Sweeping tears and strands of blond hair from her eyes, the girlfriend of a skinhead accused of a 19-year-old racial killing riveted a Common Pleas Court jury yesterday with a tale of a brutal rape, an attempted murder, and a senseless killing.
Patricia Miller's testimony, delivered in a low voice, also gave the jury insight into a white-supremacist culture in which members earned their stripes by killing African Americans.
Under questioning from Assistant District Attorney Roger King, the fragile-looking woman said Thomas Gibison, 35, of Newark, Del., had told her that he killed Aaron Wood, 35, because he wanted to get a spiderweb tatoo on his elbow - a mark identifying him as a committed skinhead.
"You earned a spiderweb tattoo by killing a black person," said Miller, 39, who started dating Gibison in 1993. "He told me there were so many people with fakes and phony tattoos, but his was real."
Miller said Gibison had told her that on April 16, 1989, he and Craig Petersen set out for Philadelphia "to get a web."
They ended up in North Philadelphia near Girard College, and saw Wood walking between parked cars in the 1300 block of North Stillman Street.
"He told me Craig was driving and that, you know, he leaned out the window and saw this guy walking along and shot him in the head," Miller testified. "He told me he would never forget the sound of the man's head hitting the ground. He would always remember that."
Amid tears, Miller - who said she frequently went with Gibison to skinhead parties and rallies in Maryland and elsewhere - said she had decided to go to police only after Gibison beat and raped her. The attack, she said, happened in his house after he learned she had cheated on him.
He "grabbed me and had my neck and hit me and pushed me back over the dryer, saying he was going to snap my neck. But his grandfather walked in, and that saved my life," Miller said.
Later, in an upstairs room, he again went after her, she said. "He handcuffed me. Stripped me, raped me" with two objects, Miller said. "I was crying for him to stop. He told me that if I ever called police and he ever got out, he would kill me."
She eventually went to police, she said, because of "my conscience and the fact that he had no regard for anybody or anything."
"He had beaten me for so long, threatening my family and kid, everything. I was scared of him."
The defense contends that Miller is a spurned woman who concocted the story to get back at Gibison for cheating on her.
Defense attorney J. Michael Farrell says Wood's killing was just another shooting of a drug dealer who owed money to a supplier. He says police are trying to railroad Gibison to solve a cold case.
Not so, the prosecution says. When FBI agents working gun crimes in Delaware last year picked up tips of an unsolved Philadelphia murder, city homicide detectives backtracked through 37 unsolved slayings to finger Gibison in Wood's killing.
The federal government granted immunity to Petersen, Gibison's alleged accomplice, when he agreed to testify about the Wood killing.
The trial is to resume today before Judge M. Teresa Sarmina. Miller is scheduled to conclude her direct testimony today.