WEST PALM BEACH - A beloved former band director at H.L. Watkins Middle School who was accused in 2009 of sexually molesting four students pleaded guilty Monday to charges that will send him to prison for 13 years.
Arriving in court wearing a smartly-tailored gray suit and tie, Heath Miller, 39, abandoned plans to let a jury decide his fate and instead accepted a last-minute plea deal.
"He wanted to take responsibility for what he did but he also wanted to spare (the teenage girls) the horror of coming to trial," his attorney Mark Wilensky said shortly after Miller was finger-printed and taken to jail by Palm Beach County sheriff's deputies.
Facing seven charges that could have sent him to prison for as long as 75 years, Miller pleaded guilty to four charges in connection with the assaults that prosecutors said occurred in the band room of the Palm Beach Gardens middle school. He admitted to having sex with a 16- and a 14-year-old girl and inappropriately touching two others.
"I'm satisfied justice was served," said retired school police Detective Vinny Mintus, who said the investigation was one of the most difficult of his career. Because students liked and respected Miller, they were reluctant to talk, he said.
Knowing how fragile they were, he said, he was glad they were spared the trauma of having to tell their stories publicly. "It would have been very difficult for them," he said.
While always hard for young girls to testify about sexual assaults, in this case the trauma would have been compounded, said prosecutor Daliah Weiss. It was likely separate trials would have been held for each of the four molestation charges, she said. Because she wanted to use all four girls in each trial to persuade juries that Miller's conduct wasn't isolated, each would have had to testify four times.
"We got justice for these children and spared them the stress of having them testify against their attacker in court," she said.
Miller will get credit for the 983 days - roughly 2 1/2 years - he spent in jail. Once released, he will be on probation for eight years and his life will be severely restricted. He will have to be home by 10 p.m. He will have to wear an electronic monitor. He can't live within 1,000 feet of a school, park or any location where children gather.
He will have to give up his teaching certificate and can never teach again. Further, he will have to register as a sexual predator for the rest of his life.
His wife and parents cried as he stoically pleaded guilty to the charges. His attorney said that until his arrest Miller was a model citizen. Wilensky suggested that Miller's world fell apart in February 2009 when he shot and killed an armed man who entered his house. All of the sex crimes took place after the shooting, he said. "It was traumatic for him," he said.
Weiss declined comment on whether the shooting could have triggered the crimes. However, she acknowledged, Miller was a respected teacher.
"Yes, he was well-liked," she said. "But he crossed a line."