An ex-girlfriend of accused "canal killer" Bryan Miller, the man charged with murdering two young women in Phoenix in the early 1990s, said he was an "emotionally stunted" person who sometimes punched walls during arguments, but was never violent toward her.
Seraphina Nicol, who dated Miller on and off for about two and a half years in all, testified Monday that their relationship, which began in 2006, had "a lot of challenges." They struggled to open up to one another, she said, and when they fought, Miller's emotions would sometimes escalate out of control.
"I was scared for Bryan, but I was not scared of Bryan," Nicol said, stressing the difference. "I was scared he would hurt himself, but I was never scared he would hurt me."
Miller is on trial in Maricopa County Superior Court charged with the murder and attempted sexual assault of Angela Brosso in November 1992 and Melanie Bernas in September 1993.
Brosso had gone out for a bike ride on the evening of her 22nd birthday, but never returned home. She was found beheaded near a bike path close to her apartment complex the next morning. Her head was found in the Arizona Canal by Metrocenter 11 days later.
Bernas, who was 17 when she was killed, is also believed to have been out riding her bike. The high school student's body was found in the canal close to where Brosso's head was located 10 months earlier.
Dubbed the "canal killings," the murders were forensically linked in 1994 but went cold for two decades before a DNA breakthrough led to Miller's arrest in 2015.
The 50-year-old Miller has pleaded not guilty for reasons of insanity. Central to his defense are two diagnoses - complex dissociative disorders caused by childhood trauma and autism spectrum disorder - that his attorneys say mean he did not understand his actions at the time of the murders.
The state is seeking the death penalty in the bench trial before Judge Suzanne Cohen, which has been running in fits and starts since October.
Canal killingsThe man accused in the Phoenix murders goes to trial 30 years after 2 women died
Miller had a 'rigid way of thinking'
Nicol said she met Miller at the Arizona Renaissance Fair in 2006, where she was stationed at a food booth and he was working sanitation. One day, he left a flower on her stand and walked away. The relationship slowly bloomed from there.
But it wasn't all smooth sailing, Nicol testified. It was her first serious relationship, and Miller was emerging from a painful divorce. He proposed to her in July 2006, within two months of when they started to date.
She said no, and he seemed to take it well, she said, but as their relationship continued, commitment became a point of contention.
"He was very hurt that I was not as invested in the relationship as he was," she testified.
Nicol said he had a "rigid" way of thinking and would become extremely "shaken up" if their plans changed, even slightly.
"We would talk about having tacos with Swiss or cheddar cheese on it, and I would get a different type of cheese, and ... even that would seem to really upset him," she said. "There were a lot of little things that didn't go the way he had been thinking it would go. It would almost ruin the whole mood of the night."
They didn't share much of their past, she said. Though Miller had volunteered he was abused by his mother, Nicol got the impression he didn't really want to talk about it.
He cried regularly, sometimes at minor inconveniences or misunderstandings, but at the same time struggled greatly to express emotions, both positive and negative. At times, she said, it seemed "almost physically impossible for him to let down his wall."
Nicol said Miller had told her he didn't like knives and that they made him uncomfortable due to traumatic childhood experiences with his mother involving knives. He did use them for cutting up his food and cooking, she said.
She said she knew Miller had previously been accused of stabbing two women, one at Paradise Valley Mall when he was a teenager and another in Washington state.
Trial testimonyVictim in 'canal killings' was set for a new work assignment when she vanished
Keeping people at a distance
Miller's attitude to knives has come up frequently in the trial. Autopsies determined Brosso and Bernas each died from a significant stab wound to their back, most likely caused by a knife. Brosso, who was beheaded after she died, had numerous other sharp force injuries to her body. Bernas had a superficial cut across her neck and a cross and initials carved into her chest.
Police who searched Miller's house after his arrest described it as a "hoarder house" and said several knives were among the many possessions.
The court has heard testimony that Miller and his ex-wife incorporated BDSM and knife and needle play into their sex life. Nicol said none of that occurred in their relationship.
Dr Marti Loring, the defense expert witness on trauma, testified last month that it was possible Miller used knives during sex as a way to overcome his fear of them.
Nicol said she never witnessed Miller being violent toward his daughter. He obviously loved his daughter, she added, but his parenting ability was limited by his emotional struggles.
"Basically in my entire relationship with him, it was always like he was keeping everyone at a certain distance," she said.
"Even if it he was trying, it was like he was unable to let people in, or totally trust people. (To) let down his guard. That was my impression."
The trial is expected to continue into 2023.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lanesainty.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Ex-girlfriend: Bryan Miller 'emotionally stunted'