A Murder Made for Basic Cable
(“Web of Seduction,” Forensic Files)
I’m always up for a good Lifetime channel movie.
I know, made-for-TV dramas are formulaic and manipulative. But they’re also highly watchable.
Not the ticket. Many of their Hollywood counterparts, on the other hand, exhaust audiences’ patience. Their directors are too much in love with their own work to edit it properly.
A lot of cinematic movies render viewers reluctant to admit even to themselves that they didn’t like the film.
Back in 2006, I remember sitting in a movie theater and feeling impatient for Children of Men to end, despite that it was considered high-concept and got good reviews.
Two versions. That same year, another movie, Lifetime TV’s Fatal Desire, came out. I’m not sure how much it cost to make, but it had to be way less than the $76 million Universal Pictures sank into Children of Men.
Fatal Desire, based on a real-life murder case — as written about in the paperback Fatal Error by Mark Morris — starred Anne Heche as a beguiling young woman who used the internet to prey upon lonely men. She manages to persuade one of them to kill her husband. Eric Roberts plays the poor sap manipulated into a role as trigger man.
Heche and Roberts did a great job and the movie was absorbing (way more so than Children of Men), so naturally I went online to find out what the real parties looked like. It turned out Forensic Files had done an episode about the case, “Web of Seduction.”
Narrator Peter Thomas said the story “had everything: sex, lies, and a video tape.”
May-December Union. It did, except that I probably should have watched the Forensic Files version before seeing the Lifetime movie. It was a lot easier to buy Anne Heche as an irresistible femme fatale than the real woman who inspired Fatal Desire.
Here are the facts of the actual case, courtesy of the Forensic Files episode “Web of Seduction” plus some internet research.
On Nov. 8, 1999, Bruce Miller’s brother found him dead in the office of B&D Auto Parts, a junkyard Bruce owned in Flint, Michigan.
It looked like a robbery. Someone had taken around $2,000 in cash from the 48-year-old.
Just a few months before, Miller had married a woman, Sharee Kitley, who was around 20 years younger. (Couldn’t he hear the FF theme’s guitar notes in his head?)
Cut to video. Sharee tried to blame her husband’s murder on an ex-boyfriend of hers named Bruce Hutchinson. He melted down during a subsequent polygraph test, but police didn’t find any forensic evidence linking him to the murder.
Detectives got a break a few months later, when a man named Jerry Cassaday, himself a former homicide investigator, committed suicide inside his Kansas City, Missouri, house (which looked like something of a mini-McMansion from the photo).
They found in the trash a videotape of Sharee Miller “dancing seductively.” Forensic Files showed a few seconds of her performance. It looked none-too-sexy to me (not that I was the intended audience).
Virtually true. And as evidenced from a recording of her police interrogation, Sharee’s flat, ungrammatical manner of speaking lacked the feminine charm with which Anne Heche portrayed her. Sharee sounded like a Rust Belt 7-Eleven and gas pumps attendant.
Confronted with the videotape, Sharee said that she had never met Cassaday in person and they had a strictly online relationship. She considered it no big deal for a married person to exchange sexually suggestive material with a stranger in a chat room — “everybody does it.”
Police confiscated both Sharee’s and Cassaday’s computers, and got someone from America Online to dig up their instant messages. They discovered that the two had in fact met in person and had real, offline sex.
Compelling lies. And Sharee had apparently made Cassaday believe that Bruce Miller needed to be disposed of. She fabricated a story about how he was involved in organized crime and abused her physically.
Here’s the part that redefined manipulation: She told Cassaday she was pregnant with twins — his — and sent him a picture of a sonogram as proof.
Later on in the relationship, she threw her most-inflammatory lie on the fire: Bruce beat her so badly that she miscarried Cassaday’s twins. She even painted a few bruises on herself and sent Cassday photographs.
Sharee didn’t sound particularly intelligent in the clips Forensic Files shows, but she managed to fool a veteran homicide detective just the same.
Denouement. Investigators read messages between the two discussing a murder plot whereby Sharee would distract Bruce Miller with a phone call while Cassaday shot him. Sharee instructed him to make it look like a robbery.
Thanks to his training as a law officer, Cassaday pulled off the murder without creating much in the way of evidence — until he wrote his own suicide note after realizing he killed an innocent man.
Sharee betrayed Cassaday. Once she had her husband out of the way, she stopped communicating with Cassaday and latched onto a new boyfriend.
Sad note. Cassaday had discovered that the sonogram image Sharee sent him was five years old. (She later claimed she lied about being pregnant with twins to cheer up Cassaday because he was feeling depressed.) Apparently, the prospect of life with him, even with a newly built house, didn’t appeal to her.
“I was so blind and so stupid,” Cassaday wrote before shooting himself. “And so much in love. Little did I know she never meant any of it. She just wanted all her money and no more husband. Sharee was involved and helped set it up. I have all the proof. She will get what’s coming.”
Cassaday was right. After deliberating for two days, a jury found her guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and second-degree murder in Bruce Miller’s death. She got life in prison plus 54 to 81 years.
Second shot. She finagled a release from jail while pending a new trial in 2009. Her attorneys successfully threw into doubt the admissibility of Cassaday’s suicide note.
Nonetheless, a district court reinstated Miller’s convictions in 2012, and back she went to the Michigan Department of Corrections.
In a surprise move in 2016, she admitted her guilt.
As mentioned, if you’re unfamiliar with the case, you’ll want to watch the Forensic Files episode first, then check out what Lifetime did with the story. You can see Fatal Desire in its entirety on YouTube.
Either way, there’s no admission fee or boredom to be had. — R.R.