Twenty years ago this December, a case involving a missing 4-year-old boy named Christopher Milke captivated and horrified Valley residents.

Christopher's 25-year-old mother, Debbie Milke, first told Phoenix police that the boy had gone "to see Santa" at the Metrocenter mall with a friend and roommate of hers named Jim Styers.

Styers was a 42-year-old unemployed Vietnam veteran.

Milke, 45, dubbed "Death Row Debbie," has spent almost half of her life behind bars.
Jon Gipe
Milke, 45, dubbed "Death Row Debbie," has spent almost half of her life behind bars.

He told cops he had taken Christopher to the mall, where the boy vanished when Styers went to a restroom.

Styers' account quickly fell apart, especially after he admitted that a pal of his, Roger Scott, had been with him that afternoon at the mall.

Scott cracked after hours of interrogation and implicated Milke and Styers in a vile murder conspiracy. He then led authorities to Christopher's body in a desert wash near 99th Avenue and Happy Valley Road.

The little boy had been shot at close range three times in the back of the head. His chewing gum was still clenched between his teeth, and he was curled in the fetal position.

Phoenix homicide detective Armando Saldate was dispatched to Florence, where Debbie Milke had gone to stay with her father and stepmother. She was taken to a nearby police station, where Saldate interviewed her.

What happened (or did not happen) in that interrogation room would be critical to Milke's future as the first woman condemned to die in Arizona since 1932.

Saldate would write in a police report and later would testify that Debbie Milke had confessed to him in an unrecorded interview on December 3, 1989.

Saldate claimed Milke told him that she had orchestrated Christopher's murder (using Jim Styers as her "hitman"), essentially because the boy reminded her, in temperament and looks, of her troubled ex-husband, Mark Milke.

Jim Styers never did incriminate Debbie Milke, but he was convicted in a separate trial and ordered to death row. Roger Scott balked at signing a plea bargain in return for his testimony against Milke. Nonetheless, Scott, too, ended up on death row after his own murder trial.

The testimony of both Milke and Detective Saldate were the centerpieces of the woman's highly publicized trial before a Maricopa County Superior Court jury. (Debbie's father, sister, stepsister, and stepmother all testified against her.)

On the witness stand, Saldate danced around specifics of his unrecorded interview with Milke, calmly insisting that she had confessed after voluntarily waiving her Miranda rights against self-incrimination. (The detective also destroyed the notes he had made during the interrogation after typing his police report a few days afterward.)

Milke later told New Times during a series of recorded interviews for a story published on April 10, 1991, called "Death Row Debbie" that she had been appalled by Detective Saldate's damning testimony.

"You should have seen good old Saldate butter up the jury," she said. "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. Here's the stupid hero cop to save the day. What a liar! I bet he's happy how things worked out."

But Milke's own testimony — especially her steely, unsympathetic demeanor on the stand — surely ruined any chance she might have had to win an acquittal. She, too, was shipped to death row (in her case, a one-woman unit in the Perryville prison).

Saldate retired from police work in the 1990s and currently is a constable in Phoenix's Encanto district. Milke now is a 45-year-old woman who has spent almost half of her life behind bars.

But a September 29 order by a panel of three federal Ninth Circuit judges strongly suggests that Debbie Milke may win her freedom (or, at the very least, a new trial) because of that controversial two-decade-old interrogation in Pinal County.

In remanding the case to federal judge Robert Broomfield in Phoenix, the appellate judges said there is "no evidence" that Milke "voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently" waived her Miranda rights before allegedly confessing to Detective Saldate.

The panel ordered Judge Broomfield to hold an evidentiary hearing within 60 days, after which Milke's confession could be ruled inadmissible (if the local judge agrees with the appellate panel).

That, say legal experts contacted by New Times, probably would render a murder conviction in a retrial unlikely.

The Ninth Circuit ruling came a little more than a year after attorneys for Milke and the State of Arizona argued the merits of the critical Miranda waiver during a remarkable hearing in Pasadena, California.

Alex Kozinski, the chief judge for the Ninth Circuit, continually chided Milke appellate lawyer Lori Voepel for not getting to the critical point during her presentation.

"You're aiming too far and too high," Kozinski told the attorney. "All you really have to say is the confession came in improperly. And it was highly damaging . . . And if you manage to knock out the confession, then it's a different ballgame."

The judge then asked Voepel whether Debbie Milke specifically had signed a Miranda card waiving her rights against self-incrimination.

Voepel said she had not.

"In 22 years of doing this — or 23 years — I've never seen a case where there hasn't been a signed Miranda warning," the judge said.

The defense attorney conceded that the detective had read or cited the Miranda warnings to Milke, but insisted that the murder suspect never did formally waive her rights.

"When opposing counsel stands up, he's not gonna pull a rabbit out of the hat, is he, and tell me, yes, there was something there?" Kozinski asked Voepel.

No, the attorney replied.

Judge Kozinski then grilled Kent Cattani, a veteran assistant Arizona attorney general who handles death-penalty appeals.

"Do you understand the difference between saying, 'I understand my rights' and 'I give up my rights'?" the judge asked Cattani. "There are lots of things I understand that I don't give up. Where does [Saldate] say that [Milke] said, 'I understand my rights. I give up my rights.' Where is that evidence in the record?"

"I don't know that it is in the record as specific," Cattani started to say, before Kozinski interrupted him.

"Why don't you lose in that case?" the judge asked.

Cattani tried to regroup, noting that trial Judge Cheryl Hendrix implicitly ruled against Milke on the waiver argument nearly two decades ago.

Cattani also pointed out that Milke's defense attorney barely raised the issue at the time, and neither did her then-appellate lawyers on direct appeal.

But Kozinski was undaunted, asking the assistant attorney general whether he recollected "seeing a case where there hasn't been a signed Miranda waiver. I don't know any place in the civilized world in the last 30 years where a state has found a waiver of constitutional rights without a signed waiver."

"I've never seen the issue raised on appeal in my 16 years," was all Cattani could muster.

"Why isn't that the end of the case?" the judge practically bellowed. "Insufficient evidence. There is not evidence at all that she waived. Sure, there's evidence that [Saldate] told her [about the Miranda warning]. But we require more. The Supreme Court requires more."

These days, it should be noted, Phoenix police detectives audio- and videotape almost all their interviews with murder suspects.

In one of her interviews with New Times, Debbie Milke said: "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."

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help

Dear Debbie,

I hope that you are able to mourn properly for the son that was taken from you all those years ago! May God right all of the wrongs that have been done to you, & may he bring you peace to your life & new people in your life that love you! Unlike the sorry family that you were dealt. Perhaps you have already forgiven them for turning their backs on you in your time of need

Jennifer Stonestreet
Jennifer Stonestreet

I'm not in support of this murder mom receiving the oppertunity of a new trial!!!! She murdered her 4 year old boy and I see that the punishment is just. She was convicted by a Jury of her Peers. She could have given her child to the grandparents or even to the state but chose to take his life so she can party. What a disgusting person and you never deserved to be a mother or to be called one!

chris long
chris long

Can you imagine the scene in the desert that warm morning ?

One man leads a little boy by the hand away from the car and into the sandy wash while the other man sidles along, saying "You wanna' see Santa Claus ? He's right over there..."

They Stop. The man lagging the two walks up and squats beside the boy, pointing along the wash. "Santa Claus is coming from right over there", he says. He grabs the boy's collar to still the little boy so the other man while have a clean shot to the base of the cranium.

With the boy's head bobbing around coupled with the nervousness of the gunman, it's difficult to get a clean kill on the first shot so the man squatting with the boy grabs the little fella's chin between his thumb and forefinger, turning his head straight. Blap !

The boy falls and blood is everywhere, covering the hands of the gunman and his accomplice. The boy is moaning. The gunman stands over the boy, spreads his legs and steadies his arm for the coup de grace. Blap ! Not a clean shot...blap! That one did it.

Before the two depart, they check the boy's pockets for money or something that may identify him. they take the two dollars his mother gave him to spend at the mall after seeing Santa Claus. The men split the money, walk to the car, light cigarettes and get a beer at Circle K on the way home.

When they tell the mother, her only comment is: "The little bastard looked so like his bugged me, ya' know ?"

Chris Long
Chris Long

Dear Paul Rubin:

Uh, does it matter whether or not she, hey, conspired to kill her little boy ? While the Word Games played in the interrogation room are important, you neglect the Supreme Court decision that states a cop may revert to any sort of wiles in an interrogation room, because suspects do. Cops may lie, cheat, make phony promises or otherwise be totally dishonest, as long as the suspect says what he wants. Look it up. Did you know, like, Miranda v Arizona was the basis of her appeal ? Did you research the Supreme Court decision that is the basis of "Debbie's" appeal ? You 'forgot' those parts of the story... Paul, I am sure it is phun working at NT and you are something of a minor celebrity in PHX, but your writing is too faulted and incomplete. Chris Long

Corrupt Maricopa County Attorn
Corrupt Maricopa County Attorn

This sounds like the same era of the Maricopa County witch hunt where an innocent man, Ray Krone, was wrongfully convicted and wrongfully imprisoned for a crime he didn't do. The county attorney's office maliciously prosecuted him to get "their" desired outcome. Those same prosecutors are still running the Maricopa County Attorney's office or in some official position. Because of this and a second trial for Ray Krone - corrupt Phoenix Forensics lab, I would believe this woman is innocent.

To learn more about how the Maricopa County Attorney's office operates (same culture today but worse), read "JINGLE JANGLE" by Jim Rix, the Ray Krone story. Thank God, he had private money to fight for his defense!!

Debra Milke should be released from prison. The broken justice system of Arizona refuses to admit their mistakes or who controls the courtroom -- judges beholden to the Maricopa County Attorney. Do the judges get a bonus and better pension if they "go along"?

Someone needs to restore the citizens faith in the Arizona Court system. We're still waiting .....and it's over 20 years later.


I have read the case and the web page, her mother trying from another country to see that justice be done. Her words to her daughter , "tell the police everything" . Not in Maricopa county!Someday Saldate will get his compeance.

set her free
set her free

Not mentioning names but two officers from the prison told me "our LT told us the woman on dealth row isnt even guilty"(at that time there was only one woman on dealth row. I read her web page and agree, NOW why would a LT tell two correctional officers that , if he did not have inside information.??? Not trying to get anyone in trouble here, just tells me ALOT> This is NOT the first time a innocent person has been on dealth row in AZ. !!! (jinjle jangle by jim rix )you have no idea what kind of set up she has been in on dealth row, a cage more or less !!! Lose a child and then get locked up for it and be innocent, who could servive this!!!


She claims she's innocent. But it strains credulity to think the two men who killed little Christopher just randomly decided to take him out to the desert and shoot him in the back of the head. Sounds like she's going to walk, but that doesn't mean justice has been served.


Cops lie all the time, including in court.



When I heard all of the facts, including the ones that were conveniently left out at her trial, what I saw was a single young mother who was a "Momma's Girl", without her mother there for her, with a sorry excuse for a sister, father, & step-mother. Who had a sorry excuse for an ex-husband & absent father to his son, because apparently drugs & alcohol were more important than his 4 yr old son, who was in & out of jail & rehab! And a little boy that was extremely hyperactive and no doubt a handful, one would think that this Mom needs all the friends that she can get, with family that did not do anything but bad mouth her


Dear Ms. Stonestreet,No one wants their hard earned tax dollars spent on a heinous criminal. But, I can honestly say that having read your comments, no one, and I mean no one! deserves to have you included in a panel of jurors. Not even in Monkey Court!Yes she was convicted by a jury of her peers, but they weren't given all of the facts, facts that could have proved useful to prove her innocence


Mr. Long,

I don't know whether to laugh at your colorful story or take it at face value...

However, taken at face value, one might think that you had unlawful carnal knowledge of this case...hmmm...what to do, what to do...


Mr. Long, I would like to make a comment or two concerning your comment on this case & your critical judgement of Paul's reporting being "faulted and incomplete", as well as your whining about the basis for Ms. Milke's Miranda vs. Arizona.1. Those of us who are citizens of the U.S.A. have rights. These rights extend into the courtroom when we should become defendants. Ms. Milke's rights were not protected nor recognized (for the most part) during her trial. Officer Saldate did not record her confession, either visual and/or audio


@set her free   If this is true you have an obligation to get the information to her attorneys, whether it "gets someone in trouble" or not. Debbie has had a lot more trouble than they'll ever have, I guarantee it.  She's been on death row for something she didn't do for over 20 years. You can contact her attorneys or the ACLU anonymously if you have to; if there is some "inside information" that can help her it needs to get outside.  If you need some help with any of this go here:


If an officer is doing his job, (unbiased), that officer should bring factual proof! There is no reason for any officer not to have it! That officer Saldate has a history of lying on the stand. Now, like you have stated, cops, in an interrogation, can lie, cheat, & steal to get what confession they want but...if that cop is stating that the suspects miranda rights were read, and better still the suspect WAIVED those rights...then that cop had better have that particular form signed & witnessed


Officer Saldate could not provide those signed documents at trial. Why? Because they never existed! Her good old public defender should have protested, but then again it's defense lawyers like him that end up as public defenders.

And don't get me started on presiding Judge Hendrix! The legal system is already severely wounded! It doesn't deserve Irresponsible, biased judges like her! Thank goodness she was finally caught & can no longer preside over criminal cases! Albeit "too little, too late" for Ms. Milke

Phoenix Concert Tickets

Around The Web