Stony Brook Assault

Part of the Sillan house on Stony Brook Road, from a contemporary newspaper photo

The news that federal help is being sought in the search for 2 suspects in a Stony Brook Road sexual assault brought back memories of another even more heinous crime on that same road, nearly 50 years ago.

According to the November 23, 1962 issue of Time magazine:

On Veterans Day last week, the sun had risen to brighten woodsy Westport, in Connecticut’s suburban Fairfield County.  It was a holiday for schoolchildren and some of their parents.  At 9 o’clock in the morning, Westport looked just like the sort of place people think of when they want to epitomize a sophisticated, upper-middle-income suburban community.  Manhattan is only 52 miles away, but Westport. with its carefully tended property and its comfortable homes, seems impervious to the cacophony of city life.

By 9, Textile Designer Pierre Sillan had left his $75,000 Westport home for his Manhattan office.  His two sons were not at home; one was with the armed forces in Germany, the other at college. His 14-year-old daughter Gail got out of bed, put on a bed jacket and started downstairs.  Suddenly, a tall, mustached Negro grabbed her, looped a cord round her neck, dragged her back into her bedroom, locked the door and began choking her.  She fainted, and when she awoke, she heard noises downstairs.  Rushing into the living room, she found the man strangling her mother.  She leaped on him to tear him away, but the man was too much for Gail and her mother.  He forced them into the mother’s bedroom.  Mrs. Sillan pleaded with him:  “Do you want money?”  “No,” he replied.  “Why are you doing this?” cried Gail.  “Why do you hate us?”  Said he:  “Not because I hate you. but you wouldn’t understand anyway.”

With that, he again began choking Gail.  Again she lost consciousness, and when she came to, the assailant was choking her mother on the bed.  Gail screamed, and the man dragged her to her own bedroom, tied her hands and returned once more to attack her mother.  Soon, he got back to Gail, wrapped her in a blanket, hauled her out to his car, threw her in the back and drove away.

For hours he cruised aimlessly around the countryside. Once, when he stopped to light a cigarette, Gail asked,  “What are you going to do now?”  “I haven’t made up my mind yet,” he said.  He drove off again, stopped at one point to move Gail into the trunk of the car.  Later, after sundown, he put her back into the rear seat, tied her hands to a door handle, went into a grill in nearby Norwalk, bought a chicken sandwich and gave it to Gail.  Then he raped her.

Afterwards, she begged him to get her a drink of water, and when the man got out of the car, Gail painfully slid her bound wrists off the door handle, pushed the door open with her head, and staggered away toward a house in the neighborhood.  It was around 8 p.m.  An hour earlier, the police had arrived at the Sillan home.  Pierre Sillan had returned and found his wife dead.

The terror and tragedy that had struck the Sillan household left Westport in shock.  Householders locked doors, double-checked windows and waited in dark apprehension, as if time itself had been suspended.  The police, meanwhile, worked methodically and got on the trail fast.  They discovered that a handyman named Harlis Miller, 31, had not reported for work the day following the crime; he had disappeared with his common-law wife Rosalie.  He fitted Gail’s description of a handyman she had seen working in the neighborhood; he had worked once at the Sillan place.

George Marks was one of the officers who flew south, after a 4-day nationwide manhunt.  Earlier today — long since retired — he recalled the trip.
Because Miller and his wife were handcuffed, the airlines refused to let them board.  Marks and another officer rented a car, and spent 24 hours driving north.  When they stopped for food, or to use bathrooms, it was at small police stations along the way.
Westport has been lucky.  We’ve had very few crimes like this in our history.
But long-time residents — especially Marks, and those on Stony Brook Road — have never forgotten the Sillan family.

16 responses to “Stony Brook Assault

  1. Eric Buchroeder

    Remember that event like yesterday. We lived around the corner on Old Hill Road. We were off from school and the entire neighborhood was on lock down. Later, I had forgotten about it, as kids do and got to be friends with a new girl at school who had moved into a house on Stony Brook. I was in her house and said “wow, this is a nice house” and she said “my parents got it cheap, a woman was murdered here. Sometimes I can’t go to sleep at night” Then it all came back to me. It was the Sillan house.

  2. Gail had been my classmate at Bedford Jr. High before I went away to boarding school near Hartford for the 1962-63 school year. We were preparing to depart for Thanksgiving when my roommate said he’d heard a report on the radio about a crime in Westport involving a girl who was our age. I tracked down a copy of the NY Daily News and read about Gail and her mom. As I recall, the impact of that tragedy on the town lasted for a very long time. I’ve never forgotten it and I’m sure my BJHS classmates haven’t either as we’ve advanced into middle age.

  3. Dick Lowenstein

    I know this happened in 1962, when a perp’s race was a common descriptive factor, even after he had been captured. But, Dan, this is 2010 and Harlis Miller’s race is not relevant.

    What’s really interesting is that Miller’s conviction was overturned in 1965 by Connecticut’s Supreme Court of Errors (Time Magazine, Feb. 19, 1965). Does anyone know what happenbed after the reversal?

  4. Eric Buchroeder

    Do you know if it was overturned on a technicality or was it really a case of mistaken identity?

    • It was not mistaken identity. Harlis Miller confessed to Westport detective Bill Smith when he said, essentially: “You’re a Christian. Do you feel sorry for what you did?” Miller replied: “Yes.”

      According to Smith’s obituary, the statement — offered at trial in Bridgeport Superior Court — “resounded like a thunderclap.” There was then “little doubt in the jurors’ minds that the Westport Police Department had nailed the right man.”

      The conviction was overturned because some of the evidence was improperly attained. However — again according to Smith’s obituary — Miller’s life sentence “withstood a retrial two years later.”

  5. Eric Buchroeder

    Your ability to resurrect pieces of history that many of us had forgotten is uncanny. How bout another book?

  6. Fascinating, Dan. I moved to Westport in July of ’62 when I was 8 and have no recollection of this event. My guess is that my parents didn’t tell me because they wanted to preserve my innocence. What a story, though.

  7. Just wondering

    Word is that Harlis Miller was released from jail. He is not listed as an inmate in the Connecticut Department of Corrections.

  8. Just wondering

    You are right; he may be dead. But I heard that Harlis Miller was seen in Westport several years ago, near the time when Joan Wertkin was killed. Apparently, his life sentence didn’t stick. The older cops might know about it.

  9. Speaking of the tragic death of Mrs. Wertkin. With all of the new ways to close a cold case i.e. DNA etc. has anyone tried to resurrect this case and find the killer?

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  11. Matthew Bowen

    Dick: Please. Don’t be utterly absurd. The entire demographic equation of any major criminal is always relevant, with race second only to gender.

  12. Matthew Bowen

    And of course an 80 year old Harliss Miller was NOT hanging around in Westport a few years ago. Sheesh! Hey. I heard George Washington was seen drilling troops at the end of Old Hill last year.