CHESTER, Maine — If Barry Stegenga had to identify one of the biggest reasons for the success or failure of sawmill operations at Walpole Woodworkers, he would name Michael Miller Sr.
As one of the sawmill’s process deck operators, it was Miller’s job to quickly examine logs from the 3,000 to 4,000 cords the mill processes annually and decide whether the wood was best suited for use as cedar fencing or lawn furniture.
“He was a very, very good worker,” Stegenga, the mill’s manager, said Tuesday. “With more than 20 years of experience, he was pretty good at it. There were very few complaints about the work that he did.”
Workers at the North Chester Road mill still described themselves as shocked Tuesday at news that Miller and his wife, Valerie, both 47, were homicide victims — though police aren’t revealing exactly how they died.
State police found the bodies at the couple’s Tucker Ridge Road mobile home on Saturday and ruled the deaths a homicide on Monday, a day after the bodies were autopsied.
As detectives again declined to release case details Tuesday and continued to search for an unidentified woman who might have been the last to see the Millers alive, the Miller family, like Miller’s co-workers, wondered exactly who killed the Millers and why.
“It’s very strange when you’re in the dark,” said 26-year-old Alexis Lord, fiancee of 29-year-old Michael Miller Jr. “And even when we finally get a definite cause of death, no matter what it is, we will still be searching for answers.”
Lord and Walpole workers portrayed the elder Miller as a jovial, talkative and very generous man who excelled at woodwork and carpentry and who, Lord said, happily lent friends money — though not as a business, as has been rumored.
“He was always asking about how we were doing each week,” said Walpole millworker Eric Drinkwater, 32, of Lincoln. “There were other people who could do what he did, but he was the best we had at it.”
“Everyone’s curious about what happened,” said millworker Roland Drinkwater, 35, of Lincoln, Eric’s brother.
Miller was a seasonal worker who had been laid off on Nov. 20 with several other employees, but he expected to return in the spring. He worked at Walpole for 29 years, company officials have said.
The mood in the Walpole break room was somber and hesitant Tuesday as a handful of workers talked briefly about Miller. His signature was among a few dozen on a company sign posted on a wall.
Like Lord, the workers said they had seen no signs of looming trouble with Miller. Stegenga said Miller took his annual layoff well, looking forward to filling the time with an addition he would build onto his trailer. He recently had finished renovating the interior of the home.
Besides their sudden, enormous grief, Lord said, family members have been hurt by rumors that the Millers were engaged in criminal activity, which she strenuously denied. The family knows of no disputes involving the Millers, said Lord.
“The rumors are heartbreaking,” she said. “Some of the things people come up with on their own are amazing. This is a very close family. If there had been problems, we would have known about them.”
State police, however, have helped the family by being helpful and attentive, Lord said.
The younger Millers, Michael and Matthew, have started moving from their homes, including a house on Transalpine Road in Lincoln, into their parents’ home.
“As morbid as it sounds, it gives us great comfort to be here,” Lord said. “This is the time where we need to be supportive and be here for each other.”