PROVO — More than six years after suspicions and lies began to unravel what seemed like a perfect family life, a former doctor and lawyer will stand trial this week in the death of his wife.
Michele MacNeill, 50, was found dead in the bathtub of her Pleasant Grove home on April 11, 2007, by her then-6-year-old daughter.
An initial autopsy found the mother of eight died of natural causes, but three years later, the Utah State Medical Examiner’s Office reconsidered its findings, labeling the manner of her death as “suspicious.”
Martin MacNeill, 57, is charged in Utah County’s 4th District Court with murder, a first-degree felony, and obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony.
Jury selection in the five-week trial begins Tuesday with testimony expected to begin Thursday. If convicted of the charges, MacNeill could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Proscutors contend he used a dangerous painkiller cocktail — prescribed a week earlier after Michele had plastic surgery — to over-medicate his wife and then drown her.
Investigators believe the one-time clinical director of the Utah State Developmental Center capitalized on the recent surgery to acquire the necessary drugs and then used his skills as a physician to make the death look like an accident. They say MacNeill’s motive for the killing was his desire to begin a new life with his longtime mistress, Gypsy Willis, who was introduced to the family as the children’s new nanny shortly after Michele MacNeill died.
MacNeill denies any involvement in his wife’s death and has maintained that claim of innocence since before the charges were filed.
Defense attorney Randall Spencer has said there is "zero evidence" to show that MacNeill administered medication to his wife. The case is full of "Hollywood-esque stereotypes" and evidence of "bad acts" by his client, he said, insisting there is no evidence to show that she was murdered.
The case against MacNeill is largely circumstantial, but a judge who heard the evidence against him a year ago said his unusual actions and contradictions before and after her death created valid suspicions for a jury to consider.
"There is certainly motive in this case — a long-term relationship with a paramour," 4th District Judge Samuel McVey said. "This would not be the first case in which someone killed a spouse to replace that spouse."
MacNeill’s oldest daughters — Rachel MacNeill and Alexis Somers — have seemingly no doubt about their father’s guilt.
Somers testified last year that her mother had complained that she thought MacNeill was giving her too much medication following her surgery. Michele MacNeill had initially bounced back after the procedure but became listless and ill once her husband took charge of her care, family members say.
Somers said her mother was concerned enough to tell her: “If anything happens to me, make sure it was not your dad.”
“I just had this overwhelming feeling that he had done it,” Somers testified during a preliminary hearing.
On the outside, the family may have seemed perfect to others, but court records and investigative documents suggest that life inside the family home had been crumbling in the years leading up to Michele MacNeill’s death.
In an argument in August of 2000 after he was caught looking at pornography, MacNeill threatened to kill himself and his wife with a butcher knife. Later, amid rumors that MacNeill had had an affair, Somers said her father became verbally and emotionally abusive, claiming he no longer loved his wife or wanted the couple’s four adopted daughters.
Six weeks before her death, another argument erupted when she confronted her husband about his affair with Willis. In the three years since her death, other women have come forward claiming affairs with MacNeill, court records and family members say.
But long before the marital discord and accusations of murder, Martin MacNeill had a history of lying and manipulative behaviors, which are documented by a paper trail of criminal court, employment, school and military records.
At age 17, he convinced military officials that he suffered from latent schizophrenia and other mental health issues in order to collect disability payments. He collected Veterans Administration benefits for his alleged disability up until January 2010, even after he became a doctor and lawyer, Somers said. Yet investigators, his daughters and even a federal judge questioned whether his schizophrenia was real.
Later, he falsified school transcripts to get into medical and law school and also failed to disclose mental health issues and felony convictions when he was hired at the BYU Health Center, according to documents obtained by the Utah County Attorney's Office.
MacNeill worked temporarily at the clinic while attending law school, but his work was punctuated with allegations of rape, unprofessional conduct and misdiagnosis. He was dismissed in 1999 for undisclosed reasons.
His criminal record includes convictions for forgery, theft and fraud, for which he served six months in jail shortly after his 1978 marriage to Michele. In 2009, he was convicted in federal court of aggravated identity theft charges for using the identity of his 16-year-old adopted daughter to create documents and a new persona for Willis. She was also convicted of the same charge and both served federal prison sentences.Comment on this story
Investigators have called MacNeill a “thespian” who lived a scripted life, weaving a web of lies even as he maintained a reputation as a loving husband and father, a committed physician and an upstanding member of his church and community.
For the MacNeill children, the discovery of each lie or deception has left them with fractured family memories and slowly dismantled the relationship with their father, Rachel MacNeill explained in a 2010 interview with the Deseret News.
“The father that I knew was a fictional character,” she said.