Chris Milke lived life on the edge, but he had no choice.
During the child's first two years, his alcoholic and drug-abusing father, Mark, weaved in and out of jail. His mother, Debbie, partied hard, scraping by and moving the kid around from apartment to apartment, city to city. The stormy young couple separated in February '87, and Debbie filed for divorce the following year. It became final while Mark was behind bars yet again.
The child's last two years were even worse.
Just before Christmas '88, Chris landed in the hospital with thyroid problems.
Just before last Christmas, when Chris was barely four years old, someone took him out in the desert on the far west side near 99th Avenue and Happy Valley Road and shot him three times in the back of the head. He died curled in the fetal position, a wad of chewing gum clenched between his teeth.
Last week, Debbie Milke, 26, was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy in the death of her son. Fighting similar charges are the alleged hit man, Jim Styers, 43, and his longtime friend Roger Mark Scott, 42.
Styers, who shared his apartment with Debbie and Chris and baby-sat the boy full time, reported the child missing on December 2. He told police he was taking Chris to see Santa when the boy disappeared. The next day, Scott led detectives to the child's body and implicated Styers and Debbie Milke.
Debbie Milke's case hinged on her confession of December 3, which was neither taped nor signed. She tried to recant and pleaded her innocence, but it was her word against that of Phoenix Police detective Armando Saldate.
Why did prosecutors say she plotted to have her only child killed? She had told Saldate: "Look, I just didn't want him to grow up like his father. I'm not a crazy person, I'm not an animal, I just didn't want him to grow up like that." Saldate said Debbie told him "it would be better for her son to MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.04 I9.06 die" than to turn out like Mark Milke.
Prosecutor Noel Levy described that grotesque thinking as "the motor, the driving force" behind the murder.
The sins of the father were an old obsession of hers, according to letters written by Debbie Milke to Mark Milke in late '88 and early '89, and obtained by New Times. The letters reveal that a full year before Chris was murdered, the child was exposed to a confused blend of love, hate and anger from an enormously troubled young mother.
The letters cover a key period in Chris Milke's life: His mom was at a self-professed crossroads. She had just moved back to Arizona from a disastrous stay in Colorado (she returned with no furniture or car) and claimed to be full of remorse. Barely two weeks after Debbie Milke won her divorce from Mark, she started writing to him, in care of the Arizona State Prison in Florence. Debbie Milke moved in with Mark's mother in the northwest Valley and commuted by bus to a clerk-secretary job near South Mountain.
And she vowed to change her ways.
MDRVNovember 2, 1988
"Hi! I'm sure you're surprised to hear from me. I thought I'd write to you because there's so much I want to tell you and ask you. . . . Things are going OK for me. I've done a lot of crazy things lately and had so much time to evaluate myself. I really made a mess of my life again but I really came to grips with myself now. After you went to jail, I couldn't handle anything around here anymore so I decided to leave town. I was running away again thinking things would be better on the other side. It took me 800 miles from home and some deep soul searching to finally realize what kind of person I really was.
"Over all the years I have hurt people who cared and used people to get my way. After you were out of my life I felt so alone and confused and didn't know how to guide myself. I realized how I took Chris away from people who love him and saw how it affected him. I then decided that I will soon be 25 and it's about damn time I grow up and get my shit together.
"I had one more chance to come back to Phoenix and prove myself. So, here I am back in town. I've been here a week so far and I already found a job. I know this may be hard for November 6, 1988
"Hi! How's it going? It was nice to hear your voice. . . . "I think by hitting rock bottom and having to start all over makes me feel stronger and more wiser. Did you enjoy talking with Chris? He really misses you Mark. I sure hope you completely change your ways about life. This is no life for him to constantly try and understand. If he really means that much to you then you will most definitely clean up your act. You are one that he will look up to while he's growing up.