'Canal killer' trial: Defendant was tortured, 'treated like a dog' by his mother, expert testifies

Lane Sainty
Arizona Republic
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Bryan Miller, accused of killing two young women as they rode along Phoenix canals 30 years ago, was the victim of "sadistic" childhood abuse inflicted by his mother, an expert witness testified in court Monday.

The degradations he suffered included being treated like a dog, deprived of food, and subjected to "toy torture", where his mom would buy toys for him and deliberately place them out of reach, forensic psychologist Dr. Mark Cunningham said.

Miller also feared his mother would kill him, Cunningham said, and knew she kept one gun in her purse and another under her pillow.

"(He knew) that she has the capability to take his life in an instant," he said.

Miller's childhood with his mother, Ellen, who died in 2010, has loomed large in his double murder trial in Maricopa County Superior Court, where the state is seeking the death penalty.

He has pleaded not guilty for reasons of insanity to murdering and attempting to sexually assault Angela Brosso in November 1992 and Melanie Bernas in September 1993.

Both young women died from a forceful stab wound to the back and were mutilated after death. Brosso was decapitated on the eve of her 22nd birthday, her body found the next day and her head some distance away 11 days later. Bernas, who was 17 when she was murdered, had letters and a cross carved into her chest when her body was found in the Arizona Canal.

Both women are believed to have been cycling along Phoenix canals when they were murdered. The case became known as the "canal killings" and dominated local headlines, but ran cold and went unsolved for decades. In 2015, Miller was arrested following a DNA breakthrough in the case.

Now 50, Miller is relying on several diagnoses — including autism spectrum disorder and dissociative disorder — that his attorneys say he did not understand his actions at the time of the murders.

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Testimony: Defendant's mother instilled fear with abuse

The trial of accused murderer Bryan Patrick Miller, the so-called "Canal Killer" is underway in Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix on Oct. 3, 2022.

Cunningham, a defense witness, testified at length on Monday about Miller's childhood trauma and concluded his experiences were severe enough to lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, complex PTSD and dissociative disorders.

"There is more than enough trauma and deprivation to drive these disorders," Cunningham said.

Sadistic abuse can be distinguished from other kinds of deprivation and trauma because the parent is enjoying it, Cunningham said. “The parent is trying to maximize the psychological distress the child experiences."

Cunningham said a number of people had observed Miller's mother treating her son "the way you would expect someone to treat a pet".

A neighbor from his early childhood in Hawaii said Miller was "like an unwanted dog" Ellen had to take care of, and that he did not sit on the couch, but rather on the floor by his mother's leg.

This undated booking photo provided by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office shows Bryan Patrick Miller, who faces murder and other charges in the stabbing deaths of two young women in northwest Phoenix in the early 1990s.

The neighbor said Miller was "tentative and afraid" to sit on the couch at the her house, which suggested he was not permitted to do that at home, Cunningham said.

Being treated like a dog was relevant to PTSD because "it's shaming and humiliating," he testified. "And shame and humiliation are factors that increase the intensity of a trauma.”

Miller also reported that Ellen was abusive to dogs, Cunningham said, punching them in the ribs and on one instance, running over a dog with her car, which would have been traumatizing for him as a young boy.

"Children identify with animals," Cunningham said. "They're in similar vulnerable positions, a child and a family dog, in terms of being at the mercy and dependent on the adults in that household."

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Childhood traumas left Miller with PTSD

The expert psychologist said Miller also experienced "food torment" from Ellen, in which she would either enjoy food in front of him while refusing to allow him any, or force him to eat things that were unpalatable or noxious.

In one incident, Cunningham said, “Bryan had not rinsed the pan well enough after washing it and so then was made to eat macaroni that had been cooked in the pan that tasted soapy.”

He also offered examples of "toy torture," saying Ellen had purchased colored markers for her son but then locked them away so he couldn't use them.

When Miller was around 14, his mother bought him a Lego kit but when he asked to play with it, she told him "not right now", Cunningham said. “She finally gave it to him about five years later when he was 19.”

If Miller ever complained or argued about the withholding of toys she would yell and beat him with a belt, Cunningham said. If he cried, Ellen would tell him: "I'll give you something to cry about."

“This is not a hollow threat," Cunningham said. "She does physically abuse him."

He added that the retort was effectively punishment for an understandable emotional response. "Not something that you want to discourage in a child. You’re trying to produce a human being who can emote properly and express that.”

Miller met the criteria for PTSD, Cunningham said, among them that he had a severely negative self-image. “He described that in the mid-1990s it felt unusual for anyone to think highly of him or enjoy him."

Miller, a divorced father, had also reported feeling as though he didn't deserve to live, that he had disappointed his family and that he was a "loser" for not having a spouse.

Cunningham's testimony was drawn from numerous interviews with Miller, his relatives, friends, neighbors and acquaintances, and documentary evidence.

His evidence continues Tuesday.

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