Defendant in 'canal killings' assaulted a girl in anger toward his mother, retired pastor says

Lane Sainty
Arizona Republic
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Accused murderer Bryan Patrick Miller (center), the so-called "Canal Killer" takes his seat in Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix on Oct. 3, 2022.

Bryan Miller, charged with murdering two young women found in or near Phoenix canals in the early 1990s, was imprisoned as a teenager for stabbing a third young woman at Paradise Valley Mall.

After his release, he told a Mennonite pastor that he attacked the young woman because he thought she was his mother, according to testimony in Maricopa County Superior Court Thursday.

"He was very, very angry about his mother. How she had treated him," Menno Yoder, the pastor, testified.

"He thought he saw his mother and he attacked her but it was not his mother. And so he was incarcerated because of that."

The state is seeking the death penalty against Miller for the murder and attempted sexual assault of Angela Brosso in November 1992 and Melanie Bernas in September 1992.

The deaths of Brosso, who was 21 when she died, and Bernas, who was 17, went unsolved for decades before a DNA breakthrough led to Miller's arrest in 2015.

The single father, 50, has pleaded not guilty for reasons of insanity. His attorneys say his twin diagnoses — complex dissociative disorders caused by trauma inflicted by his abusive mother, and autism spectrum disorder — mean he did not understand his actions at the time of the murders.

The trial started Oct. 3 and is expected to continue into 2023.

Testimony continues:The man accused in the Phoenix canal killings goes to trial 30 years after 2 women died

Miller joined a church after assault conviction

In May 1989, when Miller was 16, he stabbed a 24-year-old woman after they both disembarked a bus at Paradise Valley Mall. Authorities said he had never met her before that day.

He was convicted of aggravated assault and imprisoned at the Adobe Mountain juvenile correctional facility.

That was where he met Yoder, who at the time was working with incarcerated youth in his capacity as the pastor of Paradise Valley Mennonite Church.

Miller became involved with the church over the next couple of years, Yoder said, and was baptized in May 1992, six months before Brosso was murdered.

The retired pastor said when he first met Miller in custody, the teenager was “very soft and quiet and always in the background."

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. On Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, a judge found Miller is now competent to stand trial, though the court hasn't yet ruled on a request by prosecutors to bar Miller from claiming that he was insane at the time the crimes were committed. Miller has maintained that he's innocent and has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

When he was released around age 18, his mother would not take him in and he had nowhere to go, Yoder said.

Miller initially lived with a church member, and then moved into an apartment rent-free as part of a program for recently-released youth. In exchange, he was required to work in either a paid or volunteer job, and also received life advice and counseling from church members.

Yoder described the young Miller as lacking life skills when it came to hygiene, cleaning, employment and money.

"He did not know how to do hardly anything," he said.

At one point, Yoder said, he and four others swooped on Miller's apartment while he was away on a field trip and cleaned it up for him after a complaint from the owner. "It was a mess," he said, describing a foul smell, piles of clothes everywhere, and deteriorating food and wrappers.

Canal killings:Defendant was 'emotionally stunted,' ex-girlfriend testifies in trial

'He had a hard time forgiving' his mother

Miller was "very hurt" when he got back and was told what had happened, Yoder said. "He felt that he was not good enough again."

He said he didn't know for sure if Miller was incapable of looking after himself or simply chose not to, but from what he saw, it appeared Miller had never been taught several basic life skills.

Yoder, who was testifying remotely from his home state of Indiana, said he knew no details about how Brosso and Bernas were killed. He and his wife left Phoenix in May 1993, in between the two killings.

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.

He agreed that forgiveness was a cornerstone of his faith. He had counseled Miller in the early 1990s about forgiving his mother, he said.

"He had a hard time forgiving her," he said, "but he came to the point where he did forgive his mother, once he learned how to forgive."

"Regardless of what anyone has done, your church would forgive them. Correct?" asked prosecutor Vince Imbordino.

"Yes, absolutely," Yoder replied.

"And that includes this defendant?"

"Yes."

Reach the reporter at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @lanesainty.

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