Thursday, November 23, 2017
Public safety

She was 7 when he killed her father, but time hasn't tempered her blame

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The documents were folded, tucked away for a reason. They weren't the kind of thing 28-year-old Amanda Peters wanted to look at every day, but she kept them in a box of important records, along with her Social Security card and her passport, to call upon when needed.

They detailed an incident that has shaped her identity: In 1995, a family friend named Adam Millan shot her father, Vincent Peters, four times in the head and neck. His body was found behind a sanitation building in the easternmost of New York City's five boroughs. He was 45.

Amanda was 7.

The killing was the first in a series of events that left her feeling alone in the world. In the aftermath, her mother, a casual drug user, spiraled deep into addiction. Amanda was forced to live with an adoptive family and her baby brother with another.

She grew up with no one around to help her make sense of it all. So she set out to do it on her own, hoping that whatever she learned would help her feel complete. She thought the documents would do that. But they had a habit of leading her to disruptive, troubling revelations.

When she pulled them from a court file in 2010, she thought they would answer questions she had about her father's death. Instead, they revealed that his killer was free. He had taken a plea deal, served 12 years in prison for manslaughter and was on parole in Florida.

She confronted the original prosecutor, who told her he was sorry. His apology was the only one she could get, but it was enough to let her live in peace for a while.

She fell in love with a nice man named Doug, got married and found an apartment in New Rochelle, N.Y., where she and her husband unpacked on an August afternoon last year.

That's when she came upon the box, and curiosity called her to open it, not unlike Pandora in the Greek myth. With no idea of what she was about to invite, she unfolded those documents and typed the name of the man who had killed her father into an Internet search engine.

• • •

Memories of her father's wake return as flashes in her mind. She wanted so badly to look in the casket, see him one last time.

His hair was thick and black. A moustache hugged his upper lip, and aviator sunglasses often sat over his eyes. Amanda remembers how hard he worked in Manhattan's Diamond District, where he was known as Vinny. He would take her out and spoil her on days her mother wanted the apartment to herself. He called his daughter Mandy.

Amanda and her father, Vincent.

Courtesy of Amanda Peters

Vincent (known to most as Vinny) with his wife, Roseann.

Even at the funeral, the second-grader didn't feel like she could grieve with her mother, who stood at the back doors, wailing, while the little girl sat in a church pew.

Amanda went to live with her grandparents that summer.

Her mother had a baby, Vincent William Peters Jr. When her addiction took over, she gave him up for adoption and landed in jail. "I was a mess, a basket case," her mother, Roseann Peters, remembered. "I was consumed with such hatred, I killed myself."

By the third grade, Amanda was on the brink of foster care. Distant family friends in rural upstate New York stepped in. "She was rough around the edges," said David Blasch, 60. "A city kid with streets smarts. … She just wanted to get past it all."

She lived with them through college, though there were moments she got her hopes up about living with her mother.

Amanda moved in with her for a while in the fourth grade, but her mother started going missing. "I'd spend hours just waiting at the window, hoping I'd see my mom," she said.

"I found myself hating Adam."

• • •

As a child, Amanda knew him only as Adam, a man so trusted by her parents, he was on the list of people allowed to pick her up from school. He was cross-eyed and stocky. He changed the lyrics to the song Copacabana to fit the nickname her parents used for her. Mandy, Mandy-cabana. She hated that.

Growing up, Adam became the object of blame for her family's destruction — not just her father's death, but her mother's addiction and her brother's adoption. The Adam in her head was a motivator to go to college. Success meant "sticking it" to him and making her dad proud.

By the time Amanda graduated from the State University of New York at New Paltz in 2010 with a degree in business, she still didn't know Adam's last name.

Her mother was sober, and Amanda moved into a Queens apartment with her and a baby, a half-sister. It was close to her old neighborhood, and Amanda started bumping into her father's friends. "Oh, that's Mandy!" they'd say. She grew curious for details about her father's death.

Amanda set out to get answers — not just the bits her mother was willing to share. She started with a public records search using her father's name to find the court case. Soon she knew Adam's last name, Millan. She had an indictment number and a stack of court records.

"It felt scary and overwhelming making copies of the papers over and over again," she said, "the graphic details about my dad's blood on his shirt."

Minutes of some of Millan's first hearings tell the story of a man who lured a friend to a desolate Queens industrial park and shot him point-blank. The case hinged on the testimony of a cab driver who went by the nickname Cisco. Millan used to call upon him as a getaway driver when he stole from shopping centers.

Amanda knew that her father and Millan had met in prison. Her father had done time for burglary in 1985 and Millan in 1988 for attempted robbery.

On June 10, 1995, Cisco told police, he was instructed to pick up Millan, then Vincent, and take them to a mutual friend's place in Manhattan. They'd take a different way, though, and make a pit stop behind warehouses. Millan and Vincent got out of the car.

Cisco saw the killing, he said, Manhattan's skyline lighting up behind them.

Sara DiNatale | Times

Millan shot Vincent four times in a lot between a sanitation building and warehouses that still stand today.

Amanda couldn't understand it: Why was Millan charged with murder but convicted only of manslaughter?

She tracked down Jack Warsawsky, the prosecutor who gave Millan a plea deal. She recalled Warsawsky bringing up her father's criminal record and something about gangs. She told him the sentence was unjust.

"He kind of sat there and looked at me and said, 'I'm so sorry,' " Amanda said. "That's what I wanted to hear."

Warsawsky assured Amanda that Millan was visiting a parole officer in Florida, she said. She left their meeting ready to move on.

Warsawsky suspects that the main witness backed out, weakening the case. He can't remember the 2010 encounter with Amanda but doesn't doubt it happened.

It's unusual for a victim's family member to come to his office, he said, let alone more than a decade after the case closed.

• • •

Amanda sat on the edge of her bed, clutching her iPhone, in her apartment last August. She plugged the name Adam Millan into a search engine.

On her screen appeared his face, once fuzzy in her memory but now clear. It was in a mug shot taken in a Hillsborough County jail, then posted with a story on tampabay.com detailing another violent crime.

Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office

Adam Millan, 51.

On May 18, 2016, the story said, Millan was hired to do electrical repairs on a woman's Riverview home. She was alone when he told her to flip a circuit breaker in the garage. Hillsborough deputies, who did not release the woman's name because of the nature of the crime, said a chaotic battle followed:

Millan, they said, came up behind her, put his arm around her neck and pulled her to the ground. He had a knife. He tore at her underwear and tried to put tape over her mouth. When he dropped the knife, he started to beat the woman's face, they said. He broke her nose and sliced open her knee. Neighbors heard her cries through the garage door. Millan fled. He was arrested the next day, May 19, and charged with felony armed burglary and sexual assault.

Amanda felt sick.

She started firing emails to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office: I am not from the FL area, but I am writing because I know firsthand what kind of threat Adam poses to society …

When answers didn't come, she moved on to a Tampa Bay Times reporter: I want to see to it that Adam STAYS behind bars and does not continue to harm innocent people. I am writing because I am desperately asking for your help to make this happen; or, at the very least, help the public to be aware of what this evil man is capable of.

From New York, it felt like no one was listening.

• • •

February brought more boxes.

The New Rochelle apartment was temporary, a placeholder until Amanda and her husband found a house where they could one day raise a family. They chose a two-story home in Connecticut, a one-hour train ride from their jobs in Manhattan, where Doug works in the tech industry and Amanda is in marketing. Movers put the beds and couches in their places. The TV was set up and the cable was working — the framework of a new life in a new home.

On a chilly Saturday afternoon, Amanda's mother helped her unpack. The Peters women have the same long smiles and arched eyebrows, but Amanda stands a few inches taller.

Amanda hung over a bathroom sink and peered into plastic pull-out bins, handing her mother bottles of bug spray left over from volunteer trips to orphanages in Mexico. Roseann, 51, placed them in a cabinet, taking a moment to decide where each item belonged.

Alexander F. Yuan | Special to the Times

Amanda and Roseann Peters unpack in the bathroom of Amanda and her husband's new home in Connecticut.

Roseann knew why a reporter was present. The whole ordeal was tied up in her past drug use. She was proud to be in recovery but felt guilty about missing Amanda's childhood. Her memory of it all was foggy. For that reason, she had long made Amanda feel like she couldn't talk about it.

But on that night, Roseann took the same folded records Amanda had saved and read them privately in a spare room. Roseann came out of the room wiping away tears.

Amanda grew up wanting answers she felt she could find only in documents. That night, she and her mom had their first full conversation about her father's death, and his life.

• • •

Resolutions are never tidy.

The curiosity that led Amanda to open the box, and revisit the documents, and search for the killer, and email the newspaper last August, rippled all the way to a Hillsborough County jail, where Millan received a postcard from a reporter.

Did he want to talk about all this? He did.

He remembers it vividly, the night he killed Vincent. He "had to do it," he said.

It wasn't about business, or money, or crime. He was having an affair with Amanda's mother, he said.

He remembers Vincent growing violent, flashing a knife, saying he was going to kill Roseann. "I was going to kill him first," Millan said. He wants Amanda to know he did it to protect her, that he loved her as a daughter. He still thinks it was the right choice because it led her to have a better life than she would have had with her troubled parents.

Documents do say Vincent slapped his wife days before he was killed. Roseann stayed with a friend after that fight but moved back in the day before the shooting.

Roseann doesn't want to talk about what Millan has to say.

Amanda wonders if parts of his story are true. Having this information helps answer questions she has had all these years. She hadn't thought her father was involved in a "gang," as the prosecutor led her to believe.

She wonders, at the same time, if it's a fairy tale Millan created. Every killer probably thinks he's a hero.

She won't stop keeping tabs on him. His Hillsborough trial is slated for April 10. She wants him in prison for life.

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8862. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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