Wearing his trademark white outfit and star-spangled hat, the French Quarter human statue known as “Uncle Louie” had his tip bucket at his feet Wednesday, less than half a block from the spot where police investigating a cold-case murder in Florida arrested him exactly one year earlier.

Johnie Lewis Miller was on a break, sipping a Budweiser tallboy. He couldn’t go more than a few minutes without being approached by someone eager to greet him — even though less than a month ago, he’d admitted to killing a Jacksonville grocery store owner in 1974. The admission was part of an unusual plea deal that secured his immediate release from jail.

One woman out for a walk with her dog rushed up to Miller outside a convenience store in the 700 block of St. Louis Street, embraced him tightly and said, “I just had to come get a quick hug.”

Two other men who approached Miller to shake hands offered up, “You look good” and “Great to see you, man.”

Miller said the exchanges were typical of the greetings he’s been receiving since he got back from Florida a few days ago and resumed the mime act he unveiled in the 1990s — the hallmark of which is freezing mid-step while pretending to walk a stuffed dog named Little Willie.

“We’re all family in New Orleans,” said Miller, 61. “Coming back home, coming back to family — anyone would be grateful.”

The good will surrounding Miller upon his return was perhaps predictable, despite the distress it’s caused the family of the victim, Freddie Farah.

After Miller's shocking arrest last year, a significant number of New Orleans residents and visitors rallied around him.

More than 70 people contributed a total of nearly $6,000 to a webpage set up to raise money for Miller’s defense, where a typical message read: “He touched so many hearts, so many hearts are broken. Keep praying for Uncle Louie.”

Miller himself marveled at letters of support he got from people as far away as Europe and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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Fred Farah

Fred Farah

“Everyone showed me so much love,” said Miller, who was in custody for 344 days. 

It’s something Farah’s relatives won’t ever understand.

Their lives were put on a collision course with Miller’s on May 22, 1974, when a man placed a box of cake mix, a can of frosting and a soft drink on a counter at their family store in Jacksonville, pointed a gun at the owner and announced, “This is a hold-up.”

A father of four, Farah attempted to swat the gun away — and was shot dead.

Authorities lifted fingerprints from the items the killer left on the counter. But it wasn’t until a little over a year ago that cold-case detectives were able to match those prints to Miller, who had a number of minor arrests on his record.

With the help of New Orleans police, on May 16, 2017, investigators took Miller into custody as he stood near the poles holding up the balcony outside Antoine’s Restaurant.

After Miller was transferred to Florida, the case against him crumbled, mainly because the lone witness who saw Farah’s killer leave the items behind in the store died unexpectedly in December.

That paved the way for the case’s stunning conclusion: In exchange for being freed from custody, Miller agreed to acknowledge that he had murdered Farah. He also agreed to sit down with the victim’s relatives and answer any questions they had about why Miller, at age 17, gunned down Farah before moving to New Orleans and adopting his “Uncle Louie” persona.

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Johnie Miller mug shot

Johnie Miller, known as 'Uncle Louie' in the French Quarter

At an April 25 court hearing where the deal was finalized, Farah’s children described the anguish they experienced growing up without their dad.

“There would be no more family vacations. He would never teach me to swim or to drive. He would never see me graduate high school — the proud father of the valedictorian of her class,” read a statement from Lisa Farah Eways. “He would never walk any of his three daughters down the aisle and he would never meet any of his grandchildren.”

But Farah’s son, Robert, said his family supported the deal because what they most wanted was for the murderer to accept responsibility.

“He killed my dad and admitted it,” Farah said after the hearing. “There was never a doubt in my mind he was our man.”

Miller on Wednesday said he visited his family in Jacksonville briefly after he was freed but decided to return to New Orleans as quickly as possible.

He declined to discuss the facts of the case against him on the record, saying only, “It was a tough situation” and “There’s close to a year missing now.”

Now, Uncle Louie said he intends to make the most of his freedom.

“Everything is back to being a regular statue … a professional time-waster,” Miller said as Little Willie rested at the bottom of his bucket. “That’s what being a mime is.”

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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