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The war of the women

Darren Roche's death did nothing to put a crimp in his divorce proceedings. His mother took up the cause, armed with a nude photo.

Published April 22, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - Darren Roche was mired in an excruciating divorce when he died alone in his bedroom last September.

The coroner examined his worn-out 6-foot frame, all 146 pounds, and attributed his death to diabetes.

Case closed.

But Roche's divorce lives on - through his 75-year-old mother.

Anna T. Roche, a self-described Christian and mother of eight, believes her former daughter-in-law contributed to her son's death by making nasty accusations about him during the divorce. Anna Roche was so angry at La Nessia Miller that she decided to make her pay - in the form of humiliation.

In February, Mrs. Roche mailed a nude photo of Miller to the principal of Walsingham Elementary. Miller, 32, is a second-grade teacher there. Mrs. Roche also sent the photo twice to Miller's divorce lawyer.

Miller responded swiftly. She filed a lawsuit against her former mother-in-law.

"At some point, you have to stop someone from doing that," said Steven W. Hair, Miller's attorney. "Who knows where it's going to go from there?"

Both women declined to be interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times. Mrs. Roche's voice box had been removed in surgery, and she can talk only with the aid of a machine that is difficult to understand, said her son, Norm Roche. But if she could talk, he said, she wouldn't because she thinks this is a personal matter.

You may remember Norm Roche, the politician. The 45-year-old magazine editor and former press agent for Pinellas utilities lost to incumbent county Commissioner Calvin Harris last fall. In the Democratic primary that decided the race, Roche created political fumes when his brother, Brian, manager of a Tampa gentlemen's club, filed as a write-in candidate.

The last-minute move closed the open primary to all but Democratic voters, robbing Harris of the support he enjoys from Republicans. The tactic was called "sleazy," but Norm Roche did not apologize. He simply said it was time to play "hardball."

Like her son, Anna T. Roche is not one to apologize.

"My actions are intended to embarrass, humiliate and to hold (La Nessia Miller) up to ridicule just as (she) . . . did to my son," she wrote in a court document replying to Miller's lawsuit. "Should she lose her job due to the truth being exposed, so be it."

* * *

La Nessia Miller and Darren Roche had been married for almost seven years and had two children when they separated on Dec. 23, 2005.

The previous year had been difficult for the couple. Darren Roche's health had deteriorated, contributing to money problems. They even had borrowed from his mother for the mortgage and to replace the roof. Their arguments had grown increasingly combative, with each contending the other was verbally abusive.

Two days before Christmas, Darren Roche, a heavy equipment operator, headed off to work at the Pinellas County utilities department. His office Christmas party was that day and his wife was supposed to bring baked beans. But as the day progressed and she didn't arrive, he went home and found the beans burned and crusty in the oven and the Christmas presents gone from beneath the tree. La Nessia Miller had taken their two daughters, then 5 and 2 years old, to her parents' home in Georgia.

When she returned Jan. 2, Darren Roche had removed the contents of their home in Largo and put them in storage. A few days later, she filed for divorce.

As the case progressed, all civility disappeared as the couple made increasingly serious accusations, from bad tempers to extramarital affairs. Miller also questioned Roche's fitness as a parent. In the end, it was more than Anna Roche could take.

* * *

On Sept. 13, 2006, Norm Roche went to his brother's home in Largo to check on him. Darren, 41, had missed an appointment with his divorce lawyer the day before. Darren was no longer working and no one could reach him.

Norm described what happened in a letter he submitted to the St. Petersburg Times. He was angry at a Times editorial that mentioned him in its criticism of then-Democratic Chairman Ed Helm. Norm Roche compared the editorial's criticism with accusations leveled at his brother - presumably those made by Miller, though this is not clear. The letter, never published in the Times, appeared in a Creative Loafing blog on Sept. 18, 2006.

Norm Roche said he arrived at Darren's home, found the mailbox stuffed, got no response at the front door and opened the garage door.

"I began calling his name, going from room to room, intentionally avoiding his bedroom as if somehow I knew that I would find him there," Norm Roche wrote.

"Having checked everywhere else, I made the slow and somewhat resolved walk to Darren's bedroom. . . . My legs became weak, tears began to stream from my eyes, my stomach began to tighten, and, yes, my worst fears came true."

Darren's death was due in part to his failing health, Norm Roche wrote, but he blamed it in part on a "troubled system that allows for the hurling of slanderous lies at a given individual, without accountability for those who hurl them."

The medical examiner said Darren's death was from natural causes.

Darren's mother clearly felt otherwise.

* * *

On Oct. 13, a month after the death of her son, Mrs. Roche took La Nessia Miller to small-claims court to get back about $6,500 she had lent the couple for the roof and mortgage in 2005. A month later they settled, with Miller paying Mrs. Roche $3,225.

In January, Miller's lawyer, Hair, received a letter with a copy of a nude photo of Miller. Attached was a note with "highly offensive" comments about Miller, including that she "practices voodoo," Miller said in her lawsuit against Roche.

On Feb. 6, Mrs. Roche sent the same photograph and another note to Hair. On Feb. 17, she sent the photo and note to "Principal Walsingham Elementary," where Miller worked.

Miller said that the photo was taken by her husband on their honeymoon and that Mrs. Roche removed it from the family's house sometime after his death. Mrs. Roche said her son gave her the photo in December 2005. "Darren asked me to keep it for him for possible protection," Mrs. Roche wrote in court documents.

Walsingham principal Bill Nordmark said he was out the day the photo arrived. But an assistant principal gave it to Miller. He said he did not get involved because it was a "personal matter."

"All I can say is she's an outstanding teacher, one of my best," said Nordmark, who has known Miller about eight years. "I support her."

Hair, Miller's attorney, said Miller decided to sue Roche because "she had no choice."

The lawsuit claims that by sending the photo and note to the attorney and principal, Roche "published" private facts about Miller and tried to embarrass her and make her lose her job.

"The matters publicized are not of legitimate concern to the public," the lawsuit says, and "constitute a violation of (Miller's) right to privacy under the state constitution."

Last month, Circuit Judge W. Douglas Baird issued a temporary injunction, preventing Mrs. Roche from "publishing photographs and highly offensive facts" about Miller.

Mrs. Roche is representing herself in the lawsuit. She answered Miller's lawsuit, point for point, but continued to level angry accusations against her former daughter-in-law.

"I do not have the means to publish anything. I simply acted upon my First Amendment rights as provided me by the Constitution of the United States in an attempt to right that which was wrongfully done to my son," she wrote.

"Being exposed by the truth can never outweigh the loss of a child."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

[Last modified April 21, 2007, 18:48:46]

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