IN COLDEST BLOOD
The first thing you notice about James Styers as he walks into the courtroom is how pale and frightened he seems. He wears a dark, multicolored sweater over an open-throated white dress shirt. On his feet he wears white tennis shoes. Styers looks more like a college professor on his way to the library than a murderer ready to hear the verdict.
Styers walks directly in front of Mark Milke, the father of Chris, the four-year-old boy whose life Styers ended when he shot him in the back of the head three times and left the body in the desert.
As Styers moves past Milke, the father says in a voice charged with sarcasm and hate:
"You look more like Mr. Rogers than the murderer you are."
Styers pretends not to hear.
Milke smiles grimly. He continues to stare at the rear of Styers's head from his seat on the front bench of the spectators section. Milke's arms are folded across his chest. His short-sleeved shirt reveals the grotesque tattoo on his right arm.
The tattoo is of a bleeding heart pierced by a dagger. The word "CONAN" is written in the center of the heart.
The fictional barbarian is Milke's favorite character. He even chose it for his son's middle name.
The jury rings its bell and announces it has a verdict at 10:55 a.m. Steyers is brought up at 11 a.m. At 11:10, the television cameras arrive.
The jury enters moments later. Judge Peter D'Angelo, tall and formidable looking, arrives.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Judge D'Angelo asks. "Have you reached a verdict in this matter?"
"We have, your honor."
"Foreman, hand the verdict to the bailiff, please."
The bailiff reads the verdict. There is no other sound in the packed courtroom.
"We the jury, duly impaneled and sworn in the above titled action, find the defendant James Styers guilty of first-degree murder, premeditated."
Styers shakes his head in disbelief. Until this moment, he's been careful not to look toward the jury box.
Now, Styers looks at the jurors. There is a silent plea in his eyes. Just as quickly, he turns away as three more verdicts are read. He is also found guilty of conspiracy, kidnaping and child abuse.
All through it, there is a lack of comprehension on Styers' part. His motions seem constricted, as if the wrong gesture will reveal his guilt. He wipes his left hand over his mouth and puts it down on the table. He wipes his forehead with his right hand.
He looks again at the jury box, perhaps searching for the single juror whose vote could have stayed the verdicts. Not a single juror looks back at him.
Judge D'Angelo speaks slowly and with a deep voice:
"Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the participants in this trial, I want to thank you for your services to the community. Now that your verdicts have been read, you are free to discuss them if you want to. Please leave your notebooks with the bailiff to be destroyed."
Judge D'Angelo nods his head. The jurors flutter with pride. Clearly, they have wanted his approval.
"Thank you," Judge D'Angelo says, "you are excused."
The jury files out of the room.
Styers is nudged by a deputy, who leads him from the courtroom.
Brent Whiting of the Arizona Republic moves to the edge of the railing and asks Styers in a resounding voice as he passes:
"Do you have anything to say, Jim?"
Styers doesn't even turn his head.
"Nope," he says.
Reporters surround Noel Levy, the deputy county attorney from the major felony unit who prosecuted the case. Levy is a tall man with a serious but kind face. There seems to be no anger or self-righteousness in him. This is generally a characteristic of lawyers in this line of work.
Less than a month before, Levy obtained a similar verdict in the case of Debra Milke, the slain boy's mother.
Levy wears a doublebreasted blue blazer with shiny buttons, and a pair of faultlessly pressed grey flannel slacks. On the left breast pocket of the jacket there is a large figured crest in red, green and gold. Underneath are the words Duris Non Franco.
"What's your feeling as to what the sentence should be?" a reporter asks.
"Same as the other one," Levy says. "The death penalty. This was the trigger man. It's difficult to say who was the worst.
"James Styers killed the child. She's the one who initiated and perpetuated the idea. She was able to dominate him so that he went along with the diabolical scheme. The killing of the child was depraved. It was cold and premeditated, and then the child was led to his death in a remote desert area.
"Styers took the child first to a drug store and then to his last meal at Peter Piper Pizza and then to the desert. He had to be thinking about killing him all during this time. Then, he shot him three times in the back of the head to make sure.
"I guess cold-blooded is an appropriate phrase."
There is one more question. A reporter asks Levy about the crest on his jacket.
"It's my mother's family crest," he says with a smile. "It means, `Diversity shall not deter.'"
The reporters turn to the dead boy's father, Mark Milke, who has made himself a major figure in the trial. He is waiting to comment.
Milke is one of those rare relatives of victims who insists on being in the spotlight. During his wife's trial earlier in the month, he boasted to Dennis Higgins of the Gazette how they first met when he was playing in a pool tournament.
According to Milke, she became so excited that she hyperventilated and paramedics had to be called.
He stands waiting with a look of self-satisfaction on his face.
"I feel that two-thirds of my 1990 Christmas present is complete," Milke says. "One more guilty verdict will complete the scenario. Last year, I got a shattered heart and a mind driven to the edge of insanity."
He wants all three to get the death penalty. He is willing to say no more at this time. He is saving the good stuff for his book.
Milke rushed out to appear on a KFYI radio talk show a few days after his son's murder. His efforts at self-promotion took him all the way to the Sally Jesse Raphael show. He has clearly memorized this comment and has come to the sentencing prepared with his own television sound bite.
Phoenix newspaper readers first learned of this case in the editions of Monday, December 4, 1989. The story was on page one.
It was the same weekend that Rudy Miller, chairman of States West Airlines, was arrested in his gold-colored Jaguar after a lengthy chase by policemen from three communities. It was also the weekend the Republic offered its readers a lengthy background piece on Charles Keating.
The films packing local theaters were The War of the Roses with Michael Douglas and Danny De Vito, and Back To The Future II with Michael J. Fox.
The Milke murder took several days to unfold.
First, there was a story written by Art Thomason telling of the finding of the four year old's body in the desert near 99th Avenue and Happy Valley Road.
We also learned that Jim Styers and Debra Milke had been living together in an apartment in the 7700 block of North 12th Street, and that Styers and a friend, Roger Scott, had set out with the boy in Styers' 1986 Toyota Corolla on a trip to see Santa Claus.
Styers reported to police that he lost the boy at Metrocenter.
After being questioned for the first time, he told reporters:
"They can't find anyone who saw me in the mall or in the pizza place with Chris."
He expressed annoyance at the injustice of the police questioning.
"I'm not under arrest but I was behind locked doors. I couldn't use the phones."
Unwittingly, Styers told reporter Thomason what was to be the start of his defense.
"I was disabled from the service," Styers said. "I have problems with memory and retention. I suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. I feel guilty, but the only thing I feel guilty about is not keeping better care of him."
On the following day, the alibi began to fall apart.
Bob Hughes, Chris' godfather, told reporters that the boy never had the love and care he needed. It was learned that Chris' father had served six months in the Arizona State prison at Florence in 1988 for drunk driving.
Another friend, who had been a witness to the wedding of Debra and Mark Milke on December 22, 1984, also said something damaging.
"It seemed like she didn't want Chris around. She physically and verbally abused him."
The case came apart when Roger Scott, who was Styers' best friend, related the details of the execution-style killing to police.
Scott was with Styers when he killed the boy with a .22 caliber pistol. Scott led police to the body and provided them with the murder weapon.
Within days, police had pieced together the details of a remarkably cold-blooded criminal episode.
"Don't lie to me," Saldate ordered Mrs. Milke. "I can't stand it when people try to lie to me. Just tell me the truth. You'll be better off."
Debra panicked. Cowering under Saldate's head-on approach, she admitted she didn't want Chris to grow up and be like his father, who was both an alcoholic and a drug abuser.
"I'm not crazy. I'm not an animal. I just didn't want Chris to grow up like his dad," she said of the man she had divorced.
She kept insisting she had nothing to do with her son's death. But Saldate knew in his heart that she was lying.
The murder plays itself out before your mind in silence.
It is December 2, 1989. Styers tells Chris that he and Scott will take him out for a wonderful day. They will go to get a pizza, and then go on to the desert to watch gliders and hunt for snakes.
Finally, Chris will get to go to Metrocenter to meet Santa Claus. It is every child's vision of the Christmas season.
What the little boy is too unsophisticated to realize is that there are dark forces at work. It is a story of multiple dependencies.
Debra Milke dominates Styers, who has been trying to win her over for months. Styers dominates Scott, whom he has known since high school days.
If Styers gets rid of the child she despises, he will gain her favor and share in the $5,000 insurance policy recently taken out on the child's life.
Scott will receive a promised $200 which he needs for a medical appointment.
Milke, who has felt frustrated by motherhood, will get a new start in life, unencumbered by caring for a child.
But the wonder of the crime is how they ever thought they would get away with it.
The success of the plot hinged on the total gullibility of the police. It was to be a simple story of a boy kidnaped from Metrocenter. Perhaps they thought the body would never be found in the desert.
But if this was the plan, why didn't they bury him? And why didn't Debra Milke realize that all her friends would be the first to tell police how much she hated her own child?
One can imagine Styers sitting alone in jail, trying to figure how he will save himself from the charge of murder and a possible death sentence.
For several weeks after his arrest, Styers does not dare to contact Debra. He already knows that Scott has told the police everything. The two high-school pals are now kept in cells far removed from each other.
On December 24, 1989, Styers finally decides to write Debra a letter. He will take no chances. He will write nothing that can provide the prosecution with any clues.
Honey, I just found out what happened to you and you don't know how bad that makes me feel. I hope you know that I had nothing to do with your being in jail. You had nothing to do with what went on.
Hell, I'm having a hard time now between crying and feeling so bad.
I found out something tonight and that is that I love you more than I ever thought I did. I know that I can never have you as a lover. I can live with that. But losing you as a friend would hurt me more than I can take.
It's hard to find sympathy for Styers' self-pity in prison. This letter was written 22 days after he coldly pumped three shots from a .22 caliber pistol into the four year old he had promised he would take to see Santa Claus.
Apparently, someone broke into the apartment on North 12th Street where they had been living and stole many of their valued possessions. Even murderers aren't safe from burglars these days.
Styers writes again on January 30, 1990.
About your things, yes, my sister knows what is yours. Your Dad said to give it all to Goodwill, just to get rid of it.
I don't know what was stolen out of the apartment. I had the VCR, my tapes, my records. My car was broken into and the radio and everything else was taken.
About Roger, I want nothing to do with him. All I know about him is what my lawyer tells me. Boy, the way he is not only doing this to you, but he is also doing this to me, too.
Here is what went on that Saturday. We picked up Roger, got his prescription and Chris said he wanted something to eat. To pass time, we went out to watch gliders and snakes. Chris thought that was a good idea. We were out there for a while and I said it was time to go. Chris was right behind me and Roger behind him. I thought the gun was in the car. I said no shooting with Chris along. But Roger had other plans. I have to stop now. Just remember, you're not the only one that's lost everything. I'm in jail, too.
Styers has now outsmarted himself. He has committed to paper a new version of Chris' disappearance that places him in the desert at the scene of the murder. Until this time, Styers has maintained to prosecutors that Chris was lost at Metrocenter.
Several days later, he writes another letter which seals his own conviction when it is brought to prosecutor Levy's attention.
March 12, 1990
Yes, I remember the day we went to court and the remark that it wasn't worth killing. I believe they think you and I will take most of the punishment and Roger will get a little. I agree with you that Mark [Debbie's ex-husband] is digging his own grave.
About the gun, I got the gun for Roger. You saw it at the house. I took it that Saturday [the day of the murder] to give to him but when I got to his house he was outside and ready to go. So he didn't put the gun in his house.
I'm going crazy in here. We got three homos that are trying to be females with long hair, nails and lipstick and they try to sound like women.
I'm glad you're going to Bible study. I'm also doing Bible study by mail. Thank you for praying for me, I need it. Yes, honey, I think we'll both make it.
What do you mean when you say, "But we will soon see?" Is there something going on that I don't know about?"
Keep the faith, Love you,
What is going on is that Styers' letters have been turned over to the prosecution by Debra's attorney. Confronted with the letters, Styers realizes that he has destroyed his own alibi.
Styers writes one more letter. He lets Debbie know what she has done to him.
I had court today and my trial is set.
The only thing they have on me is one of the letters I wrote you. The one telling them what happened out there. All that tells them is that I was there. I'm a little scared about this whole damn thing but I think we'll make it through.
My lawyer thinks you might using me to cover yourself to keep from going to jail. He thinks you are covering yourself with my letters. I don't think you are. I think you just want to know what happened.
Styers' final letter ends abruptly. There is no longer any expression of love and affection at the conclusion.
He has done everything he could to win Debra over. He has paid her bills and let her live in his apartment.
He has even murdered her four-year-old son so she might have a chance at a new life. And now, she has used his letters from his jail cell to send him on a road to the gas chamber.
Styers looks more like a college professor on his way to the library than a murderer ready to hear the verdict.
He pumped three shots from a .22 calibre pistol into the four year old he had promised he would take to see Santa Claus.
"Just remember, you're not the only one that's lost everything. I'm in jail, too."
"This was the trigger man. It's difficult to say who was the worst.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.