CUMBERLAND -- Witnesses said John A. Miller IV told a range of stories -- that he had played golf, that he had gone job hunting, that he had beaten a boy to death -- to explain his whereabouts the day Shen Poehlman disappeared.
But when confronted with the news that the Carroll County girl's body had been found, Miller curled into a ball, sweating and shaking, and said he choked her with a belt, according to testimony yesterday at his death-penalty trial.
"Did your actions cause Shen's death?" Detective Michael Hill said he asked Miller at the end of an interview July 1998 at a Baltimore County police station.
Miller's answer: "Apparently so."
In a written statement made public yesterday, Miller said he performed a sex act on the Eldersburg girl -- then panicked because he was afraid his girlfriend would find out.
"What I did next has got to be by far the biggest mistake I've ever made, and I know I'm going to pay for it dearly," he wrote. "I put a plastic bag over her head. I told her I was just going to make her pass out and then take her to somewhere else. After thinking she was passed out, I thought that I had to get rid of her. I put a belt around her neck. I pulled a little."
Miller wrote that, "I then said to myself, there is no way you can kill this girl," and tried to wake her up. But he said he left her in her car in a parking lot. Her body was found there several hours later.
Miller, 27, is charged with first-degree murder, attempted rape, first-degree sex offense, robbery and false imprisonment. The Poehlman girl was 17, a high school tennis champion and an honor student.
The victim apparently met Miller on July 27, 1998, at a Reisterstown swimming pool and was lured to his nearby apartment the next day by the prospect of a baby-sitting job.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Miller. To obtain it they must show the presence of "aggravating circumstances," such as a sexual assault.
The jury trial was moved to Allegany County because of extensive media coverage.
Much of yesterday's testimony centered on Miller's actions before and immediately after Poehlman's death.
Isabella Sherman, who in 1998 was Miller's live-in girlfriend, testified that he dropped her off at work July 28, 1998, the day Poehlman disappeared.
Miller, an unemployed store clerk, said he needed to borrow her car to search for a job. When she called him later in the day, he said again that he had been looking for work.
That evening, when he picked her up, he was "very sweaty, very nervous, very edgy," and had vomited in the parking lot, Sherman said. Miller told her he had been in a fistfight with a boy, and that the boy might have died.
By the time they returned to their Reisterstown apartment, police were searching for Miller, based on descriptions of a man who had approached girls at the swimming pool the day before. Sherman said Miller drove into the parking lot with the car lights off and turned off the lights inside the apartment.
She said he changed his clothes and then tried to climb to the floor below from the balcony of the third-floor apartment, saying the police were after him. When she asked why, she said, he changed his story again. He said he'd met a girl at the pool, and "I think I might have killed her," Sherman testified.
Just then, police knocked on the apartment door, and Miller hid in the bathroom.
Sherman said she answered the door and asked police, "Does this have anything to do with the girl by the pool?"
Taken to a police station for questioning, Miller initially told detectives that he had talked to Poehlman about a baby-sitting job, but that she had not gone to his apartment. He told detectives that he had played golf that day -- tee time 9: 18 a.m.
A few hours later, after the girl's body was found, detectives told him that they didn't believe his story. Hill said Miller then said that he'd lied, and gave oral and written statements.
"I regret deeply my actions and my inability to think of others," he wrote. "I don't blame the [girl's] family and friends for not forgiving me, but I will never forgive myself either."
Police investigators are expected to testify today about statements Miller made during telephone calls to relatives. A man once in the Baltimore County Detention Center with Miller also is expected to take the stand.