Updated: Nov 29, 2020
Photocopy of Lakeland Ledger front page revealing murderer Dennis Wayne Smith's knowledge of the Ralph Miller disappearance. | The Ledger, 1976 - Google News Archives
The Ralph Miller case turned 50 this year on September 19th, 2020. The seventeen-year-old boy was last seen at home in bed by his mother as she left for work that morning in 1970. Since then, no one has seen or heard from Ralph. However, rumors surrounding his disappearance suggest a sinister and violent turn of events.
Back in the Fall of 1975, five years after his disappearance, The Lakeland Ledger covered the story of Ralph Miller and spoke with those reported closest to him. They allege that Ralph was killed because he was a suspected drug informant, and the person responsible for arranging his murder was known as “The Witch of Lakeland.” The Ledger never reveals the real name of this witch and refers to her as “Sara.” Sara earned her mysterious title as a pied-piper-like figure taking in runaway teens and persuading them to sell drugs. She also held a strange belief claiming her eventual rise to power and the birth of Satan’s child. Sara kept the company of several Hell’s Angel’s and recruited them as her bodyguards. She was described as wildly paranoid by those who knew her, and this delusion, coupled with a notoriously violent temper, would ultimately result in Ralph’s tragic death. Sara suspected he was an informant recruited by police to bust her, and soon after, there were whispers within the local scene that something bad was going to happen to Ralph Miller.
According to Ralph’s best friend, who The Ledger calls “Raymond,” Sara sent several Hell’s Angel’s members from her inner circle to lure Ralph into a remote area known as “The Highlands.” Raymond alleges the men poured LSD down Ralph’s throat and beat him to death with heavy chains. It is unclear what they did with Ralph’s body, but there are varying accounts, including one rumor stating he was left in Saddle Creek (a lake body of remnant phosphate pits in north Lakeland).
The Ralph Miller story is particularly disturbing considering the current social climate of the city of Lakeland. The Polk County district has always maintained a conservative, small-town feel. Church plants dot the city in nearly every direction, and as of 2013, an estimated 300 churches exist within Lakeland’s city limits. Not surprisingly, Christianity makes up the town’s largest religious group, and the general population is white at 70%. There is a general perception of tradition apparent in the small businesses and local government, and most residents will tell you they are proud to be Lakeland locals. Some of the most notable things about Lakeland include one of the “best-trained Police canine units in the United States,” as well as the 1990 filming of Edward Scissorhands in South Gate Plaza. Lakeland is a conventionally quiet town, and the residents prefer it that way.
Still from Edward Scissorhands showing Southgate Arch in Background
20th Century Fox, 1990
South Gate Arch in Lakeland, FL - Photo by The Albertsons Florida Blogger, 2018
In 1975, there was less a sense of community in Lakeland and more a feeling of isolation. Orange groves lined most roads to anywhere, and provinces of interest were scattered few-and-far-between. As many of those interviewed by The Ledger at the time will attest, there wasn’t much to do as a Lakeland teen. Most took to socializing in parking lots after hours. Sara’s crowd preferred the former Royal Castle, a popular diner-style drive-up restaurant on South Florida Avenue in downtown Lakeland. In the second installment of the Witch of Lakeland series, “Mary,” a former follower of Sara’s, described the happenings of the teenage haunt in greater detail:
"The Royal Castle was a doper's dream . . . you could go there and buy any kind of drug you wanted from just anybody. The drug dealing was so heavy that sometimes the paddy wagon would come and take all your friends away. Everyone was so free with their dope at that time. They just passed it around in the parking lot, especially Sara. The police were like vultures. There was a bank across the street from the Castle and the sheriff's department vice squad would sit back in their cars in the banks parking lot. Everyone at the Castle would wave their hands at them and yell, 'Hi.' They would wave back, and everyone would just sort of sit back looking at each other."
“Almost every teenager in Lakeland was at the Royal Castle at one time or another when it was open. As many as up to 100 kids, ranging in age from 12 to their mid-20's would gather at the eating place and its parking lot. Many of these same people would also meet at Sara's house in Lakeland.”
"In the late afternoon, when it was cool and the sun was going down, the Castle started jumping . . . everyone started showing up there . . . they lined up in cars and would sit on the hoods. It was like a teeming ant hill. People were constantly driving in and out either to buy dope or to take dope they had just bought."
"And parents would drive around looking for their kids but they would just go on because they were afraid to stop."
This blatant disregard for authority was especially frightening to local parents. Many were worried their children would end up falling into the wrong crowd, and eerily enough, an uncomfortable amount of local children had indeed recently gone missing. Within the last several years, Lakeland children as young as 12 had vanished, never to be seen or heard from again.
Around the time of the Ralph Miller disappearance, another frightening story was making national headlines. The Manson Murder trials had just begun, and news outlets were fanatically covering every gory detail. Families everywhere were learning how Charles Manson targeted and manipulated children and young adults to join his strange cult. He used drugs as a means of control and isolated children as young as 14 from their families. Manson successfully manipulated his followers by creating his own family and painting the outside world as deceitful and abusive. Only he could transform their lives for the better, so long as they gave themselves to him fully and completely.
Charles Manson, then 35, arrives in Los Angeles, on Dec. 10, 1969, to be jailed on murder-conspiracy charges in the deaths of actress Sharon Tate and six others. (AP Photo/Harold P. Matosian)
The Ledger articles make direct comparisons of the Manson Murders and the Witch of Lakeland story. The interviewed witnesses claim Sara, much like Manson, believed society was on the verge of violent civil unrest, and that a shift in power would soon occur. Sara also believed she was on the receiving end of that power, and those who followed her would be held in the highest regard during her reign. Mary claimed in order to join Sara’s legion, you had to prove your devotion by murdering in her name.
Manson followers Susan Atkins, left, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten head into court in 1970 (Los Angeles Times)
In the fifth installment of The Ledger series, Mary breaks down after allegedly attempting to attack one of the reporters:
She was red-faced, near hysterics, and muttering something about "voices in my head won't leave me alone. Stop it. Stop it." Later, when she had calmed down near to normal, Mary said "Sara was telling me to kill anybody who got in my way - but only for a purpose. To protect Sara from you and what you know about Ralph Miller." Mary also explained that by killing one or both of the reporters, she would become "one of the chosen few"- those with blood on their hands whom Sara professed would take over the world next April.
"Sara was telling me through voices in my head that I had muffed two other chances to join the group who would take over, and that time was running out for me," she said. The chosen few, Mary said, would follow an anti-Christ figure who would radically alter the social and moral structure of the world. Her beliefs in this matter are not new or original. Mass-murderer Charles Manson heard the Beatles "White Album" and believe "Helter Skelter" or a world changed-over - "was coming down so fast so don't let it break you."
As frightening as this story of Ralph’s disappearance may be, it’s worth questioning whether or not the witness testimony provided to The Ledger was completely valid. Perhaps stories of the Manson Murders had infiltrated the social environment of the small town, and those involved were looking to make sense from an irrational and unresolved tragedy. There was certainly talk of drug-use within the Royal Castle scene, and perhaps this fueled a general sense of overall paranoia and fear when one of their peers vanished from thin air. Was “Sara”, the purported “Witch of Lakeland” truly capable of orchestrating the violence committed against Ralph Miller? Was there even any proof that Sara actually existed? The series was also written just before Halloween; could this have been an elaborate cautionary tale to the children and parents of Lakeland? Despite the outlandish themes presented in the series, The Ledger authors insist on its legitimacy throughout several articles. In the “Witch of Lakeland” story, they reveal their information comes from taped recordings of a source in prison facing murder charges. This source is never revealed, but a short time later, an infamous local murder trial comes to a head when the accused offers information about the disappearance of Ralph Miller.
Almost exactly one year later on Wednesday, September 22 of 1976, The Ledger reports the trial of convicted second-degree murderer, Dennis Wayne Smith. Smith was responsible for the death of James Wagner, a young man who had also gone missing in Lakeland. James Wagner’s name was mentioned alongside Ralph Miller in the very first article of the series, and Ralph’s mother believed that he had most likely met a fate similar to Wagner’s. During Dennis Smith’s trial, he eventually confessed to law enforcement that he not only knew what happened to Ralph Miller, but he was with him on the night he was murdered. Smith also claimed he lived intermittently with the woman known as the Witch of Lakeland, and Sara’s true name was finally revealed: Rosemary Herrara. The Witch of Lakeland was in fact very real, and her true identity had been disclosed to the public.
In the next installment of The Witch of Lakeland, we will cover the murder of James Wagner and the suspected relationship of Dennis Wayne Smith to Ralph Miller and Rosemary Herrera. Much like the previous articles in this series, the James Wagner case will be presented in a transcribed format of Ledger newspaper archives so that all details may be analyzed as they were presented at the time. We will piece together more of Ralph’s story to better understand not only his strange disappearance, but the mystery surrounding the disappearance of other children and young adults during this time in Lakeland, Florida.