Bodies identified as fugitive killers

May 5, 1987
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HELENA, Mont. -- Two men killed in an explosive fire at a trailer house surrounded by an FBI SWAT team were positively identified Tuesday as California prison fugitives sought in an intense five-day manhunt.

As much as $64,000 in currency, apparently stolen from a Cabin Creek, Colo., couple, burned with Steven Miller, 34, and John 'Doc' Whitus Jr., 36, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Chuck O'Reilly said.

Pathologists said one of the men died before the fire started in the trailer house, but there was not enough left of his body to determine whether he committed suicide.

An autopsy determined that the second man died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Their bodies were removed from the charred site at Holter Lake near Wolf Creek Sunday but could not be immediately identified.

O'Reilly said it appeared the men were spraying high-caliber, semi-automatic weapons fire through the walls of the trailer house, apparently trying to hit law enforcement officers closing in on them.

An explosion and fire erupted, the sheriff said, when one of the fugitives' shots hit a small propane gas tank that they had hauled inside the trailer from an outside deck. Another shot hit an electric panel controlling an electric furnace.

Miller and Whitus were being hunted for the April 23 murders of Grace Kuamoo, 73, and Russell Schwartzmiller, 48, in Colorado.

They escaped from the California Medical Facility, a state prison at Vacaville, north of San Francisco, 14 months ago. Each had been convicted of two murders in California.

Miller's mother, Judy Bartley of Fontana, Calif., said she was not surprised that her son died rather than face capture because her son hated prison so much.

'He said if he ever got out and had his freedom ... he'd never go back,' Bartley said. 'I'm at peace and he's at peace. He doesn't have to look over his shoulder any more.'

One of Miller's 1975 murder vicitms was Ontario, Calif., police officer Richard Hyche.

Bartley, 60, said her son began to get into trouble after she and her former husband split up. Miller skipped school and spent a lot of time in institutions.

'The thing is, whatever you do that's wrong, you have to pay for it,' she said. 'Nothing satisfied him. He was a loner. He's been a loner all his life.'

Bartley has another son who lives only 30 miles from the Colorado community where Steven Miller was staying. Her other son was shocked to learn that his brother had been living in the area.

'He said he was glad he didn't know it,' Bartley said.

The sheriff also said the FBI has been following up on information obtained on at least two long-distance telephone calls that originated from the trailer house during the fire.

Reporters saw a display of a number of firearms and ammunition, gold jewelry and items recovered from the fugitives' campsite and from the burned trailer house where the men died.

A German shepherd puppy that had accompanied the two fugitives may be trained as a police dog, O'Reilly said.

No further searches will be conducted, the sheriff said, for a mystery woman who was seen with the men during a four-hour gun battle with law enforcement officers April 27. O'Reilly believes she was murdered April 29 by Miller and Whitus in their effort to evade searchers in the mountains.

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