Drugs, murder, & redemption - KFVS12 News & Weather Cape Girardeau, Carbondale, Poplar Bluff

Drugs, murder, & redemption

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By Jeff Cunningham - bio | email

CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO (KFVS) - Do you remember what you were doing in the year 1983?  Think of the life you've lived in the last 27 years.  For one Sikeston man, his life ended in 1983 when he was sent to prison for life.  In 2010, however, 62-year-old Alan Milburn got a second chance at life.  His story is one of drugs and money, murder and suspicion and ultimately redemption and second chances. 

"A second chance to retire?" Milburn said with a chuckle.  "I'm happy to be free.  Very happy."

A lifetime has passed since Alan was a honorable mention all-conference football player in Sikeston, along with teammate Max Ellison.  Little did he know how their paths would cross decades later only on very different teams.  Going from football star to prison for drugs didn't happen overnight and Alan says his seduction into that world took many years. 

"In the end, it became about the money," Alan said.  "It's not really about the drugs any more.  It's more about the money." 

And, business was good.  After college, and on paper, Alan was a high school English teacher.  But, he started a side business in the sale of marijuana and cocaine.  He made thousands and thousands of dollars.  Alan says cocaine was everywhere in the early 1980's.

"It was moving a lot faster than marijuana," he said.  "I can't even tell you how much.  It was moving so fast."

During this time, Alan was seeing a Sikeston girl named Debbie Martin.  Martin's death in 1979 would play a major role in Alan's release from prison three decades later.  Alan says Debbie was handling a lot of his drug money at the time of her death and only the two of them knew the combination to a safe where he kept thousands of dollars. 

"She's the only other one who knew where the safe was located," he said.

 Alan says he returned from a trip to Texas to the news that Debbie had been murdered. 

"I said, no, no," Alan said.  "This can't be happening!"

Martin's naked body was found at the bottom of some stairs in a building in Cape Girardeau.  The coroner said she had been strangled and thrown over the banister. 

Alan says, days later, when he checked his safe and saw it had been emptied of $93,000, he knew why she had been killed. 

"I knew exactly why she died when I saw the safe," he said. 

Here's the problem, Alan was up to his neck in the drug trade and says he couldn't go to police to report his missing drug money and empty safe. 

"I would have been telling on myself if I did that," Milburn said.

Eventually, the drug dealing caught up to Alan Milburn.  He was arrested and a judge passed down a very harsh sentence, life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Alan says he remembers well hearing the judge say those words.  Even today, those in law enforcement say that is an unusual sentence in a drug case. 

"To me, a sentence like that is reserved for people who are killing people in the course of their drug dealing," said Cape County Prosecutor Morley Swingle.

In prison, inmate Alan Milburn tried to further himself.  He says he gave up drugs 25 years ago, became a vegetarian and earned a law degree.  But when his last appeal was denied ten years ago, he thought prison would be where he would die. 

"After that, I started living my life in prison as if I would spend the rest of my life there," Alan said.

In 2003, Cape Girardeau Detective Jimmy Smith took an interest in the cold case murder of Debbie Martin.  Her death had been unsolved for decades and Smith says he saw a connection between Alan Milburn, Debbie Martin and the safe missing of $93,000. 

"It was the general consensus that the missing money was the motive for the murder," Smith said. 

Swingle says suspicion had long been on Alan's old Sikeston teammate, Max Ellison.  Ellison had a bad reputation and the heat was on him after he deposited $80,000 in cash at a local bank. 

"The banker remembered the transaction well since it was the largest cash transaction he had ever done," Swingle said.

Detective Smith connected the dots between Milburn, Martin and Ellison.  It all made sense to Swingle as well.  He says Ellison was also seeing Debbie Martin at the time of her death but investigators could never connect him with a solid motive.  But, with Alan's testimony, that could change.  Smith approached Milburn with the idea of testifying against Ellison in exchange of Swingle's help in getting his sentence reduced. 

"He told me Ross (Alan) Milburn was willing to help in the Debbie Martin murder after all this time," Swingle said.

The problem for Alan Milburn, however, is prison is a tough place for anyone who cooperates with authorities.  All three men agree, by helping, he was putting his own life in danger.

"Someone could have overheard what I was saying about helping with a murder and they would have gone to the gangs and said, hey, that guy is cooperating," Alan said. 

"Anytime you cooperate with authorities inside the walls, sure, your life's in danger," Smith said. 

So, Alan told no one of his agreement to testify against Max Ellison but Ellison would find out soon enough when Alan appeared as a prosecution witness at the preliminary hearing against Ellison in Martin's murder. 

"It was pretty dramatic," Swingle said. "He (Alan) glared at Ellison and then he testified."

The dramatic turn of events was far from over.  Before Alan could testify in the actual murder trial of Max Ellison, Ellison died in jail.  For Alan, the hope of getting out of prison faded. 

"Oh no!  The deal is going to fall through!  That is what I thought," said Milburn. 

Fortunately for Alan, Swingle says the death of Ellison didn't deter him in his agreement of trying to get Alan's sentence reduced.  So, he went to the proper authorities and they agreed to release Alan after 27 years in prison. 

"Sometimes it's just unbelievable to me.  I have to keep telling myself, I'm free!" Milburn said.

Detective Smith says it's very satisfying to help solve a cold case like this one and to help get Alan a second chance at life. 

"I'm happy I was able to help do that," said Smith.

Morley Swingle agrees that getting Alan released from prison is a good thing. 

"I think he paid his debt and now he has an opportunity to do something positive with his life," Swingle said.

It's been five weeks since Alan's release.  Five weeks of being able to,once again, walk down the street a free man and a chance at life outside prison walls. 

"I'm happy to be free!" Alan said.

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