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48 Hours Mystery: Toxic

Toxic 42:28

This story was 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?Lieutenant Chris Morgan wanted to talk to everyone Eric Miller came into contact with the first night he became sick at the bowling alley - especially Derril Willard, the man who poured Eric's beer.

"He's been ducking us," says Morgan. "He's been not retuning calls. You know, he hadn't given us an interview at all."

The 37-year-old biochemist worked at the same company as Eric's wife, Ann. But beyond that, those who know Derril Willard best say he's an unlikely murder suspect.

"He was very good at his job, very respected," says Yvette Willard of her husband. "He was a great dad. So good with Kelsey. She absolutely adored him."

But shortly after Eric's death in 2000, police began digging into Derril's background. Phone records between Derril and Eric's wife, Ann, days before Eric's murder, hint at what may have been an inappropriate relationship.

"There was a ton of communication between the two. Multiple calls on a daily basis," says Morgan. "When you look at the phone records, you're finding phone calls where Ann has called Derril at 4:30 in the morning. You gotta ask yourself, 'Who calls a casual acquaintance, a co-worker at 4:30 in the morning?'"

Also, just days before the bowling alley incident, Ann and Derril took a trip to Chicago together. Ann says it's a company business trip. But when police investigate, there was no company trip.

"They check in to the Ritz Carlton and spend a weekend up there ordering a whole lot of room service," Morgan explains.

Police also retrieved e-mail from Ann's computer:

"I never want to stop making you feel," Ann wrote to Derril. "I want to show you new things. I want to touch places in you that you knew not existed."

Just hours after Ann sent that e-mail, Derril poured Eric a beer at the bowling alley. When asked if he thinks Derril tried to kill Eric that night, Morgan says, "No doubt in my mind."

But Morgan suspected something more complicated was going on. When Eric came home after bowling, Ann rushed him to the emergency room where doctors ran a battery of tests.

Eric's sister, Leeane, was there when Eric began to hallucinate.

"He was thrashing and he started to cry. And he's like, 'Why are they doing this to me?' I remember laying on top of him physically 'cause he was thrashing so much. And I was so afraid he was gonna hurt himself. I laid top of him and I just got in his face. And I said, 'Eric you need to calm down. It's gonna be OK.'"

After that horrible night, Eric did begin to slowly improve and days later, was discharged. While recuperating at home, his parents, Verus and Doris, stayed by his side. One night, they decided to give Ann and Eric some time alone.

"Some friends of theirs had brought in some food. So Ann was going to serve that and they were gonna have just the quiet time," Doris explains.

But after Ann says she and Eric ate a chicken dinner, Eric became violently ill again and went back to the hospital. Doctors poured over the tests from his previous stay and discovered the arsenic in Eric's blood.

Lieutenant Morgan had many questions for Eric's wife. But now, he says, Ann was refusing to cooperate. "We tried to contact Ann. She never came in, she never called."

Instead, within days of Eric's death, Ann hired attorneys, effectively cutting off police.

"She retained one of the most high profile, most experienced lawyers that, well, as I put it, money can buy," says Morgan.

Ann retained Wade Smith and Joe Cheshire - the lawyers who later successfully defended the young Duke lacrosse players accused of rape. And while Morgan thought it suspicious, Eric's family was more forgiving.

"I just dismissed it. I'm like, OK. Well I guess that happened lots of times. The spouse gets, you know, blamed for things," says Eric's sister Pam.

The Miller family embraced their grieving daughter-in-law. After Eric's death, Ann asked to spend Christmas with them in Indiana. But they would soon learn a horrible truth about Ann.

On Jan. 21, 2001, a month and a half after Eric's death, the Millers came to Ann's house for Clare's first birthday.

Police wanted to confront Ann about her affair. "We went, knocked on the door," says Det. Deborah Regentin. "They had no idea we were coming. Mr. Miller opened the door. I said, 'We need to talk to you about Derril Willard.' I said, 'We have reason to believe that Ann and Derril Willard have engaged in a relationship."

But when Ann saw the detectives, Verus and Doris say she ran upstairs and hid in a closet.

"I was devastated," says Doris. "I was just so hurt and I felt Eric was so betrayed."

"I got mad as hell," Verus says. "She has been talking to this Willard… numerous times on the telephone. And the one that really put a dagger in my heart - that she talked to him for 24 minutes - two hours before Eric died. Don't take a rocket scientist to figure this out. Something's wrong big time."

While Ann wept in the closet, Morgan was nine miles away in front of Derril Willard's house. "He came right to the door... And Derril, I mean, he just had the look of a man who was experiencing total defeat."

Morgan wondered aloud to Derril whether Ann had set him up

"I said, 'Derril, I think you've been used by a woman.' And he looked up, with resignation on his face, and he said, 'Yeah. And she's done a very good job of it.' And then he said, 'I can't talk to you anymore. I need to call my attorney.'"

As Derril sat in the back of Morgan's car and phoned his lawyer, Morgan stood outside wishing he could overhear the conversation. He was certain Derril knew who killed Eric Miller - that he was the key to unlocking the mystery.

But 24 hours later, news broke that changed everything.The news shocked Lt. Chris Morgan. Twenty four hours after he tried to interrogate Derril Willard about his role in Eric Miller's murder, Derril was dead.

Yvette Willard found her husband's lifeless body in the garage. By his side was a note apologizing for leaving his family and also denying his involvement in Eric Miller's murder.

"I have been accused of an action for which I am not responsible," Derril wrote. "I have taken no one's life save my own."

Yvette says her husband was supposed to see his lawyer that day. She says he was worried that morning after the police searched their home looking for arsenic. Stories about his affair with Ann - his romantic trip to Chicago with her just days before Eric fell ill at the bowling alley - were going to be all over the news.

Yvette already knew what the world was just finding out about her husband's affair. She says she had her suspicions for weeks.

"I knew he was attracted to Ann when I knew the way he talked about her versus the way he talked about everybody else at work," she says.

Before Ann, Yvette says Derril had been depressed, trying to take stock of his life as he approached 40. "We had been married for awhile," she explains. "The newness has worn off and we just started, you know, fighting a little more."

But after he became friendly with Ann, Derril began paying more attention to his appearance and working out. On Yvette's birthday, Derril told her he needed some time away to think things over.

"I knew what he was going out of town for," she says. That was the weekend in Chicago with Ann Miller. Yvette says she didn't confront her husband out of "fear."

"You can know the truth, but until it's spoken, once you those words get out, you can't get them back. And I guess I was hoping he'd realize what he was doing," she tells Troy Roberts.

But after Eric's murder, Derril sat Yvette down. "He said he didn't know if he loved me and that he had been having an affair. And I said 'With Ann.' He said, 'Yes.'"

Roberts asks her, "What do you think was going through his mind? Did he think he had a future with this woman?"

"I think that Derril would not have had an affair without that," Yvette replies. And when asked if Derril put arsenic in Eric Miller's beer that day she says, "I do not believe so." Yvette says she asked her husband that very question, to which he said, "No, I didn't."

Yvette says Derril would not have tried to kill Eric, because he "wasn't the type that thought he could get away with something like that."

Yvette says Derril is just not capable of murder, that he would have encouraged Ann to seek a divorce - not help her kill her husband. And although he was innocent, she says her husband was emotionally fragile and could not bare the very public accusations.

"He had made one comment to me prior to his death. He said, 'You know how to bend. You can take things. And you just bend and you keep going.' He says, 'I can't. I'll break.' And so I knew he just couldn't cope anymore."

Yvette's last conversation with her husband took place the day after the house was searched.

"I told him it was gonna be a really hard day and I asked if he'd give me a hug. And he did. And I thought he was gonna break my bones. He was squeezing... and then I left."

While Yvette dropped their daughter at daycare and headed in to work, Derril was planning his death.

"The world looks black to me," he wrote. "All I can see is the smearing of my name, pain caused to my family, personal humiliation and probable economic ruin."

Derril thought his family would be better off without him. Yvette blames Ann Miller for his death. "My husband would still be here if it wasn't for her."

The Millers, on the other hand, didn't know what to believe.

"Ann was feeding us information such that Derril was obsessed with her..." says Eric's sister, Leeann. "We did think that it was possible that Derril poisoned Eric and in the end was trying to get him out of the picture."

But when the full autopsy report was released, the Millers were flabbergasted.

"I think it's likely that Eric received at least one dose of arsenic in the hospital. And very likely, the fatal dose," says Medical Examiner Dr. Tom Clark.

Incredible as it sounds, Dr. Clark is almost certain that someone came into Eric's hospital room and finished him off with a final fatal dose. But that wasn't the only stunning news.

To the shock of investigators, Dr. Clark's team found arsenic in Eric's hair four months before he went bowling with Derril Willard and months before police believe Derril and Ann began their affair.

"Arsenic's not the kind of crime you can commit at any distance," Morgan explains. "You have to be able to put the arsenic in the food or drink and introduce into the body."

In terms of possible suspects, that left only Ann. Morgan believes she dosed her husband with arsenic for months. "I do think that Ann was seeing just how much poison it would take to make Eric sick, sort of experimenting," he says.

And then, Morgan says, Ann turned to Derril. "Ann reached a point where she was ready to eliminate Eric," he explains. "She needs to make sure that she keeps her hands clean and has a reasonable patsy, that if something does goes wrong, he can take the fall."

If Ann really was this cold and calculating, was she in fact a psychopath? Morgan and the Millers feared the worst. Would she now try to hurt baby Clare?

"I am scared to death for Clare's well being," says Leeann. "You know at any moment she could be poisoning Clare."Lieutenant Chris Morgan was desperate to put Ann Miller behind bars.

"I was sure that Ann Miller was directly responsible for her husband's death." He says for a period of time police watched her around the clock. "She had, in the space of about 6 months, she had completely reinvented her life."

Morgan couldn't believe that so soon after Eric Miller's murder Ann had packed up her life in Raleigh and took Clare 120 miles away to Wilmington, N.C. - far from the reach of the Raleigh Police Department.

She had a new man in her life, musician Paul Kontz, and she had a new job working for an interior designer.

"Is that what you would normally expect from a spouse whose husband has been murdered in such a cruel way?" Morgan asks. An innocent person, he believed, would have been hounding police for answers.

"Ann Miller should have been on a first-name basis with every detective involved in this investigation," he says.

But Ann wasn't interested in talking to anybody and Morgan wondered what kind of person watches her husband die and doesn't look back?

"I think she's a psychopath," he says. "She never felt any guilt. She never felt any remorse."

Morgan feared for what could happen next. Would she harm her own daughter?

"We didn't know," he says, "but I didn't want to take that chance."

Morgan turned to his friend, Forensic Psychologist Michael Teague, for help. But Teague said Ann doesn't fit the typical profile of a killer.

Ann grew up in a traditional church-going family, the eldest of three girls. Her mother, a teaching assistant, and her dad, a sales executive, say she is a devoted and loving daughter.

"Most women who kill their husbands are not so highly educated as she is, do not come from a very high-income background," Teague explains.

Teague wondered, did Ann just snap one day or was she the psychopath that Morgan described? Someone who was likely to kill again?

"There's more to this picture than just your typical murder of a husband by a wife," he tells Troy Roberts.

Needing to see Ann face to face, Teague went undercover, visiting the design shop where she worked. "I didn't recognize her. She projected meekness and just weak. She came across as so harmless," he says.

Ann had a chameleon-like quality, Teague concluded, a dangerous ability to transform herself and fool people.

"I think Ann is very disturbed, very high risk," he says. "If she had no boundaries to stop her for killing a saint like Eric Miller, I don't see what will stop her in the future."

New, troubling information was coming to light about Ann everyday. E-mails reveal that at the same time she was having an affair with Derril, Ann was having a romantic relationship with a man from California - all while her husband, Eric, lay dying in the hospital.

And on the day Eric was transferred to the ICU, Ann chose not to spend the day with him, but at the beauty salon, where a hairdresser tells "48 Hours", "She did say she was ready for something new, something fresh."

Another time, Eric's sister, Leeann, says left Ann left his hospital bedside to clean house.

"She threw away all of Eric's soiled clothing from his first night of being ill. She threw away all of the bathroom rugs instead of just washing things like any normal person would do. She threw everything away."

At the time, Eric's sisters believed Ann was just overcome with stress. In retrospect, they believe she was "covering her tracks" and "getting rid of evidence."

And that's not the only evidence she destroyed. After Eric's death, and against his family's wishes, Ann insisted that her husband be cremated.

"We did not want him cremated. We did not want it," says Verus. "It's like he died and then they were going to destroy him again."

But Ann begged for Eric's ashes to be interred at a Catholic church in Raleigh so she and Clare would be able to visit every Sunday.

"She just knew how to play on your heartstrings," Verus adds. But, just weeks later, Ann would move away from Raleigh and leave Eric's ashes behind.

The Millers were furious and concerned. Morgan and Teague asked child protective services to remove Clare from Ann's care.

"They told us flat, unless Ann gets arrested, we're not gonna do anything looking into this case," Teague says.

Both Morgan and Teague believed that an arrest was imminent.

"We thought we were going to be getting a call at any minute saying, 'Pick Ann Miller up. Arrest her.'" But Morgan says the call never came. "The District Attorney's office wasn't quite ready to move at the same pace that we were."

District Attorney Colon Willoughby wanted hard evidence, especially if he was going to square off against Ann's high-profile defense attorneys. "It was necessary to have solid proof," he says.

Morgan had no one who could place the arsenic in Ann Miller's hands.

It was 2002, and more than a year had passed since Eric Miller was murdered.

Frustrated, Morgan re-read the case file again and again. And then, late one night while looking at the file for what felt like the hundreth time, Morgan says he saw it plain as day: the key to solving Eric Miller's murder. Lieutenant Chris Morgan couldn't believe he hadn't noticed it before. In the case file was a transcript from a police interview with Yvette Willard that could crack the case wide open.

She told investigators that days before her husband, Derril, committed suicide, his attorney, Rick Gammon, warned him that he could be charged with attempted murder in the Eric Miller case.

"Why is Rick Gammon telling Derril that he could be charged with attempted murder? Well it's got to be that Derril has told Rick Gammon something," states Morgan. "I said, 'Rick, let me ask you this, when are you gonna tell us what Derril Willard told you?'"

"And my response to Chris was, 'Chris, you know I can't do that unless I was ordered to do that by a judge,'" Gammon tells Troy Roberts. "I told Derril Willard over and over and over again that any and every thing that he told me was confidential."

They say dead men don't tell tales, but Morgan was banking his case on changing that. Getting Gammon to break attorney-client privilege was Morgan's only hope. "That's going to be the key to this case," he says.

District Attorney Colon Willoughby took up the cause.

"The privileges between lawyers and their clients and priests and their parishioners are probably the two most sacred. And those are probably the most difficult to go after," he explains.

Despite the pressure, Gammon refused to break his silence. "I don't want to see anyone who's committed murder to go free, even though I'm a defense attorney. But on the other hand, you know the attorney-client privilege is so important."

As the case dragged on in the courts, questions about Ann and her relationship with Derril Willard lingered.

Desperate, Eric's sister, Pam, phoned Ann and secretly recorded the conversation:

Pam: "It's out in the newspapers that you called Willard, like, I don't know how many times… What is that all about? I mean, you said this guy was stalking you."
Ann: "Obsessed might have been a good word… But you know, I don't - I don't know what you want me to say."
Pam: "I wanted you to tell us what happened. What this is all about."
Ann: "Would it make any difference? Would anybody listen to me?"
Pam: "Yes we're listening."
Ann: "No, I don't think so. I really don't think anybody would listen to me."

Three years after Eric's murder, Ann wed her musician boyfriend, Paul Kontz, and Morgan approached retirement age.

"A lot of people said I had been so obsessed with [the case] that I paid no attention to my career," Morgan says. "The only thing I cared about, it would seem to the outsider, was Ann Miller going to jail."

Then, in spring of 2004, the North Carolina Supreme Court made a startling decision, ruling that Gammon must reveal what Derril Willard told him about Ann Miller's role in Eric's murder.

Read Gammon's Statement

"He told me that he met Ann one day in a parking lot... Ann was crying. And that she admitted to him that while Eric was in the hospital she took a syringe that contained a substance and injected it into his IV," Gammon explains. "Derril asked her, 'Why did you do this?' And she said 'I just, I don't know why I did it."

The D.A. could now put the arsenic that killed Eric Miller in Ann's hands. As for Derril Willard, the judge revealed that Derril told his attorney that he never tried to kill Eric.

That was vindication for Derril's widow. "I felt that he at last, got to speak up and defend himself," says Yvette.

Ann was ordered to surrender and was charged with Eric's murder.

The district attorney was worried though about Gammon's statement being used at trial. Even if a judge allowed it into evidence, any conviction would be subject to appeal. What's more, the D.A. thought Ann might charm a jury.

The Millers wanted to protect their granddaughter. "We need to take Ann out of her life, at least until Clare is an adult," says Doris.

The D.A. wasn't willing to gamble and neither were the Millers. A plea was offered: 25 years in prison for Eric's murder and Ann takes the deal.

So in 2005, five years after their son's murder, the Millers finally hear their daughter-in-law accept guilt. Ann's family was also in the courtroom when in a small, barely audible voice, Ann admitted killing Eric.

Judge: "Miss Kontz did you with malice unlawfully and intentionally, participate in causing the death of Eric Miller?"
Ann: "Yes, sir."

The Miller family wanted answers. Eric's sisters confronted Ann in court, their emotions raw. Said Pam, "Ann why don't you look at me? Why can't you look at me? Why did you brutally murder my brother Eric? Poisoning him? Watching him suffer?"

"I think sometimes that you just can't explain it," Pam tells Roberts. "There's pure evil in the world and I think she falls into that category, of pure evil."

"I don't believe that you, Ann, truly love your daughter,' Leeann said in court. "How could you when you have taken away one of the most precious gifts that she will ever have, her father? I will never understand, Ann, why you just didn't divorce him."

"She can't divorce him," Morgan explains, "because that, in Ann's world, amounts to admitting that she's not perfect."

"So instead of shattering this image of the perfect couple, you're saying that Ann Miller decided to kill Eric?" Roberts asks Morgan. "Exactly," he replies. "From Ann's point of view, she would be looked at by her friends as this total victim."

With Ann Miller's sentencing, Chris Morgan retired from the police force. "The main question I'd like to ask her is, 'Why did you think you'd be able to get away with this?'"

And while the case that consumed him for nearly five years is finally over, to this day, Morgan feels little satisfaction.

"What in the hell have I got to be happy about? Two good men are dead. Two little girls will never know their fathers," Morgan says. "I'm not happy about any of this. My job was to get justice for Eric Miller. Justice has been done."

A judge ruled Ann Miller cannot see her daughter, Clare. Clare lives with Ann's sister; Eric's family shares custody.

Ann Miller is scheduled to be released in 2029. She'll be 59 years old.
Produced by Patti Aronofsky and Mead Stone; Consulting Producer, Amanda Lamb

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