Lies shatter Utah family

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 17 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

Jill Harper-Smith, a niece, and Alexis and Rachel MacNeill talk about the life of Martin MacNeill, who is in prison.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Copyright 2009 Deseret News

PLEASANT GROVE — Rachel MacNeill's nightmares are better than her reality.

Her mom died, her dad's in federal prison for fraud and she and her sister, Alexis, are trying to take care of their three adopted sisters whom she says her dad tried to give away to another family.

Almost every day, the 29-year-old said she learns something new about her father — something he lied about in the past, something he did that made no sense to her at the time.

Many of the pieces of a bizarre family puzzle are finally coming together for her and her sisters, she says. But there are big pieces still missing from that puzzle — including a central piece concerning the circumstances surrounding their mother's death in April 2007.

It was Michele MacNeill's death that prompted family members to begin asking questions that eventually led to investigators unraveling years and years of lies by Martin MacNeill.

Jeff Robinson, the chief investigator for the Utah County Attorney's Office, compared Martin MacNeill's life to "Catch Me If You Can" but said the movie "paled in comparison."

In August, Martin MacNeill, the former director of the Utah State Developmental Center in American Fork, was sentenced to four years in federal prison after pleading guilty to two counts of aiding and abetting in aggravated identity theft.

In September, the Pleasant Grove doctor and attorney pleaded guilty to three felonies of making false and inconsistent statements, insurance fraud and forgery in Provo's 4th District Court and was ordered to serve three years in jail.

Past is prologue

But this is only the beginning to his past, Robinson said.

Rachel said she started questioning her dad after he took her to an LDS temple to pray about a nanny just six days after her mom — his wife — died in April 2007. Rachel MacNeill told her father they did not need to get a nanny because she could take care of her younger siblings until her sister, Alexis, came home from medical school for the rest of the summer.

But he was insistent.

Just outside the temple, a woman named Gypsy Willis, whom her dad pretended not to know, walked up to Rachel and Martin MacNeill. Willis began talking to them, and Rachel MacNeill said her dad acted very strange.

"This was the first time I realized something was wrong," she said. "The whole thing had been scripted."

She says her dad not only knew Willis but had been dating her for three years before his wife's death.

Prosecutors say Martin MacNeill and Willis began altering Willis' identity by obtaining false ID cards and opened several bank accounts under false identities just after the death of Martin MacNeill's wife. He even used his wife's funeral date as the supposed marriage date for him and Willis, according to court documents.

Willis pleaded guilty to aggravated identity theft and was sentenced to 21 months in prison. She was to begin serving her time before Oct. 15 but was arrested a month earlier when prosecutors say she tried to flee to Mexico.

Additional charges against Willis at the state level are still pending, Robinson said.

Martin MacNeill, when contacted by the Deseret News at a federal prison in Texas, refused to be interviewed.

Unraveling the past

Alexis MacNeill said she started unraveling her father's past the minute he stammered over the name of the new nanny. About a month before her mom's death, she said her mother had asked her to look into her father's phone records because she believed he was having an affair.

Alexis MacNeill said she found her dad had been calling someone named "Gypsy Willis" quite a bit — the same woman he pretended he did not know just a month later, she said.

When Michele MacNeill confronted her husband about the possible affair a month before her death, Alexis MacNeill said he shrugged it off and explained that he had been renting out the family's second home to Willis.

She said her mom did not believe him. Just days before she died, Michele MacNeill confronted him again. Alexis MacNeill recalled her mother saying at that time, "If I die, make sure it wasn't your dad."

Alexis MacNeill said she told her mom not to think like that. She said she loved her father and even began studying medicine because of his example. Now she says she wishes she weren't going to become the next Dr. MacNeill and believes her father was involved with her mom's death.

"We had no idea of the secret life he was leading," Alexis MacNeill said. "We thought we were a normal family with a normal life."

During the phone conversation when Alexis MacNeill says her father told her the new nanny's name, she told him she knew that name because her mom had believed he was having an affair with her.

Because of that conversation, she said her father held a family meeting and told her adult siblings Rachel, Damian and Vanessa that Alexis MacNeill was no longer a part of the family and she was not allowed to talk to her four younger siblings. Still living at home at this time were Martin MacNeill's four adopted children — whose ages at the time were 16, 14, 13 and 6. Rachel MacNeill was also home helping out, and two of her siblings, Damian MacNeill, 24, and Vanessa MacNeill, 27, both lived in Utah.

Alexis MacNeill said her family was and is her life and she did everything she could to be allowed to be part of her family again. Over the next few months, she said her father went back and forth, occasionally permitting her to talk to her siblings.

She and Rachel MacNeill were both living in their father's home in June when they were kicked out in the middle of the night after Rachel MacNeill started asking her father why Willis, the person who was supposed to be the nanny, didn't cook, clean or take care of the kids.

From there, Rachel MacNeill said her father's subsequent actions almost tore the family apart.

Stealing an identity

Alexis MacNeill said her dad asked her in July 2007 to accompany one of her adopted siblings, Giselle, back to Ukraine for the summer to visit her biological sister. She was instructed by her father to keep Giselle's U.S. passport because "Giselle may lose it," he told her.

But the sisters now believe Martin MacNeill had no intention of ever going back to get his daughter of five years. This was a ploy to try to steal her identity, said Linda Cluff, Michele MacNeill's younger sister.

Alexis MacNeill recounted in a statement to the Utah County Attorney's Office that she tried to find out the address and phone number where Giselle was staying in Ukraine, but her dad would not give them to her.

Her cousin, Jill Harper-Smith, 23, was finally able to reach her by phone after locating the translator who had helped Michele and Martin MacNeill adopt their daughters in 2002. Harper flew to Ukraine and brought her back to the U.S. about nine months after she'd left. Giselle had been trying to reach her father for many months at this point and had not had any money for food or school for the last couple of months there, Alexis MacNeill said.

Giselle is currently in a structured foster home to deal with everything that happened to her while she was there, she said.

Shortly after taking Giselle to Ukraine, Alexis MacNeill said her father sent a text message to all the older siblings and told them he was giving their youngest sisters, who had been part of the family for five years, away to another family that lived in California — a family Alexis said she had only seen once in the past 16 years.

Defending Dad

Martin MacNeill's only son, Damian, sees things quite differently than his sisters and is quick to defend his father.

He said his dad was just sending the younger children to live with the family while he was dealing with depression and insists he had no intention of giving the children away. He doesn't believe his father was involved with his mother's death, and he "still loves his dad as much as any child could." He also told the Deseret News that while his dad has urged him to keep in contact with his sisters, he won't speak with people who trash his father.

Alexis MacNeill was eventually awarded custody of her sisters by the courts after seeking help from police, attorneys and her mom's sisters.

Cluff, Michele MacNeill's younger sister, said she didn't find out about her sister's death until a day later through a family friend whose mother knew Martin MacNeill's sister because she said Martin MacNeill forbade his family from calling his wife's sisters.

"Martin wanted nothing more to do with any of Michele's family," Cluff said. "We knew of his past and what he was really capable of."

After finding out about the death, Cluff went to the police because she suspected foul play. She said while an autopsy indicated her sister died of a heart attack, she is not convinced and is still looking for answers.

She said Pleasant Grove police officers were rude and mocked her for believing such a thing. "It was like we were in the twilight zone," Cluff said.

Pleasant Grove Police Capt. Michael Smith said the case was reopened in late 2007 after Cluff returned with more concerns. He said it is hard to try and prove homicide, however, when a medical examiner says a death was caused by a heart attack.

The Utah County Attorney's Office picked up the case in January 2008, after Cluff wrote several letters and e-mails to them and to former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

Prosecutor Doug Witney, the lead investigator, said he had no idea what he was getting into when he started on the case more than a year ago.

"This was a case that because nothing was known about the individual, nothing was done," said Whitney, who added that his position as a doctor and attorney caused fewer people to question him.

'Scripted and staged'

He soon learned that Martin MacNeill didn't graduate from high school, lied about his age to get into the military, falsified transcripts from college to get into medical school and into the BYU law school, and was still on probation from a felony conviction when he was attending medical school.

Witney said MacNeill was given a military leave after allegedly being deemed a schizophrenic. He was given 50 percent disability from the Veteran's Administration and then 100 percent on the grounds that he was anti-social, wasn't going to school and wasn't working, according to documents obtained by investigators. He also managed to get 100 percent pay from Social Security, despite making a six-digit income, according to the same documents.

"MacNeill loved to act," Witney said. "I believe his whole life was scripted and staged."

He believes MacNeill, whom he calls "deceptively intelligent," considered it a challenge to try and get around every system and every law.

"He slipped through the cracks because he was good at it," Witney said.

Martin MacNeill's attorney, Randy Spencer, declined to go into specific details about his client's past but said the Utah State Medical Examiner's Office conducted a full autopsy, including toxicology tests, and confirmed that Michele MacNeill died of natural causes.

"Martin has made some serious mistakes in his life, but he certainly has not done all the things that his family is now alleging, and has accepted the consequences for the wrong things he has done," Spencer said.

But Witney said the case into Michele's death is ongoing.

"If we didn't think there was something there, we would have closed the case with the fraud," he said.

Witney also said that so far all the information the family has brought to him has proven to be accurate and been confirmed with outside sources.

Rachel and Alexis MacNeill said right now they are just trying to live their lives and make their sisters' lives the best that they can. Rachel MacNeill is working at a restaurant while Alexis MacNeill is in her fourth year of residency at medical school.

They say they often talk about their mother but their lifetimes of memories with their father have been tainted.

"This has been the worst nightmare," Alexis MacNeill said. "But we still have to live, we still have to keep going. I have to finish medical school. I have to keep on living. If we hadn't fought, they never would have found out about the fraud. I just want my sisters to be safe."

e-mail: slenz@desnews.com. Contributing: Sara Israelsen-Hartley

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