William Miller's final errand was supposed to be a good deed, helping his estranged wife with car trouble. The Marine sergeant left home one night in 1972 and within the hour was found dead on a rural road.
Thirty-seven years later, three people face trial on murder charges for what prosecutors say was an ambush triggered by a love triangle around Miller's wife and violence between Marine pals.
The case remained unsolved until Miller's sister contacted a newspaper reporter looking into cold cases and the resulting investigation elicited new information from a 1970s baby sitter.
Miller's ex-wife Vickie Babbitt, 58, is scheduled to go to trial in March on charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Also charged with murder and conspiracy are George Hayden, 57, who married Babbitt after Miller's death and later became a small-town police chief, and Rodger Gill, 56, an ex-Marine who was friends with the others.
"All these years I've been carrying on this crusade trying to get the cold case reopened. Everything fell into place. I just know we have divine help," said Miller's sister, Sharron Aguilar, 68, who with her husband owns an automotive air conditioning and restoration company in Houston, Texas.
Lawyers for the three people charged either declined to comment or did not return calls. Trial dates for Hayden and Gill have not been set yet. All three are free on bond.
Miller, Hayden and Gill were all friends in the Marines Corps.
On Sept. 16, 1972, court records say Miller got a call from his wife asking for help with car trouble.
A month earlier, he had kicked her out of their Jacksonville house after returning from a year's service in Okinawa, Japan, to find George Hayden living with her. He beat up Hayden to get him to leave. When his wife of two years walked out with Hayden, they took the Millers' 1-year-old daughter, Wendy.
Miller borrowed a neighbor's car for the late-night trip to help his estranged wife and took a .22-caliber pistol with him. He had told his sister days before that he felt threatened.
Passing motorists found Miller's body near Camp Lejeune less than an hour after he left home. He'd been shot twice.
Hayden pull the trigger?
Prosecutors say Babbitt faked car trouble to lure Miller to a secluded stretch of rural road in Jacksonville. They say Hayden was waiting in a ditch with an M-16 rifle and shot Miller in the temple and back. He appears to have been surprised: When police found the car, its engine was running, the headlights were on and Miller's pistol remained in the front seat, unfired.
"I spoke with him for the last time when he called crying to say he found George living with Vickie. He stated George would not leave, so he beat the living hell out of George," Miller's sister Aguilar said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "George then threatened Bill stating 'I have an M-16.' He told me he was getting a lawyer to divorce Vickie and fight for Wendy."
Aguilar said she always suspected Babbitt. When her brother died, Babbitt called the family and told them he had been killed but didn't offer any details. She attended the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery with Hayden, but wouldn't talk with the family.
Babbitt and Hayden married four months after Miller's death, then divorced four years later.
Hayden retired from the Marine Corps in 1989 and worked for the Carteret County Sheriff's Department before becoming chief for the Cape Carteret and Belhaven police departments.
Hayden's son, Joshua Hayden, a Cape Carteret police officer, told WNCT-TV last year that he didn't think his father is a criminal. "My father is a good man, very law abiding, a strict law abider," he said. "I don't see him committing a murder now or 36 years ago."
He did not return calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.
News stories led to tip
Babbitt remarried and worked as a bookkeeper at Austin Tile Design Studio in Bend, Ore.
Aguilar never quit trying to get the case open. When Lindell Kay, a crime reporter for The Daily News of Jacksonville, started working on a project about unsolved murders, Aguilar sent him the initial investigation report and Kay wrote two stories about the case.
After Kay's stories appeared in August 2008, a former baby sitter for Miller's daughter named Bonnie Sharpe came forward with key information. Sharpe was engaged at one time to Gill. Sharpe told investigators that Gill had witnessed the shooting, according to news reports. Sharpe did not return AP calls seeking comment.
Sharpe's tip became the starting point for a new investigation and led to the arrests of Babbitt and Hayden one week before the 37th anniversary of the murder.
Police charged Gill in January 2009 with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. He was arrested in Athens, Ill., a small town near Springfield.
Aguilar said she plans to be at Babbitt's trial in March.
"I know we're going to get justice. I don't have any doubts because I know I had divine help with this," she said. "Every step of the way, a path opened. I don't think I was led this far to be disappointed."