The Killer Next Door

Beneath The Normal Exterior

What causes someone to become a serial killer? And can such a person be rehabilitated? This week, CBS News 48 Hours takes a look at the gripping story of a cold-blooded serial killer about to go free after only 20 years in prison - and the victims who want desperately to keep him in jail.

Donald Miller was the quintessential boy-next-door. Growing up in a quiet middle class neighborhood in East Lansing, Michigan, Don seemed completely normal. Although he grew up in the mid-70s, when many of his classmates were growing their hair long and dabbling in drugs, Don was a clean-cut straight arrow. He served as a youth minister at his church. He went to the local college, Michigan State University, where he played trombone in the school marching band. He dated a girl who went to his church, Martha Sue Young.

But Don Miller wasn't the normal boy-next-door. He became a serial killer.

In the winter of 1976, Don and Martha, who also went to Michigan State, became engaged. Just a few days before New Year's Eve, Martha had a change of heart, and broke off the engagement. Don convinced her to stay friends anyway.

Two days later, Martha disappeared. Police suspected Don, but could find no evidence. Over the next 18 months, three other Lansing-area women disappeared. Two days after the last disappearance, Don attacked 14-year-old Lisa Gilbert and tried to kill her. When her younger brother Randy came home, Don tried to kill him. While Don was attacking Randy, Lisa ran out of the house and got help.

Don was arrested, convicted of rape and attempted murder, and sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison. He agreed to help authorities solve the four unsolved murders, in exchange for a plea bargain. With the help of the drug sodium amytol and skillful psychiatrists, Miller confessed to all four murders. In the end, that plea bargain ended up adding no time to his sentence. And with time off for good behavior, Don is due to get out after only 20 years in prison, at the relatively young age of 43.

But a group of concerned citizens, including Martha Sue Young's mother, Sue, and Lisa and Randy Gilbert's stepmother, Donna Irish, is trying desperately to keep him locked up.

Looking over his prison record, one of the group's members discovers that in 1994, prison officials confiscated a shoelace from Miller's cell because they thought it could be used as a strangling device. Felony charges are filed against Miller, for harboring a concealed weapon. If found guilty, Miller would have four felony convictions, enough to put him behind bars for the rest of his life.

But Miller, his lawyer, and his parents, Gene and Elaine, decide to fight back. It was just an innocent shoelace, they argue, not a weapon. Miller's lawyer claims his client is being railroaded, and succeeds in keeping out of court any mention of Miller's past crimes. So the jury must decide the case without knowing at all about Miller's deadly past.

But to the relieof those who want to keep Miller in jail, the jury believes the prosecutor, and decides that the shoelace was a weapon. When told of his past after the trial, the jurors are shocked. Six weeks later, Don is sentenced to 20 to 40 years in jail.

Lisa Gilbert, who is attending the hearing, is happy: "Life without parole sounds better," she says, "but I'll take 20 to 40."

Email Us: Do you know a great story that you think 48 Hours should cover? Let us know. Or, just tell us what you thought of this week's show and site.

produced by David Kohn