When Hutchinson City Police Department investigators found Sandra Miles, 48, slain on the floor of her home, they immediately feared for the safety of her teen daughter, Tracie, who had vanished without a trace.
After tracking the 17-year-old to Mexico, however, they soon realized that Tracie and her boyfriend, Paul Nelson, were the ones to blame for the brutal murder.
A three-time divorcée, Sandra raised her two children — Tracie and her first-born, Chad — in Hutchinson, Kansas. As a single mother, she spent most of her time at the Eaton Corporation, where she worked on an assembly line making pistons and gear pumps.
While Tracie wished her mother didn’t have to work so many hours, she knew it was all in support of her and the family, friend Kimberly Schmidt told “Snapped.”
“My mother’s doing it for me,” said Tracie, according to Schmidt.
Through any hardship, Sandra and Tracie remained close, but that all changed in the spring of 1997, when 16-year-old Tracie began dating. Sandra did not approve of her daughter’s choice in boys, and it was a constant point of contention between them.
After continuous fighting, Sandra bought Tracie a peace offering: a black Ford Mustang. Things began to look up for the Miles family, and they even learned they would be welcoming a new member — Chad and his girlfriend, Mindi, were expecting a baby.
Sandra, however, did not live long enough to meet her first grandchild.
On March 30, 1998, Sandra’s sister, Pat Douglas-Butler, received a phone call from Sandra’s work, letting her know that Sandra had not been seen or heard from in several days. Douglas-Butler and her husband, Bill, went over to Sandra’s house, and finding all the doors locked, they headed over to the local high school to see if Tracie was there.
A resource officer informed them that Tracie had not been at school for days, and he offered to drive over to the house with them to make sure everything was OK.
“The moment we walked in the door, we knew something was bad because of the odor. The officer just spun around and said, ‘Everybody out,’” Douglas-Butler told “Snapped,” airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen.
The officer called for backup, and once police arrived, they found Sandra dead on the floor with a blanket draped over her head. The strong odor of decomposition indicated she had been deceased for a few days.
An electrical cord was wrapped around her neck, and there was blunt force trauma to her head.
“It was a pretty severe beating,” former Hutchinson City Police Officer Ernie Underwood told “Snapped.”
Authorities theorized the murder could have been the result of a robbery gone wrong, as a VCR and Tracie’s black Mustang were missing from the home, but as they worked the crime scene, they realized there were no signs of forced entry.
An autopsy later concluded Sandra had been struck four times on the head, wounds that would have been fatal if the strangulation had not killed her first.
“Somebody wanted to make sure that she was deceased,” former Hutchinson Police Detective Sgt. Larry Foust told “Snapped.” “It appeared to be overkill … This pointed in the direction that it was a personal crime[.]”
In hopes of locating Tracie, investigators contacted the parents of her current boyfriend, 18-year-old Paul Nelson. They told authorities they had not seen their son in more than a week and that he had been staying with a friend named Jeremy Zwickl.
Zwickl said he had last seen Nelson on March 26, when he came by to pack up his stuff. He told Zwickl he was going on a trip to Mexico and that he was flush with $2,000 cash, which Nelson claimed he got by pawning a VCR.
When investigators tracked down the VCR at a local pawn shop, they discovered Nelson had pawned it for only $50, and that it matched one that was taken from the Miles’ home. Law enforcement also discovered that Tracie had cashed a personal check for $2,000 from Sandra’s account on the 26th, which the medical examiner determined was the day she died.
By speaking with Tracie’s friends, authorities learned that Sandra had forbade Tracie from seeing Nelson, and that most of their recent fights revolved around him.
Sandra’s disapproval only seemed to draw the couple closer, however, and about a year before the homicide, Tracie became pregnant with Nelson’s child. He was ecstatic, and in celebration of his impending fatherhood, Nelson got a tattoo that said, “Daddy P.”
Sandra, on the other hand, was less than thrilled, and told Tracie, “If you don’t get an abortion, you’re gonna have to move out and take care of the baby,” according to former prosecutor Timothy Chambers. Tracie ended up terminating the pregnancy, and their relationship deteriorated even further.
On March 25, Tracie called her best friend, Candace Kienow, saying she and her mother just had their worst fight yet. But this time, it wasn’t about Nelson or her abortion. It was because Sandra took away the keys to her Mustang after Tracie racked up multiple tickets.
The next morning, Kienow picked up Tracie for school and noticed that Nelson was there. She told investigators that when she dropped Tracie back off at home, she saw Nelson waiting by the front door shirtless.
"[Kienow] was under the assumption that Tracie and Paul were gonna run off and live together,” Underwood said.
Following these revelations, Tracie and Paul were listed on Kansas’ Most Wanted and the TV show “America’s Most Wanted.” Customs investigators subsequently contacted authorities in Kansas and said the couple was seen returning from Mexico and that they were last spotted in El Paso, Texas.
On April 8, 1998, Tracie called Kienow, who then reached out to police. The call was traced back to El Paso, and Tracie and Paul were tracked down and arrested that night.
Investigators from the Hutchinson City Police Department flew to Texas to interview the two teens, and Paul was the first to break. He told authorities that on the night of the murder, Tracie snuck him into the house.
“Tracie was upset with the mother about her car being taken away, and they feared that Sandra would come looking for them if they ran away … Their process was to kill her, so that Sandra wouldn’t come looking for Tracie,” Underwood told “Snapped.”
When Tracie left for school, Nelson hid in her room with a wooden bear statue that he had stolen from the living room. The plan was to bludgeon Sandra with it, but as time went by, he began to have second thoughts about murdering his girlfriend’s mother. That is, until, Sandra flung open the bedroom door and surprised Nelson.
“She had first asked him what the heck he was doing there, called him some nasty names, told him to get out of the house,” Foust told “Snapped.” “He became enraged and he picked up the bear and he just charged her in the door and hit her.”
After hitting Sandra several times, Paul called Tracie, who came back to the house and strangled her mother with the cord from her radio, ensuring she was dead. Tracie then covered her head with a blanket, and they hid the statue under a picnic table in the Miles’ backyard.
When police questioned Tracie, she admitted they had both planned the murder and that she had strangled her mother.
“Tracie kind of laughed or giggled and said, ‘OK, I did it,’” Chambers told “Snapped.” “Tracie was matter of fact about what had occurred.”
On February 26, 1999, Nelson and Miles pleaded no contest to intentional first-degree murder, aggravated robbery and forgery, according to Hutchinson radio station KHMY. Both teens were later sentenced to life in prison with a minimum of 25 years to be served. Nelson will be eligible for parole in 2023, when he is 44.
Miles sought to withdraw her murder plea in 2013, testifying that she did not understand the consequences and that Nelson was abusive, according to local newspaper The Hutchinson News. Her appeal was denied the following year. She will be eligible for parole in 2023 when she is 43.
To hear more about the case, watch “Snapped” on Oxygen.
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