In 1968, 60-year-old Gwen Miller was raped and strangled to death at her Rapid City home.

Law enforcement conducted a thorough investigation at the time, dialed in on a suspect, but ultimately didn't have enough evidence to press charges.

The case went cold.

Now, more than 50 years later, the perpetrator — who didn't seem to be on the radar of investigators at the time — has been identified through his DNA and family tree in a process called forensic genealogy.

Eugene Carroll Field raped and killed Miller when he was a 25-year-old living in Rapid City, Detective Wayne Keefe said at a Monday news conference.

Field would be charged with first-degree murder if he hadn't died in 2009 from a cancerous tumor in his throat that cut off his air supply, Keefe said. 

"It changes everything" to know who killed my great aunt, said Kay Miller-Temple, a 62-year-old who lives in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

She said her family — who came from across South Dakota and as far away as Arizona to attend the news conference — is happy to have closure and wants their experience to give hope to other families with cold cases.

"Everything (investigators) learned about doing this case takes away 1,000 hours when they do it for the next case. And I think that's the thing that makes us the happiest," she said.

Police Chief Karl Jegeris called the investigation historic since it's the first time a local case has been solved with DNA and genealogy.

Keefe, who worked as a detective with the Rapid City Police Department for 11 years, came out of retirement in 2014 to identify cold cases for the department. He began focusing on the Miller case in 2016 because there was evidence to analyze, people who may have information and a strong suspect.

Keefe called it "a little surreal" to finally identify the perpetrator after 51 years and 4,000-5,000 hours of work on his part.

Gwen Miller

Miller was born in 1908, grew up on a farm in Cresbard, South Dakota, and studied pharmacy and microbiology at South Dakota State College (now South Dakota State University), Keefe said at the conference. She worked at pharmacies across the state before moving to Rapid City in 1945 and becoming the head pharmacist at Bennett-Clarkson Memorial Hospital, now Rapid City Regional, in 1968.

Miller, who was single and had no children, lived in a home she had built at 3901 Hall St. on the west side of town, Keefe said. She saved up money to buy a 1966 gold Chevy Super Sport that she kept parked in the garage, said Jim Lindgren, husband of Miller's niece Dolores, and she planted a "beautiful rose garden" in the backyard, said Miller-Temple.

Miller-Temple said her great-aunt was a "very independent and confident" person, especially for a single woman in the cultural context of the mid-1900s. She was also a quiet and humble woman who had a famous recipe for toasted cheese sandwiches and special technique for cleaning her wood floors.

Miller once bought a red velvet Christmas baby dress for a relative who couldn't afford it, which is a "perfect example" of her great-aunt's thoughtfulness, Miller-Temple said.

Keefe said Miller regularly flew out of the Rapid City airport to go on vacations or visit family. She planned to leave on a vacation Feb. 25, 1968, but her flight was cancelled, so she called Dolores and decided to visit her in Washington state instead.

"Unfortunately that was the last time that the family ever spoke to Gwen Miller," Keefe said.

Initial investigation

After Miller didn't show up to work Feb. 29, 1968, two co-workers went to her house, where they found a broken window in the back, Keefe said. Inside, they found Miller lying in bed with her "covers all pulled up neatly" and no sign of a struggle.

But the coroner found she had been raped, suffered broken neck and rib bones, and died by strangulation, Keefe said.

Miller-Temple, who was in 5th grade at the time, was not told how her great-aunt died. She didn't learn what happened until she was 28.

The case was investigated by the Rapid City police and Pennington County Sheriff's Office with help from the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigations (DCI), Keefe said. Evidence was sent to the FBI for processing.

Police officers canvassing the neighborhood spoke with a neighbor who said they saw a taxi drop someone off at Miller's house. But after examining taxi logs, interviewing drivers and having some of them take polygraphs in Sioux Falls, investigators realized no taxi was at her house that night.

Officers interviewed and polygraphed several of Miller's neighbors and co-workers, and eventually decided that Michael Beckers, owner of Beckers Pharmacy, was the main suspect.

Miller worked for Beckers when she first moved to Rapid City, Keefe said. He made advances on her, which she rejected, and would sometimes show up at her home. Someone once called the police after he refused to stop knocking on her door. Beckers was often drunk and used a taxi to get around.

"Despite hundreds, actually thousands of hours of work by many of the investigators at that time, no suspect was ever arrested for the murder and it became a cold case," Keefe said.

New investigation

Keefe began his investigation by reading the original investigation reports, some of which were written on onionskin paper, according to a 2016 Journal story. He pored over old newspaper stories on the internet and in the Rapid City library’s microfilm section.

He spoke with Miller’s surviving relatives, the case’s four original primary investigators, and relatives of suspects.

Keefe said on Monday that he interviewed more than 100 people and cleared more than 25 suspects, including Beckers.

Beckers was "widely believed by many members of our community to have been the person that killed her" but DNA cleared him, Keefe said.

In 2018, Keefe sent a DNA profile — collected from semen analyzed by the DCI in 2005 and 2010 — to Colleen Fitzpatrick, a California-based scientist who specializes in forensic genealogy.

Fitzpatrick analyzed the DNA profile, which she described as a "string of numbers," by looking at its Y-DNA, which follows male lineage. She found that the profile matched someone from northern Europe or Britain, and after comparing it to DNA uploaded to public genealogy websites, she found it matched men from Field's family.

Keefe then went to the Rapid City library to examine Polk City directories, which he describes as a "phone book on steroids" that lists and cross-references peoples' names, spouses, addresses, phone numbers and occupations.

He made a spreadsheet of everyone with last names similar to Field or Fields listed in the 1949-1975 directories, and found that only one person, Eugene Field, lived close to Miller. Keefe then interviewed people who knew Field to learn more about him and see if he had any connection to Miller.

Keefe learned that Field's father was an only child from England and that Field had one brother and one daughter. Field worked at the airport, once rented a room in a home next to Miller's, and his daughter was babysat by someone on her street. Both of his ex-wives said he was mentally and physically abusive.

"He did not hesitate to put bruises on them on a regular basis," Keefe said.

Field's brother gave Keefe his DNA and the state lab found it likely belong to the brother of the DNA profile they had. Keefe then sent the brother and suspect's DNA to a private company which found they had 99.23 percent chance of being brothers. The two analyses ruled out the brother and father as suspects, and neither Field nor his brother had sons who could have left the DNA.

Keefe said Field has no connections to any other cold case and does not seem to have ever been a suspect in the case.

The 1972 flood destroyed police reports from the time, but documents from the Pennington County Sheriff's Office do not mention Field, Keefe said. Investigators he spoke with have no memory of Field.

George Tennyson, the original lead investigator on the case for the sheriff's office, told the Journal he'd never heard of Field before today.

Tennyson, 89, said he thought about the Miller case every day, especially whenever he read about another rape or homicide.

"You wonder if it's the same guy," he said.

Field's motive to rape and murder Miller remains the one unknown in the case, Keefe told the Journal.

"Unless somebody comes forward with information that I don't have right now — the why part of this — we're never going to know," he said.

Keefe said he's unsure if he will focus on another cold case. He said most of the other cases have a clear suspect who can't be prosecuted due to lack of evidence.

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— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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