A Shot In The Dark

Who Killed The Surgeon's Wife?

This story originally aired on Jan. 8, 2005.

Williamsport, Pa., is a small, picturesque town known around the country for the Little League World Series – and not much else.

In a town that averages one or two homicides a year, it's a pleasant place to be a cop. But there is one all-consuming case that has puzzled investigators in this sleepy town.

Pennsylvania State Trooper William Holmes and Cpl. John McDermott and have spent four years trying to solve the riddle of who killed 47-year-old Miriam Illes, a woman who didn't seem to have an enemy in the world.

Correspondent Susan Spencer reports in this 48 Hours Mystery.



Miriam and her husband, heart surgeon Richard Illes, were once one of Williamsport's most prominent couples. The Illes, who married in 1991, lived in a spectacular mansion on a hill.

"We were embraced by the community very nicely. And I was compensated probably more than I was worth. But everything was wonderful here in Williamsport for us," recalls Illes, who was considered one of the best doctors in the area.

In the early '90s, Illes met Miriam Zambie while working as a resident at St. Louis Medical Center. Miriam was a surgical assistant. Within a few years after they married, they had a son, Richie, and moved to Williamsport, where the Illes worked side by side together. Miriam was active in her community as well, volunteering at the symphony and at church. She was a dynamic, exuberant personality who made friends wherever she went.

Despite the money and the status, Miriam's friends say she was very down to earth. "They were one of the wealthiest people in Williamsport, if not the wealthiest," says Dottie Bailey. "Miriam drove a green van. Miriam went to the dollar store," adds Karen Young. "You wouldn't think, 'Wow, that's a doctor's wife."

Miriam decided to become a stay-at-home mom when Richie was 2. She quit her job and never looked back. "She was a wonderful mother," says Illes. "I couldn't have hoped for anyone better than her to take care of my son."

But Miriam's friends, who say they rarely saw the doctor, had the impression that he was becoming increasingly distant and demanding.

"Miriam was controlled by her husband," says Leslie Smith, who saw a marriage under serious strain. "He wanted his dinner at a certain time. He wanted his house perfect. If she didn't please him, she paid a price."

Friends say Illes' emotional distance made Miriam miserable. And in the winter of 1998, she hired a divorce attorney, Steven Hurvitz, even though she seemed to not really want a divorce.

At the same time, friends say Miriam was growing suspicious. "She had the feeling that her husband was having an affair because she really highly suspected the way he was acting that something was going on," says Bailey.

Miriam and her lawyer soon discovered that Illes was involved with his assistant, Katherine Swoyer, whom Miriam had hired. Their relationship became a scandal at Williamsport Hospital.

Illes, however, remembers those days fondly. "I had a pretty perfect life there for a little while. I had a girlfriend who I loved. And we had a great time," he says. "I had a beautiful son who was being taken care of by his mother, who was the best mother in the world. There's no doubt about that, everyone will tell you that. And I had my freedom."

Miriam moved out with her 5-year-old son, Richie. Her friends say she would have reconciled, but that Illes wasn't interested in rebuilding the relationship.

"I wasn't interested in the beginning," admits Illes. "But as time went on, the thoughts occurred in my mind. You don't talk about them, of course, because your girlfriend that you're having a relationship with certainly isn't going to appreciate those thoughts."

A reconciliation, however, would never happen. Because on the night of Jan. 15, 1999, Miriam was found murdered in her own home.