Death claims flamboyant Fan Man

Posted: Sunday, March 23, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- To his friends, he was James Miller, gentle and fun-loving, passionate about hiking, mountain climbing, and above all, flight.

On cool summer evenings in Valdez, he'd soar with eagles, flying a paraglider in slow circles between green mountains and blue sea, a parachute over his head, a fan strapped to his back

To boxing fans, he had another identity: The Fan Man. In 1993, before a nationally televised audience, Miller paraglided into an outdoor heavyweight fight at Las Vegas between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe -- and proceeded to get pummeled unconscious by Bowe's entourage.

''It was a heavyweight fight,'' Miller would say later, ''and I was the only guy who got knocked out.''

Miller's love of adventure, humor and the outdoors came to an end in September. Wracked by pain, deep in debt from medical bills, he drove to a remote trailhead and took one last hike. He chose a spot where he was not likely to be found, attached a nylon strap to a tree and then his neck, and leaned against it, killing himself by asphyxiation. His body was found by hunters March 9.

Miller, 39, was a private, complex man who took time to remind people of society's absurdities, say the people who knew him best, including his younger brother, Eric Williams of Anchorage.

''He forced his point of view on the world in his own way,'' Williams said. ''He did what he thought was right and he wasn't afraid of the consequences.''

When he landed on the ropes at the boxing match, most Alaskans didn't know he was one of their own.

His parents brought Williams and his three brothers, one just a baby, to Alaska in about 1975. Their first home was a 20-acre mining claim on the U.S-Canada border, 12 miles from the nearest road. James went by his middle name, Jarrett. He was 12. Eric was a year and a half younger.

About a year later, the family moved to the nearest town, Tok, where the Alaska Highway splits into routes to Fairbanks and Anchorage. Williams' mother still lives there.

Eric remembers his brother as incredibly intelligent, learning chemistry and physics from reading, developing an interest in explosives, experimenting with different concoctions.

''Fortunately, he got away with having all his fingers attached,'' he said.

One constant was a desire to fly. They would build big kites, hang on for dear life and jump out of trees.

''He just wanted to be able to fly, like a bird,'' Eric said. ''That's where parasails and paragliders came in. It's probably the closest thing to it.''

James enrolled at the University of Alaska Anchorage, earning an associates degree in computers. He spent time in Juneau, then moved to Las Vegas in the late 1980s. He loved the heat and the desert and he learned to paraglide.

A few days before his interruption of Holyfield-Bowe, he called Eric.

''He said he was going to do something big,'' Eric said.

James' stunts over the years turned out to be fairly harmless. But at that moment, given his affinity for explosives, Eric didn't know what he might be planning.

''I always thought he was capable of anything -- good or evil -- you never knew what he was going to do. He was unpredictable,'' he said.

He saw his brother's flight into the boxing ring on national news.

''It confirmed that you never knew what the guy was going to do,'' Eric said. ''I loved him and wanted him to be safe and healthy. He didn't appear to be heading in that direction.''

Everybody asked James why he had disrupted the fight. He didn't have a good answer, Eric said, usually saying he opposed violence and he wanted to break up the fight. Eric had a different theory.

''He basically was bucking society. He was mocking our rules, making up his own as he went along, kind of just making a mockery of our society and the way it works and what our expectations are.''

James pleaded guilty to trespass and spent 10 days in the Clark County Detention Center. The Federal Aviation Administration fined him $4,000.

His stunt was memorialized in a way James could appreciate: Fan Man made an appearance in a 1996 episode of The Simpsons.

About a year after the Las Vegas stunt, Miller pulled another: landing on the roof of Buckingham Palace. He was fined, jailed and banned forever from England.

Sometime about 1996, he moved to Valdez. His exploits had brought him death threats and he purposely downplayed his fame. People in Valdez found out anyhow.

''Valdez was a wonderful place for him to be,'' Eric said. ''The people of Valdez are the ones who really exposed him as James Jarrett Miller, and connected him directly to Fan Man, and accepted him for who he was and what he had done. They basically allowed him to be who he was.''

Miller worked for a computer company, then set up his own freelance computer business. He set up a Web page for newspaperman Pat Lynn, 68, owner of the Valdez Star.

''He was one of those rare people,'' Lynn said. ''He dared to be his own man.''

Miller lived in a hut, euphemistically called a cottage, without indoor plumbing, Lynn said. He taught others to fly. He tramped in the mountains lining Port Valdez, sometimes using them to launch his parasail. He carried himself with a dignity that people respected, Lynn said.

''He didn't stomp around like a macho man.''

The editor had to periodically remind Miller to collect a check for the work he had done. Miller ran for city council and mayor, greeting voters at the Valdez post office, a magnet for every adult because Valdez has no home delivery.

Eric Miller said his brother was at peace in Valdez.

''I think it was a huge relief to him to finally find his niche and his place in the world where he could be who he was and not feel like he was hiding it and be accepted. And I really think that had a lot to do with his demise, because that was such a special environment for him to be in.''

It wouldn't last. Two years ago, pain that had radiated down his left arm as he hiked moved into his chest. He was diagnosed with diseased arteries.

Eric met him at the Anchorage airport. The fearless 37-year-old man who had hiked up mountains with a 100-pound backpack had to be wheeled into the terminal.

Williams underwent double bypass surgery. One bypass had complications.

He traveled to California for corrective surgery. A third surgery redoing the original work was scheduled.

His chest pain was constant. So was the presence of a bottle of liquid nitroglycerin, sprayed under the tongue to dilate blood vessels.

''He never went anywhere without it,'' Eric said. ''He even had it on him when they found his body. And he hated that stuff. It was like having an oxygen bottle that he had to have to breath.''

His flying was over. So were his days as an independent businessman in Valdez. He moved his belongings to Anchorage and took a job with a utility company, a job with regular hours, hoping to qualify for insurance to help with his medical debts.

''I think all those things didn't allow him to be who he was and he felt like he had to put on this false front again,'' Eric said. ''It just added to all the problems he was having.''

Miller also had a girlfriend, who did not want to be interviewed. She would give birth to their child after he disappeared.

And one more source of stress: He had decided to sue over his first heart surgery.

At the end, Eric said, he believes his brother decided that his family and friends would be better off if he disappeared -- even the unborn child. He knew he never could repay his medical bills. He suspected he would not be able to help raise the baby.

''I think he saw himself as draining and not helping,'' Eric said.

James disappeared Sept. 22. His car was found near Resurrection Trail on the Kenai Peninsula. The official search was suspended Oct. 13.

Two weeks ago, bear hunters found his body in thick brush about 1.5 miles from the trailhead, providing closure and relief to his brother and other family members.

''What I said at the funeral was that Jarrett lived his life on his own terms,'' Eric said. ''He did that his entire life. I believe he did things the way he wanted to, how he wanted to, when he wanted to, and that included his death.''

About a year ago, during a conversation with Eric, James Miller recounted his court appearance in England and how he was told he was banned for life.

''His response to that was, 'Can I have my ashes scattered here?' And they said no. And he said, 'But you only banned me for life.'''

Eric is considering one last stunt with his brother: heading to England with James' ashes.

''Maybe not all of him,'' Eric said. ''But maybe a vial, just for his sake.''

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