By Joyce Whitis
Photos by Whitney Chilton Photography
It was a long election process that eliminated one male opponent but did not determine a winner between country girl, Sarah Miller and Bill Shannon, State Representative. There had to be a run-off for Justice of the Peace. Sarah must have sighed because it had been a tiring race what with walking across the county knocking on doors and asking for “your vote, please.” She knew that it would be hard, introducing herself to the voters, partly because she was a woman and folks back in 1972 generally thought of that elected position going to a man. And then she had always been in the background working as a clerk in the JP’s office. But she had listened and learned and was confident that she could handle the job. When she filed for the elective office, most people told her straight out that she didn’t have a chance.
Well, some folks didn’t know Sarah Miller! She was a determined lady and was willing to work hard for whatever she thought was worthwhile. She had attended East Texas State, as had her husband, Bob. They met in college, married and lived in Dallas for a while, both working but living on one salary and saving the other because they wanted to have a cattle ranch in the country. So that’s where Erath County came in. In 1960 they found an ideal place just off the Alexander Highway in the middle of Erath County. The couple bought the land and the house came with it. They started raising Herefords, and adding onto the house and Bill and Kathy, their children joined in making the new place home.
“So we fell in love with this place and Stephenville and enjoyed being a part of life in the country,” Sarah said.
Sarah took a job as deputy clerk in the Justice of the Peace office in Stephenville; working for JP S.W. Miller (no relation). She was his clerk for three years when he decided not to run for office in ’72 and urged her to try.
“Well, I really wanted the job, but everyone said that I didn’t have a chance. There weren’t many women in office then and besides, two very capable men were running. She decided that the best thing for her to do was have some cards printed to introduce herself and start walking, knocking on doors. She handed a gentleman that she didn’t know a card one day. He took it, studied it and looked her in the eye as he scratched his chin. “Well the men have got this thing so messed up I guess I might as well give a woman a try!”
Results of the Primary Election determined a run-off between Bill Shannon, former state representative and the little lady that had walked the soles off her shoes asking for votes. The result of all those miles of walking and those hours of talking was a glorious win for the first woman Justice of the Peace in Erath County.
In 1972 the Erath County Courthouse had undergone some major changes from the original plan with offices crowded together completely covering up the atrium that today graces the beautifully restored building. The JP’s offices were on the second floor, and there was hardly any room for regular business much less special occasions such as a marriage ceremony.
“I remember that first wedding that I performed,” Sarah’s eyes lit up as she laughed. This man called and said he and his fiancée were on their way to San Antonio and they wanted to stop in Stephenville and have me do the honors. I told them that I was new in office, a woman, and had never conducted a marriage ceremony. He laughed and said, ‘well we’ve done it before, and so we’ll help.’”
That was the first of 1,697 weddings Judge Miller performed between January 1975 and November 1998. Several times she was asked to perform marriage ceremonies between inmates at the county jail. Most ceremonies were very plain and simple, a few elaborate. Whatever the situation, the words are the same and the couple is legally married.
In August of ’74, Erath County residents faced a major turn of events that shook up the population. One warm Saturday evening as most folks were finishing up the day’s chores or heading out for dinner and meeting with friends, every radio and television news broadcast warned residents that their generally quiet life on the farm was just about to change! They listened as a tale of terror that affected residents of Erath County, especially the northern part, which is generally heavily wooded, unfolded. Three criminals broke jail in Colorado and headed for Erath County, former home of one escaped convict. They had shot and killed a rancher in west Texas and taken three young girls prisoners that they had with them. Law enforcement thought they had stakes in Erath County and the report was “armed and dangerous.” In a few minutes an excited voice came from the speaker, “Mrs. Ott, a housewife in the north part of the county, has been shot by one of the bandits as she tried to run away!” They broke into homes, terrorizing residents, stealing cars and guns. They fired several rounds into a passing car, injuring the occupants, finally wrecking a stolen car on a curve and taking out on foot into the woods along highway 2303.
“Every television station was trained on Erath County for three days until the convicts were cornered on the Wise Ranch on the Lingleville Road,” Sarah said. “They had been killing the dogs at every place they stopped and their hiding spot was found because of the barking of the Wises’ big dog. I think he was part Great Dane and he wouldn’t stop barking at the woods back of the house. The officers shot and killed one of the men and the other two surrendered and went to jail. Another one died later while in prison and the third is serving life without parole.
“I generally had 15 or 20 cases a month. I remember one case way back there that had 22 or 23 people involved in a cruelty to animals case in which they were raising and fighting roosters. John Terrill was the county attorney and Bob Glasgow was the district attorney. The officers brought in all these fighting roosters and we had them caged all over the courthouse lawn. There was a regular crowd of spectators, the individuals being charged, the attorneys and myself. Some plea-bargaining went on so the fine for betting was accessed and I fined each the maximum. After that we heard there was contract out on my life and for the longest time, whenever I looked in my rearview mirror, there was a law-enforcement officer following me.”
“I was always on call, 24/7, and the calls that I hated most were those that came during the early hours. There were many but one that I remember…the very worst scene…ever… was those two boys out by the cheese plant that were hit by two trucks going in opposite directions.” She stopped talking and walked the floor as if fighting to keep from remembering that heart-breaking scene. Stopping she held her hand out and lowered it to about two feet from the floor.
“That Ford Explorer was smashed to just about this high. The bodies were strewn all over the highway. It was a scene almost unbearable to witness and I’ll never get it out of my mind.”
Another death that has left deep shadows on the retired JP’s mind is the murder and mutilation of a young girl by a dope dealer and big time gangster known as Comancho. He lived in Dallas primarily, but with a sidekick that was a Stephenville hometown boy and others brought an exotic dancer that had offended Comancho back to Erath County and ran her body through a tree shredder on a farm between Stephenville and Lingleville.
“I can never forget walking that place with the FBI looking for any parts of that young woman so she could be identified. They were able to collect tiny body fragments and hair so that her mother identified her by matching that hair to the hair in her hairbrush.”
Comancho died by lethal injection for that and other crimes including another murder. Others involved are serving or have served time in federal prison.
Sarah Miller fought a hard campaign to win her office as Justice of the Peace but that was the first and only time she had an opponent. She retired because that was her wish, not because she lost an election. After 24 years and thousands of cases, she left office to take care of her mother so she would not have to go to a nursing home. Bob’s father was already living in their home.
“Neither my mother, nor Bob’s father ever had to go to a “care” facility. They were right here with us,” Sarah said.
Eventually, when Bob got sick, it was Sarah who cared for her husband at home until he passed away.
Today Sarah is happy with her many activities, including the Republican Women’s Organization and the many activities at First Baptist Church; her little dog and her cat that came off the road. She likes visitors that enjoy a trip to the country where there is always a friendly face beside an open door. She has said that she treats people like she wants to be treated and that is the way she ran her office as Justice of the Peace.