Six silent minutes
Bob Ford/Times News Carbon County's newest assistant district attorney, Seth Miller, addresses those in attendance after being sworn in at the Carbon County Courthouse. Watching how Carbon County District Attorney Gary Dobias and his staff handled the trial of the man who murdered Miller's best friend moved Miller to leave his teaching career for law.
Seth Miller sits in silence in the cavernous elegance of Carbon County courtroom No. 1 on a warm June day in 2000, tears stinging his eyes as he thinks for six silent minutes about the brutal attack that left his best friend, Erin Pindris, dead on the floor of her Jim Thorpe apartment.
Six minutes. That's how long killer Stephen Heller stabbed, kicked and beat Pindris, 24, a slight, quiet woman, the mother of his then 8-month-old son, until she died in the early morning hours of Jan. 24, 1999.
At Heller's trial, District Attorney Gary Dobias made the jury understand just how long six minutes can be by standing before them, silent save to mark the passing of each minute. Hours later, the jury convicted Heller of first-degree murder and aggravated assault. He was sentenced to life in prison.
After it was all over, Miller, of Jim Thorpe, tucked away the memory of that trial, of those six minutes, and the exacting work done by Dobias and his staff, in the back of his mind. Eight years later, they nudged him into taking the bold step of leaving his secure, comfortable teaching career to go through law school, pass the bar exam, and finally, to become an assistant district attorney.
A CONSTANT FRIENDSHIP
Miller and Pindris met while attending Lehigh Carbon Community College, then based in Jim Thorpe.
"We took a couple of classes together. One day after class, I just started talking to her," he recalls as he sits at a conference table in the Lehighton offices of William G. Schwab & Associates, the law firm he joined after graduating from Dickinson School of Law in 2011.
Their friendship grew stronger, and included Erin's family.
"She was a wonderful person, and a very good friend," Miller says of Pindris. "Erin was very kind. Probably the kindest person I know. She'd do anything for you. Very funny, too. Whenever there was something on my mind, I would always go and talk to Erin. She was a very good listener. If I had girlfriend issues, I'd talk with her, and she would just listen. She was one of the best friends I'll ever have."
Miller grows wistful as he remembers their Christmas Eve get-togethers at the Pindris home on Broadway in Jim Thorpe.
"I remember one Christmas Eve, we were just chilling, and her younger sister was there. We were listening to music, and it was flurrying out. It was just very nice. "
"There wasn't a Christmas that went by that he wasn't with the girls," Erin Pindris' mother, Catherine O'Connor, says with a wry smile. "They'd hang out for so long, and then get sick and tired of seeing me, and they'd all go out together."
Pindris chose not to stay in college; Miller graduated, moving on to Kutztown University and a degree in English. Although their lives were taking very different paths, the two friends kept in touch.
"I didn't see her that often. But we would talk when we could. She was in a relationship that was abusive, so it wasn't like she could always talk, anyway," Miller says. "I'd go months without speaking with her. They'd break up, and then she'd be around. You thought she'd moved on, but then nothing changed: a few months later, she'd be back (with Heller). It was tough."
"He was always, always there for Erin, when she had boyfriend problems. He was just her constant friend. She could call him at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., and he would always pick up the phone to answer her call," O'Connor says.
On Jan. 23, 1999, Miller, poised to begin the winter semester at Kutztown, stopped in with a few friends at Molly Maguire's Pub on Broadway in Jim Thorpe. There, he spotted Pindris.
"I hadn't seen her in months, so we talked. But he (Heller) was there, so we didn't talk much," Miller says.
At Heller's trial, witnesses testified that they saw Heller arguing with Pindris at the bar after Miller had talked with her. Miller testified that they talked for about five minutes before Heller smacked Pindris on the head, and challenged Miller to a fight.
The witnesses then testified that Heller yelled at Pindris. One witness said he intervened as Heller tried to head-butt Pindris, and Heller was thrown out of the bar. Miller testified that Pindris stayed at the bar until it was ready to close, and that he and his friends offered to keep her company. Heller had tried to get back into the bar, but later drove away.
Later that morning, Miller and Pindris spoke, for the last time.
"The night she lost her life, she was on the phone to Seth. He was the last one who spoke to her," O'Connor says. "There was a knock on the door, and sure enough, she had to tell Seth she was hanging up."
"Erin's death had the biggest impact on me, far and away, above anything," Miller says. "It was just a shock that you never really ever get over. You accept it, and you live your life. But to this day, I still remember the shock. I still remember my Dad waking me up and telling me the news in the morning. I'll never forget that."
The ensuing police investigation, Erin's funeral, the trial, all passed in a blur.
Miller sat through the trial, both as a witness and spectator. What he saw changed his life, profoundly.
He had applied to teach Language Arts to seventh and eighth grade students in the Jim Thorpe Area School District, where his mother, Trudy, and sister, Shelly, also teach English.
"I felt like I was in a dream," he says.
Police interviewed him, as did District Attorney Dobias.
"I never watched Law & Order, or anything like that, so I had no idea what was in store, what they would ask, or what they wanted, so I was nervous. But I wanted to do whatever they asked. I just wanted to do whatever I could to help," Miller says.
"Throughout the whole process, everybody I spoke to, everybody who was involved in that trial, was doing the best job they could to put the best possible case together. They put together a very strong, very thorough, very powerful case against Heller," he says.
Then came the six minutes.
"One thing that Attorney Dobias did, and which I'll never forget, was that he had the courtroom be quiet for six minutes," Miller recalls. "It was a long time. There are things I've forgotten about that case. I'll never forget that."
The trial brought some closure.
"I was just blown away by what I saw, the job they did. You can't replace Erin, but the job that everybody did helped give us a certain degree of peace. That's what I took with me," Miller says.
A LEAP OF FAITH
Miller didn't consciously think about the trial for a long time. He immersed himself in teaching, gratified to see his students learn and grow.
"Because I loved teaching so much, I kind of put it on the back burner," he says.
Miller was settled into teaching, and life had become predictable and easy.
But, "around 2006, or 2007, I came back to it. I just think it was a natural kind of thing," he says. Erin, and the trial, were always in the back of his mind.
"At the end of the trial, after it was all over, I just remembered what a very important, noble thing the DA's office does. It always stuck with me," he says.
Miller says nothing specific happened to trigger the urge to change careers. He says he just thought about it analytically.
"I thought, 'do you really want to do this?' And I did," he says.
It's a decision Dobias is glad Miller made.
"Sometimes people don't want to get involved. Seth had compassion for the victim, and a commitment to that justice must be done," he says. "I'm looking forward to his enthusiasm, and his commitment to justice that he displayed back in those days, in our office."
LIVES FOREVER INTERTWINED
As Miller embarks on his new career, practicing bankruptcy and general civil law, his life continues to weave with the Pindris'. Both O'Connor and Shannon Pindris attended the recent ceremony in which he was sworn into the Carbon County Bar Association as one of Carbon County's newest assistant district attorneys.
Miller, the women said, had rushed to their house immediately upon learning that he would be sworn in. Attending the ceremony was bittersweet for both. It was their first time back at the courthouse since the trial.
Although it's hard for her to leave her house, Shannon says, "it was very important to me to make sure I did attend. It was a very important day for us, and for Seth."
"Seth is a part of our family," she says.
Miller's commitment to Deaglan, Erin's son and his godson, grows stronger. Shannon is Deaglan's godmother.
Deaglan, now 14 and thriving, lives with Erin's sister Kerri in New Hampshire. He's inherited Erin's love of the outdoors and quiet humor, Shannon says.
Miller is close to the teenager; the two play video games and go out to eat when Deaglan visits.
"They have a nice, strong bond," Shannon says.
Deaglan's christening took place after Pindris' death, O'Connor says.
"My daughter wanted Seth to be his godfather. But Heller had objections, and my daughter just let the christening go. But after everything was said and done, I went ahead and had that christening, with Seth being godfather," she says. "He's a nice young man to have around. He's trustworthy, he's open, he's honest."