THE MOTHER'S FATHER CONFESSOR

December 3, 1989, began as Armando Saldate's day off, but proved to be one of the most momentous of his twenty-year career. "It was a very long Sunday," the former Phoenix homicide detective says. "Two murder confessions and a poor little guy's body out in the desert."

Saldate's seven-page account of Debbie Milke's alleged confession was the centerpiece of the prosecution's case against the 27-year-old Phoenix woman. "`Look, I just didn't want him to grow up like his father,'" Saldate quoted Debbie as saying. "`I'm not a crazy person, I'm not an animal. I just didn't want him to grow up like that.'

"She said she decided it would be best for Christopher Milke to die," Saldate continued. Debbie also implicated triggerman Jim Styers and getaway driver Roger Scott in the plot, Saldate said.

Jurors later had to choose between the detective and Debbie Milke: If they believed Saldate, they would certainly convict Debbie of conspiring to murder her four-year-old son Christopher. If they believed Debbie, she would be a free woman now instead of living on Arizona's death row.

But Saldate didn't tape his crucial interrogation, so it came down to his word against Debbie's. She claims Saldate took several of her statements out of context, and made up others out of whole cloth. She continues to maintain that Saldate--a bear of a man with a piercing stare and a relentless interviewing style--had bullied her into talking at all.

Now a Phoenix constable, Saldate says he rarely taped interviews in his years as a detective. "I think that the tape recorder sometimes keeps a person from being as open or from being as comfortable as that person would be without it," he tells New Times in his first public discussion of the infamous case. "Therefore, you are not going to get a good interview."

That may be true, but it conflicts with conventional police wisdom. "Recording an interrogation is the best means of documentation," notes the author of Practical Homicide Investigation, a respected textbook for cops. "When possible, it is best to obtain a statement first and then have it repeated on tape."

That's exactly what Saldate did after Roger Scott confessed to his role in Christopher's murder and led the detective to the boy's body. After Saldate left in a police helicopter for Florence to interrogate and arrest Debbie Milke, Scott repeated his story on tape to another Phoenix detective.

Saldate says that one of his superiors asked him to tape his interview with Debbie. But Saldate says she declined. Debbie agrees with the detective about this--one of the few things on which they concur.

In Armando Saldate, Debbie Milke had to contend with an intelligent and streetwise foe. The 42-year-old father of three grown children had been a uniformed cop for years before becoming a detective in the late 1970s.

Saldate gives the impression of having heard everything. He's an excellent listener, and was tireless and psychologically intimidating as a interrogator. "They find their own way of deciding to tell the truth," he says of criminal suspects. "That is my belief, that everyone, I don't care how heinous a crime it is, will tell the truth. They want to tell the truth. You have just got to give them the opportunity."

Saldate also wrote a good report and, equally important, he usually made a convincing, self-assured witness.

"I am confident of my ability to get across to a jury that I am telling the truth," Saldate says. "Had I been insecure about that," he says, referring to the Milke case, "I would have concealed a recorder or something. That never even came to my mind. I looked forward to testifying."

Still, Debbie presented a special challenge to the veteran sleuth on the early evening of December 3, 1989. Saldate had a victim and he had a confession from Roger Scott that implicated Debbie. But her motive for murder--that her child was a burden--was almost too strange even for a grizzled homicide cop to fathom.

Saldate introduced himself to Debbie at 7:53 p.m., according to his report. He immediately informed her that Christopher had been found shot to death and that she was under arrest for murdering him.

"When I met Debra in Florence," Saldate says, "I wasn't thinking of my own kids or of that dead little boy in the desert. I was thinking of Debra, of her story and of getting at the truth. Right away, she starts grasping at getting a good relationship going with me. She tries to get me in her stable of guys who would do things for her.

"She's been very successful at that over the years. She knew the murder was going to happen because she controlled that guy Styers. Now, she's drawn into a corner and she's looking for a friend. That's me. She just knows she can manipulate me because she's manipulated people for so long that what's another one, even if he's a cop. In her mind, she's not a murderer. She didn't pull the trigger, right? She didn't see her kid's body."

Soon after he began his interrogation, Saldate says, Debbie began to moan and sob, but no tears came from her eyes. The prosecution made much of this at Debbie's trial, attempting to show she was only feigning grief.

"Here's the situation," Saldate explains. "She's been caught. She would like to cry, but she's very scared. Here's a policeman saying, `I know you had your son killed.' I'm a man, and to her it helps if she cries. Her personality takes over--`Cry, Debbie, cry, the men go for that'--but the tears wouldn't come because she was so apprehensive."

Counters Debbie, "I was crying so bad I was hysterical. He walks in and he just doesn't tell me one thing, he tells me two--about Christopher and that I'm under arrest. It just blew me away. He says, `Shut up. I'm not going to tolerate your behavior, your crying.' Obviously, I was having some kind of behavior if he has to say that. But, `No tears.' There were tears. Lots of tears."

Saldate says he has done a lot of thinking about Debbie since their fateful meeting on that dreadful December night.

"She's very honest to a point," he says. "Sometimes, though, she's too honest and she slips. She really did have no bonding with that kid of hers, no closeness. To her, the kid was like a neighbor kid down the street--sometimes you pay attention to him and sometimes you don't. It's tragic. Debra had a life ahead of her. She had had a tough time with her family and her husband, but she's a young lady, good looks, very intelligent. Unfortunately, she has a couple of bad things added to that intelligence."

Could the ex-detective pinpoint what those bad things are? "I don't know," Armando Saldate says. "How do you pinpoint evil except to say that it's evil?"

Debbie has thought about her interrogator as well. "You should have seen good old Saldate butter up the jury," she says. "It makes me nauseous. He said, `I'm very religious. I'm an experienced officer. I follow all the guidelines. Us cops don't lie.' What a juicy story! I can just see his eyes bulging. Here's the stupid hero cop to save the day. What a liar. I bet he's happy how things worked out."

"She starts grasping at getting a good relationship going with me. She tries to get me in her stable of guys who would do things for her."

"To her, the kid was like a neighbor kid down the street--sometimes you pay attention to him and sometimes you don't."

"How do you pinpoint evil except to say that it's evil?

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