AVILLA – Mention the killing to the bar patrons at Hey’s Tap on Albion Street and the memories come flowing – still fresh, still vivid and still colorful, as if nearly three decades hadn’t passed at all.
Memories of roadblocks stopping every car coming in and out of town, door-to-door searches and uniformed police officers with a few FBI agents crawling over every block.
Memories, too, of men being brought to the police station to be questioned, only to be let go once a woman who peaked outside the door shook her head no to officers.
And memories of William Miner Jr., a good man who was Avilla’s town marshal, and his murderer, a man who brought fear and violence to the tiny community the likes nobody here saw before or has seen since.
It scared the hell out of a lot of people, says a woman at the bar, nursing a Budweiser wrapped in a koozie, recalling the Memorial Day weekend in 1983 now etched into the town’s consciousness.
William J. Spranger, the Fort Wayne man convicted of shooting Miner along a highway in the middle of the night 29 years ago, is scheduled to be released from prison today.
Except for some restrictions placed on him by the Fort Wayne parole district, he’ll be a free man.
For many of the residents of Avilla – a good number who lived through that time – his release not only brings painful memories back to the surface, but many believe it’s also an injustice not unlike a slap in the face.
Write this down, says a regular at Hey’s Tap, a man with a white beard and white hair there to play some pinball one afternoon last week. Our criminal justice system let us down.
There is no way that man should be getting out.
Traces of Miner’s death can be seen and heard all over Avilla, which now has a population of about 2,500.
There’s a street named after him – the first turn off Albion Street as you enter the town is Miner Road. There’s also a memorial to him outside the current police station, a stone that’s all but impossible to miss while walking in or out the front door.
It’s a reminder every day of how police officers can be killed, said current Town Marshal Glen Wills of the stone, which had what looked to be new crosses placed in front of it this past week. There’s also the talk.
People at taverns and restaurants will speak about Miner, Spranger and that weekend if you ask – just don’t ask for their names. When Spranger’s release date hit newsstands and television, everybody had a story to share.
The people who remember Miner say he was a nice man, a good marshal and one of their own. Some said he may have been a little cocky, but those who said that were teenagers back then, and isn’t that how a lot of teenagers view police?
Still, even those people admitted that Miner, 29 at the time of his death, was overall a good guy.
Spranger was someone they saw only in newspapers or in courtrooms after the shooting, someone from out of town, a punk who they thought they were rid of when he was sentenced to death after the killing.
The official story, according to police investigators, eyewitness testimony and court records goes like this:
An 18-year-old Spranger and his friend, 27-year-old Allen L. Snyder, drove from Fort Wayne to Avilla, then with a population of about 1,400, in the early morning on May 28, 1983.
They stopped just south of a viaduct on what is now Old State Road 3 outside of town to break into some cars parked along the road. They were stealing stereo equipment when a woman living nearby spotted them and called Miner.
Miner was asleep at his home when he took the call. As he got ready to leave, his wife asked whether she should call for some backup. He told her not to worry, he’d handle everything.
Miner caught the two men at the scene, ordered them to put their hands on the hood of a car and began to call for assistance. That’s when Spranger pushed Snyder into Miner and a scuffle ensued.
While Snyder and Miner fought, Miner’s gun fell out of his holster and onto the pavement. Spranger picked it up, aimed and fired at Miner’s back. Two witnesses would eventually testify they heard the shot and saw Miner’s body slide into the ditch.
They also saw two men leave the scene.
One of the witnesses would end up at the police station, looking out a door as officers brought suspects to her, shaking her head when she saw the men weren’t the ones she saw at the scene.
Later, police would find Miner’s gun in nearby Summit Lake off Baseline Road and procure testimony from Spranger’s brother Ronnie Spranger, who told investigators his drunk brother admitted to shooting Miner hours after the killing.
Snyder would eventually testify against Spranger, too, receiving a plea agreement, in return, capping his prison sentence at eight years.
Spranger, meanwhile, maintained his innocence up through his trial, which ended with a murder conviction and a death sentence. Later, the Indiana Supreme Court overturned the death sentence partly based on inadequate counsel given to Spranger.
In 1997, Spranger was given a new sentence of 60 years in prison – a sentence that could be cut in half by exhibiting good behavior and taking advantage of education opportunities.
When he’s released today, he’ll be ordered to wear a GPS monitoring system for the next year, be subject to drug testing and eventually have to prove that he’s looking for a job.
He’ll be 47.
Working the case
For both John Barrett and G. David Laur, the killing of William Miner was a life-changer.
Barrett currently works security at the Whitley County Courthouse, a 70-year-old retiree who loves a job that gets him out of the house. Laur is a Noble Circuit Court judge.
In 1983, though, Barrett was an investigator for the Indiana State Police and Laur was Noble County prosecutor.
Neither had worked a case involving the killing of an officer.
As a police officer, it makes you realize how vulnerable you are, with something changing in a split second, Barrett said.
Acting on a tip, Barrett connected Spranger to the killing and, along with other officers, was there days after the slaying to roust the young man from his bed at his family’s Fort Wayne home in the middle of the night.
He was an 18-year-old with attitude, Barrett said of Spranger. He was swearing at his family and mother quite a bit.
Hours later, Barrett was acting on adrenaline while he and his partner questioned Spranger inside the old Avilla police station, which then sat behind what is now a pizza restaurant along Albion Street.
He remembers dozens and dozens of police officers lining up outside for Miner’s funeral procession during the questioning.
Spranger never fully confessed to the killing though he admitted to taking the marshal’s gun and flashlight, both of which were later found dumped in Summit Lake.
Barrett didn’t hear it for himself but was told later that the officers outside let out a cheer as news spread that the suspected killers were inside being interrogated by detectives.
The community was just an outpouring of emotion at that time about their marshal being killed, Barrett said.
Today, Barrett still thinks the death penalty was appropriate for Spranger, but he’d be fine with life in prison without the possibility of parole, a sentencing option not available in Indiana at the time.
Laur’s prosecution of the case earned a guilty conviction from a jury and death sentence for Spranger from an out-of-county judge. Laur was also the prosecutor in 1997, when Spranger’s death sentence was overturned.
I was disappointed, but I respect the Supreme Court’s decision, Laur said.
When speaking of the case, Laur, who still lives just outside Avilla, also remembers the outpouring from the community.
Many residents cooperated with or assisted police, and food came to investigators and officers from everywhere, including the St. James Restaurant where Laur is still a regular.
That’s what small towns do, he said. We take care of each other.
While many in Avilla were surprised to hear of Spranger’s release – many had lost track of the court proceedings – Laur wasn’t one of them. He knew this day was coming with certainty.
But what he remembers most is the loss of an officer, one who died while serving his town, and he still regularly drives by the ditch where Miner lost his life.
I just went past there the other day, Laur said. I pointed and said to my wife, That’s the ditch where William Miner died.’ I still remember all of it like yesterday.
A man enjoying an afternoon cocktail at St. James Restaurant says he was a teenager back when Miner was killed, and that his brother, fresh out of the Army, was one of the men questioned because the suspects were reportedly wearing green coats.
Back then, the man said, you had the town marshal and maybe a deputy and that was all.
At one point after the killing, the police department had maybe three or four officers and went overboard on enforcing things, the man said.
It’s still a little odd for him to see officers with flack jackets in Avilla.
I think we lost a bit of our naiveté when (Miner) was killed, the man said.
Some of the patrons of Hey’s Tap said that while Avilla has certainly grown in the last 30 years, it’s still a small town at the core.
After Miner’s killing, after the heavy media attention paid to the town subsided, things pretty much went back to normal.
Outsiders who move here might have a little trouble being accepted by the lifers, some of the patrons said, but that has more to do with the distrust of change than with the Miner killing.
Back then, we had nothing out here, one bar patron said. We didn’t have everything with meth or that stuff. The most serious thing would be vandalism or drinking.
But those who remember the killing are still baffled on how William J. Spranger is not only alive but able to become a free man and get the chance to rejoin society, a chance he robbed the town marshal of so many years ago.
News that he wasn’t exactly a model citizen in prison – Department of Correction officials said he had some run-ins with guards and court records show he was convicted of a misdemeanor crime in 2010 – further angered some residents.
You think he’d be stupid enough to show his face up here? a woman at Hey’s Tap asks.
Prison officials know where Spranger will live, but they aren’t releasing that information. They have, though, notified area law enforcement agencies with the details of Spranger’s release.
Sources say he’ll be living with a family member in Fort Wayne, and it’s unlikely he has any connection to Avilla anymore.
And while his name won’t ever be memorialized like Miner’s, while you’ll never find it written anywhere besides old newspaper clippings, it will probably live on as long as there is an Avilla, Ind.
People’s memories here are long – and still as vivid and still as colorful, even after 29 years.