PROVO — An affair between Martin MacNeill and his former mistress started more than a year before his wife's alleged murder, but the woman prosecutors say was the motive for the crime insists the relationship was only a casual fling.
Gypsy Willis told a jury Friday in 4th District Court that she met MacNeill online in spring 2005 and in person later that year, but they didn't begin their occasional sexual relationship until 2006.
“It was a couple of times a month,” said Willis, who MacNeill later hired as a nanny to his young children. “It was a casual thing, whenever we had time and it could be arranged.”
Willis is testifying against her former lover as part of plea deal with Utah County prosecutors that kept her out of jail despite convictions on state felony charges for identity theft. She was accused of stealing the identity of MacNeill’s adopted teen daughter, a crime that also resulted in federal criminal convictions for both Willis and MacNeill.
MacNeill was charged with 50-year-old Michele MacNeill’s murder in 2012, more than five years after April 11, 2007, the day she was found unconscious and submerged in the bathtub of the couple’s Pleasant Grove home.
A former physician and attorney, Martin MacNeill has pleaded not guilty to the crimes but could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted. The trial is in its second week and is expected to last until mid-November.
Prosecutors contend MacNeill gave his wife a powerful cocktail of painkillers to render her unable to defend herself, then drowned her in the tub and used his skills as a physician to make it look like an accident. The drugs were prescribed to Michele MacNeill following plastic surgery a week earlier.
Prosecutors allege Martin MacNeill killed his wife so he could start a new life with Willis, 37, with whom he exchanged nearly two dozen text messages on the day of Michele MacNeill's funeral — four of which were sent about the same time of the service.
Phone and text records introduced as evidence in court Friday show Martin MacNeill and Willis communicated primarily through text messages or in calls from his office at the Utah Developmental Center, but that he never called the nursing student on his cell.
“This was a very informal, discreet,” Willis said when asked by deputy Utah County attorney Sam Pead to explain. “We really weren’t interested in other people knowing. I think he was trying to keep it quiet.”
Later, Willis acknowledged the relationship became more serious, and she rebuffed other men in favor of MacNeill. She also said MacNeill eventually put her up in an apartment, gave her a debit card to use for expenses and helped her finance nursing school.
Also on the stand Friday, Willis recounted a meeting of herself, MacNeill and his daughter Rachel outside the Mount Timpanogos Temple in American Fork a few days after the funeral.
The MacNeills had allegedly gone to pray for guidance in choosing a nanny, but Pead asked Willis to confirm the encounter was actually “staged and directed” by MacNeill.
“I don’t understand the terms,” claimed Willis, who that day used a fake name, Jillian. “He wanted me to meet his family on the best possible terms.”
Within a week, Willis was interviewed by MacNeill and some of his elder children and was hired as the family’s nanny, despite objections from his daughters and others.
Willis shrugged off a question about any discord.
“I don’t believe that Martin would have had me come and help if his children would have any strong objection to me,” she said.
Willis was on the stand for only about 30 minutes Friday before Judge Derek Pullan sent the jury home for the weekend. Her testimony is expected to resume on Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, a pharmacology expert said Michele MacNeill did not have a lethal combination of drugs in her system when she died, but that mix of chemicals would have rendered her unable to respond to her surroundings.
The drugs — Lortab, Ambien, oxycodone and Valium — would make a person “unable to respond constructively to their environment,” said Gary Dawson, a clinical pharmacologist and forensic toxicologist from Idaho.
“They would be difficult to arouse, even asleep,” he said. “The cognitive impairment would be profound.”
But Dawson didn’t conclude the drugs killed the woman and on cross-examination admitted to defense attorney Randall Spencer that he told investigators in 2009 it would be a huge hurdle to “get around” the findings of a Utah medical examiner's report.
“There’s not a smoking gun here that I see,” Dawson said the next year, according to a transcript of an interview with investigators read into court.
An initial autopsy concluded Michele MacNeill died of natural causes related to heart disease, including chronic hypertension and myocarditis. A subsequent analysis by an expert for the state attributed the death to drowning.
The death has been called suspicious, but no expert concluded she died from a drug overdose or that her death was the result of the homicide.
Also on Friday, Pullan said he would limit testimony from the MacNeills' youngest daughter, Ada, because it appears some of her memories had been tainted by her sister and others who believe Martin MacNeill killed his wife.
Only testimony given by Ada in a recorded 2009 interview from the Utah County Children’s Justice Center will be heard in court, though defense attorneys will be allowed to question her.
Prosecutors consider Ada’s testimony critical to their case because she was the first to find her mother. Ada, now 12, was 6 when her mother died.
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