It was almost the one that got away.
After 15 years working homicides, Tacoma police Detective Gene Miller had a single case he wasn’t able to close.
A red bookend with the number 18 — a playful jab from a fellow detective that Miller hadn’t yet solved the 18th murder in 2006 — sat on his desk as a constant reminder.
Then, two months before Miller was set to retire after 31 years with the department, he got the call that wrapped up the case.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News Tribune
The bookend is now painted blue to indicate a closed case, and Miller retired Wednesday with 100 percent clearance of his homicide cases.
“I don’t quit,” the 53-year-old detective said. “I’ve solved every homicide I was ever given.
“But that’s not the success. Success was being able to give those families answers.”
Miller is known as a straight-shooter, a dedicated cop who thought locking bad guys up was fun but not nearly as fulfilling as bringing a measure of peace and closure to the victims’ loved ones.
Fellow detectives said Miller’s patience, commitment to victims and work ethic contributed to his success in solving cases.
“Nobody outworks the guy,” Detective Dan Davis said. “He puts so much effort into whatever he’s doing.”
FIRST A BIKE COP
Miller decided in college that he wanted to join law enforcement after hearing a friend’s father speak about cases with passion and compassion.
He set his sights on joining the Tacoma Police Department.
Miller started his career in Enumclaw in 1983 and was quickly picked up by Tacoma. He worked patrol for a while and then, in 1990, became one of the city’s first bicycle officers tasked with cleaning up downtown.
Most work for bike cops back then focused on narcotics. One year, they made more drug arrests than the department’s drug enforcement team.
The officers focused on connecting to the community and working with business owners, so they were thrilled when citizens recognized them and called them by their first names.
“Gene was our PR guy out there, shaking hands and taking pictures with tourists,” Detective Terry Krause said.
As members of one of the first agencies in Washington to bring on bike cops, Miller and his then-partner were tapped to develop training courses for other bike cops at the state academy.
He also became the education officer for the International Police Mountain Bike Association and traveled the nation teaching fellow bike cops.
In 1998, Tacoma hosted the agency’s annual conference, which brought about 500 officers from 17 countries together to compete and show off their skills to the public.
GATHERING DATA PAYS OFF
Miller was promoted to detective in 1998 and focused on automobile thefts, which were extraordinarily high in Tacoma at the time.
Detectives began using a database that allowed them to track where vehicles were stolen, where they were found and who was associated with them. In a single year, the clearance rate for auto thefts improved to 14 percent from 4 percent.
An assistant chief took note and approached Miller, asking him whether the database could be applied to other crimes.
That’s how Miller came to create the crime analysis unit.
He and Detective Frank Richmond built a giant wooden box with compartments to serve as their database.
Every day, they took police reports on various crimes and shoved them into the corresponding box of their “database” so officers could try to pick out patterns.
It didn’t take long before their outdated database was replaced with a computer program. It was one more chance for Miller to be on the ground floor of something new in the department.
“He’s done a lot of things that make our department a progressive police department,” Chief Don Ramsdell said.
In 2002, Miller transferred to the special assault unit and turned his focus to solving rapes and sexual assaults.
One of his memorable cases was Anthony Diaz, a serial rapist eventually charged with 20 counts of rape, kidnapping, burglary and robbery in Pierce County for a string of home-invasion attacks in 2005.
Diaz was charged with 15 counts in King County.
‘HE’S A DOGGED GUY’
Miller called the families of victims every year to update them on any progress in their cases.
“He’s a dogged guy,” said his supervisor, Sgt. John Durocher. “Once he bites into a case, he sticks with it.”
That’s evident by the two bookends that sat right above Miller’s desk until the day he left the department.
Krause made them for Miller in 2006, when all homicides were cleared except two of Miller’s cases. The bookends were painted red to indicate unsolved and had No. 1 and No. 18 on them, the order of which the victims were killed that year.
It took Miller 10 months but he closed No. 1: the Donald George case.
George was gunned down in January 2006 by a rival gang member. When Miller made the arrest, he called Krause and told him to paint the bookend blue to indicate the case was solved.
But No. 18, the slaying of Velma Tirado, a prostitute fatally shot in a truck, remained open until November.
That bookend still smelled of fresh blue paint as Miller wrapped up his police career.
He can rattle off the names of victims and suspects, dates, addresses and details of the cases like they happened yesterday. He remembers because he cares.
Although he didn’t move into the homicide unit until 2005, he helped investigate the deaths of Jenny Bastian, 13, and Michella Welch, 12, when the girls went missing in 1986 at separate North End parks.
Miller was on desk duty because of an injury and was asked to do background work on possible suspects in the girls’ slayings.
“The Bastian-Welch cases made me want to be the murder police,” Miller said. “These homicide guys were just amazing in my eyes, doing these cool things and trying to make a difference.
“I saw the work they were doing and thought, ‘I want to do that.’ That means something.”
The cases remain open but Miller dived back into them after starting the department’s cold case unit in 2011.
He sent DNA found on Welch’s body and near Bastian’s body to be analyzed, and submitted 30 cheek swabs from potential suspects to compare against DNA found at the crime scenes.
Detective Lindsey Wade, who has worked closely with Miller for the past decade, will take over the Bastian-Welch cases and Miller’s position in the cold case unit. She said she’s grateful for the chance to work with Miller.
“He’s the go-to person for questions or if we need to run something by someone,” she said. “When you ask him a question, he’s not going to make you feel like an idiot no matter how stupid your question is.”
ON TO A NEW CAREER
In the days leading up to Miller’s retirement, he began emptying his office. The 15 thick murder books usually stacked on the floor had been moved to the desk space of another detective.
The last things remaining were a list of victim names on the whiteboard, the bookends and several thank-you notes sent to him over the years from the families of victims taped to a faded filing cabinet.
He knows he won’t be able to keep away from police work, which is why he ultimately decided to take a job with the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office instead of sticking with his original plan of golfing and traveling.
In March, Miller will start a new career as a criminal investigator.
He’ll investigate officer-involved shootings, work on a program that monitors how many ex-convicts and inmates nearing release are sent to the county and develop initiatives for DNA and data-driven prosecution.
“I’ve had so many opportunities to do so many different things,” Miller said. “It keeps the job fresh and exciting and allows you to have an impact in a lot of different ways.”