A would-be baseball star is in spotlight after slaying Talented 'nice kid' recalled, but his legal run-ins come as shock

July 31, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- With a 90-mph fastball and the cockiness befitting a star, John Albert Miller IV had wanted to be a famous baseball player since taking the Little League mound.

But Miller's quest for stardom took a detour through the Monroe County, N.Y., criminal justice system and into a jail cell in Towson, where he is now charged with murder.

"He's big-time now," said Roger Clemons, Miller's former neighbor and pickup softball teammate, sitting on his porch yesterday in a working-class neighborhood in eastern Rochester.

"I can't believe he did this."

To those in Rochester who knew him on the baseball diamond, Miller was a local hero.

He could pitch. He could catch. He could play shortstop. He could play outfield. He led his high school baseball team to city championships and was named most valuable player two years in a row.

He played on a city softball league last summer that traveled to California to compete, Clemons said.

But court records show the 26-year-old had had several run-ins with the law, including charges for assault and criminal impersonation.

He admitted in 1993 that he used another man's identification cards in an elaborate ruse to set up credit accounts at major area department stores.

He bought a television set, stereo system and even tried to buy a car before he was caught.

He was sentenced to jail for a year after violating probation on a forgery charge in 1994.

Miller told police he did it because he was unemployed and had a wife and son to support.

"I did this to make enough money to get out of debt now," Miller wrote in a statement to law enforcement authorities.

"Things have been really rough lately between my wife and I and the bills that I have."

Miller's dream to play baseball apparently took him to Maryland about three months ago.

His former high school baseball coach said Miller had gone to see him in the spring to get his statistics because he was trying out for a minor league team, but did not say where.

Miller often talked about the Orioles, the coach said, because Cal Ripken had played on a minor league team in Rochester.

"He always dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player. After telling me so many times, I thought he might succeed," said William Franklin, who has coached the East High School Orientals for 17 years.

"I loved John the first day I met him because of his cockiness and his boldness to get the job done. He was like a player-coach, and I admired him and respected him for that."

School officials had no record of Miller graduating from East High School and said he left in 1990.

Yesterday, as Franklin spoke, he waited anxiously in the school's library for the local midday TV news. He had heard about Miller's case in Maryland from friends, but he wanted to see it on television for himself.

"Whoever thought a kid like John was capable of strangling someone?" Franklin asked as the news came and went without mention of Miller's case.

"Whenever one of my kids gets in trouble it does kind of hurt."

Franklin said Miller's father coached a Little League team in the city. "They were real likable people. He came from a fantastic family."

Miller last lived with his parents at a tumbledown home on North Winton Street, on the edge of the city.

The house, divided into two apartments, is sandwiched between P. J. Pub, which advertises happy hour from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Belle Grande Shoes, Women's Tall & Wide Shoes, where his mother, Toni, worked.

Late Wednesday night at Miller's house, a woman with eyes reddened, apparently from crying, looked out a window half-filled with a fan and told a visitor that she had no comment about the case.

"Just leave us alone," a younger man with her pleaded.

At P. J. Pub the next day, the bartender, who would identify herself only as Sue, said that Miller was a regular. He was an ace pool player, she said.

"I never had a problem with him," she said, as midday regulars gathered at the bar. "It was a shock to a couple of people."

None of the people interviewed yesterday knew of Miller's criminal history.

Court records show that Miller also pleaded guilty to criminal mischief in 1992 in Rochester City Court. As part of a deal with prosecutors, two assault charges were dropped.

He was given a conditional discharge, meaning that there would be no penalty if he stayed trouble-free for a year, court officials said. He was also ordered to pay $920 in restitution and told to stay away from the victim for one year.

In 1993, a charge of criminal impersonation -- a misdemeanor -- was dismissed in the nearby town of Webster, when Miller entered into a plea bargain on the retail store forgery case, court officials said.

The Maryland case and revelations about Miller's previous record have some of those who knew him shaking their heads.

Barry Holtz, owner of Vogel's Collision Service, said Miller and his father both used to work there. Miller cleaned cars after school, and his father had painted cars for 20 years.

"Nice kid," Holtz said. "Doesn't make much sense, does it?"

Pub Date: 7/31/98

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