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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY RICHARD FRIEND

LAUREL NOIR

The Safeway Murder

A shocking crime at a popular Laurel supermarket in 1973 

Laurel Noir is a series focused on historic crimes and the darker underside of our hometown.

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By Richard Friend  |  March 19, 2017

In January 1973, Laurel was still reeling from a pair of shocking crimes—including the attempted assassination of presidential candidate Gov. George Wallace eight months earlier, and the disappearance and murder of 7-year-old Amy Morrison that September. The new year would not start off any better, unfortunately. In fact, as I’ll explore in time, 1973 would prove to be one of the darkest years in Laurel’s history.

On the night of January 9th, 52-year-old Edith Miles—”Edie,” as she was known to many—was finishing up work at the Safeway at 123 Bowie Road. She’d been the relief manager that day, filling in for a coworker who’d called in sick. Edie had worked at the Safeway for nearly 18 years, going back to the store’s time at the old C Street location. The new “Safeway Shopping Center” on Bowie Road had opened in 1966.

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Safeway and the short-lived “Super S” store, which would become Dart Drug, shortly before its grand opening. LAUREL NEWS LEADER

It had already been a difficult year for Edie. She’d just returned to the job about 14 weeks earlier, after taking several months off to recover at her home at 902 Nichols Drive from a heart attack. An active member of the First United Methodist Church on Main Street, she’d regrettably had to relinquish her role as president of the Women’s Society just a few days earlier, on January 1st.

Her husband of nearly 28 years, Hall Miles, Jr., had also been in poor health; after retiring nine years earlier, he’d been living on full disability.

Mr. and Mrs. Miles were no strangers to tough times, but nothing could have prepared them for what would happen on the night of January 9th.

At 9:18 P.M., a man calmly entered the store and walked directly to the glass-enclosed office where Edie was working. Through the pigeon hole window, he fired a single .38 caliber shot, striking Edie in the back of the head. He then approached register no. 3 and the express lane, announcing to stunned cashiers Deborah Thompson and Doris Tripp, “Turn over the money.” They complied, and he exited the store just as calmly, without additional violence.

Edie Miles likely died on the scene, as she was pronounced dead on arrival at Prince George’s General Hospital at 10:20 P.M. Her killer left the Safeway with $124.29.

News of the brazen killing spread far beyond Laurel; and one local businessman, who wished to remain anonymous, offered a $2,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. He even advertised the reward on a mobile billboard throughout the town.

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Edith with her husband, Hall Miles, Jr.

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The police had little to go on, unfortunately. Witnesses described him as white, approximately 30–35 years old, 6 feet tall, and weighing about 200 pounds. He was clean-shaven, with short, light brown hair, and had been wearing dark trousers with a predominantly blue plaid CPO jacket.

The January 18th edition of the Laurel News Leader featured the billboard on its front page, and appealed to the public for information. “We still have no suspect in custody,” stated Laurel Police Chief Robert Kaiser.

On page 8 of the issue, juxtaposed below the police composite drawing of the murder suspect, was a poignant column simply titled, “Edie…” It was written by longtime editor Gertrude Poe.

Reports also noted a second suspect—possibly acting as a lookout. He was also described as a white male, “approximately the same height, heavy build, and wearing a business suit.” There were no vehicle descriptions.

But unbeknownst to Laurel detectives, the wheels were turning in their favor with help from another jurisdiction—detectives investigating another case entirely.

The Maryland State Police had been hard at work for more than a year, trying to solve an equally brutal crime. On the afternoon of December 4, 1971, a 64-year-old Mt. Airy junk dealer named Francis Runkles had been shot and killed in an apparent hold-up. The body of Mr. Runkles, who was known not to trust banks with his money, was discovered by a customer on the back porch of his junkyard on Woodville Road.

There had been no initial leads in the Runkles murder, either, until after seven months of intensive investigation by state troopers—which led to the identity of three suspects. Information developed that two of them were in Florida, including the man believed to have pulled the trigger, 39-year-old Jesse Newlin West, Jr.

Working with special agents of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Maryland State Troopers arrested West on January 18th, 1973 at a bar in St. Petersburg. The former Riverdale, MD native was extradited to Frederick County, where he confessed not only to the Runkles killing, but also to the murder of Edie Miles. West was also suspected in a number of other robberies throughout Maryland, (including a December 27, 1972 robbery of the Tie Establishment at Laurel Shopping Center) as well as a third possible homicide.

At his sentencing hearing in Prince George’s County Circuit Court some eleven months after the Miles killing, West pleaded guilty to two counts of first degree murder. Judge James Couch, Jr., sentencing him to two consecutive life sentences, told West that if the death penalty were still in effect, he would have had no choice but to impose it. West replied, “I believe in the death penalty.”

West’s attorney, public defender Robert W. King, would successfully petition the court to send his client to the notorious Patuxent Institution for evaluation as a “defective delinquent”—the term assigned to someone deemed a “chronic criminal.” The move was bolstered by statements West had given that were introduced into evidence, including a particularly chilling line about the Miles killing:

“When I shot at the woman in Laurel, I wasn’t shooting for practice.”

If the Patuxent Institution sounds familiar, it’s the same facility where John Ernest Walsh was supposed to have served a 72-year sentence for rape and attempted murder—but he was granted work release and parole after only eight years. Deemed “rehabilitated,” Walsh was the man who would go on to murder Stefanie Watson in July 1982. When Jesse Newlin West, Jr. arrived at Patuxent in 1974, Walsh was still a fellow inmate.

And like Walsh, Jesse Newlin West would sadly go on to benefit from Patuxent’s “rehabilitation” policy—which, under then-Director Norma Gluckstern, allowed administrators to parole any inmate after they’d served just one year. In fact, West ended up receiving an even more inexplicable break than Walsh did: despite having been sentenced to two consecutive life terms for the murders of Mr. Runkles and Mrs. Miles, West was actually paroled in 1979, after serving just five years and one month.

West, who’d been born on Christmas Day in 1933, lived for another (nearly) 20 years—he died, apparently of natural causes, on July 18, 1992. According to public records, he had an address on Hitching Post Lane in Laurel in 1987 before relocating to Bowie.

Ironically, West had something in common with Edie Miles. Both had been in the U.S. Army. He’d served between 1951–53, while Edie had been a WAC corporal during World War II. It was while in the Army that she’d met her husband. They’d married at Camp Dietrick on January 27, 1945, and settled in Laurel shortly thereafter.

Sadly, there’s no moral to this story. No redemption or epiphany that’s emerged. It was just an unthinkable act that took place one night in early 1973, robbing Laurel’s Safeway of a little more than $120, but robbing its community of so much more.

The Safeway on Bowie Road was expanded and remodeled (hiding its graceful, signature curved roof) in 1977; and relocated to the new Laurel Lakes shopping center in 1985, where it remained the anchor store until closing in October 2016

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Hall Miles, Jr. and Edie Nelson during their time in the Army.

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The closing of the store last year, coincidentally, marks the first time since the 1930s that Laurel hasn’t had a Safeway.

The old building at 123 Bowie Road housed the Village Thrift store for a number of years before getting yet another makeover as Office Depot, which also closed recently.

The building, encased in concrete and unrecognizable from its Safeway days, does have one noticeable feature—its entrance. The doors are still in the same place where Jesse Newlin West, Jr. calmly crossed the threshold in January 1973 and killed Edie Miles over $124.29.

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PHOTO: RICHARD FRIEND