The mysterious death of Gordon “Cork” Miller
Updated: Mar 26, 2022
California is seen as a land of opportunity. So many people move there on a regular basis with stars in their eyes, hoping to live a glamorous life. Unfortunately, that dream doesn’t always end the way people would expect. This is the story of the Miller family — namely the family patriarch, Gordon “Cork” Miller and his death that still has many questions behind it over 50 years later.
There aren’t many details readily available on Cork Miller’s early life. We do know that he was the youngest of three children and was born around 1925. Growing up, Cork faced enormous pressure to become a doctor. In the eyes of the Miller family, if you weren’t some sort of doctor then you weren’t really successful. He had an older brother who became a dentist, but this sentiment went beyond his immediate family. One of Cork’s family members — I believe it was his brother — had a son who went to medical school, but partway through informed his father that he was going to drop out to pursue his passion for math. His father refused to pay for his son’s schooling, but the son didn’t care. He went on to earn a PhD and became a math professor.
Cork never really wanted to become a dentist; his dream was always to become a pilot. He had another brother who was a pilot and even owned his own plane. But family pressures ultimately won out. He graduated from Walla Walla College in College Place, Washington, and went on to dental school at the University of Oregon. He was already a practicing dentist by age 21, and was even invited to join an accelerated college dental program after World War II. In 1949, a 24-year-old Cork was stationed at Fort Lewis as a medical officer when he met the woman who would change his life.
Lucille Maxwell was born on January 17, 1930 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the only child of two teachers. Her parents were also devoted Seventh Day Adventists. I know very little about Seventh Day Adventists, other than what I’ve looked up for this post, so my perspective may be skewed. Many of their beliefs seem like traditional Christian beliefs — they believe in the holy Trinity, honoring the Sabbath and that people are created in the image of God. They also have some practices many in our culture would consider strict. They’re not allowed to smoke, drink or wear makeup and jewelry, including wedding rings.
Lucille’s father would later say that she wanted to see the world, and she didn’t seem to want to stay in Winnipeg. At 18, she enrolled in Walla Walla College, the same school Cork Miller had graduated from. It’s not clear if they met through school or some other way, but it was apparently love at first sight — or, rather, love before first sight. Before the two even met in person, Cork sent her a dozen and a half roses with a card that said even if she didn’t go on a date with him, hopefully she’d at least find the roses pretty. But she apparently accepted the date, because the couple married later that year.
After Cork finished his Army duty, the newlyweds moved several times. They lived in Guam for awhile, then later moved to Oregon, where Cork set up his first private dental practice. About a year into their marriage, the couple welcomed their first child, a daughter named Debra. Sons Guy and Ron soon followed.
Cork seemed to have it made: A great job, a beautiful wife and three children. But he confided in friends that he was unhappy as a dentist and wanted to go back to medical school. But when the family moved to California in 1957, he set up a private dental practice.
By 1964, the Millers had settled into a beautiful new home in San Bernardino. about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. As of July 2018, the population of San Bernardino was just over 215,000. It was smaller in the 1960’s, but no doubt Lucille Miller saw their home in the greater Los Angles area as a new opportunity.
Lucille was said to be very materialistic. She always wanted the nicest things in life, wanted to “keep up with the Joneses” as the phrase goes. To her, settling in southern California meant the family had made it, that they would live the high life from now on. But reality was much different.
Their new home was big, but they had spent almost everything they had building it; in fact, the living room had nothing in it but a coffee table because they couldn’t afford any other furniture. Still, for daughter Debra, the new house relieved some of the family tension. She and her brothers would no longer have to tiptoe around the house on weekend mornings to avoid waking their parents, whose bedrooms were now on the opposite side of the house from the childrens’.
And the pressures of keeping up with the Joneses with a job he’d been in for years and never really wanted was taking its toll on Cork Miller. Debra would later say that her father “preferred nursing his headaches to the daily task of diving fingers-first into someone’s rotten mouth.” He also told his accountant he didn’t want to be a dentist anymore because he was “sick of looking at open mouths.” He would often take his children to the airport simply to watch planes but, for whatever reason, his dream of becoming a pilot would always remain just that.
Cork suffered from migraines and depression, the latter of which was often treated at the time with sedatives. He prescribed himself pills and would often be so high that he’d stumble into lamps around the house. Fighting between he and Lucille increased, and he constantly threatened to leave. Debra recalled that Lucille often slapped her so hard across her mouth that her teeth slit her lips.
Upon moving to California, the Millers became friends with another Seventh Day Adventist family, the Haytons. Arthwell Hayton was a prominent lawyer in town, and Lucille soon befriended his wife, Elaine. Their children often played together as well. But on April 24, 1964, Elaine suddenly died. The circumstances behind Elaine Hayton’s death aren’t entirely clear. One source said she died after an illness, while another speculated that she died from an allergic reaction to her hairspray. I’m not sure how this would have happened, unless she had recently switched hairsprays or the hairspray she normally used had changed their formula. But whatever happened, Lucille appeared devastated at the loss of her friend.
In June, Debra and Lucille were in a car accident on nearby Banyan Road. Debra had to have 50 stitches in her face and almost lost her right eye. Lucille broke her jaw. Banyan Road was winding and dangerous. But a few weeks later, Debra asked Cork what the odds were that someone in their family would get into another accident on that road. He reportedly responded the odds were “one in a million.” I’m not sure if he actually believed this, or if he was just trying to comfort her. But Debra still had a bad feeling about Banyan Road.
In July of that year, all the pressure seemed to finally catch up with the Millers, and Lucille filed for divorce. After years of threatening to leave, Cork moved out of the family home, and it seemed like it might be for good this time. But he and Lucille began seeing a marriage counselor and soon patched things up. They even discussed having a fourth child.
Still, the fights continued, this time behind closed doors. Lucille told Debra that the fights were occurring because “Daddy wants to die.”
According to a family friend, Cork started talking about suicide as early as 1959. This wasn’t a secret in the Miller home. Debra said she knew her father was suicidal even then, and that he always said his death would be in a car accident. In the summer of 1964, he told his two sons that they would be together in heaven. Around September of that year, after Cork and Lucille had patched things up, Debra was doing homework at the dining room table while Lucille and Cork were fighting again. Then Lucille came in and yelled for Debra to grab the car keys, go to her room and lock the door. Debra immediately knew what this meant and did as she was told, but the shouting eventually stopped. Debra would later say that she felt like she was helping keep her father alive.
On the night of October 7, 1964, the Millers were having a quiet evening at home. The kids were in bed, and Lucille and Cork were curled up on the couch together. Cork was suffering from some sort of illness — some sources said he still didn’t feel well from a headache earlier in the day, others said he had the flu. Other sources said he was high.
Around 11 pm, Cork wanted hot chocolate. But when Lucille went to grab the milk to make him some, she discovered they were almost out. They wouldn’t have enough milk for both the hot chocolate and the kids’ breakfasts in the morning. So, despite the late hour, she decided to buy milk.
Cork was obviously in no condition to drive, but Lucille was afraid of the dark and didn’t want to go alone. So she said she’d drive if Cork rode along with her. He curled up in the passenger seat of her 1964 Volkswagen, wrapped in a blanket, and Lucille reached over from the driver’s side to lock his door.
Around 1:45 on the morning of October 8, a woman only identified as Mrs. Swenson answered a knock on her door. “Help me, help me,” the woman said. “My car is on fire. Cork is all burned.” The woman was Lucille Miller.
Mrs. Swenson brought Lucille inside and phoned the sheriff and, upon request, Lucille’s lawyer. Lucille’s clothes were rumpled and her scarf was scorched. Mrs. Swenson noticed the smell of burnt hair coming from the back of Lucille’s head.
When Lucille, Mrs. Swenson, Lucille’s attorney and the fire chief arrived back at the scene, about half a mile away. A fire burned in the back of the car, around the motor and tires. Three of the car’s four tires were deflated. It took fire chief Charles Hogancamp about three hours to put the fire out, and by then Cork was long dead. The medical examiner would later conclude that Cork had enough medicine in his system for him to easily sleep through the fire, and that it only took him seconds to die. SECONDS.
According to Lucille’s story, the first store they went to for milk was already closed. So they went to another store that they knew was open 24 hours and got their milk. Lucille was driving about 35 miles per hour down Banyan Road, presumably on her way home, when the car jerked off the road. Lucille saw flames but wasn’t sure where they were coming from. Cork was asleep in the car, but he was so heavily medicated that she couldn’t wake him up, and the flames kept her from being able to reach him. She tried breaking the glass with a rock, then a stick, and screamed his name, but nothing worked, so she ran for help.
When police arrived at the scene, all the evidence they initially noted seemed to corroborate Lucille’s story. They saw the milk in the backseat, as well as a stick and rock, presumably the ones Lucille used in an attempt to break the window. There was also a nail in the left front tire. But when they saw gas cans in the backseat, they grew suspicious.
When Debra Miller woke up that morning, she knew something was wrong. Nobody else was up, even though it was a school day; I assume she expected her brothers to be getting ready for school and her dad preparing to go to work. There was also a cop car in the driveway where her father’s car should have been, and a handbag she’d never seen before on the breakfast table. Instinctively, Debra already knew her father was dead.
She found her mother curled up on her bed, having arrived back home around 6 am. When prompted, Lucille confirmed that Cork was dead. Debra asked her mother if her father killed himself, but Lucille said no, it was an accident. Debra asked why the police were there, and Lucille said they came when there was an accident. Debra asked if her father had suffered, and Lucille said no. Earlier in the evening, Lucille had been worried about exactly what she would tell her children since there was “nothing left” of Cork. It was Debra who had to break the news to her younger brothers.
But police continued to be skeptical of Lucille’s claim that the fire was an accident. The gas cans in the car were toppled over, but the milk was upright. The swerve marks that indicated where the car had run off the road were straight. And the car seemed to be headed for an embankment, where it surely would have been completely destroyed had it gone over. But the most damning evidence against Lucille was circumstantial.
Lucille’s affair wasn’t a secret. She readily admitted it to police, and insisted that Cork knew and that they had moved past it. What was so surprising was that the affair was with the Miller family friend, Arthwell Hayton — the husband of Lucille’s recently deceased friend, Elaine. The affair began in December of 1963, and Arthwell reportedly ended it the following summer after talking to his pastor.
Remember, Elaine died in April of that year, so Lucille and Arthwell still would have been together at that point. If you’re wondering if Lucille had anything to do with Elaine’s death, you wouldn’t be the first person to do so. Others have speculated, but there’s been no solid evidence and Lucille has never been charged in relation to her death.
Lucille and Arthwell’s affair didn’t seem to end well. After Arthwell broke things off, Lucille threatened to go to their pastor and get Arthwell kicked out of the church. In turn, Arthwell told Lucille he’d go to the police and tell them “some things that I know about you.” It’s not clear what these “things” were. I did some research, wondering if adultery was still illegal in 1964. I was surprised to find out that, as of 2016, it was still illegal in 21 states. California would go on to implement the no-fault divorce in 1970, but I’m not sure what the law was in 1964 — or what the odds were of someone getting prosecuted for it.
Lucille’s affair, along with the physical evidence, was enough to convince investigators. 12 hours after her husband’s death, she was arrested.
Lucille’s trial began on January 11, 1965. The case made national news, and crowds outside the courthouse were so big that they shattered the building’s glass doors. If Lucille was convicted, she could be sentenced to death. If that happened, she’d be the first pregnant woman in California to die in the gas chamber.
That’s right. An examination a month before the trial confirmed that Lucille was three and a half months pregnant.
Lucille insisted the pregnancy was planned. After she and Cork patched things up, they decided to have a fourth child. She insisted her relationship with Arthwell was long over, and he agreed. Around the time Lucille’s pregnancy was confirmed, Arthwell denied there was an affair at all, suggesting that Lucille had feelings for him but that they weren’t reciprocated.
While Lucille was in jail awaiting trial, an undercover agent spent a week as her cellmate, I assume in an attempt to get information. Lucille allegedly told the undercover agent that she didn’t love Cork but that she loved Arthwell. She seemed to think she’d be acquitted and released, and said that when she got out, she planned to take Cork’s insurance payout and move to Europe with her children so they wouldn’t have to deal with all the backlash. After she and Cork had reconciled, she told a family friend she had only gotten back together with him because Arthwell didn’t want her, and that if she couldn’t have him, Cork and his $25,000 annual income would be better than nothing. (It’s also been speculated that Lucille was afraid she’d lose her children if she and Cork divorced.)
The prosecution painted Lucille as a selfish, materialistic woman who wanted her husband out of the way so she could marry Arthwell, who had more money and social status. At the time of Cork’s death, the Millers were $64,000 in debt — about $500,000 in today’s money. Cork’s annual salary has been reported as anywhere between $25,000 and $30,000, nowhere near enough to pay off such a huge debt in a timely manner. But his $100,000 insurance payout upon his death would have been.
According to investigators the night of the crash, Lucille doused the car in gas and tried to push it over the embankment. But she never managed to do that, so she set fire to the car herself. At the trial, an expert witness testified that car couldn’t have burned the way it did without an accelerant. In addition, about a month before accident, Lucille reportedly talked to a man only known as “James” and asked about what sorts of things could be learned in an autopsy.
During the trial, a criminologist testified about experiments he performed to show that the nail in the tire wouldn’t have caused it to go flat or cause a crash. In the first experiment, he drove the tire 63 miles gong up to 55 mph with the nail in the tire — and the tire didn’t lose any air.
The defense insisted the crash was an accident, that the fuel line dripped fuel onto the carburetor. They also said Lucille couldn’t have pulled everything off by herself. Lucille had also insisted that the gas cans were in the back of her car because she frequently forgot to get gas.
But on March 5, Lucille Miller was found guilty of Cork’s murder. I don’t think the odds of her getting sentenced to death were ever very high. Women on death row are rare, and pregnant women on death row are pretty much unheard of. I doubt a pregnant woman would ever receive a death sentence today, and I can’t imagine it would be any different in the 1960’s. Lucille was sentenced to life in prison, and her children were sent to live with her lawyer and his family.
But before I wrap everything up, let’s look at some of the theories in this case. Although it is a solved case, there’s still a lot of speculation and doubt as to what really happened.
The first theory, of course, is that the prosecution was right about everything. Lucille killed her husband in cold blood, either because she didn’t want to be with him anymore, wanted the insurance payout, or maybe a bit of both. There’s certainly evidence to back this up. There were clearly problems in their marriage, and either of them easily could have wanted out. There was also the insurance money — with the family so steeped in debt, the six figure payout could have been an incentive. Lucille also said the affair with Arthwell was over, and maybe it was. But she could have still had feelings for him or be under the impression — whether it was realistic or not — that they could be together if Cork was out of the way.
The next theory is that the Lucille was telling the truth all along and the crash was an accident. Banyan Road was dangerous — Lucille and Debra had gotten into a crash there just four months before Cork’s death. I’m pretty sure that crash was in daylight, but an accident would have been even more likely in the middle of the night. They easily could have hit a nail and run off the road. Lucille might not have been able to lift Cork out of the passenger seat or break the glass and, with all the medicine in his system, it’s very likely he slept through the fire, dying of smoke inhalation without ever regaining consciousness.
I’ve seen a few people comment that it was weird that two people had to be in the car just for a milk run. I do understand why this looks weird on the surface, but I think it’s plausible. Lucille probably wanted Cork to ride along just for companionship due to her fear of the dark — even if he was asleep the whole time. Even today, I’ll sometimes ride along in a car with family or friends just for fun. I can definitely see it for a wife who was afraid to drive at night, and a husband who may not have wanted to be by himself while he was sick.
But this leads me into the last theory — that Cork committed suicide with help from Lucille. He could have wanted to end his life due to depression and wanting his family to be provided for with the resulting insurance payout. Lucille could have wanted him out of the way both for monetary reasons and because she simply didn’t love him anymore. So they worked together to get what they both wanted. They might have even attempted to make it look like an accident, though that clearly failed. As dark and twisted as this theory is, I think it’s a lot more plausible than him doing it on his own.
Arthwell Hayton remarried on October 17, 1965; his new wife was his childrens’ governess. Lucille was a model prisoner and released briefly on two separate occasions, once for dental work and once to give birth to a daughter she named Kimi. She was released on parole after serving seven years of her life sentence. Upon her release, she had three job offers in the Los Angeles area. I’m not sure that she could actually stay in the area due to conditions of her parole, and she said at the time she intended to change her name and live a quiet life. And, for the most part, it seems like she has. There were rumors that she was remarried or arrested for shoplifting, but nothing was ever confirmed. She maintained her innocence for the rest of her life, and died of natural causes in 1986.
Cork and Lucille’s son Guy followed in his father’s footsteps and became a dentist. Their other children, Debra and Ron, both became teachers and settled in the Los Angeles area. Sadly, Kimi died of lung cancer when she was just 25. Debra struggled with cocaine addiction for awhile but, as of 2006, is sober.
So what are your thoughts on this case? Do you think Lucille Miller really killed her husband? Do you think he committed suicide, with or without her help? Or do you think his death was nothing more than a tragic accident? Let me know in the comments.
All photos in public domain, owned by me or protected under Fair Use. (https://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/fair-use/what-is-fair-use/)