On the night of January 15, 1999 at exactly 10:37 p.m., a shot rang out that would haunt investigators for four long years. Leads in the homicide case of Miriam Illes would detour the police down endless rabbit holes.
Williamsport, Pennsylvania is a sleepy community known for The World Little League, and not much else. Homicides are a rare occurrence, averaging only one or two per year. But there was one homicide in particular — the death of a prominent surgeon’s wife — that put Williamsport on the map and garnered widespread media coverage.
Outgoing and down-to-earth, Miriam was loved by so many. Active in her community as well as her church, she made friends wherever she went. When their son Richie hit two years old, she quit her job to be a stay-at-home Mom.
“She was a wonderful mother,” said Dr. Illes, her husband of eight years. “I couldn’t have hoped for anyone better than her to take care of my son.”
Those closest to Miriam rarely saw the doctor. In fact, they had the impression that he was becoming increasingly distant and demanding. “Miriam was controlled by her husband,” said Leslie Smith, who witnessed the volatile marriage. “He wanted his dinner at a certain time. He wanted his house perfect. If she didn’t please him, she paid a price.”
When Richie turned five, Miriam moved out after discovering her husband was having an affair with his surgical assistant. Yet even though they lived apart, Miriam hoped for a reconciliation. That of course would never happen. From 70 feet away someone shot Miriam with a .22 caliber rifle through the kitchen window, straight through her heart, killing her instantly.
Two days after the shooting, on the morning of January 17, 1999 when Miriam failed to show up to teach Sunday school, concerned neighbors kicked in the back door and found her lifeless body on the kitchen floor in a puddle of blood, the cordless phone next to her head.
The phone played a pivotal role in the homicide. Because Miriam was chatting with a friend from Montana when the call was mysteriously cut off at 10:37 p.m., police had the exact time of death. Was this call the killer’s one fatal mistake?
Investigators cordoned off the area around the house and found men’s size 14 Reebok shoeprints in the snow among a thicket of trees in the backyard, along with a discarded cigarette butt. Dr. Illes wore a size 9.5.
So who killed Miriam?
Dr. Illes was driving on Highway 15 at the time of the murder, on his way to his sister’s house for a weekend getaway with Richie — three hours north of the crime scene. Investigators videotaped and timed the route under good and bad weather conditions. “The numbers just don’t seem to add up as far as the distance he traveled and the time that it would’ve taken him to travel,” said Pennsylvania State Trooper William Holmes. Witnesses confirmed seeing Illes at McDonald’s but were vague about the time.
Within hours of the body being discovered, the good doctor pulled curbside in front of Miriam’s home. “Two policemen came out, and they said, ‘Who are you?’ and I told them,” recalled Illes. “They said, ‘She was killed.’ And I said, ‘Oh, my God,’ and I said, ‘How was she killed?’ And they said, ‘She was shot.’”
That’s not how State Trooper Holmes remembered the conversation, though. “Certainly one of his [Dr. Illes] first questions was, ‘What evidence was found?’” said Holmes. “It was interesting at that point that he would ask that question.”
As the investigation continued, police found a homemade silencer the killer had tossed during his escape. Three hairs inside the silencer were sent off for DNA testing. They asked for Dr. Illes’ DNA, but no match could be made.
One of the early leads came from Miriam, who had inventoried the household possessions for the upcoming divorce. Police took note of Illes’ workshop. “He had drill presses,” said Dinges. “He had saws…he had grinding material. He had all the types of woodworking equipment that would have been necessary to construct this particular silencer.”
“Oh, yeah, I could have made it [the silencer],” said Illes. “But I would have made a silencer that was good. The silencer that they found is very amateurish.”
Armed with a search warrant, police found traces of material in his workshop to make the silencer. And on his nightstand, they found a book entitled, They Wrote Their Own Sentences. The FBI Handwriting Analysis Book.
Why would a doctor have a book on handwriting?
Four months later, the case got a lot stranger when anonymous letters started showing up. First at Illes’ attorney’s office, the author claiming that he, not Illes, had killed Miriam because she was a racist — a fact no one could substantiate. The letter was signed, “Soldier of God, Soldier of Equality, Soldier of Death.”
The second letter arrived in May 1999, addressed to the police, with details about the case that had never been released to the public. The author used blocked letters to disguise his handwriting and wrote in pencil…exactly as the FBI Handwriting Analysis Book advised. “Unlike ink, you can’t track pencil,” said Dinges. “And you write in block printing so it can’t be tied to your other writing.”
In this letter, the author talked about himself. The description fit Dr. Illes’ partner, Dr. Nche Zama to a tee. Investigators looked hard at Dr. Zama, but he had an ironclad alibi. “I think that it’s probably just some nut,” said Illes.
But investigators disagreed. Rather, they believed someone was methodically leaving false clues. Their suspicions were confirmed when a third letter arrived with hair stuck in the glue on the envelope flap. “The DNA from the cigarette doesn’t match the hair in the silencer. None of the hairs in the silencer match each other. They all come from different people and the hair in the anonymous letter comes from somebody else,” says Dinges. “So we’ve got five sources of people that supposedly were involved in this crime and none of them are Dr. Illes. It led us to the conclusion that there was clearly a planting of evidence.” The DA refused to prosecute Dr. Illes, an upstanding member of the community, on such little circumstantial evidence. Leads dried up. The case went cold. And Dr. Illes married his lover six months after Miriam’s murder.
Investigators caught a break in the summer of 1999. Fisherman Matt McKay was walking 40 feet from a road just off Route 15, the same route Illes said he drove that fateful night. “I didn’t notice the gun [at] first. I had tripped over it and thought it was driftwood,” recalled McKay. “But I looked down and driftwood doesn’t have a scope. So I took a second look, and it looked like a rifle.” Actually, it was a rare savage 23D rifle, its serial number scratched off. The gun was last sold in 1949, before records were even kept. Investigators needed to tie the rifle to Illes, who had a long history with guns.
Nearly a year after the rifle was found, investigators stumbled across a photo of Illes’ late godfather, Joe Kowalski, who had taught him to hunt and left Illes the guns in his will. The photo depicted Kowalski holding a groundhog in one hand and a bolt-action rifle in the other. “When I saw that photograph,” said Dinges, “I knew that we definitely had the right guy.”
Two months later, police discovered Reebok sneakers in the woods, and the soles matched the shoe impressions at the crime scene. “The killer chooses to discard the murder weapon and the shoes a quarter of a mile from the route that Dr. Illes says he took that night,” says Dinges. “It’s a huge coincidence. A huge piece of evidence here.” But still, the DA felt there was not enough evidence to charge Illes. In Nov. 2000, Illes headed toward Laredo, Texas for a job as a heart surgeon in a hospital near the Mexican border. Was Illes planning to flee the country? “If I was on the run, I wouldn’t be in the United States,” said Illes. “I’d be in south Mexico in a villa somewhere. But I didn’t want to give the impression to anybody that I was guilty of anything.”
In a bizarre twist of events, before Dr. Illes showed for his interview at the heart surgery practice, the administrator received a mysterious package in the mail — the box stuffed with newspaper clippings about the case and a letter warning her to think twice about hiring Illes. In fact, many institutions received the same packet. It seemed someone was enacting their own form of justice and warning the public to steer clear of Dr. Illes.
In the meantime, Spokane, Washington police wouldn’t let Illes out of their sight. They surveilled him day and night, per the request of the Pennsylvania Investigators, who in December 2002 finally had enough circumstantial evidence to prosecute.
When police searched Illes’ Spokane home they found a manuscript on his computer, entitled, “Heart Shot: Murder of the Doctor’s Wife.” All the characters had the same names as in the real murder investigation.
“He thought he got away with a perfect crime,” said Dinges, “and this was almost his way of venting. It’s a confession.”
When asked why he would write the book from the killer’s POV, Illes said, “I thought it would generate more interest and more widespread knowledge of the actual facts of the case, which were not being disseminated by the police. That was my motive.”
After a five-week trial, the jury returned a guilty verdict for 1st degree homicide.
“Dr. Illes was a brilliant guy,” said Dinges. “There’s no doubt about it. He’s smarter than me. He’s probably smarter than any of the individual police officers. But he’s not smarter than all of us together.”
Illes never finished his novel. The judge wrote the ending for him — life in prison.
How did Illes really commit the crime?
When he picked up his son at Miriam’s house he handed Richie a drink laced with narcotics to knock him out. He parked his vehicle behind the wooded lot out back and snuck along a drainage ditch to the nearest tree with a sightline of the only window without the blinds drawn. After killing his wife, he dropped the cigarette butt with someone else’s DNA on the end. Then he twisted off the silencer and planted three hairs inside. Where he gathered the hairs was anyone’s guess, probably from patients in the hospital. The hair on the envelope was Richie’s, a move that shows how sick and twisted he really was.
I tell you this story because there’s so much crime writers can glean from this case. What if our killer wore sneakers four sizes bigger than his actual foot? What if our detective found hair or fiber evidence that was methodically planted to throw them off? Don’t want your killer’s taunting letters to police linking back to him? Have him write in block letters and in pencil.
From a crime writer’s perspective this case is a goldmine of information. Do you want your detective to have the exact time of death? Put your victim on the phone when she’s murdered. Need an untraceable firearm? Check for guns made on or before 1949. I could go on and on, but you get the picture. By studying real cases we can steal bits and pieces for our fiction. It worked for Thomas Harris. He based Hannibal Lector and Buffalo Bill on real serial killers. And it can work for us, too.
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