Jeff Jardine

Family seeks answers to mom gone 5 years

If ever a case seemed destined to remain unsolved, it is the disappearance of Rebekah Rachel Miller.

The 33-year-old homeless woman and mother of three was last seen Dumpster-diving in the wee hours of Oct. 15, 2002, behind a shopping center on Oakdale Road in Modesto.

Her boyfriend reported her missing, telling police that her disappearance was "highly unusual and bizarre."

She left behind her bicycle and belongings, including her collection of beads, and police found no signs of a struggle. And she left behind a family fractured, in no small part, because she was bipolar and took greater refuge in methamphetamine than her prescribed medications. Hence, her migration to the streets.

Nearly five years later, Miller's husband, Bryan, wonders what really happened to the woman he fell in love with as a teenager, had three kids with, and with whom he experienced the best and worst love and marriage had to offer. That her body never has been found leaves an array of possibilities, all speculative:

  • She was the victim of foul play.
  • Something happened to her -- accidentally, intentionally or medically -- while she was in the trash bin, and she was carted off to her demise at the county landfill.
  • She chose to disappear, leaving the area altogether.

Because she vanished roughly two months before Laci Peterson's disappearance, Bryan Miller believed the police simply shelved her investigation and ultimately put all of their efforts into solving the Peterson case.

Last week, with the anniversary of Rebekah's disappearance looming, Miller learned that wasn't so. He and daughter Kathryn, 17, met with Modesto police Detective Craig Grogan, who worked both cases.

"I went down there ready to unload on Detective Grogan," Miller said. "If they'd done such a good job on the investigation, how come I'd never met him?"

Instead, Grogan showed him a large binder full of information generated from the investigation. The problem, Grogan said, is that while Laci Peterson's disappearance drew 11,000 tips, Rebekah Miller's disappearance generated only a handful of calls, all of which checked out quickly. For the most part, the tips stopped coming by the time the Peterson case developed.

"I was really surprised how much they had done," Miller said.

"I did about everything I could do," Grogan said. "It's still entered as a missing person's case. There's DNA on file. The case is open."

Grogan and Miller never met because he and Rebekah had been separated for about a year. Her grandmother, Virginia Barnett, was the most stable adult in her life and had been for years. Even though Bryan Miller and Rebekah still were legally married, her grandmother became the family's point of contact with the police.

"I was constantly on my son, telling him, 'You need to go down there and find out what's going on,' " said Linda Lewis, Bryan Miller's mother. "But the grandmother didn't want the kids to know anything."

The police dealt with Barnett until her death six months after Rebekah disappeared. By then, the leads had pretty much dried up, and the Peterson investigation was in full swing.

Bryan Miller and Rebekah met when they attended Frontier High, a now-defunct continuation school in north Modesto, in 1985. She quickly got pregnant, and son Michael was born in 1986. He was raised by Barnett until he was 16.

Looking for a way to support his new family, Bryan Miller joined the Army, and was stationed in Fort Carson, Colo. That's where their second child, Andrew, was born in 1988.

"A couple of weeks after we got married," Bryan Miller said.

They tried to make it work.

"She was smart and loved to draw," he said. "She was a brilliant artist. She loved her kids. I could go on all day about her."

Neither was ready for marriage or parenthood, though. Between partying and immaturity, it was a doomed match from the get-go.

"I knew something was wrong," he said, referring to her ever-changing moods. "Turns out she was bipolar. We couldn't stay on the same page. She'd get her stuff together, and then I couldn't stop being a teenager."

That didn't prevent them from having their third child, Kathryn, in February 1990.

After leaving the military, Bryan Miller lived in Las Vegas briefly, then Alaska, and moved Rebekah to Seattle briefly. Rebekah soon wanted to return to Modesto, where the kids were being raised by Barnett.

"She was so close to her grandmother," Miller said.

Throughout their years together, Bryan and Rebekah Miller and their three children lived together as a family for perhaps four or five months, Michael Miller said. They lived with Barnett the rest of the time, he said.

Rebekah tried hard to get straightened out, said Lewis, Bryan Miller's mother.

"I loved the girl," Lewis said. "I watched her go through rehab. She stayed clean for a couple of years and got a job (as a relay operator for GC Services in Riverbank). She was functioning."

Then, in the late 1990s, she hooked up with some neighbors who were into drugs and she couldn't resist the urge, Bryan Miller said.

"I thought I could save her," he said. "I got her to go to (Narcotics Anonymous), and she checked into other programs. But she never could get through a program. It was easier to do drugs than feel feelings. It was dragging the kids down. I resigned to the fact I can't save her because she doesn't want to save herself."

He eventually left her, and she found a boyfriend on the streets. She was with him when she disappeared. The police never have released his name. She was due to appear in court on a drug charge the day she vanished.

Bryan Miller now works at a rubber fabrication shop in Modesto. Son Michael Miller is 21 and works as a brick mason in Modesto. Andrew Miller, 19, basically severed contact with the family after turning 18. Kathryn, 17, recently completed Army basic training in South Carolina and will become a transportation manager. She wrote letters to her mom for years after the disappearance, and isn't convinced her mom simply isn't hiding out.

"I don't know," Kathryn Miller said. "Anything's possible. I think she's just doing something she shouldn't be doing, staying with someone."

Michael Miller shares the same feelings.

"I just kind of thought she left," he said. "I know she could disappear."

Her father and Lewis, however, don't believe Rebekah would have stayed away when her grandmother died. Now, coming up on five years later, a woman remains still missing. A fractured family still looks for answers. So do the police.

The case is unsolved, and the next tip police receive will be the first in a long while.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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