Shot In The Dark

Who Killed The Surgeon's Wife?

Williamsport, Pa., is a small, picturesque town known around the country for the Little League World Series – and not much else.

In a town that averages one or two homicides a year, it's a pleasant place to be a cop. But there is one all-consuming case that has puzzled investigators in this sleepy town.

Pennsylvania State Trooper William Holmes and Cpl. John McDermott and have spent four years trying to solve the riddle of who killed 47-year-old Miriam Illes, a woman who didn't seem to have an enemy in the world. Correspondent Susan Spencer reports.


Miriam and her husband, heart surgeon Richard Illes, were once one of Williamsport's most prominent couples. The Illes, who married in 1991, lived in a spectacular mansion on a hill.

"We were embraced by the community very nicely. And I was compensated probably more than I was worth. But everything was wonderful here in Williamsport for us," recalls Illes, who was considered one of the best doctors in the area.

In the early '90s, Illes met Miriam Zambie while working as a resident at St. Louis Medical Center. Miriam was a surgical assistant. Within a few years after they married, they had a son, Richie, and moved to Williamsport, where the Illes worked side by side together. Miriam was active in her community as well, volunteering at the symphony and at church. She was a dynamic, exuberant personality who made friends wherever she went.

Despite the money and the status, Miriam's friends say she was very down to earth. "They were one of the wealthiest people in Williamsport, if not the wealthiest," says Dottie Bailey. "Miriam drove a green van. Miriam went to the dollar store," adds Karen Young. "You wouldn't think, 'Wow, that's a doctor's wife."

Miriam decided to become a stay-at-home mom when Richie was 2. She quit her job and never looked back. "She was a wonderful mother," says Illes. "I couldn't have hoped for anyone better than her to take care of my son."

But Miriam's friends, who say they rarely saw the doctor, had the impression that he was becoming increasingly distant and demanding.

"Miriam was controlled by her husband," says Leslie Smith, who saw a marriage under serious strain. "He wanted his dinner at a certain time. He wanted his house perfect. If she didn't please him, she paid a price."

Friends say Illes' emotional distance made Miriam miserable. And in the winter of 1998, she hired a divorce attorney, Steven Hurvitz, even though she seemed to not really want a divorce.

At the same time, friends say Miriam was growing suspicious. "She had the feeling that her husband was having an affair because she really highly suspected the way he was acting that something was going on," says Bailey.

Miriam and her lawyer soon discovered that Illes was involved with his assistant, Katherine Swoyer, whom Miriam had hired. Their relationship became a scandal at Williamsport Hospital.

Illes, however, remembers those days fondly. "I had a pretty perfect life there for a little while. I had a girlfriend who I loved. And we had a great time," he says. "I had a beautiful son who was being taken care of by his mother, who was the best mother in the world. There's no doubt about that, everyone will tell you that. And I had my freedom."

Miriam moved out with her 5-year-old son, Richie. Her friends say she would have reconciled, but that Illes wasn't interested in rebuilding the relationship.

"I wasn't interested in the beginning," admits Illes. "But as time went on, the thoughts occurred in my mind. You don't talk about them, of course, because your girlfriend that you're having a relationship with certainly isn't going to appreciate those thoughts."

A reconciliation, however, would never happen. Because on the night of Jan. 15, 1999, Miriam was found murdered in her own home.

Illes' sisters, Romaine and Sue, had spoken to Miriam the night of the murder.

Romaine says Miriam was pleased that Illes' girlfriend wasn't going to be around for a few days: "She's away and perhaps he's going to see this is not what he wants. He wants to be back with his family."

In their call, Miriam said Richie had just left with his father for a weekend visit with Illes' sister – who lived three hours south of Williamsport. But when Miriam failed to show up to teach Sunday school, worried neighbors checked the house, looked through the kitchen window and, horrified at what they saw, called police.

"The residence was locked and we had to kick in the door. And Miriam was lying on the kitchen floor," recalls Holmes. "There was a cordless phone very close to her as she lay on the floor."

Miriam had been shot once through the heart. Within hours of the discovery of his wife's body, Illes arrived to drop off his son after their weekend out of town.

"Two policemen came out, and they said, 'Who are you,' and I told them," recalls 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."

The police remember it slightly differently. "Certainly one of his first questions was 'What evidence was found,'" says Holmes. "It was interesting to us at that point that he would ask that question."

But investigators were too busy to think much of it then, because they were awash in evidence. They found a cigarette butt behind the house, what appeared to be a homemade silencer for a rifle, and footprints in the snow from a size 14 basketball shoe.

The initial working theory was that a sniper, with weapon in hand, snuck along a drainage ditch to enter the property from the back. Stopping near the spot where the cigarette butt was found, approximately 70 feet from the house, the killer had one shot in the dark – through the only window with open blinds. Then, the killer ran away, discarding the silencer along the way.

What turned out to be one of the best clues was found next to Miriam's body. Phone records showed she'd been talking with a friend in Montana, and the friend remembered being puzzled when their conversation ended abruptly. It was exactly 10:37 p.m.

District Attorney Michael Dinges says that without that call, investigators never could have pinpointed the exact time of death: "It's my belief that the killer didn't know she was on the phone. And it was one of the fatal mistakes in this case, on the killer's behalf."

But knowing when the shot was fired still didn't tell police who fired it. "I was a suspect absolutely from day one," says Illes, even though he had a solid alibi for the weekend. "Why would I do it? I didn't have a motive."

Investigators, however, saw an excellent motive – and they think that money had a lot to do with it. The couple hadn't yet begun to split up property, but already a judge had ordered Illes to pay Miriam $13,000 a month in child support.

Illes insists that, given his income, this was no big deal: "There's plenty of money to go around. My lifestyle wasn't cramped."

"He was going to lose this divorce," says Holmes. "He had already lost money, and was certainly going to lose more. He may lose custody of this son."

"This is a guy who spent his life as a heart surgeon," adds Dinges. "He was always in control. In this separation, he was no longer in control. … He had lost control of Miriam and of his finances."

Did Illes kill Miriam? "Of course not," he says. "And I have no idea who did."

Illes told investigators that he had been on the road with Ritchie when Miriam was killed. 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," says Holmes.

Key was a stop at McDonalds, 35 miles from the crime scene. Witnesses saw Illes there, but were vague as to when. Then, Holmes said Illes' story, about where he was when his wife was killed, changed.

One person, the Illes' son Richie, may know the truth for sure. But it would take two years before he would be interviewed. "The problem there was that he was afraid of the police," says Illes.

When Illes finally did let Richie talk, the boy had little to say, and Dinges thinks he knows why. "Dr. Illes, as the physician, it would have been easy for him to get access to narcotics or something -- any kinda drug that could put a five-year-old to sleep."

But speculation isn't evidence, and the evidence wasn't adding up to much. The cigarette butt and three hairs found in the silencer were sent off for DNA analysis. But one of the earliest real leads came from Miriam, who made a video inventory of household possessions, as do many people during a divorce.

Police took special note of Illes' workshop. "He had drill presses," says Dinges. "He had saws, that he had grinding material. He had all the types of woodworking equipment that would of been necessary to construct this particular silencer."

"Oh yeah, I could have made it [the silencer]. But I would have made a silencer that was good," says Illes. "That silencer that they found is very amateurish."

Armed with a search warrant, police found traces of material in his workshop to make even an amateurish silencer. Police also took their own pictures in Illes' house. On his nightstand, Dinges says they found a book titled "They Wrote Their Own Sentences. The FBI Handwriting Analysis Book."

It was a strange book for a doctor to have, but the case got a lot stranger when the anonymous letters began. The first letter was sent to Illes' attorney, and it proclaimed that the writer, not Illes, had killed Miriam because she was a racist. It was signed "Soldier of God, Soldier of Equality, Soldier of Death."

But Dinges was still suspicious: "The anonymous letter shows up. … It's postmarked four days after Illes finds out what we took from his house. It's a huge coincidence."

The letter was also written just as the book on Illes' nightstand had recommended – in pencil. "Unlike ink, you can't track pencil," adds Dinges. "And you write in block printing so it can't be tied to your other writing."

In May 1999, four months after the murder, a second letter arrived. This time, the author talked about himself. It fit the description of Illes' partner, Dr. Nche Zama. "I was shocked," says Zama.

Dinges, however, said Zama had an ironclad alibi, and since he was a very good friend of Miriam's, he had absolutely no motive.

"I think that it's probably just some nut," says Illes.

But the police thought it was someone who was methodically leaving false clues. In fact, the last anonymous letter arrived with another hair stuck in the envelope flap. Search warrants had allowed the police to take a sample of Illes' DNA — and by now, they had a lot to compare it to.

"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 of none of them are Dr. Illes. It led us to the conclusion that there was clearly a planting of evidence."

However, investigators got a break in the summer of 1999. Fisherman Matt McKay was walking 40 feet from a road just off the route Illes said he drove that night. "I didn't notice the gun first. I had tripped over it and thought it was driftwood," recalls McKay. "But I looked down and driftwood doesn't have a scope. So I took a second look, and it looked like a rifle."

"There's no doubt this is the murder weapon," says Dinges, of the loaded rifle with a sawed off barrel and stock. It was a rare savage 23D rifle, its serial number obliterated. The gun was last sold in 1949, before records even were kept.

Investigators needed to tie the rifle to Illes, who had a long history with guns. By fall of 1999, Dinges was sure Illes had used his hunting skills to shoot his wife.

Nearly a year after the rifle was found, investigators stumbled on a photo of Illes' late godfather, Joe Kowalski, who had taught him to hunt and had left him many of his guns. They showed him a photo Kowalski holding a groundhog in one hand and a bolt-action rifle in the other.

The rifle looked just like the murder weapon. And it was the biggest break in the case so far. "When I saw that photograph, I knew that we definitely had the right guy," says Dinges.

Two months later, police discovered basketball shoes in the woods -- same as the footprints at the crime scene. They were found very near where the gun was spotted.

"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, who was married to his girlfriend six months after Miriam's murder. In Nov. 2000, he hit the road, and headed to Laredo, Texas, for a job as a heart surgeon in a hospital very close to the Mexican border. Was Illes planning to make an exit?

"If I was on the run, I wouldn't be in the United States," says 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."

But the job didn't work out and Illes soon left for Spokane, Wash., where he applied for a position at a heart surgery practice. Administrator Cathy Austin says she received a mysterious anonymous package stuffed with newspaper articles – and a letter warning anyone to think twice about hiring Illes.

"I realized that wherever he went, that packet followed. Many institutions received that packet," says Austin. Ultimately, he was turned down.

In time, Illes' new wife divorced him, too, and the once-prominent heart surgeon dropped from sight, only to resurface in the Spokane newspaper, with a completely new career – cosmetic surgery.

But newspaper reporter Carla Johnson says she also received the anonymous package. "There was a suspicion that maybe some of Miriam's family was tracking him and just letting people know in a friendly way what was going on. But I don't know that for sure."

Meanwhile, Spokane police were watching the doctor's house, day and night, and keeping tabs at the request of Pennsylvania investigators, who finally decided in December 2002 that they had enough circumstantial evidence to prosecute Illes.

Holmes and McDermott flew to Spokane for the arrest. The stakes were high. "Four years of work," says McDermott. "We wanted to be there when he's finally taken into custody."

The plan was for plainclothes detectives to quickly nab Illes at his office. But it didn't work out that way.

While Holmes and McDermott waited nervously at the sheriff's department, Illes eluded his pursuers. Luckily, he was spotted again and officers followed him to the freeway. Illes headed right into the heart of downtown Spokane, where he suddenly pulled over.

"This is our last shot," recalls Holmes. "We have to get him."

After four long years, it was finally over. Illes was sent back to Williamsport and charged with Miriam's murder.

At Illes' trial, Dinges argued that Illes killed his wife to avoid a messy divorce, in which he might well lose both his fortune and his son.

But Illes says the evidence clearly points to someone else. "The murderer had size 14 shoes. I wear a size 9.5. They found DNA on a cigarette butt that only the killer could have left there," he says. "If you're the murderer, you don't want to leave a silencer behind that has evidence. You don't want to leave evidence in letters that can be traced to you. I'm enough of a scientist to know that."

Illes also says he never saw the gun. However, when police searched Illes' home in Spokane, they found a manuscript on his computer. The title was "Heart Shot: Murder Of The Doctor's Wife." Even the characters had the same names as those in the real murder investigation.

"He thought he got away with a perfect crime, and this was almost his way of venting," says Dinges. "It's a confession."

Why would he write the book from the killer's perspective? "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," says Illes.

Illes never took the stand. And after a five-week trial, the jury began its deliberations. Then, after 2.5 days, the jury found Illes guilty of murder in the first degree. For the investigators, it's justice five years in the making.

Illes never wrote the final chapter in his book. But in the real world, a judge wrote it for him – life in prison.

"Dr. Illes was a brilliant guy. There's no doubt about it. He's smarter then me," says Dinges. "He's probably smarter then any of the individual police officers. But he's not smarter than all of us together."