Dennis Miller’s sisters said he often would go somewhere to drink for a while; they wouldn’t see him for a day or two.
“He was an alcoholic, but he didn’t stay drunk,” said his twin sister, Dianne Miller. He would stay somewhere until he had sobered up, then come back to the Halfway home he shared with his sisters.
But, at the end of June, after a day away from home stretched into two, then three, then four, his sisters grew worried and tried to find him. They looked and called around Hagerstown, checking with the police and the hospital, they said, but they didn’t file a missing-person report.
Dennis Miller, 60, had died. His body was found on the morning of June 30 on a sleeping bag on a second-floor balcony of a downtown Hagerstown apartment building — not far from Sportsman Den, a West Franklin Street bar he frequented.
Hagerstown was having a stretch of 90-plus degree days at the time and it was staying hot well into the night.
Dennis Miller’s sisters — Pamela Hayes and Dianne Miller — didn’t find out until July 6 that he had died, seven days after Hayes last saw him.
A medical examiner ruled that Miller died of “chronic alcoholism complicated by hyperthermia,” or elevated body temperature, according to a police report.
Miller had “a severe case of cirrhosis,” a liver disease, and his blood-alcohol content was 0.26 percent when he died and had been as high as 0.31 percent, the police report said.
Miller’s wallet was with his body. Hayes said he had three forms of ID with him, including a Maryland photo identification card.
When the Hagerstown Police Department sent a letter to Dennis Miller at his home, saying he could claim his wallet and ring, that was the family’s first lead in his disappearance. Hayes went to the police station to find out more. There, she was told he had died.
Hayes said her family arranged to get her brother’s body from the medical examiner’s office in Baltimore and to have him buried.
They’re still angry about the breakdown that left them wondering what happened to him for almost a week after Hagerstown Police already knew.
Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith and Lt. William C. Wright III, the commander of the department’s professional standards division, both concede that police made errors in handling the case.
Wright named two failures.
First, he said, police didn’t try to reach anyone at the address on Miller’s state ID card, but should have.
Wright said someone at the scene believed Miller was homeless because of the circumstances in which he was found, despite the address on his ID card.
Police often encounter people whose driver’s license or other ID has an outdated address, he said.
Regardless, Wright said, a Hagerstown officer either should have asked the Washington County Sheriff’s Office to go to the Halfway address on Miller’s ID card or should have gone to the home, after getting permission from a supervisor, since it’s outside the city limits.
A second breakdown, Wright said, was in not making sure the wallet was secured at the scene.
A responding officer assumed a livery company that took Miller’s body to Baltimore had taken his wallet and ring, too. It’s listed as fact, that it happened, on a police report.
But it didn’t happen. The items were left behind.
A separate police report, prepared by a different officer, quoted someone who turned in the wallet and ring after Miller’s body was taken away as saying the items were left “on a railing outside of the residence” where Miller was found.
Wright said a person’s possessions in a death investigation sometimes go to the medical examiner’s office with the body, but they aren’t supposed to, unless removing something is impractical, such as a piercing.
An officer turned Miller’s ring and wallet in to the department’s found-property custodian, who mailed the letter to Miller at his address, unaware he had died.
“We made a mistake,” Smith said about the breakdowns in procedure and communication.
‘Done so wrong’
Wright said that in his Internal Affairs Division role, he’s investigating the handling of the case. As of the last week in July, he hadn’t finished talking to everyone in the police department who was involved. Hayes said she talked to Wright again on Wednesday and he still was trying to reach an officer who was on vacation.
When Wright is done, he’ll notify Miller’s family and explain what he found, he said, although he can’t tell them what, if any, disciplinary measures are taken against officers who made mistakes.
Hayes, who picked up the wallet and ring on July 19, said she doesn’t want anyone to get in trouble. But after a week of uncertainty about her brother followed by the frustration of figuring out what went wrong, she and her sister remain upset.
Wright has apologized, but Hayes said she wants to hear that from whichever officers made the mistakes.
Wright said he helped Miller’s family on July 9 arrange for his body to be picked up from the medical examiner’s office and apologized that day for what had happened so far. At that point, it still wasn’t clear what had gone wrong.
When he heard from a reporter that the family still was dissatisfied and upset, he called them.
Hayes said her brother was no angel.
After working as a merchant seaman, he got a commercial driver’s license. She thinks the stress of being on the road led him to abuse alcohol. He served time in jail on some misdemeanor offenses, she said.
But he was a decent person, Hayes said, and not knowing for a week whether he was alive or dead was painful.
“I just feel like he was just done so wrong,” Dianne Miller said.