SALT LAKE CITY — The family of Bert Miller, a quiet-but-witty, unassuming mechanic and volunteer firefighter shot and killed Sunday during an LDS Church sacrament meeting 60 miles east of Reno, Nevada, had been looking forward to a family reunion this week built around his 62nd birthday on Saturday.
Instead, in a tragic turn, his family will lay him to rest after a funeral on Friday. On Monday, the family canceled its order for a large birthday cake from the Reno Costco. Flowers will take its place.
Monday was also the day authorities charged his alleged killer with first-degree murder and marked a day of expressions by Miller's family, including his brother, who was wounded in the attack and spoke publicly of the ordeal for the first time.
The Churchill County District Attorney filed the murder charge against John Kelly O'Connor, 48. O'Connor was being held in Fallon, Nevada, on bail of $1.05 million, according to Fallon Police Chief Kevin Gehman.
Police have not established a motive to explain the shooting, and the investigation is ongoing, Gehman said.
The Miller family is dumbfounded over the loss of a kind grandfather they loved for his thoughtfulness, his endearing overuse of emojis while texting and his folksy sayings and love of tinkering and the outdoors. Miller was a proud, decades-long firefighter with the local volunteer fire department.
"He was one of the most selfless, soft-spoken, kind people I know," said Heidi Ayers, the second of Miller's three children. "We have no way to understand why this happened. My dad shook (O'Connor's) hand before the meeting."
After the sacrament, a Primary children's choir sang a song. The meeting's first speaker was a minute or two into her talk when O'Connor allegedly left his place in the church foyer, entered the chapel and drew a 9mm Beretta Px4 Storm handgun. He shot Miller at point-blank range, according to charging documents and witness accounts.
"It was horrific," Miller's brother, Duane, 64, who was wounded in the ankle, told the Deseret News.
Ayers said her father was sitting on the same back bench by the chapel door that her family has occupied at Fallon meetings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for 35 years. About 90 people were attending the Sunday worship services, according to estimates by witnesses. Police interviewed at least 50 witnesses, Gehman said.
Miller's wife of 37 years, LuDene, who is undergoing cancer treatments, was not at the meeting because Miller had urged her to stay home from Sunday services to rest the ankle she broke in a fall a week ago.
Instead, he was sitting with Duane and his sister-in-law, Mary Ann Miller, who were visiting from Utah for the family reunion. Witnesses reported hearing four to eight shots from a powerful handgun. One bullet struck Duane in the ankle.
Duane Miller is a business management and communications professor at Utah Valley University and an adjunct faculty member in BYU’s business management program.
He was treated and released at a local hospital after the shooting and said an orthopedic surgeon told him Monday that the wound is healing nicely. The district attorney charged O'Connor with battery with a deadly weapon causing substantial bodily harm, a class B felony, for allegedly shooting Duane Miller.
O'Connor also faces a charge of assault with a deadly weapon, another class B felony, for allegedly pointing his gun at Mike Whitaker, another church member who confronted O'Connor after the shooting.
LuDene Miller learned of the shooting from a friend who called her. The friend said a call had gone out on emergency radios about a shooting at the church. She tried to phone her husband, but Bert Miller didn't answer.
She called Ayers, who lives three houses away. Ayers grabbed her husband, Ian, a paramedic, and they ran to the meetinghouse. A military doctor new to the ward, two bystanders and Ayers' husband tried to help Miller, with one performing CPR.
Ayers said Miller had known O'Connor for years. "They were acquaintances," she said. "(O'Connor) was a convert, but he wasn't very active. My dad always said hi to him."
O'Connor immediately left the chapel after the shooting, witnesses said, then walked out of the meetinghouse and to his home a block away, according to police. He surrendered to a police negotiator. Gehman said investigators recovered a handgun when they executed a search warrant at O'Connor's residence. A police press release said the gun is similar to the one described by witnesses and matches the caliber of shell casings found in the chapel.
Fallon Police finished processing the crime scene in the chapel and released the meetinghouse back to church leaders on Monday.
A love of emojis
Ayers said her father had an endearing struggle to transition from a flip phone to a smartphone, but that changed once he discovered emojis.
"Every text message he sent was all emojis," she said. "We'd have to try to break down the text messages one emoji at a time. We all finally got fluent in dad's emoji-speak."
She will never forget how her father, after going out on a late-night fire, would call her on his way home as she worked her night shift as an X-ray and CAT scan technician at the hospital.
"Any time I heard a call about a fire in the middle of the night, I looked forward to his call. He'd ask me how work was going, if I needed anything, if I wanted a snack."
Miller had five grandchildren and loved to ride four-wheelers with them.
"He was a great dad," Ayers said, "but he was a better Papa."
He also enjoyed fishing with his brother, two sons, son-in-law and others, tinkering on projects small and large and responding like a Minuteman to calls for help. Ayers said one brother kept a list of his father's sayings. Sometimes he would check with Miller's brother to make sure the sayings were rooted in history instead of concocted by Miller to tease the family.
"He was a quiet little mouse who kept making things go, and he didn't want to be acknowledged for what he did," Ayers said.
Duane Miller said his brother was a low-key, service-oriented man who stepped up when needed.
He said the family's faith is sustaining them as they mourn together.
"It's what keeps us going," Duane Miller said, "our understanding of the plan of salvation and knowledge that families are eternal and that we'll see him again."
Miller was serving as an auditor in the Fallon South Stake. A stake is a collection of LDS Church congregations known as wards. He and his wife recently were called to serve as ward librarians. He had spent years serving in the church's Young Men program and in Scouting.
Last call, Capt. Miller
Miller loved working as a firefighter with the Fallon/Churchill County Volunteer Fire Department. He'd volunteered for 35 years, serving at times as captain and assistant chief, Ayers said.
"We've been stranded in stores, at dinner, at church," she added. "His pager would go off and it might be a couple of hours or a couple of days before we'd see him again."
A department administrator confirmed Miller's service but declined a request for additional information. The FCVFD was the first volunteer fire department to earn an ISO rating of 1, the highest-possible rating, which lowers fire insurance costs in a city or town.
By Monday morning, Miller family and friends had changed their Facebook pages to read, "Last call: 7/22/2018 Captain Bert Miller FCVFD."
On Monday, the fire department brought its engines to the Miller home and honored him. LuDene Miller greeted them on her crutches.
"It was powerful," Mary Ann Miller said. "It was very powerful. Bert was very well-loved and respected. He's a Fallon boy, born and raised. It was a beautiful tribute to Bert and LuDene."
Miller left Fallon only to earn a degree in diesel mechanics at Utah Technical College, now UVU. Miller and his wife operated an auto parts store in Fallon for nearly 10 years. After they sold it, Miller went to work as a mechanic at the nearby Navy base for Chugach International. He had worked there for 20 years.
Sunday's church shooting rocked the small town of Fallon, population 8,606, Mary Ann Miller said. Local church members are concerned about the children and young people who witnessed the shooting.
A witness said the sacrament meeting descended into pandemonium in the moments after the first shot, with people yelling to others to "hit the ground."34 comments on this story
An LDS Church spokesman said that local leaders are ministering to church members and that the church is providing grief counselors.
Friends have started a GoFundMe page seeking to raise $10,000 to support the Miller family. The site raised $5,680 in the first 23 hours.
A viewing will be held on Thursday, July 26th, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Smith Family Funeral Home, 505 Rio Vista Dr., Fallon.
Funeral services with be Friday, July 27th, at 10 a.m., with a viewing at 9 a.m. at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 450 N. Taylor Street, Fallon. Burial will follow at the Churchill Public Cemetery.