No detox, no help and two lives forever scarred
Amber Phipps remembers her husband’s left hand going for her forehead.
His right hand went to her throat.
My husband, she thought, who is acting not at all like my husband, is trying to break my neck.
Then she saw the knife. The blood.
No, she realized. My husband cut my throat.
“I looked at him and asked him if he was serious,” Phipps recalled in a recent interview. “He just smiled and nodded.”
The pieces of a former life
Sixteen months after the attack, the scars on Phipps’ neck look like a strand of hair that caught a glint of light. Her now ex-husband, Jesse Miller, didn’t cut too deep.
Emotional scars go deeper, and Phipps doesn’t want them to be for naught.
When her husband attacked her, he was in the throes of delirium tremens, a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that can include seizures, mood swings and hallucinations.
Leading up to the attack, withdrawal symptoms had wrenched Miller to the breaking point. Even before the hallucinations gripped him, tremors, spasms and faintness had him looking for a place to detox.
Visits to two different emergency rooms yielded little more than a pill prescription and a good luck. Miller’s symptoms weren’t severe enough for full admittance to the hospital and the only publicly available detox center in the region was full. The couple was left to navigate the system on their own.
Miller didn’t have a significant criminal history, and the record he did have — a DUI more than a decade ago, misdemeanor theft for drunkenly rummaging through an open car — stemmed from alcohol abuse. Phipps said he was never violent, even when drinking heavily.
That all changed when the sun set on a January night.
Neither Phipps nor Miller want anyone else to brush against what they experienced. Neither wants the attack to live on only in the damage it inflicted. Both, in their own ways, have become advocates for expanding substance-abuse services and a proposed tax-funded behavioral health center in Larimer County.
“I firmly believe ... that if Jesse had gotten help, he would not be in prison, Amber would not be suffering from PTSD, they would still be married,” Amber Phipps’ mother, Janie, said.
The Phipps don’t absolve Miller for what he did that night. But they do highlight it as a horror of what can happen when a substance abuser finally wants help, only to find it denied.
“That window of opportunity, whenever it opens, is so critical to just really monopolize,” Kim Collins, administrative director of North Range Behavioral Health in Greeley, said, adding, “When someone is asking for help, they need to be surrounded with as much of it as they need.”
Miller, wearing an oversized forest-green prison jumpsuit, fought tears when talking about that night, though he admitted to full responsibility for it.
He hopes sharing his story will help push for any fix to gaps in substance-abuse treatment in Larimer County, even if he’s 260 miles away and serving a 15-year sentence.
Shortly after walking out of a holding area in the Bent County Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Las Animas, he makes a self-deprecating joke: He has plenty of time to talk about the damage done.
A broken net, a shattering night
Only a day before the Jan. 13, 2015, attack, Phipps and Miller had been at the emergency room together.
Miller was a chronic alcoholic who had spent six or seven months sober before falling off the wagon.
By January, Miller was drinking a pint or two of vodka daily. A nip in the morning to steady his hands was followed by at least enough to maintain his cool for the rest of the day.
His drinking was hurting his work, and his lying about his drinking was burning a hole in the couple’s marriage. A boss at a restaurant where Miller worked pulled him aside to offer encouragement; his wife drew a line: Their relationship or the bottle.
On Jan. 9, he poured all the booze in their home down the drain.
He initially fought through the tremors and vomiting associated with withdrawal. He tried going to work — Miller describes himself as a do-it-all kitchen hand — but the shakes meant he couldn’t even chop vegetables. Spasms soon cramped his muscles, and he was feeling so faint that he left his shift early.
Phipps took him to the hospital.
A doctor gave him medication to help with the withdrawal symptoms. Depending on who tells the story, either no detox beds were available or Miller didn’t request one that day. Either way, Miller wasn’t too bothered. He had gone cold turkey before, he reasoned.
“I think that was one of the reasons I didn’t get help sooner on this, because I had done it before,” Miller said. He adds: “I thought, ‘I can handle this.’ The ‘I’m a man’ thing. I can do this by myself. That kind of mentality, I guess.”
Phipps was conflicted about what was happening to her husband. It hurt to see him suffering, but that suffering meant the alcohol was leaving his system and, she hoped, loosening its grip.
When they arrived home from the hospital, Miller started hearing things. The next day, he started seeing things. Surfaces crawled as if they were covered in bugs. Shadows danced.
“His tremors were so bad and his muscles were so cramped up that there were times he needed help just standing up,” Phipps said. “And when he was hallucinating, it was like he didn’t see you or even know you were there.
“It was scary. I don’t know how else to say it. It was just scary.”
Startled by the new symptoms, the couple sought another opinion at another Northern Colorado hospital. There, doctors doubled Miller’s dosage of Librium and pumped more saline into him via an IV.
At that point, Miller and Phipps agree, Miller wanted real help while detoxing.
He didn’t appear at the time to be a danger to himself or others, Phipps said, nor in a dire enough situation for the hospital to take him long-term. North Range Behavioral Health was at capacity. The couple felt they had nowhere to go but home and to look for more options from there.
Miller said he doesn’t remember much about that day. Much of it flew by in a “surreal dream state,” he said. He remembered eating a cinnamon roll at one point and telling Phipps about seeing bugs and knowing he was hallucinating them. He remembers that the hallucinations started getting worse after the sun set.
Their dog barked in the middle of the night, waking them both and sending Miller into a “pretty severe hallucination,” Phipps said. She found him hiding in the couch cushions and did her best to calm him down. When it seemed lucidity returned to her husband, she went outside to smoke a cigarette. He went to get a coat and join her.
Miller said he doesn’t remember getting the kitchen knife. He does remember his wife screaming.
Jesse Miller was booked into the Larimer County Jail on Jan. 13, 2015, after slashing his wife’s throat while suffering alcohol-detox hallucinations. He is serving a 15-year sentence in a Colorado prison for the attack.
He calls his memories, his compulsion, “insane.” “Supernatural beings” emerged from the shadows, with “special powers of camouflage,” and they wanted Miller to join them. But they had one request — he had to kill his wife.
“It was reality to me, and that was just what I had to do,” he said. “I don’t feel like I was there. I feel like I was watching a movie.”
He walked up behind his wife of almost seven years and grabbed her.
After the first slash, Phipps pulled herself away, and Miller stabbed at her some more. They struggled over the blade before Phipps could get free. She ran inside to her cellphone, locked herself in their bathroom and called 911.
Miller remembers waking from his daze in a red jumpsuit, one the Larimer County jail reserves for violent inmates. When the reality of the situation hit him, he said he spent the day on his bunk, paralyzed over what he had done.
Gluing together the wreckage
“In a lot of ways, I still hold him responsible for what ultimately happened,” Phipps said, more than six months after Miller pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree murder. “He had multiple chances to do something else, to say something to somebody, that this is getting worse or something. At the same time, there weren’t enough options provided to him to get the help he needed and wanted.”
Collins, director of the Greeley behavioral health center, said availability of services is an all-too-common issue in the region and at her facility. She oversees 23 beds in the detox unit and another 16 in the acute treatment unit, which is more for mental health crises, though the two often go hand-in-hand.
With the population boom in Northern Colorado, “it’s very regular that we’re turning people away,” Collins said.
“We hear a lot of stories like that, that folks just weren’t able to get the help that they needed at the time that they needed it because of capacity, maybe payer source issues, they felt they couldn’t afford it,” Collins said. “I’m sad every time I hear those kind of stories.”
Cheryl Olson, co-chair of the advisory board that will advocate for building a behavioral health center in Larimer County, said of Miller: “He fell through every crack.”
In a crisis, Miller would have needed emergency access to the kinds of services that only North Range has available. Accessing other sources require navigating through referrals and, like with North Range, hoping for space.
“I’m at a loss at what else she could have done for him,” Olson said after hearing Phipps’ story. “She did everything she had available.”
While details haven’t been finalized on the behavioral health center proposal, and voters won’t weigh in on it until November, Olson and Laurie Stolen, director of Larimer County’s Alternative Sentencing Department, envision it as something that could have helped Phipps and Miller.
Shortly after the attack, Phipps left her job and moved out of the house she and Miller shared. She still can’t use a long kitchen knife — the weapon Miller used — and uses steak knives when chopping vegetables.
She doesn’t handle loud noises well, or people standing behind her. Even yellow towels — the color she used to bind her neck and hand after that attack — trigger her anxiety.
She’s been dedicating her time to finishing a degree in psychology, with an aim at becoming a victim/witness specialist. She praised the professional she worked with during Miller’s time in the court system and hoped she could help others in the same way.
Miller said he’s been spending his time working with prison substance-abuse programs, work he hopes to continue when he enters probation.
He teared up when talking about Phipps. In a letter answering the Coloradoan’s request to visit him in prison, he wrote of an opportunity to help his and Phipps’ families, and “to safeguard against something like this ever happening again.”
“I’m definitely sorry for what happened,” Miller said in an interview. “I can’t change it. All there is, is to move forward.”
By the numbers
44,300: Estimated number of Larimer County adults with a mental illness.
31,000: Estimated number of Larimer County adults dependent on drugs or alcohol (Note: people with mental health and/or substance-abuse disorders).
2,800: Larimer County adults who actually receive substance abuse care each year.
1,400: Estimated number of adults who want or would seek treatment but do not.
Expanded capacity: Proposal would accommodate up to 4,700 adults per year.
Acute Treatment Unit: The 12-bed unit could serve an estimated 990 admissions annually; would help stabilize those in throes of mental illness.
Medically Monitored Withdrawal Management: The 12-bed unit would serve an estimated 820 admissions annually; the detox wing would have medical staff to administer personal medications and medications to aid with substance withdrawal, including opioids.
Short-term intensive residential treatment: The 11-bed unit would serve an estimated 300 admissions annually; would assist with treating substance-use disorder.
Total expected utilization: It is estimated to handle a total of 12,000 annual admissions across services.
$20.42 million: Estimated cost for land and construction of a 51,000-square-foot facility.
$11.77 million: Estimated needed annual funding ($15.77 million annual operating costs, minus $4 million in estimated revenue).
0.25 percent: Proposed sales tax increase (translates to 25 cents for every $100 spent) to pay for the new behavioral health facility. Note: Amount is from proposed ballot language used to survey Larimer County residents; it has not been formally set.