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Toddler slain

November 12, 2007 | 10:19 am

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Nov. 12, 1957
Los Angeles

1957_1114_letter_5 What makes a killer? Do children arrive in the world planning to take someone's life or is it whatever befalls them as they grow up?

Read about John Lawrence Miller and let me know what you think.

A convicted killer at 15, John told reporters that he had wanted to murder someone since he was 7 or 8 years old. "I always wanted to kill somebody. I was always meeting somebody, some man I didn't like and wanted to kill," he said.  When he was quite young, he got the notion of killing his father. "I didn't kill him, though,  because there'd be no money coming in," he said.

Eventually, John did kill his father--just as he'd always wanted--and murdered his mother as well. But that was 18 years after he smothered a little girl in Rolling Hills Estates.

John was born about 1942 to Harold A. and Lela Miller of Long Beach. The Times wrote very little about the Millers except that they had a daughter, and an extended family in the area. Long Beach juvenile officers called John "a lone wolf," and news stories said his first arrest was Feb. 18, 1955, for burglary. In April 1955, he was "picked up for being improperly supervised at home," The Times said.

In 1957, he was sent to the Fred C. Nelles School for Boys in Whittier for burglarizing a house and stealing a car in San Bernardino. 

His rampage began after his parents picked him up on on a 10-hour pass.

Harold and Lela stopped at a Whittier restaurant for dinner before taking him back. John ran off and headed for the home of a family friend, Stafford Thurmond, 26467 Dunwood Road. The link between the Millers and the Thurmonds is unclear, but John said he had known them all his life. His plan was to break in and steal money and a pistol from the Thurmonds' gun collection.

When he got to the house the next day, he discovered that the Thurmonds weren't home and found a neighbor's 22-month-old daughter, Laura Joan Wetzel, playing in the frontyard. He lured Laura into the house and killed her.

Her parents, Air Force Capt. Charles W. Wetzel and his wife (recall that this is an era when married women had no first names), 26501 Dunwood Road, began looking for Laura. Another neighbor couple, Francis King and his wife, joined the search. Mrs. Wetzel went into the Thurmonds' yard, but fled after confronting John, who was armed with a knife and a gun.

  1957_1207_miller_3 "I went into the yard," King said. "There was a young man standing in the doorway with a knife and a gun. It was a kitchen knife and the gun looked like a .22-caliber target pistol. He was very agitated and he waved the weapons and ordered me into the house. My wife was right behind me and she yelled for me to get away.

"I told the kid to take it easy, that we were just looking for a little girl who was lost. The kid slammed the door in my face. I yelled to Mrs. Wetzel to call the police."

Sheriff's deputies searched the Thurmonds' house but didn't find the body. It was only when another neighbor, Carolyn West, looked in the children's bedroom that she discovered Laura under a pile of blankets.

In the meantime, John escaped on a stolen bicycle and rode to Redondo Beach, where he took a car and began driving north. A service station attendant in Salinas, Calif., called police and gave them the license number of the stolen car after John drove away without paying for a tank of gas.

San Francisco police found the the abandoned car, out of gas and dented from a crash. A map of California was spread out on the front seat.

John stole another car, backtracked to San Mateo and took $77 in the robbery of a market. He planned on taking the bus, but saw a new Plymouth with the keys in the ignition. He hit road, going to Eureka, Calif., Crater Lake and Klamath Falls, Ore.

In Klamath Falls, John picked up hitchhiker Lloyd DeFani. John planned to go to Boise, Idaho, but the road was covered with snow and John didn't have tire chains. Instead, they headed for Reno, where DeFani left John and called police, having recognized him from radio broadcasts.

At 2 a.m., a Reno taxi driver who had been listening to the police radio saw John and reported him.

He was arrested and extradited to Los Angeles for the murder. John showed absolutely no remorse, The Times said. He told reporters he wasn't sorry. "Why should I be?" he asked.

"I don't care what happens to me," he said before his trial. "I'm sick of this life anyway. I hate confinement and I'm not happy anywhere. I don't want to see anybody I know. Not anybody."

The father of the murdered girl said: "We don't want revenge. We just want to see him put behind bars for the rest of his life. He's a sick soul."

John was tried as an adult and pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. Deputy Dist. Atty. Ted Sten called him "vicious, treacherous and coldblooded. Here is a person devoid of feeling, an ill-tempered wild animal who wanted to kill someone to see how it felt."

Eighteen years later, after two months of freedom, John committed the murder he'd dreamed about as a boy of 7. He killed his father and mother who by then were living at 5460 Flagstone St. (This looks like a mistake as it's in the middle of Bellflower Boulevard). He stole a neighbor's car at gunpoint and abandoned it in a parking lot, but was arrested after a bank robbery in Downey in which he held the manager as a hostage.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Allen Field said John told his probation officer that he couldn't cope with the outside world after being released from prison. He said his parents had mistreated him and blamed his father for being sent to prison in Laura's death.

 

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On April 19, 1976, John told Judge Carroll M. Dunnum that he didn't have the courage to kill himself and asked to be sent to the gas chamber, which at that point hadn't been used since 1967.

I can find no further trace in The Times about John Lawrence Miller. A man by that name, who was about the same age, died in Alameda County on July 12, 1987, at the age of 45, according to California death records.

Laura Joan Wetzel was cremated after services at Palos Verdes Neighborhood Church.

"The tiny white-covered casket was not in the flower-banked room but remained in an alcove," The Times said. "In it, little Laura was dressed in a simple, light blue frock. Her hands clasped a nosegay of Cecil Brunner roses and she appeared like all the sleeping little children in the world."

And that is the story of John Lawrence Miller. What made him a murderer? You tell me.

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