ADA — Two days after testifying in federal court about the discovery of three boxes of lost evidence from a 1984 murder case, Ada Police Chief Mike Miller, a 38-year veteran of the force, announced his retirement effective May 17.
Ada City Manager Cody Holcomb said Miller informed him "earlier this month" that he would be retiring in May.
“We appreciate his long-standing dedication to the city and the citizens of this community," Holcomb said. "We truly wish him the best."
Miller, who has served as the department's chief since 1996, was subpoenaed to testify Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma regarding the whereabouts of three boxes of evidence collected during the department's investigation into the 1984 disappearance and murder of Donna Denice Haraway. The boxes, which contained hundreds of pages of investigative reports produced by Ada police, were cataloged for the first time in 2018.
Miller was unable to tell the court where the boxes might have been for the past 35 years. He knew only that they may have been stored in an old jail cell or in “the Mistletoe Room” of the general maintenance facility, and that they turned up when logged into an evidence database about a year after being moved in 2016 to the evidence room at the city’s new police station.
Miller appeared puzzled at times while testifying as lawyers representing Karl Fontenot presented evidence in an attempt to show the city withheld exculpatory evidence that should have been turned over 35 years ago. Testimony indicates that even after evidence sought by Fontenot's lawyers was located, it was never cataloged or kept in a way that would “ensure the integrity of the records."
In response to a subpoena seeking production of the department’s policy regarding the preservation of records and evidence, Miller produced a one-page document that appeared to have little relevance to the request. When Fontenot's lawyer quizzed him about the contents of the policy, Miller said he would “have to look it up.”
Miller was also unable to answer any questions about a subpoena sent to him in June 2017, even though he acknowledged the notoriety of the case and the fact that he rarely receives federal subpoenas. When asked by an assistant attorney general whether his memory of 2017 was “completely gone,” Miller said, “I do not remember any of it.”
City officials have appointed Carl Allen to serve as interim police chief while the city begins a search for a new, permanent chief. Allen formerly served as Ada's assistant police chief and is the current director of the city's Public Works Department. A popular and outspoken community leader, city officials say Allen will usher in a new era of leadership for a department that has become increasingly scrutinized in the wake of a six-part Netflix docu-series chronicling its investigation into the 1982 murder of Debbie Sue Carter and the 1984 disappearance and murder of Donna Denice Haraway.
The crimes and subsequent investigations became the subject of novelist John Grisham’s only nonfiction work, “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town.” The Netflix series was based on Grisham’s best-selling book. Allen appeared in the series, candidly discussing his time as an Ada police officer and administrator. He acknowledged what he characterized as "mistakes" made by investigators in the mid-to-late '80s, but defended the department's officers, detectives and current operations.
Allen said Thursday he is looking forward to bringing a new perspective to the department.
"I have been away for eight years," Allen said. "I know that there are good people over there — not just in patrol positions but in supervisory positions as well. I'm looking forward to getting back in and getting a feel for everything, to talking to the people that are there. Hopefully, we can come together as a team and build a new pathway to make things successful in our department and give our community a way to believe in us and understand that we have the community’s best interest at heart."
Allen acknowledged the department has struggled with the public's perception of the events in Grisham's book and the Netflix series.
"As the (docu-series) mentioned, I had some communication with John Grisham, too, and one of the things that aggravated me a bit was that he didn’t give us an opportunity to weigh in on things, but I do believe (the Netflix producers) kept my comments in perspective," Allen said. "You know you can do a lot with editing, and they have a certain perspective. They have a goal and their goal is to try to get those guys out of jail. They have a certain kind of way they spin things, and that’s understandable, but folks need to understand there’s a lot more to the story than what they’re seeing or what they’re reading in the book."
Allen said times have changed, and he believes the Ada Police Department has changed, too.
"The Ada Police Department (today) is absolutely not the same police department that it was back then," he said. "Some of the things that have come to light recently, if there was nefarious intent, would not have been talked about at all. If there was nefarious intent they wouldn’t have made (the discovery of the lost evidence) public at all. We're going to try to put the past behind us as much as will be allowed and get on down the road. We just need to remind the public and our police officers that we’re all in this together. We’re all citizens of Ada and of Pontotoc County. Everyone needs to know that."
He said he has full faith and confidence in the officers currently serving in Ada.
"I have no doubt that the current members of the Ada Police Department — they all meet the state standards of training," Allen said. "It’s just a different world now than it was in the '80s. It’s a completely different world, and you shouldn’t judge the officers that are there now by the standards of those who came before them."
'We made mistakes'
In an interview in the sixth episode of the Netflix series, Allen spoke candidly about his memory of the events and the individuals who became the subject of Grisham's book and the docu-series itself.
"I read (Grisham's book) when it first came out, basically accusing law enforcement of still having collusion, back-room deals and criminal behavior going on," Allen said during an interview in the sixth and final episode of the series. "I wrote a letter to the author, who I'm a fan of — John Grisham. I wanted him to give me that information because I was one of the administrators of the PD so that I could take care of it because I was in a position that I could stop that kind of thing. His response was fairly generic. He offered no pointed evidence of any type."
"I have never seen anything that makes me believe (detectives and prosecutors) got together and decided at some point to wrongly convict people on purpose. Cops are humans. They are humans. There may be some vindictive ones but I promise you there's no consolidation or consortium of officers looking to go out and get anybody. There's no power structure in this town that has the capability of mobilizing this town and pulling anything so nefarious off."
Allen spoke about the role he said he believes human nature has played in forming what has become, in some, an entrenched perception of the police department today.
"It's my nature, it's probably your nature, it's certainly some of these folks in town's nature to want to build up the bad guys and the boogie bears and the nefarious folks there," Allen said. "Honestly, there's probably a doubt in my mind as to whether Tommy and Karl did that because the background I have in police work and life — you're going to draw conclusions without facts in some cases. Human nature — you're looking for patterns where there may not be any. You're going to have opinions on some situations. Your gut's going to tell you certain things, and in police investigations, it's the same thing. We're human. All police officers are human. Some are much better than others, some are much worse than others."
Allen drew a distinction between procedural mistakes and malicious intent.
"I don't believe, in my wildest dreams, that the officers that were involved in it are capable of purposefully putting innocent people in jail. I just don't believe that," Allen said. "I'm not telling you that they're not capable of making mistakes, and obviously, we know that they made some mistakes in the Carter case. I mean, that's on record. Everybody's fessed up and said, 'Yeah, we made mistakes.' The distinction is, did they do it with purpose and evil intent? I just don't believe that they did."
"I can certainly understand how somebody looking into this would say, 'Hey, this is — it looks bad.' Because obviously, it does look a little bad."
Going forward, Allen said he intends to work openly with his officers, with city officials and with the public to ensure the Ada Police Department maintains the highest standards of public service as it fills the vital role the department plays within the Ada community.
"Everybody holds law enforcement to a higher standard, and that's understandable," Allen said. "But we're all humans. We need to (be able) to enforce the law to have a civilization. Everybody needs to support the police."