Tim Miller's Search for Lost Souls, Including His Own
Scouring the wilderness for missing persons has helped the founder of Texas EquuSearch find some sanity and peace.
A rotting corpse doesn’t always smell. Tim Miller didn’t learn that gruesome tidbit from one of those CSI crime shows on television. He was looking for a woman who had been missing for about two weeks in Texas when he came upon a blanket bundled up in a field. Using a shovel, Miller gently unfurled the blanket, which yielded decayed flesh and exposed bones but no foul odor.
He would have to remember that—you can’t always rely on the stench of death to locate a body. But that’s a rarity. It was an awful smell, after all, that got the attention of some boys riding bikes across an abandoned Texas oil field, where the body of Miller’s 16-year-old daughter, Laura, was found. She had been missing 17 months.
Miller can describe in measured tones what he knows about Laura’s murder—the day she vanished from a convenience store south of Houston, the suspects who were questioned, the fact that 25 years later police still don’t know who killed her. But if he dwells on it, the anger that unhinged him—and left him drowning in alcohol and obsessed with revenge—can flicker again.
Rage used to paralyze him, but these days Miller stays on the move, searching through fields and forests, in mountains and around lakes, from Central Florida to Southern California, seeking lost souls.
Sometimes it seems as if he’s trying to redeem his own.
ON A SCORCHING hot morning in mid-June, Miller, 62, is standing in a field in Apopka, smoking cigarettes, one after the other. Before him stretch hundreds of acres of open terrain and woods, with tall grasses, wildflowers and palmettos covering the ground. Searching a field is now routine for Miller, but to the dozens of searchers who have responded to his call for volunteers, the task may be unlike any they’ve experienced. They are here to look for clues that might lead to the discovery of either Christopher George, 29, of Apopka or Tracy Ocasio, 27, of Ocoee. George was last seen in February and Ocasio vanished after leaving a MetroWest bar in May.
It’s about the thousandth search Miller has been involved in since he founded the nonprofit Texas EquuSearch nine years ago. What started as an occasional good deed, as a way to honor his lost daughter while letting strangers know they are not alone in their hours of despair, has become all-consuming. Miller has gone from a small-time construction business owner who would help in missing-person searches in Texas to the leader of a highly sought-after search group that has rallied more than 50,000 volunteers across the country.
He’s in Central Florida at the request of the Ocasio family. Since he came to Orlando last year to assist in the highly publicized hunt for toddler Caylee Anthony, Miller has become a familiar name throughout this area, if not the nation. He also has searched for Jennifer Kesse, who was 24 when she vanished, in 2006, in Orlando, and for 5-year-old Haleigh Cummings, who disappeared in Putnam County earlier this year. His travels also have taken him to Aruba, in 2007, to search for Natalee Holloway, whose disappearance there in 2005 set off a media frenzy that became the template for sensationalized coverage of missing young women, and to tsunami-ravaged Sri Lanka, in 2005.
“If I had known this nine years ago when I was starting EquuSearch, I wouldn’t have done it,” Miller says of the 24/7 demand on his time. The need ”is just bigger than I could ever be. I don’t have another life. There is no other life.”
But if Miller weren’t trapped by his sense of obligation to EquuSearch, he might have too much time to dwell on a heartbreaking past.
Laura’s disappearance and death—and his guilt about whether he did enough to find her—pushed him over the edge and into a haze of alcohol and cocaine abuse. But even before that, his was a life filled with loss. Crib death claimed the lives of an infant brother and a son; his parents abandoned him, leaving a series of relatives to care for him; and an adult brother committed suicide. After Laura disappeared, his marriage crumbled and he became estranged from his only surviving child, who felt neglected by her father as he struggled to cope with her sister’s death.
Yet he has fought off his demons enough that he is here on this June day in the Apopka field, leading yet another search, driven by a bit of sad knowledge that few people have and none would want:
“I know there is one thing worse than having a murdered child,’’ Miller says. “And that is knowing your child is out there dead somewhere and never being able to say goodbye.’’
THERE’S A BATTERED dignity about Miller that many families and volunteers respond to. When he asks for help, people turn out, as they have in impressive numbers to search for George and Ocasio. Retirees, father-and-son teams, men and women with time off from work and friends of the missing look to this wiry man with the weather-beaten face as the commander in the field.
“Straighten up the line!” he shouts to searchers lagging behind others in the field along Harmon Road. The volunteer searchers plant tiny flags anywhere they spot suspicious debris and probe the ground with thin metal poles. But some are so intense in their duties that they fall behind. Miller knows that a search team is most effective when its members move in unison, like soldiers in close-order drill.
“Keep even with the person next to you,” Miller hollers before taking some calls on his cell phone concerning an Illinois family that needs his help and a police department near Dallas that may start a lake search.
He continues to walk, hatless under the blazing sun, eyes on the ground, phone to his ear, stopping occasionally to jot down phone numbers or light another cigarette. It’s unglamorous, sweltering work. But when you get down to it, this is what Texas EquuSearch is—long days with brief glimmers of hope for families at their breaking points.
Miller spots something. “Pauly!” he shouts, and a volunteer comes running up with a shovel. Miller points to what looks like a depression in the ground, ringed by dirt but without vegetation near it. The site brings back a memory about Laura: No grass or weeds ever grew where her remains were found, a spot that Miller has revisited many times. He placed a makeshift cross there. He talked to Laura’s spirit there. He promised her to search for the missing.
Pauly drives the shovel into the dirt, but the digging doesn’t turn up anything. The search will end with the same result, but Miller knows that eliminating suspicious areas helps the police narrow their investigation. And although almost any attempt to find missing persons brings families some comfort, Miller hates to come up empty.
“We question ourselves: ‘What the hell did we do wrong? What could we do different?’” Miller says of unsuccessful searches. “Many times when we come in, we are the families’ last hope. That’s the worst hurt.’’
Many families see Miller as a hero, with just his very presence bringing them comfort.
Alexa Alexander lost her husband, Bobby, in a fishing boat accident near Galveston, Texas, back in May. After the Coast Guard called off its search, she grew so desperate she considered walking miles of shoreline herself. She asked friends to call Texas EquuSearch, and soon Miller arrived from his ranch in nearby Santa Fe with what seemed like a private cavalry—horses, four-wheel-drive trucks, boats, small all-terrain vehicles and dozens of volunteers.
“People I didn’t even know came to help,” Alexander says. “They really saved my sanity. They are the kind of people you want to have around.”
A group checking on turtle populations found Bobby Alexander’s body. Still, Alexa Alexander lauds Miller and his volunteers for their kindness and professionalism. She held a charity barbecue and raised $6,000 for Miller’s group.
WITH MILLER’S PRESENCE comes the media spotlight—on him as well as the missing—and it has made him a celebrity despite his professed lack of interest in being one. He says he turned down an offer to do a reality television show along the lines of the Dog The Bounty Hunter series because he didn’t want to subject grieving families to media exposure and he thought TV film crews would get in the way during searches.
Miller has appeared on several national TV shows, including NBC’s Dateline, as well as CNN’s Nancy Grace, whose host he then criticized for turning crime coverage into entertainment. And recently the national Daughters of the American Revolution in Washington, D.C., recognized him for community service.
All the attention and accolades help Miller raise money to sustain EquuSearch. According to the most recent records available, the group raised about $335,000 in donations in 2007, and Miller received compensation worth $64,000—a relatively small amount compared with what the heads of many nonprofits get.
But not all of the attention is positive. Kim Fraley, the mother of a 22-year-old woman who disappeared in Gastonia, North Carolina, in April 2008, says Miller didn’t keep his promise to search for his daughter. “He told me, ‘I’ll be back Wednesday and I’ll have your daughter’s body by the weekend,’” Fraley says. “He left town and never did a search….If he didn’t want to help, he should have just told us.” Miller says he promised Fraley only to do everything he could, but after talking with authorities he concluded there was no reasonable place to start a search.
Then, after Miller joined the search for 2-year-old Caylee Anthony last year, the child’s volatile grandmother, Cindy Anthony, accused him of wasting time by searching for a body rather than chasing down sightings of the missing toddler. Anthony released a statement saying, “Tim Miller misrepresented his intentions, and is falsely accusing me of not cooperating with him, when it is evident his motives were to obtain publicity for his organization at the expense of exploiting my granddaughter’s disappearance.”
About three months later, Caylee’s body was found near the Anthony home by an Orange County worker.
As he was vehemently disputing Anthony’s charges, Miller found himself at odds with another missing-persons group—the Kristen Foundation of Charlotte, North Carolina—that felt he had blown off commitments. Joan Petruski, who heads the group, says she booked several hotel rooms with Miller’s approval (he denies that he gave his OK) and then lost $1,900 when he and the volunteers didn’t show.
“I’m mad at him, absolutely,” says Petruski, who has worked with Miller and donated money to EquuSearch. “I’ve got to remember that he lost a daughter. I know that side of the story, but he has to remember that you don’t honor your daughter” this way.
Then the exasperation passes. Petruski takes a breath and says, “I want to like him. He’s very sympathetic. That’s why he makes me nuts.”
|Miller likes to say that a successful search—whether the person |
is found alive or dead—“is how God works, not how Tim Miller
works.” That’s quite a statement for someone whose religious
beliefs once consisted of little more than an unshakeable
conviction that "God hated Tim Miller.”
MILLER SAYS HE and his searchers have helped find 100 bodies over the years—and 300 people alive.
One of the survivors was 2-year-old Owen Castle, who went missing on a freezing Texas night after wandering away from his mother in a rural area near Austin. His father, Cory, who shared custody of Owen, drove in from Dallas in the middle of the night, arriving to find Miller going over maps and working with law enforcement to expand the search so they could cover more ground with volunteers than police could do on their own. A few hours later, a helicopter crew found Owen. An elated Miller was among those who rushed to the spot and helped warm the 28-pound toddler by rubbing his extremities and piling coats on top of him. The boy made a full recovery.
“I just feel our family was so fortunate to have Tim Miller,” says Lisa Mills, the boy’s paternal grandmother. “He saved Owen’s life.”
Miller likes to say that a successful search—whether the person is found alive or dead—“is how God works, not how Tim Miller works.” That’s quite a statement for someone whose religious beliefs once consisted of little more than an unshakeable conviction that “God hated Tim Miller.”
IN THE MID-1990s, Miller checked himself into a hospital, fearing he’d gone crazy with rage fueled by alcohol and drug use.
“Tim had a lot of anger, hurt and depression,” says Clifford Poe, the Dickinson, Texas, pastor who counseled Miller after he admitted himself. “One of the big issues for him was forgiveness—how to forgive himself for not doing enough, how to forgive God for allowing this to happen and how to forgive the person” who killed Laura. Miller needed to forgive, Poe adds, “so that Tim could be free.
Poe says he wants Miller to “bridle his passion,” to pull back on the number of searches he conducts, so he doesn’t burn out emotionally or physically. It’s advice Miller would like to accept, but his commitment to Laura’s memory won’t allow it, even now as he seems to push his life and his organization to their limits. He has stents in his heart to keep blood vessels open, but that doesn’t stop the dizzy spells from long days in the sun. His second marriage is in trouble because of all the time he’s on the road. And Texas EquuSearch teeters on the brink of insolvency as he takes on more searches; he says he recently sold his motorcycle for $9,000 to keep the group going.
The best Miller can do is try to tip-toe around the misery that he was born into, while running to and fro to scour brush and prod dirt with shovels. Miller says a therapist helps him through the worst moments, and when he’s home he has his horses as counsel.
“Whenever I come home from a search, I love to go out to my barn at night with my horses. I bring them treats. I pet on them and brush them and talk to them,” he says. “It’s very calming.
“I’ll get a 12-pack of beer,” Miller adds, conceding the danger drinking poses to him. “And I’ll put some music on the stereo out in the barn, and it’s normally some kind of sad and mellow stuff. And I’ll drink all my beer and I’ll spend a lot of time by myself with my horses. Will I cry out there? Yes.
“I wake up in the morning with a little bit of a hangover and answer the next phone call and go look for the next missing person.
“I guess God just kept me around to be a survivor,’’ he says. “And you know what? It’s OK.’’