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Did Utah doctor's 'life of deception' include murder?

Published September 5, 2012 9:27 am

Defensve attorney says Martin MacNeill has done 'bad things' but he didn't kill his wife.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Martin Joseph MacNeill's story is one of contradictions.

At the time he was telling Veterans Affairs officials he was so debilitated by mental health issues that he could not hold a job or get an education, he was working as a doctor and also had a law degree.

The day he went to an LDS temple with his family to be bound for eternity, he was having an affair.

And when he stood before his church's congregation and told them he was dying, investigators say, he was actually plotting to kill his wife.

"He lived a life of deception," his daughter Alexis Somers said outside a Provo courtroom last week. "... It's been a web of lies."

'Emotional roller coaster' • Martin Joseph MacNeill's arrest Aug. 24 in the murder of his wife, Michele MacNeill, was the culmination of more than four years of work by investigators and prosecutors.

"There wasn't any one [single] piece of evidence that caused us to decide to charge the case," said Utah County prosecutor Chad Grunander, who has been assigned to the case for more than two years. "We have not been cavalier whatsoever in our approach to this case. It's been a very complex investigation that's taken officers from California to Texas to Florida and even New Jersey to find witnesses and information. And, quite frankly, in a case like this, the investigation continues."

"It's been an emotional roller coaster," said Michele MacNeill's sister, Linda Cluff, who hounded police and prosecutors for years to stay on the case. "We were just wondering whether it would even happen."

In a 57-page affidavit for an arrest warrant filed in 4th District Court, Chief Utah County investigator Jeff Robinson lays out the case against the 56-year-old MacNeill, painting a picture of a life of lies and a man looking to end his marriage without the burdens of divorce.

Investigators believe MacNeill began plotting Michele MacNeill's murder months before she died April 11, 2007.

In late 2006, MacNeill began telling friends and family members he had cancer and started rearranging his finances, ostensibly in anticipation of his death.

"Investigators believe this was part of Martin's plan to deflect attention away from him and to later remove himself from the events that would unfold" on the day of his wife's death, court documents state.

MacNeill began receiving treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix but for a hereditary disease that caused pain in his foot — not cancer or multiple sclerosis as he had told others, investigators said.

On Feb. 21, 2007, the MacNeills' wedding anniversary, Martin MacNeill drove to Henderson, Nev., where Somers lived while she attended medical school. He claimed he was on his way to the Mayo Clinic, but Somers found luggage in MacNeill's car that appeared to belong to a woman. She called her mother and told her about it.

After that, Michele MacNeill suspected her husband was having an affair. She, along with her daughters, secretly checked his phone records and found a recurring number. Michele MacNeill called her husband, who returned to Henderson and yelled at his daughter.

Later, a woman named Gypsy Willis would admit to investigators she met MacNeill in Arizona at that time.

In February 2007, Willis moved into a home Martin MacNeill was renting in Lehi, apparently to be closer to him. MacNeill asked neighbors if they would like her to house-sit for them while they were gone.

After Michele MacNeill's death, MacNeill named Willis as his beneficiary.

She attended Michele MacNeill's funeral, and Martin MacNeill tried to convince his biological children that the family should hire Willis as a nanny for the four younger children Martin and Michele MacNeill had adopted.

As the two spent time recently in separate prisons in Texas for stealing the identity of one of MacNeill's adopted daughters, they wrote to each other through a third-party, according to court documents. They talked about their love for each other and made plans to live together after they were released, according to investigators.

A mother's suspicions • Investigators believe MacNeill wanted to kill his wife to be with Willis, and that in March 2007 he created an opportunity: He suggested his wife get "facial reconstruction" surgery. MacNeill found a surgeon in Davis County and arranged a meeting. Later MacNeill called the doctor and told him which medications he wanted for his wife, according to court documents.

The doctor said "he would not have prescribed that combination of drugs" if Martin, who at the time was the clinical director of the Utah State Developmental Center, a residential facility in American Fork for people with disabilities, "had not been a physician and agreed to monitor the administration of the drugs," court documents state.

Michele MacNeill was prescribed Lortab, Ambien, Valium, Phenergan and Percocet.

During a checkup with another doctor in late March 2007, Michele MacNeill reportedly expressed reservations about going forward with the surgery, while her husband "insisted the operation move ahead as scheduled."

On April 3, 2007, Michele MacNeill had surgery and was kept overnight at the hospital, which "upset" her husband, court documents state. When she returned to the family home the next day, Martin MacNeill told his daughters he would care for her.

On the morning of April 5, Michele MacNeill was "listless and unresponsive," when Somers found her about 6 a.m., according to court documents.

Martin MacNeill said he thought he might have "over-medicated her," and father and daughter argued.

"When she woke up, she told me that my dad kept giving her medication," Somers told investigators. "She said that she did not know what he was giving her, but he kept telling her to swallow."

Somers said her mother told her: "If anything happens to me, make sure it wasn't your dad."

For the next few days, Somers stayed at her mother's side as her health improved after the surgery. On April 10, with Michele MacNeill able to walk on her own and drive, her daughter returned to school in Nevada.

The next morning, Martin MacNeill took the children to school. He went to work, where he made calls from his work phone to his daughter and his wife.

"Michele, don't you dare, don't you go anywhere," Martin MacNeill's message said, according to court documents. "Don't you go anywhere. Take it easy. Please, I'm very concerned. ... You just stay where you're at. I'm coming home. I'm going to make you a sandwich and we'll have a lovely lunch together, but just don't call anybody and don't go anywhere."

Investigators said they believe the calls from the work phone, and later a picture MacNeill asked to have taken of him at a work safety fair, were pretext, an attempt to build an alibi.

In any case, MacNeill was never more than a five-minute drive from the home, officials said.

Martin MacNeill picked up his 6-year-old daughter from the American Heritage School around 11:35 a.m. April 11 and drove home. The child ran upstairs and found her mother in the bathtub partially filled with reddish-brown water.

MacNeill called 911 but screamed too loudly for the dispatcher to initially make sense of the call. Later, he gave a wrong address that slowed the response. Neighbors heard Martin MacNeill screaming for help. When a woman who lived next door entered the house, he said he needed a "man's help" to pull his wife from the tub and made her run next door to get her husband.

"Whatever ailments Martin claimed to suffer from at the time of his wife's death appear to have been contrived," investigators wrote. "He used this weakness as an excuse to explain why he could not pull his wife out of the bathtub."

"The second I called home, and he said my mother was in the bathtub, I knew he killed her," Somers said.

Doug Daniels, a neighbor, told investigators that when MacNeill tried CPR, he never saw the woman's chest rise.

There were differences in Martin MacNeill's account and his young daughter's. Child and father differed on how the woman's body was positioned when she was found, and whether she was wearing pants.

How did she die? •Â MacNeill's attorney, Randall Spencer, describes his client as an "odd man."

Investigators say MacNeill has admitted to hearing voices directing him to kill and, according to court documents, has said he has killed family members and patients, though no evidence of such crimes exists. MacNeill has admitted to stealing his adopted daughter's identity and to falsifying undergraduate transcripts to get into medical school and law school.

But Martin MacNeill did not kill his wife, Spencer said.

"People may find it hard to imagine, but he truly loved his wife," the defense attorney said. "She was a big support and stabilizing factor in his life."

"Mr. MacNeill adamantly denies that he had anything to do with the death of his wife," Spencer said. "It's regrettable that the county and so many others have seemingly determined that because Mr. MacNeill has done many bad things in his life he must also be a murderer."

The state medical examiner has never ruled Michele MacNeill's death a homicide.

After an autopsy in 2007, a medical examiner ruled the manner of death was "natural," the result of "chronic hypertension and myocarditis, which are capable of causing acute unexpected arrhythmia and sudden death." But investigators say Martin MacNeill called the medical examiner multiple times and gave misleading information. In 2010, with a new investigative report, Chief Medical Examiner Todd Grey changed the cause of death to the combined effects of heart disease and drug toxicity. The manner of death was changed to "undetermined."

In recent years, other experts reviewed the case anew. A University of Utah professor of pharmacology and toxicology said he believed Michele MacNeill had taken a potentially lethal dose of medication. A medical examiner in Florida determined the immediate cause of death was drowning and that, contrary to the Utah medical examiner's findings, there was no evidence of acute or active myocarditis.

"The investigation shows Martin MacNeill led a life filled with contradictions, deception and manipulation," Robinson, the investigator, wrote in his affidavit for an arrest warrant. "I believe it was his intention to rid himself of his family and wife."

He added, "Martin's attitude and actions show he wanted to be with Gypsy, and Michele was keeping him from his new life. The consequences of divorce, including paying for two homes, spousal support and dealing with the social fallout, were not a viable option."

afalk@sltrib.comTwitter: @aaronfalk —

What's next

P A preliminary hearing on murder charges against Martin MacNeill begins Oct. 5 in 4th District Court and is slated to run five days. MacNeill's attorney, Randall Spencer, requested a preliminary hearing "as soon as reasonably possible" on Tuesday, but prosecutors told Judge Samuel McVey that they needed at least a month to coordinate between 20 to 24 witnesses that could be called to testify in the case.