Martin MacNeill's actions showed 'evidence of a guilty mind,' judge says

Pleasant Grove doctor ordered to stand trial for murder in wife's 2007 death

Published: Thursday, Oct. 11 2012 3:03 p.m. MDT

Martin MacNeill was ordered Thursday to stand trial for murder in the 2007 death of his wife. The Pleasant Grove doctor appears in 4th District Court in Provo Wednesday Oct. 10, 2012, for his preliminary hearing.

Al Hartmann,

PROVO — After five full days of testimony and a morning of arguments, a judge declared that much of what Martin MacNeill did surrounding his wife's death showed "evidence of a guilty mind."

Although the case is largely circumstantial, the judge said a variety of MacNeill's unusual actions created valid suspicion, such as the way MacNeill offered an emergency room doctor $10,000 to keep working on his clearly dead wife, and how the description of his wife's body in the bathtub contradicted nearly everyone else who saw her.

"The court believes there is probable case to believe that Michele MacNeill died by drowning and was subjected to drowning by the defendant," 4th District Judge Samuel McVey said Thursday. "There is certainly motive in this case — a long-term relationship with a paramour. ... This would not be the first case in which someone killed a spouse to replace that spouse."

McVey ordered MacNeill, 56, to stand trial for murder, a first-degree felony, and obstructing justice, a second-degree felony, in the 2007 death of Michele MacNeill, 50.

"It's a whole web of lies, and he almost got away with it. Let's hope the jury convicts my father," daughter Alexis Somers said after the judge announced his decision. "It's kind of surreal. This is someone I looked up to and loved most of our lives, and we thought he loved us, but instead he murdered my mother."

"My mother deserves to be fought for. She deserves to not be murdered and thrown away."

MacNeill is accused of over-medicating his wife, administering a dangerous combination of drugs and drowning her in the bathtub of their home. Soon after, MacNeill's longtime mistress, Gypsy Willis, moved into the MacNeill house as the children's new nanny.

MacNeill had worked as a doctor and had a law degree, both of which police believe he used "to commit the murder and frustrate the investigation in an attempt to cover it up," court documents state.

While the Utah state medical examiner testified that Michele MacNeill died of drug toxicity and heart disease, a retired Florida medical examiner testified that she died from drowning. But Utah County deputy district attorney Chad Grunander said the exact cause of death isn't important.

"The state needs to show that Martin MacNeill committed an act that caused the death of another. It doesn't articulate that there needs to be a specific, overt act proven under a specific theory," he said in his closing statements.

Grunander reviewed much of the hearing's testimony, including evidence that showed MacNeill urged his wife to undergo cosmetic surgery and how he asked for additional medication.

He referred to the night after the surgery when MacNeill insisted that his daughter leave her mother's room and when she returned the next morning, her mother was unresponsive and heavily sedated. He reminded the judge of the morning Michele MacNeill died, how she had called her daughter "in good spirits" after getting ready to run errands.

"The first time Martin is left alone with his wife, we have this spike in drugs," Grunander said. "The very next time Martin MacNeill is left alone with his wife, she is found dead."

The prosecutor referred to testimony from another former mistress, Anna Osborne Walthall, who said MacNeill told her he had once tried to kill his mother by mixing multiple medications with beer and that he'd drowned his suicidal brother.

Grunander referred to testimony from Willis' roommates, who reported that Willis had talked about getting rid of MacNeill's wife.

"Martin was a doctor who had a unique knowledge and skill and experience," Grunander said. "He had the unique ability to commit a homicide and hide it from other people. ... He expressed his ability to kill in plain sight and for others to not know what he was doing."

Grunander asked the judge to leave the job of weighing the evidence in the case to a jury. But defense attorney Randall Spencer asked McVey to keep the case from going to trial because he felt prosecutors failed to prove Michele MacNeill's death was the result of criminal activity.

"The state has not proved an act by the defendant. They speculate about an act, and that is all we have here," Spencer told the judge. "They speculate that somewhere on April 11, 2007, Martin administered medication to Michele. There is zero evidence that on April 11, 2007, he administered medication to Michele."

He said the case was full of "Hollywood-esque stereotypes" and evidence of "bad acts" on MacNeill's part, but none of those acts superseded the fact that Michele MacNeill's cause of death was classified as undetermined — not a homicide.

"There's simply no evidence to support that," Spencer said. "This is just wild speculation. ... (Prosecutors have) taken an approach to this case that started with a conclusion, the conclusion being: 'We think Martin MacNeill killed Michele,' and they're working backward and taking a shotgun approach to find anything that supports that conclusion."

Dr. Joshua Perper, who recently retired as chief medical examiner in Broward County, Fla., testified that he believed drowning was the cause of MacNeill's death.

Perper disputed the findings of both Utah State Medical Examiner Dr. Todd Grey — a fellow prosecution witness — and one of Grey's former employees, Dr. Maureen Frikke.

Frikke, who died a couple of years ago, performed the initial autopsy on MacNeill after her death. She concluded the cause of death was myocarditis, or an inflammation of the heart. Later, Grey made an addendum to the original autopsy, listing the cause of death as heart disease combined with drug toxicity.

The judge said he felt Perper's was the most thorough and reliable evaluation, but noted that "medical examiners are not the arbiters of this case and are not the final say as to the cause of death." He said Frikke's illness left him "disinclined to give a whole lot of weight" to her conclusions.

McVey also questioned MacNeill's inability to pull his wife from the bathtub and mentioned testimony from witnesses who said they did not see Michele MacNeill's chest rise as her husband was administering CPR. The judge also referred to testimony from the doctor who performed Michele MacNeill's surgery who said the woman was tapering off of her medications just before she died.

McVey wondered why MacNeill asked someone to flush the medications down the toilet shortly after his wife's death when, as a doctor, he should know how important they would be in an investigation. He referred to MacNeill's expressed desire to marry Willis and the fact that the two later reported themselves to be married, listing their wedding date as the day of Michele MacNeill's funeral.

"Dr. MacNeill certainly had plenty of opportunity to give her these drugs," McVey said, referring to Michele MacNeill. "She would not be able to resist drowning or resist him drowning her by holding her head under water until she expires."

A tearful Somers called the judge's decision a "relief" after so many years of fighting for her mother's cause. She and many other family members have long believed her father killed her mother.

"We're so happy that the judge has ruled in favor of the prosecutors and it's going to trial," she said.

Defense attorney Susanne Gustin said the judge's ruling was "not surprising" given the standard at a preliminary hearing, which requires judges to view evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution. Gustin said she and Spencer have now seen much of the evidence and will prepare for trial.

"He has done some bad things, but does that mean he's a murderer? No. A lot of people have affairs," she said. "Just because he's an adulterer doesn't mean he's a murderer."

An arraignment hearing has been set for Oct. 22.

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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