Would-be robber picked the wrong guy
Bill Miller was robbed and attacked in his automotive shop Thursday in Dormont. He killed the accused robber with one shot to the head.
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On the ground and dazed from the jolt of a stun gun, Bill Miller peered over his shoulder and saw his assailant slip out the door.
The man had just taken Mr. Miller's cash and his driver's license at gunpoint. He had a hunch the gunman would be back for more.
Mr. Miller scrambled to his feet and grabbed the pistol he keeps in a cabinet above his desk, tucked in the corner of his small auto shop in Dormont.
"I took a step and looked right at the door and all I saw was a chrome gun coming back in," Mr. Miller said. "When he came back, I knew it wasn't to say Merry Christmas."
Wordlessly, the man pointed his gun at Mr. Miller, the men separated by just a couple of feet. In an instant, his instincts took over.
"I shot him," he said. "I had no other choice."
The man, whom the medical examiner's office on Friday identified as Lonzy Westbrook, 39, of the North Side, fell to the ground, his body splayed just past the doors of Bill's Auto Service and into the snow-covered alley.
Mr. Miller, 63, of Bethel Park, and a man who moments earlier had delivered a shipment of auto parts called 911 and waited as scores of police flooded Limha Alley.
"I'd like to think that I saved my life and his," Mr. Miller said Friday, the day after the shooting at the business he has quietly operated for 30 years.
Mr. Miller works six days a week as a mechanic. He's also a Vietnam veteran and a licensed NRA firearms instructor who specializes in personal protection. He served with the Army's 1st Air Cavalry Division and holds a permit to carry a concealed weapon -- not the type of man an armed robber would want to come up against.
Nor is his garage the type of place one would expect an armed robber to strike. It's all but hidden on an alley behind more conceivable targets -- a coin, store and a bank -- on West Liberty Avenue, and a peek inside doesn't immediately reveal much beyond a car hoist, a tool chest and some posters of motorcycles and muscle cars.
As Mr. Miller's attorney and friend John Thompson put it, "it's a humble place to rob."
Neither Mr. Miller nor Mr. Westbrook's sister could say what motivated him to rob the garage Thursday morning.
"It just doesn't sound like him," said Rhonda Cobb, who lives in California and was at an airport awaiting a flight to Pittsburgh Friday evening. "I'm wondering what happened."
County homicides detectives, who investigated the shooting, also were at a loss.
"We're not sure what brought him there," Lt. Andrew Schurman said. "I think he's the only one who could tell us that, unfortunately."
Mr. Miller said he was sitting at his desk, writing a check for the delivery driver about 11 a.m. when the door opened and an armed man entered.
"He pointed the gun at me and said, 'This is a robbery. Give me your wallets,' " Mr. Miller said. The delivery driver, a man in his 30s, relinquished his immediately, while Mr. Miller said he crept toward a tool case where he keeps his wallet and removed all the cash he had -- $74.
"He said, 'I want your ID, I want to be able to come and get you,'" Mr. Miller said. "He yelled, 'Don't look at me,'" but Mr. Miller caught a glimpse of his face through his mask. He had freckles. They were familiar.
"I recognized him," he said. "I fixed his car about a year and a half ago."
The intruder's voice was steady as he issued threats.
"He was calm and collected and sure of himself from the moment he entered," Mr. Miller said. He ordered the men to drop to their knees.
"I said, 'You don't have to shoot us,' and he said 'I'm not going to shoot you,' " before he shocked the pair instead with a stun gun. The delivery man collapsed onto a small table. Mr. Miller, stunned in the back of the head, rolled on the ground. Drawing on combat experience and firearms training, he said, he never took his eyes off the gunman.
"When I saw him walk out the door, I was on a mission -- I'm not going to die," he said. Still dizzy, he got up, opened the cabinet and retrieved his gun, firing, he said, after Mr. Westbrook took aim at him.
Mr. Miller said he struck the man once; the medical examiner's office said he was shot in the head.
The district attorney's office has yet to determine whether Mr. Miller was justified in killing Mr. Westbrook, spokesman Mike Manko said on Friday.
Fighting tears, Mr. Miller said, "It's not an experience I'd wish on anyone."
Ms. Cobb, one of Mr. Westbrook's two sisters, said his family was tormented by questions about his death. He lived on the North Side and was married, she said, and had two daughters in elementary school and a third in high school. He grew up in New Jersey and later moved to Pittsburgh. He always told his sister he had a job, but she wasn't sure what it was most recently.
If he had fallen on hard times, he would have likely turned to family, Ms. Cobb said. The two had exchanged e-mails just days before about his upcoming visit with her in California. She said she never known him to take someone's belongings.
Allegheny County court records show Pittsburgh police obtained a warrant for Mr. Westbrook on simple assault charges in October. He was also charged with a string of recent traffic offenses.
Ms. Cobb said her brother at times ran with a bad crowd, but had recently told her, "that was the old me."
"Everyone just can't believe this," she said. "It's a huge loss for our family."
First Published December 18, 2010 12:00 am