Seeing Zombies

Bill JensenNovember 2015
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Accused serial killer Bryan Patrick Miller enjoyed modest fame in the Valley’s capes-and-cowls cosplay scene. Now his fellow fantasy enthusiasts ponder the link between his mutant-slaying persona and the grisly real-life crimes for which he stands accused.

One day in 2014, a wanted poster popped up on Facebook. “REWARD,” the image read. “DO YOU KNOW THIS MAN?”

Included was a sketch of an ordinary-looking Caucasian male, with a square jaw, small eyes and large, square-framed glasses. “Wanted For: Impersonating Leprechaun,” the poster continued. “Caucasian male, 5’9”-5’11”, Average Build, Glasses, Sideburns, Black/White Sedan.” At the bottom was the instruction: “Post Tips Below.”

As a kid growing up in Cleveland, Keen Azariah dreamed of being a sketch artist for the police department. The dream faded, he moved to Phoenix, and as an adult he decided to test his skills by posting sketches of friends – parody wanted posters. The hope was that his friends – including the subject of the sketch – would comment on the likeness, identify the person, and his art skills would be vindicated.

So in 2014, he posted a sketch of a friend named Bryan Miller, who had recently attended a costume party dressed as a leprechaun. He uploaded the poster and waited for a response. People commented, but the subject stayed mum. “He had no reply to the sketch,” remembers Azariah. “Nothing, which made me wonder if maybe I’d made the caricature too unflattering. I mean, he usually commented on my art. The fact that he didn’t comment on this particular sketch – was unusual, especially since it was him.”

Azariah – a sometime PHOENIX magazine freelance writer– met Miller around 2009, at a meetup of the Arizona Costumed Revelers, a group of Phoenix-area cosplayers, i.e. individuals who wear costumes portraying characters from science fiction, fantasy and comics, or of their own creation. Miller was known as the Zombie Hunter, and dressed to a visual aesthetic known as “steampunk” – a blend of Victorian-era style with Wild West or futuristic motifs. He had goggles, a big fake gun and a tricked-out, decommissioned cop car.

When the group met – at local bars – they were always in costume.

“I’ve known people for years, and I couldn’t recognize them ‘cause they are always in costume,” Azariah says. “You’re in a bar and you hear a voice. Bryan was like that.”

Miller took pride in his costume, and through the years, it got increasingly more elaborate – his zombie hunter gun was even displayed at Sky Harbor International Airport for an in-terminal exhibit called “Steampunk: The Exquisite Adventure,” which closed in June.

But it was the car that Miller really obsessed over. A Ford enthusiast, Miller made the Crown Victoria cop car look “like a pinball machine on wheels,” Azariah says, with neon lights, killer engine and a life-size zombie mannequin in the backseat.

The two became friends, and would talk every day. Azariah would go over to Miller’s house for dinner and game night with board games like Apples & Oranges, 221B Baker Street, and Scotland Yard.

Miller was a normal guy, Azariah thought. Sure, he spent a lot of money on the old cop car, but he was just an average – if a bit quiet – Joe who liked to cosplay as a zombie hunter, attend comic conventions and relished the attention. He was levelheaded, and rarely drank.

“The car paved the way to a social life,” Azariah says. As a result, Miller – who worked as a packer at the warehouse in Phoenix – put a lot of his limited resources into it. But still, even with a multitude of online admirers, Miller was lonely, Azariah sensed.

On January 14 of this year, Azariah was idly scanning Facebook on a break from his dog groomer job in North Glendale when he saw Miller’s face pop up in his feed. Only this time, it was next to a headline that he was arrested.

Really arrested. For grisly, devastating crimes. “You see his face,” Azariah remembers. “I thought he must have done something with his car. Like speeding. ‘Oh my god, did he hit someone?’”

Then he read the story.

“We were talking a couple hours before his arrest, over text,” Azariah says. “My hands are literally shaking. I just can’t explain it.”

Azariah told his boss he had to go down the road to grab a Coke and calm his nerves. He walked into a store, grabbed a soda from the fridge and placed it on the counter, behind which his friend was working. “He’s like: ‘How are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m doing all right, considering the police think my best friend might be a serial killer.’ He said – ‘Oh, the canal case… You know I found that head, right? I called 911.’”

Azariah spent the day in a haze. “It’s one of those ‘pinch me’ moments. I can’t remember a time when it was so surreal in my life.”

PHM1115ZO02In November 1992, Angela Brosso, 22, went for a bike ride. She never came home. Her body was found along the canal at 25th Avenue and Cactus Road. It was missing a head, which was found 11 days later.

Ten months later, 17-year-old Melanie Bernas went for a bike ride. She never came home. Her body was found in the canal under the Black Canyon Freeway, north of Dunlap Avenue.

Police believed the killings were related. But for decades, the crimes went unsolved. Phoenix police even reached out in 2013 to a team of detectives and forensic scientists known as the Vidocq Society for help. The Philadelphia-based group theorized the killer was probably still in the Phoenix area – and that police had likely previously run into him.

Hoping to find new leads, Phoenix PD opened the old case files and paused on a stabbing that took place before the murders. “In 1989, we were looking at a crime where a woman was stabbed at Paradise Valley Mall that was not [connected] with these cases,” Sgt. Trent Crump told reporters in January, shortly after Miller’s arrest. “But [it demonstrated] behavior that was linked to this individual we came up with.”

That individual was Bryan Miller.

Miller, who was 17 at the time, spent a year in a juvenile detention center for the stabbing. It wasn’t the last time he was charged with such a crime. In 2002, while living in Washington state – where he moved in 1998 – he was arrested and acquitted for stabbing a woman in the back. According to the Associated Press, the woman accepted a ride from Miller after recognizing him from a friend’s apartment complex. He claimed it was self-defense.

According to his work history on his LinkedIn page, Miller moved back to Phoenix sometime between 2003 and 2005, bringing with him a daughter (Miller and his wife, Amy, divorced in 2006) and his newfound zombie-killer identity. Ultimately, police took notice. Armed with undisclosed forensic evidence, Phoenix PD started closing the loopholes in the “Canal Killer” case. In January 2015, investigators had enough evidence to charge Miller for the murders, two of the most vicious unsolved crimes in state history. Current investigators and those involved in the original investigation declined comment for this article, citing the upcoming trial.

Sgt. Crump told media Miller’s name had been on their radar since 1994, but was not linked to the murders at that time in the investigation. After Miller’s arrest, police searched his home; the heavily redacted, 62-page search warrant document lists almost 400 items seized by authorities – who described the inside of the house as a “hoarder situation” – including stacks of comic books, 3D glasses, numerous cell phones and a Cometron telescope. The copious redactions on the document conceal numerous other items found by police, which will remain confidential under an order from Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael W. Kemp until Miller’s trial. Kemp cited disclosure of certain information to media as a potential threat to ongoing investigations and the defendant’s right to a fair trial, writing “Some of the items seized would be perceived as extremely alarming and evidence of guilt.”

PHM1115ZO04Miller’s arrest answered a giant question looming over Phoenix for decades. But it also raised more questions. Why did it take so long for police to zero in on Miller? When exactly did Miller – on the Phoenix PD’s radar for the PV mall attack – become  a person of interest? And are there any more victims? Open cases from the time period include Brandy Myers, a 13-year-old girl who disappeared from her Sunnyslope neighborhood in May of 1992, and Shannon Aumock, a 16-year-old girl whose remains were found near 20th Avenue and Deer Valley Road in May of 1992.

Neither of those cases have been publicly linked to the canal murders, but criminologists say it’s unusual for serial killers to stop of their own accord. “Sometimes they move and reinvent themselves or try not to draw attention, so they take a break,” says Dr. Eric Hickey, an authority on serial killers and dean of the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University. “They don’t see it as a break, per se; it’s a regrouping, or a redefining of themselves.”

Hickey – who has consulted on numerous murder investigations over a 30-year career – offers Albert DeSalvo, aka the Boston Strangler, as an example. Before being linked to the murders of 13 women between 1962 and 1964, DeSalvo was tried and convicted as a serial rapist known as the Green Man. Locking him away, authorities had no idea they had apprehended a serial killer. DeSalvo’s past as the Boston Strangler was only revealed after he confessed the killings to a fellow inmate. Hickey says DeSalvo’s shift away from murder was purposeful: “He was redeveloping, redefining his fantasies.”

Other famous cases serve as precedent for the idea the Canal Killer might have stopped cold in his tracks. The BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) Killer in Wichita, Kansas killed 10 people between 1974 and 1991, and then abruptly stopped. Eventually, Dennis Rader, a former dog catcher and president of his church council, got bored and began writing taunting letters to the police. In 2005, he was captured and charged with the BTK murders. More recently, a serial killer – later nicknamed The Grim Sleeper by LA Weekly – murdered numerous women in Los Angeles in the 1980s, took a 14-year hiatus from 1988-2002, and resumed killing. In 2010, Lonnie Franklin, a 57-year-old garbage collector, was arrested and charged with 10 counts of murder. He is awaiting trial.

Miller joined the Arizona Steampunk Society in 2011 and quickly became one of its most avid members. It’s difficult to say why he responded so strongly – almost compulsively – to costumed role-playing. Some people cosplay only for special occasions, like comic conventions and Halloween. But friends say Miller was in his Zombie Hunter gear every weekend.

On his Arizona Steampunk Society profile page, Miller professed his ardor for steampunk, writing that it involves “gadgets that demand creativity and a craftsmanship that can only come from thinking outside of the box. It also brings with it a higher level of thinking in regards to etiquette, morals and equality.”

“The cool thing about cosplay is people really get impassioned about it,” says a woman who was friends with Miller in the steampunk scene, and asked that her name not be used in this article. “If you can imagine a dystopia where zombies were out there – what would you be doing in this world? Bryan was showing what his place would be in this world.”

PHM1115ZO03Another cosplay acquaintance thinks it was therapeutic for Miller. “You know how popular Comicon, the Zombie Walk, and the Renaissance Fair are, and a fun way to escape reality,” says the acquaintance, who also requested anonymity. “I hope, and believe, this helped him in some way cope with his problems – in a preventative way, hopefully.”

But from which problems was Miller escaping when he climbed into his cruiser and fired off imaginary rounds with his zombie-killing laser rifle? The typical problems of a single, under-employed father with hoarding tendencies? Or the problems of someone with murderous, sadistic impulses? Miller had previously sought refuge in a very different corner – Paradise Valley Mennonite Church. Though Miller, described as “not a religious person” by those who knew him, had stopped attending church prior to his arrest, he rented his house from a church member, and members of the church continued to pick his daughter up for Sunday services. They’ve lost touch with her since her father’s arrest. Chris King, senior pastor of the church, recounted to the Arizona Republic how he and his wife had Miller over for dinner, and found him “a little bit distant, awkward and odd” – not an uncommon description of cosplayers in general by outsiders.

Hickey says the idea of a killer using role-playing as a placebo is “inconsistent on the surface level,” but conceivable if the individual is driven by a narcissistic desire for attention. “Now he’s being recognized in the community for something he’s a star at… and the [violent] impulses could return, possibly, if the notoriety waned and he wasn’t being fulfilled.”

A look at Miller’s social media profiles shows a penchant for images of mutilated women. On his Deviant Art page, Miller, using the nickname theduck13, “liked” paintings including one called “Used, Abused and Left for Dead,” which depicts a nude woman, cut in half and decapitated. Another, called “Bloodbath-2,” shows a nude, decapitated woman’s body in a shower. Miller’s predilection for such imagery will undoubtedly come up in his trial, set to begin in April 2017 after Miller entered a not-guilty plea to charges of two counts of first degree murder and kidnapping, one charge of sexual assault and one charge of attempted sexual assault. It’s possible some of his cosplay confederates will be asked to testify, including Azariah, who has visited Miller in prison and is writing a hardbound comic book (aka graphic novel) – tentatively titled The Zombie in the Rear View – about the ordeal. One of the details Azariah might share in his notional testimony: The fact Miller never expressed any outward interest in Azariah’s collection of true crime literature and serial killer arcana.

“That’s a funny thing about Bryan,” Azariah says. “He had every chance to talk serial murder with me, but never did. He knew it was [an interest] of mine. He may have once asked about the 3-foot replica of the Zodiac Killer’s 340 cipher I have hanging on my wall, but it was nothing more than simple inquiry.”

Hickey speculates Azariah – and maybe the entire Valley cosplay community – may have been cased by Miller. “If he’s guilty of those two murders, he’d have a natural interest in people who have a preoccupation with serial killers… especially if they’re artists. It’s a vain kind of attraction: ‘Can you draw a picture or do a sculpture of me?’”

Informed of the wanted poster caricature Azariah drew of Miller, Hickey simply says: “There you go.”

Azariah continues to correspond with Miller in prison, and is not passing judgment. “With me, it’s business as usual with Bryan until it all comes out in court. Until then, I owe it to him to remain a friend. And a guilty verdict in 2017 won’t automatically mean I’ll be treating him any different. I just want the truth. Not my truth, not his truth, just the truth. I’ve got to wait two years to see if my friend is a maniac.”

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