Two state troopers, dispatch manager killed in house fire in Zillah
Two State Patrol troopers and the head of the Patrol's 911 center in Wenatchee were killed in a house fire in Zillah, Yakima County, early Monday.
Seattle Times staff reporters
ZILLAH, Yakima County — As a former dispatcher and head of the State Patrol's emergency-dispatch center in Wenatchee, Anne Miller-Hewitt knew how to handle 911 calls.
The 54-year-old called 911 early Monday to report a fire at the Zillah home she shared with her husband, Patrol Trooper Gary Miller, and rookie Trooper Kristopher Sperry, who was staying with the couple.
After giving her address to the dispatcher, Miller-Hewitt was told to get out of the house immediately.
She told the dispatcher she would.
But no one made it out of the home before it was consumed by the fast-moving flames, resulting in the largest loss of life in a single event in the State Patrol's 89-year history.
"To lose one member of the family is horrific, it's a tragedy. To lose three is just unfathomable," Patrol Lt. Jim Keightley said.
Killed were Miller-Hewitt; her husband, Miller, 55; and Sperry, 30, who was staying with the Millers while his home was being built, according to the Patrol.
Miller-Hewitt's call is providing investigators with a key clue as they try to determine the cause of the fire and why no one inside was able to escape the flames.
"We have no indication that this was a crime or a suspicious fire at all right now," Keightley said.
Stew Graham, chief of detectives for the Yakima County Sheriff's Office, which is leading the investigation, said nothing has been ruled out.
Asked if anything about the fire was suspicious, Graham said, "We have no thoughts about it one way or another."
According to the Patrol, Miller-Hewitt called 911 just after 1 a.m. to report the fire in their home, in the 300 block of Falcon Ridge Road. Troopers who were on duty and recognized the address as belonging to colleagues responded along with fire and aid units, according to the Patrol.
A neighbor, 17-year-old Kyle Kluever, had gone outside to watch the meteor showers when he saw the flames about a mile away. Thinking a friend's house or field was on fire, he drove to Falcon Ridge Road, where he saw the Millers' house in flames.
Within seconds, the house was engulfed, with flames shooting approximately 50 feet in the air, Kluever said.
Kluever said he yelled to try to wake the Miller family, and then went to alert his friend's family. Together, they began to wake other neighbors, fearing the flames could spark a grass fire and spread to other homes.
Kluever said he heard ammunition going off in the burning house.
"I heard one whiz to my left, then one to my right. I ducked down behind one of those cars and cut out to the neighbor's house," he said. "It was just a horrible thing that happened there. Just really unfortunate."
Investigators on Monday were "very slowly, very methodically doing an overhaul of the scene," Graham said.
A specially trained dog detected accelerants in the charred wreckage. But Graham said "that's not unusual" since any petroleum-based products could result in a hit. He said investigators will be examining the locations where accelerants were discovered and taking samples to send to the Patrol's Crime Lab for analysis.
The Millers' rural house sits on a ridge amid a small cluster of single-family homes. Grape vines and apple orchards cover nearby properties.
Miller-Hewitt held the rank of communications officer four, the civilian equivalent of lieutenant. She headed the State Patrol's 911 center in Wenatchee, supervising 15 dispatchers. She was hired in 1987 and promoted to her current rank in 2007, the Patrol said.
Miller-Hewitt had an adult son who is serving in the military in Texas. The Millers had been married eight years.
Miller was hired in 1989 and commissioned in 1990. He had been assigned to the agency's Sunnyside detachment area since that time.
He had two adult children: Ben Miller, a detective with the King County Sheriff's Office, and a daughter who lives in Spokane, said Patrol Chief John Batiste, who visited the fire scene Monday.
A colleague, Trooper John Berends, who works out of the Patrol's Yakima detachment, said a second son of Miller's died in the Seattle area last year.
Berends said Steven Miller, 27, served several tours with the Army but suffered serious injuries in a bicycle accident after his return to the Seattle area. He committed suicide in a park near Seattle in October, Berends said.
Batiste said Gary Miller had gone out of his way to help those he encountered. He recalled the time a vehicle containing a group of hunters broke down. Miller loaned them his vehicle so they could complete their trip.
He "was a person with a heart as deep as the ocean," Batiste said.
Miller had served eight years with the Grandview Police Department before joining the Patrol, Keightley said.
Berends said he saw Miller on Friday during their annual firearms training.
Berends said Miller was nicknamed "Boo Boo Bear" because he always had some minor injury.
Miller was known for welcoming rookie troopers like Sperry when they were assigned to Miller's Patrol area. "He was the Papa Bear," Berends said.
Neighbor Todd Meyer said he had driven by the couple's home and spoken with Miller Sunday evening.
"We shared a wave and a joke, and I told Gary he looked good sitting on the porch," Meyer said. "He looked very content. It was just the most beautiful evening."
Sperry was hired in 2008 and graduated with the 97th Trooper Basic Class in June.
His hometown was Eureka, Mont. Sperry spent time in the military before being accepted into the Patrol. While in the Patrol's academy, he received the Top Fitness award as the most physically fit cadet in his class.
He was single and did not have children, Batiste said.
Sperry was planning to move out of the Millers' home this week, according to Graham.
"Right now, our priority is supporting the co-workers of Anne, Gary and Kristopher," Batiste said. "They are understandably devastated by this tragedy, and we have no higher priority than helping them get through this difficult time."
The past year has been a deadly one for Washington state law-enforcement officers.
On Oct. 31, Seattle police Officer Timothy Brenton was killed as he sat in his patrol car. Christopher Monfort has been charged with aggravated first-degree murder in Brenton's death.
On Nov. 29, Maurice Clemmons killed Lakewood police Sgt. Mark Renninger and Officers Ronald Owens, Tina Griswold and Greg Richards while they sat in a Parkland coffee shop. Clemmons was killed two days later by a Seattle police officer.
In December, Pierce County sheriff's Deputy Kent Mundell was shot to death while responding to a domestic-disturbance call.
Seattle Times staff reporter Christine Clarridge and news researcher David Turim contributed to this report.
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