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MacNeill murder trial to decide if Utah doctor killed his wife

Published October 14, 2013 4:31 pm

Jury selection starts Tuesday; prosecutors say motive was younger woman.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Michele MacNeill, the mother of eight children and a former beauty queen, seems an unlikely candidate to have been killed in her own bathtub. While her husband, a well-known Utah County doctor who also has a law degree, seems just as unlikely in the role of murder suspect.

But prosecutors say Martin MacNeill, 57, had an age-old motive — he was driven to kill his wife so he could continue having an affair with a younger woman.

And some of those closest to Michele MacNeill have believed for years that her husband was capable of harming her.

Jury selection begins Tuesday in 4th District Court in Provo. Jurors are expected to listen to five weeks of evidence, then will be asked to decide if what happened six years ago in the couple's Pleasant Grove home amounted to murder.

Homecoming queen • Michele Somers MacNeill was born and raised in California, one of seven siblings. Even from an early age, she displayed a love for learning.

"I just remember how excited she was to turn 5," older sister Susan Hare said in a phone interview Friday. "To get to start kindergarten. That enthusiasm for school never left her. She adored school."

Michele MacNeill excelled in high school in Concord, Calif. — she was a cheerleader, homecoming queen and loved learning French.

"She was like a princess," younger sister Terry Pearson remembered. "She was outgoing, very kind. She was very sweet to everybody that she came in contact with."

In 1977, the Somers family moved to Mission Viejo, Calif., and Michele met Martin MacNeill. The Somers family did not approve of MacNeill, and just months into dating, the two eloped, according to a blog that Michele's sister Linda Cluff has maintained since 2010.

"I thought he was arrogant," Cluff wrote about her first impression of her new brother-in-law. "He walked in our house for the first time like he owned the place. He was self-absorbed. It became more and more apparent each time I saw him that he believed he was more superior than anyone else and thought very highly of himself."

During their courtship, Martin MacNeill told his future wife that he was in trouble with the law for writing a few bad checks, Cluff wrote, but that it was "no big deal."

After the two had wed, the Somers family soon learned that Martin MacNeill had actually been charged with 14 felony counts of fraud, according to Cluff. Michele MacNeill's mother gathered together newspaper clippings about the case, as well as court documents and two psychological evaluations her son-in-law underwent as part of the criminal prosecution. Cluff wrote her mother kept the documents in case they needed them in the future.

"I won't be surprised if he killed her some day," Cluff recalled her mother telling her over 30 years ago.

Something was wrong • After the young couple moved to Mexico, back to California and then to New York for Martin MacNeill's medical school and internships, they eventually settled in Utah, where they raised eight children — four biological and four adopted.

"Above all, her kids meant everything to her," Hare said. "Her life pretty much circled around whatever they were involved in doing. That's what her days were really filled with, was all the things with her children."

Michele MacNeill had a knack for decorating, loved watching ballet and enjoyed listening to classical music, according to her sisters. But after her first child, Rachel, was born, her world quickly centered around being a mom.

"I always thought my sister was not just beautiful, but she had tremendous talent," Cluff said in an interview Friday. "She had the potential to do whatever she wanted, but what made her happiest was being around her children and loving them." Though Michele MacNeill continued enjoying her children, toward the end of her life, her sister could tell something was wrong.

"Towards the end, my impression was that something seemed to be bothering her," Cluff said. "At the end, she seemed to not be very happy."

In February 2007, Michele MacNeill confided in her daughter that she believed her husband was having an affair, according to a search warrant affidavit written by Utah County Attorney's Office investigator Jeff Robinson. A month later, Martin MacNeill began pressuring her to get a facelift.

"Michele initially didn't want the surgery because she was overweight," Robinson wrote in the search warrant. "However, she considered that Martin was attempting to make himself look better and she believed that cosmetic surgery may help their relationship and therefore consented to it."

Michele MacNeill had a full facelift procedure on April 3, 2007. At Martin MacNeill's request, the surgeon, Scott Thompson, gave Michele more prescription pills than he normally would, including prescriptions for Lortab, Ambien, Valium and Percocet.

"In this case, because of the fact that Martin was a physician, I was more willing to give more extra medications than I normally would have," Thompson testified at a preliminary hearing last year.

Foul play? • A little over a week after the surgery, Michele MacNeill was dead at age 50 — discovered unconscious in a bathtub by her 6-year-old daughter on April 11, 2007.

Martin MacNeill told his daughter to go to the neighbors to get help while he called 911.

But in a recording of the 911 call, Martin MacNeill's words are nearly inaudible as he screamed at the dispatcher for help. He gave an incorrect address and hung up on the dispatcher twice.

Michele MacNeill was declared dead at a nearby hospital. An autopsy conducted shortly after ruled her manner of death as "natural," the result of "chronic hypertension and myocarditis, which are capable of causing acute unexpected arrhythmia and sudden death."

But family members were suspicious.

"As soon as I heard Michele died, I had no doubt that Martin had killed her," Cluff wrote in her blog. "My whole family felt the same way."

Within a week of her sister's death, Cluff decided to go to police because she suspected foul play. But Pleasant Grove police officers were dismissive of her claims, especially after receiving the autopsy report that the woman's death was natural.

"I informed [the officer] that the results didn't shock me at all," Cluff wrote of the autopsy results. "I was expecting the results to be normal. Martin would know how to hide any sort of foul play. I absolutely knew the report would not reveal any foul play."

Meanwhile, within weeks of Michele MacNeill's death, Martin MacNeill's lover, 31-year-old Gypsy Willis, had moved into the family home, assuming the role of nanny, according to preliminary hearing testimony last year.

After local police closed their case, Cluff and other family members went to the Utah County Attorney's Office, sending them information, letters, and emails, asking them to further investigate Michele MacNeill's death. In January 2008, the case was finally picked up, and in August 2012, Martin MacNeill was charged with first-degree felony murder and second-degree felony obstruction of justice.

During their investigation, Utah County Attorney's Office investigators asked the medical examiner to look again at the autopsy report. In 2010, Chief Medical Examiner Todd Grey changed the cause of Michele MacNeill's death to the combined effects of heart disease and drug toxicity. The manner of death was changed to "undetermined."

In recent years, other experts have also reviewed the case. 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.

Investigators believe Martin MacNeill gave his wife a deadly combination of prescription drugs that killed her and devised the murderous plan to get rid of his wife so he could continue an affair with Willis.

Praying for justice • Now, Michele MacNeill's family is preparing for the trial.

Cluff wrote in her blog that listening to previous court hearings has been difficult, in part because her brother-in-law has shown no emotion — "stone-faced and cold," as she described it — during testimony of Michele MacNeill's last moments.

"I would have expected nothing different from Martin," she wrote. "This was not a surprise. This is precisely the Martin that I have always known."

Michele MacNeill's three sisters plan on attending the trial, and they are hoping for a verdict that will keep their brother-in-law — who has been in jail while awaiting trial — behind bars at the Utah State Prison.

"Our family is just hoping and praying that justice will be served with this whole thing," Pearson said. "That the jury will see things clearly, the way they need to be seen."

jmiller@sltrib.com

Twitter: @jm_miller — Continuing coverage

Reporter Jessica Miller will be in the courtroom throughout the trial. Follow her tweets from the courthouse: @jm_miller.