Auburn drowning victim a "hermit" who left death a mystery

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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By the look of things – after his body was recovered from the Wise Canal in North Auburn last week – the man with the scraggly, graying beard and the unkempt, long hair could have been homeless. Homeless camps are located upstream on the canal. It seemed logical enough for the man found in the flowing water to have fallen in without anyone seeing him. But the man – authorities would later identify him as 51-year-old David Lee Miller – had a home, and a family that cared about him, and a life lived primarily in Auburn. And though he was not homeless, his brother and a neighbor said they felt that David Miller – an Auburn-area resident since 1971, a Placer High School graduate in 1975, and the victim of a wrenching motorcycle accident in 1982 that left him disabled – was adrift mentally during the last few weeks of his life. Brian Miller, his brother and sole surviving next of kin, said David had suffered from depression but that he didn’t believe he took his own life. Instead, his brother had spiraled downward in recent months after the end of a relationship with a girlfriend and the death two years ago of his father. Without an emotional anchor locally, David drifted deeper into himself, Brian said. Brian Miller, who lives in Idaho and was in Auburn this week after learning of his brother’s death, said he walked upstream from the point near Edgewood Road where they found David. He wanted to retrace David’s final steps. David Miller’s body was first sighted floating face down near Highway 49 on the Wise Canal at about noon Jan. 14. Near New Airport Road and Highway 49, Brian said he talked with construction workers who believed they had seen David acting erratically an hour before his body was found. “He was running and they watched him almost jump off a 12-foot retaining wall,” Brian said. “They said he was panicked and was claiming someone was chasing him. But it was someone inside his own head.” David always walked with a cane, a result of the 1982 accident near the corner of Dry Creek Road and Highway 49. A car pulled out of a mobilehome park into the path of David’s motorcycle. He ended up with two dislocated hips, broken legs and other injuries that would keep him disabled and unable to work the rest of his life. His brother said that, in the state David was apparently in just before he died, he had likely been scared and jumped into the canal to hide because he thought someone was chasing him. “The sheriff had been out to his place before because he thought someone was spying on him,” Brian said. “I don’t know if it was early-stage Alzheimer’s. I don’t know if I’ll ever know.” Before the accident, David Miller had worked building custom homes and steel-framed offices with his father, Andy, and his business, Miller & West Inc. David and his father had been very close and the grieving son had deteriorated mentally after his death, said his brother. His mental state appeared to worsen in recent weeks, including an incident where David stood outside his Auburn Hills Mobile Estates “fifth wheel” towable camper-trailer for two hours yelling. “He was out there yelling and he was talking to himself,” said neighbor Rob Tollison. “He lost it. Maybe he was off his medications.” Tollison said David Miller kept to himself. Brian, his brother, described him as “a hermit,” who had always been introspective. Never married, David had moved to Auburn with his family from Thousand Oaks. He had been born near there on April 3, 1957. Brian said the best memories of his brother were during their high school years, going to car races at the Gold Country Fairgrounds together and hanging out with mutual friends. Even then, though, David was not outgoing, he said. On Wednesday, Brian was clearing out his brother’s possessions, deciding what to keep for his brother’s nieces – a large collection of beer steins – or what to give away. David was a movie fan and the 61-inch flatscreen that had taken up much of the fifth wheel’s interior was packed away on a truck outside a home that was emptying into a shell that would soon be sold. David is survived by his brother, Brian, his nieces and nephews, plus several stepbrothers and stepsisters. Besides his father, he was predeceased by his mother, Zelpha. The body of a man who let few people into his life and left many questions unanswered after his death was cremated. Brian said he’ll take the ashes and travel west. His plans are to scatter them on the waters of the Pacific Ocean. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at