Canal killings: At Miller trial, mother recalls the last night she saw her daughter alive

  • In US
  • 2022-10-06 00:13:02Z
  • By AZCentral | The Arizona Republic

The week before she was killed, Melanie Bernas turned 17.

It was September 1993. She had just started her junior year at Arcadia High School, signing up for accelerated classes.

She played basketball, enrolled in a course in the sport at Scottsdale Community College. And she lived with her mom and their dog near Osborn Road and 42nd Street, Marlene Bernas told a Phoenix courtroom Wednesday.

Melanie was found dead in the Arizona Canal on the morning of Sept. 22, 1993. Her murder came 10 months after another young woman, Angela Brosso, was found decapitated near a diversion canal a mile and a half away.

The so-called "canal killings" case went cold for years. But in 2015, after a DNA breakthrough, Bryan Patrick Miller was arrested and charged with first degree murder, kidnapping and attempted sexual assault for both women.

The 49-year-old father has pleaded not guilty for reasons of insanity. At the bench trial, expected to last months, Miller's attorneys will argue that, at the time of the killings, he suffered from complex dissociative disorders caused by childhood trauma.

Canal killings: Testimony: Victim was set for a new work assignment when she vanished

'I kissed her, said I love you'

The last time Marlene Bernas saw her daughter was the evening of Sept. 21, 1993.

She testified Wednesday that she got home from work that day to find Melanie had stayed home from school, unwell.

Just past 7 p.m., Marlene went out for dinner. Melanie asked how long she would be and Marlene told her two hours.

When she left, Marlene said, Melanie was wearing a large white T-shirt and white shorts she used as pajamas.

"I thought she was going to stay home," she said.

"When I said goodbye to her, I kissed her, said 'I love you.' She was sitting on the sofa and I said 'I'll see you in a little while'."

But when Marlene returned about two and a half hours later, the house was empty.

Melanie usually abided by her curfew, which was 9 p.m. on a school night. Her mother waited a while before calling Melanie's father, who hadn't seen her that night. Nor had a friend.

After entering the utility room, she realized Melanie's bike was missing.

Melanie had started riding along the canal about a year earlier, but usually went out during the day with her friends, Marlene said. She was not allowed to take her bike out at night.

"I was very, very concerned at that point," Marlene said.

Around 11 p.m. she called the police. They came to the house and spoke to her, but said a missing persons report couldn't be filed for 18-24 hours.

Frantic, Marlene started calling hospitals and emergency rooms, to ask if they were treating any patients who had been in bike accidents.

None had seen Melanie.

Opening statements: Attorneys outline cases in the trial of the man accused in the Phoenix 'canal killings'

A puddle on the path

The next day, Sept. 22, Charlotte Pottle and her sister were riding along the canal, as they did most mornings, each with their young toddler strapped to the back of their bikes.

As they flew through the Interstate 17 underpass by Castles and Coasters, going fast to make it up a slope, Pottle rode right over a puddle, she said in court Wednesday.

Her first thought was that it was blood, Pottle said. But she tried to talk herself out of it, thinking it was probably just the angle of the sun.

On the way back, she and her sister stopped to inspect what she had ridden through. Pottle was certain at this point it was blood.

She also noticed what appeared to be drag marks starting at the puddle, running around a tree before ending at the edge of the canal.

She looked around, but didn't see anything in the water.

It was a "horrible feeling," she said.

The turquoise body suit

Retired Phoenix detective Mike Meislish, who worked both canal murders, arrived at around 11.30 a.m. and watched as divers retrieved Bernas's body.

She was wearing sneakers and a turquoise body suit, Meislish told the court on Wednesday. (Marlene Bernas said that as far as she knew, the suit did not belong to her daughter.)

Some clothes - a green t-shirt, blue shorts, boxer shorts and underwear - were discovered in a trash bin behind a nearby credit union.

The cut sleeve of the t-shirt and part of a frayed headphone cord were found near the canal, Meislish said. A white sports bra, cut and stained with blood, was discarded on the path.

Bernas had suffered a significant stab wound to her back and what appeared to be a cross carved between her breasts, Meislish said.

Above the cross, three letters had been carved into her chest: WSC.

"Me and a lot of other detectives spent a lot of time trying to figure that out," Meislish said.

"We never could."

Reach the reporter at Follow her on Twitter @lanesainty.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Canal killings: Melanie Bernas's mother testifies at Bryan Miller's trial


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