In August 1972, 27- year-old Marine Sgt. William Miller returned to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina following a deployment in Okinawa. But when he arrived at the home he shared with his wife Vickie and Wendy, their 1-year-old daughter, he found that while he was away another Marine, George Hayden, had taken up residence in his house.
Hayden and Vickie were former high school sweethearts. With Miller gone they decided to renew their relationship. Hayden moved in. And according to Miller’s family, he was soon signing his name to Miller’s checks.
“He stole my brother’s home, wife and child, and money,” said Charlie Miller, the youngest of six in Miller’s family.
Sgt. Miller gave the interloper a beating and threw him out of his house. Vickie opted to go with Hayden, packed up the baby and moved out. Humiliated, Hayden told Miller he would get revenge with an M-16.
Miller had lost two daughters in a previous marriage and had no intentions of losing another one. He began to build a custody case against Vickie and a criminal fraud case against Hayden. He gave the alleged evidence to a neighbor for safekeeping.
On Sept. 16, 1972, Miller received a call from his estranged wife to meet him on Western Boulevard. Less than 20 minutes later, Miller was found dead in the street, shot twice with rounds from an M-16. A few days later, Hayden showed up at the neighbor’s house and took the alleged evidence Miller had collected against him. Detectives suspected Hayden of killing Miller, but couldn’t gather sufficient evidence for an arrest.
For nearly 40 years Miller’s murder remained unsolved. During that time Hayden did quite well for himself. He married Vickie. They later divorced, but kept in contact after the split. He retired from the Marine Corps and joined the Carteret County Sheriff’s Department. He went on to be police chief in Cape Carteret and Belhaven. But he couldn’t shake local, state and federal investigators who came around every few years asking the same question: Where were you the night William Miller died?
Sharron Aguilar, Miller’s sister, refused to let the case die. She spent years compiling documents in the case and eventually turned them over to a local newspaper. The Daily News ran two cold case articles in the summer of 2008 that resulted in new information from a witness previously unknown to law enforcement. A whirlwind investigation by the Onslow County Sheriff’s Department, Naval Criminal Investigative Services and the North Carolina SBI, resulted in the arrests of Vickie, Hayden and Rodger Gill, another former Marine and friend of Hayden, on first degree murder and conspiracy charges.
The charges against Vickie and Gill were subsequently dropped. But relying heavily on circumstantial evidence, prosecutor’s brought Hayden to trial on the murder charge. Chief Assistant District Attorney Ernie Lee told the jury, “Miller survived two tours in Vietnam, then returned to Onslow County where he was not killed by the enemy with an AK-47, but by a fellow Marine with an M-16.”
Nearly 38 years after the murder and after three days of deliberations, the jury convicted Hayden of first-degree murder. On May 26, 2010 he was sentenced to life in prison.
Following the conviction and sentencing, a jubilant Sharron Aguilar said, “I never lost hope; I always knew we’d get here.”
But the relief the Miller family felt at having received justice for their loved one was relatively short- lived. Hayden appealed and on June 7, 2011, the North Carolina Appeals Court reversed the conviction, stating in its ruling, “Accordingly, we hold that the State failed to present sufficient evidence from which a rational juror could conclude that defendant was the perpetrator of the victim’s murder.”
Onslow County has submitted the case to the North Carolina Supreme Court for review. Hayden remains behind bars pending a decision by that body. If they agree with the ruling of the Appeals Court, he could be a free man in a matter of months.
I recently spoke with Sharron Aguilar about her experience so far in dealing with the justice system. Her comments are below.
“Our family waited thirty-eight years for justice. We fought a long, hard, uphill battle. Finally, on May 26, 2010, we heard the word Guilty. And George Hayden was given life in prison. Our prayers were answered. We started to breathe easier knowing he was locked up. And then, to our horror, on June 7, 2011, we heard that the Appeals Court reversed the conviction.
“We put our case in the hands of twelve men and women who were selected to the jury, giving up their time to see justice carried out. Now those twelve people are told they were wrong to convict. The Court stated that, ‘A rational juror could not conclude that the defendant was the perpetrator of the victim’s murder.’ The jury verdict was unanimous, so all twelve jurors are irrational according to the Court.
“The ruling also states that a weapon was never produced. Yet defendants are convicted every day without the murder weapon being introduced into evidence. It further states there was not sufficient evidence to convict. That means the trial judge must also be irrational or incompetent because he denied the defense’s motion for a mistrial due to insufficient evidence.
“I remember not long ago another murder trial with pretty much the same evidence. Scott Peterson was convicted and given a death sentence. His case was stated as purely circumstantial. No crime scene, murder weapon or cause of death. Yet his conviction stands.
“And I find it very strange that this appeal was heard and decided so fast. Most convicts have to wait years for their appeal to be acted on.
“I want to believe in our justice system. I know it has flaws, but I never knew what a nightmare it is for the victims’ families. How hard they have to fight to be heard. They have no rights, they cannot appeal a verdict, they cannot get a court appointed attorney. The list is endless. They have experienced the violent death of a loved one and their lives have been changed forever.
“September 16th will be the thirty-ninth anniversary of my brother’s death and we are still fighting for justice. Please pray that it is not denied.”
Note: The North Carolina Supreme Court refused to review the lower court’s decision. George Hayden was released from prison and faces no further legal jeopardy in the death of Sgt. Miller.