started to see how he was reacting. I decided that I don't want to share Chris with anybody. . . . I'm ashamed at myself for all I've done, but I finally came to the realization of how important my son is to me."
However, she noted in another letter, "Chris is very stubborn and we have had our rounds together. He likes to have things his way and that's it. He doesn't listen either. You'll see. Stability is the most important thing Chris needs and we both are to blame for his actions today. . . . He looks just like you. Sometimes I find myself calling him `Mark' and he'll say, `I'm Chris, my daddy is Mark.'"
Mark got out of prison in early 1989. After a short, fruitless reconciliation, the long-estranged couple broke up for good. One of Debbie's final letters to Mark foreshadows events that would land her in prison.
"I am growing up and starting all over," she wrote. "I either sink or swim this time."
THE LAST YEAR of Christopher Milke's life started with what looked like a ray of hope for his troubled mother. Debbie still had to contend with the strain of her diseased relationship with Mark, and her sister and others say she continued to show little tolerance for Christopher.
But Debbie had found a beau who must have seemed a saint compared with the man she had married and divorced. She met Ernie Sweat at Lincoln National, where he was an up-and-coming manager.
"All the girls drooled over him, but I wasn't like that," Debbie says. "He'd come around my desk and we'd go to lunch. I thought he was a really decent guy, he wasn't a jerk. One thing led to another."
Debbie and Ernie started seeing a lot of each other after hours, and she says she would spend "one night every other weekend" at Ernie's home in Tempe. Debbie didn't introduce Ernie to Christopher for months, which she explains by saying she had her child's interest at heart.
"It was, `What if Christopher gets attached to Ernie and it doesn't work out?'" Debbie says. "Finally, we did a few things together, the three of us. We took Chris to the circus and another time we went to Encanto Park to throw a Frisbee."
Her sister puts a different spin on it. Sandy says Debbie complained to her that Christopher was getting in the way of the budding romance with Ernie.
"What I was being told was that Ernie did not want Christopher in their lives, and so that posed a problem for her," Sandy says. "She told me that Ernie was in love with her, Ernie wanted to marry her, but Christopher was a burr in his side. She just wanted the time to convince Ernie to accept Christopher. She needed some time to do that, with Christopher not around."
At this time, Debbie started talking about giving Christopher away to her family or even to her former husband, Mark.
In May 1989, Ernie Sweat recalls, "Debbie had discussed allowing her husband to take Chris into custody for a while, and also mentioned her sister. She was wanting to further her education and, due to the fact that she was saddled with a child, she was considering giving Chris up for a short period of time, for a few years."
Debbie admits she brought up the touchy subject with her father and stepmother, and that they had bristled at the idea.
"We couldn't understand how she could just give her child up," Maureen Sadeik testified at Debbie's trial. "Her relationship with Ernie, to our knowledge, was more than intensifying at that point, and I guess we believed that that was the reason behind giving Christopher to Mark, so that she would have more time." She added, "We did mention the fact that Mark's track record wasn't too terrific and did she really want to give her child to somebody like that to raise."
Mark seemed eager to take Christopher. Through frequent telephone calls and unannounced visits, he was demanding more time with his son. The pressure, her sister says, increased on Debbie as the summer of '89 wore on.
When it came down to it, however, she wouldn't give Christopher to Mark. So she turned to Sandy Pickenpaugh.
"It was a very stressful situation," her sister recalls. She says she and Debbie had a heart-to-heart talk in late July, shortly before Sandy moved to Wyoming with her new husband. "She said she couldn't handle it anymore and she needed to get her life together. She needed to find a solution with Mark, needed to find a solution with Ernie, and could I take Christopher. And I laughed. I thought it was absurd."