48 Hours: Toxic
(This story originally aired on March 14, 2009)
Eric and Ann Miller married after a college romance - they had a baby girl and successful careers. Eric was a promising pediatric AIDS researcher; Ann worked as a chemist. But the life they shared ended tragically when Eric Miller, 30, died of arsenic poisoning.
With the couple both surrounded by chemicals at work, could the poisoning be an accident? One cop didn't think so.
Revealing e-mails, extramarital affairs, a shocking suicide and a stunning disclosure about when Eric Miller was poisoned, all set this investigator on a determined quest for answers... and justice.
Minutes after Eric Miller's heart stopped, his parents Verus and Doris arrived at the hospital.
"He was laying in his bed with a tube in his mouth. Because they had tried to resuscitate him. He was cold. And I wanted to take that tube out. I wanted to cover him up. Cause he was so cold," Doris tearfully tells "48 Hours Mystery" correspondent Troy Roberts.
None of what happened that evening made any sense. Eric, who was sick with flu-like symptoms for weeks, seemed to be to be on the mend - recovering.
Six months earlier, their 30-year-old son, a respected young scientist, was the perfect specimen of health.
He'd always been that way. Growing up in rural Indiana, Eric was the picture image of the all-American boy.
"He was a bit mischievous," says Eric's sister, Pam. "He liked to hide behind the couch when your boyfriends were over."
But Eric's interests matured.
"I think Eric truly blossomed when he went to college and he got involved in biology and chemistry and research and he found that's what he wanted to do" adds their sister, Leeann.
He also fell in love. Eric met Ann Brier in a Purdue University science class.
"I had met some of the girls he had been dating prior to Ann," Leeann says. "I could tell there was a difference when he introduced me to Ann."
Ann's college roommate, Renee See, remembers the Valentine's Day proposal. "This was the happiest time of her life. She was marrying the man of her dreams."
The couple bought a house in Raleigh, North Carolina. Eric got a prestigious position as a pediatric AIDS researcher and Ann was a chemist at a large pharmaceutical company. When their daughter Clare was born, Eric was over the moon.
Says Doris, "He looks at me, and he says, 'Mom, you always told me how much you loved me. But I never knew how much you loved me until I had Clare.'"
But Eric wouldn't live to see his infant daughter's first birthday.
At the funeral, his beloved wife, Ann, was grief stricken. It's an image Eric's friends Fran and Dale Martin can't forget.
"It was gut wrenching watching her," Fran recalls. "She grabbed on to me and just, you know, cried that cry where your whole body is shaking. She was just inconsolable. She was saying, 'Why? Why did Eric have to die? Why did he have to die?'"
Doctors had no easy answer. Two weeks earlier, Ann had rushed Eric to the hospital after he came home from a night out bowling and was violently ill.
Eric's symptoms looked a lot like a very bad flu. When he got better, he was released from the hospital. But just a week later, Eric was deathly ill again. To everyone's shock, blood tests revealed he had been poisoned with arsenic.
Hours later, Eric Miller was dead.
Raleigh Police immediately launched an investigation. Detective Deborah Regentin was sent to search the Miller home.
"We need to get samples of everything in the house to find where the arsenic came from," Det. Regentin explains. "Every shampoo, conditioner, soap - any fluid - everything out of the refrigerator, a sample was taken."
Police scoured Eric's place of work for clues.
"One of my first thoughts was, he's working in a lab. Maybe something was dripping down, maybe he had a roast beef sandwich that somehow got exposed to arsenic by mistake," says Lieutenant Chris Morgan.
But this was no mistake according to Medical Examiner Dr. Tom Clark. "The levels in Eric Miller were high enough that accidental exposure is not a possibility," he says.
Ruling out accidental exposure left Lt. Morgan with just one possibility: murder. He was looking for a suspect who had access to arsenic, access to Eric, and someone who knew that arsenic poisoning often mimics flu-like symptoms and can go undetected. Someone, perhaps, like a fellow scientist.
"He's in a very competitive field, he was doing quite well," says Morgan. "Was there some kind of professional jealousy that could have led to his death?"
There are more than 100 labs in the Raleigh area, known as the nation's research capital. But at Eric's lab, police couldn't find a trace of arsenic or anyone with a motive.
Police were hoping Ann could help them.
"Her father was holding her up, and so she appeared to be very weak," Regentin recalls. "She would sob and she would break down."
But after speaking with detectives, Ann called her friend Dale Martin, sounding scared, worried maybe, that police considered her a suspect in her husband's death.
"She goes, 'Well, you know, I have arsenic in my lab.' And at that point I said, 'Innocent people need lawyers too, Ann.'"
Martin knew there had to have been arsenic in dozens of labs and was concerned Ann would be the victim in a rush to judgment. He wasn't the only one.
"I felt like there was no way that she could have done this to him, she loved him," says Leann.
In fact, Ann wasn't even with Eric when he first started feeling sick the night at the bowling alley. It was a guy's night out and Derril Willard, a biochemist, ordered a pitcher of beer.
"Derril passes out the beer cups. Eric had drank half of his beer. He had commented that 'Hey, this beer tastes kinda funky, something's wrong with it,'" Morgan explains.
An hour later, Eric was severely ill.
"My boss said we need to go out and question this Derril Willard guy," says Morgan.
But before police even got to his door, they learned intriguing new information from Derril's colleagues. Derril Willard was deeply infatuated, if not in love,with Ann Miller.
Could that, they wondered, be a motive for murder?
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