PROVO — Just five days before her death in 2007, a hazy Michele MacNeill turned to her daughter Alexis and uttered some foreboding and ultimately prophetic words:
“If anything happens to me, make sure it was not your dad.”
The admonition came after Michele’s husband, Martin MacNeill, spent the night pumping his wife with so many painkillers and other drugs that the former California beauty queen was left in a stupor. That troubled Alexis, then a first-year medical student caring for her mother, who had been weaning her off the post-surgery drugs as she recovered from plastic surgery.
Michele, 50, a mother of eight, was found dead in the bathtub of her Pleasant Grove home by her youngest daughter on April 11, 2007.
The echo of Michele's words then became her daughter’s directive.
With the help of her sister Rachel and Michele’s sister Linda Cluff, Alexis Somers launched a six-and-a-half-year campaign to prove that her father was responsible for her mother’s death.
“I think she absolutely felt like, 'I’ve got to do this. I’m not going to let it rest,'” Cluff told the Deseret News Saturday. “I would think of (Michele’s words) as marching orders. Alexis took that literally and she was making sure there was justice for Michele.”
The effort paid off in the early hours of Saturday when a jury of five men and three women found MacNeill, 57, guilty of murder and obstruction of justice for drugging Michele and getting her into a bathtub so he could hold her underwater until she drowned. He also tossed out the leftover drugs and lied to police, emergency workers and others about his wife’s death.
Jurors deliberated 11 hours before finally announcing their verdict at 1:10 a.m. Saturday: "Guilty." Weary from the four-week trial, Somers, Rachel, Cluff and other family members let go an audible gasp and yelped with joy as the word was read.
A former Pleasant Grove physician, MacNeill showed no emotion as the verdict was read by a clerk. Before being led away by jailers, however, he hugged defense attorney Randall Spencer and then placed his left hand on the lawyer’s shoulder.
“It’s OK, really,” MacNeill said with a slight smile that seemed to express some resignation.
Afterward, Somers said the courtroom was filled with people who loved her mother.
“We are just so happy he can’t hurt anyone else,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “I can’t believe this has finally happened. We’re so grateful ... there was justice for my mom.”
Investigators said the motive for the murder was Gypsy Willis, a nursing student with whom MacNeill had begun an affair in 2005 that escalated into a serious relationship in the month before Michele’s death.
Prosecutors were thrilled with the jury’s handling of a largely circumstantial case that was fraught with hurdles, not the least of which was an investigation that wasn’t started until years after the woman’s death, despite her pleading family.
“They didn’t take us seriously in the beginning,” an exhausted Cluff said Saturday. “When I went (to police), they were very disinterested. Everyone took Martin’s word because of who he was.”
That didn’t deter the family. For years they wrote letters to authorities, including Utah’s governor, and dug through school and court transcripts, military and employment records and talked to others who knew MacNeill, to help convince prosecutors to give Michele’s death their attention.
“We tried to tell people about him, but it was like we were the crazy people,” she said. “He did such a a good job of fooling people and acting.”
Cluff kept pushing until the Utah County Attorney’s Office agreed to open a case. Then she put Somers on the phone with investigators.
“She really had all the information. She was the key one at her mother's side,” Cluff said, adding that Michele and her daughter were extremely close. “They were like the Bobbsey twins.”
Many involved in the MacNeill case say Alexis was the glue that kept the pieces together and was the prosecution's star witness. She testified during three different days of the trial, including the first time just two days after giving birth to twins.
On the stand, she was poised, calm and focused, repeating her strong beliefs that the father whom she once idolized crafted and executed a plot to murder her mother less than 18 hours after she left home for school in Las Vegas.
Sitting in the courtroom before the verdict was read early Saturday, Cluff said she felt her sister’s presence — but was nervous.
“You know there’s always a chance that it could go either way,” she said. “For us, you know, it’s been 30 years and there were pieces of the puzzle that were missing from the case.”
About two hours before rendering its verdict, the jury asked the court for a copy of the three recorded calls MacNeill made to 911 seeking help for his wife. Defense attorneys claimed the calls were evidence that a frantic MacNeill was trying to save her. Prosecutors contended he lied to 911 operators about performing CPR and the home’s address.
In a note, jurors told the judge the recording was the last piece of evidence they needed before reaching a decision, although they didn’t say why.
The seemingly simple request turned problematic when prosecutors said they lacked a copy that could be easily played. That caused a scramble that lasted until midnight as they scurried to convert computer files to a CD.
The drama drew Michele’s family, media and dozens of interested others to the courtroom to wait out the proceedings. The packed room buzzed with conversation and palpable tension and hushed when prosecutors came in at 1 a.m. with news that a verdict had been reached.
It became even more quiet when the clerk stood to announce the decision.
“It was an amazing moment for the family, this has been so long in coming for them,” deputy Utah County attorney Chad Grunander said to the throng of reporters from Utah and national media outlets that had packed the 4th District courtroom for four weeks.
“We’re just absolutely thrilled for Alexis, for Rachel, for Linda Cluff,” the prosecutor said. “For all the daughters, for all the sisters. I love it when the system works and the system worked over these last four weeks.”
Only one of three medical examiners who considered the case ruled that the death was the result of drowning, however. One said she died of natural causes related to heart disease and a third said a combination of heart disease and drug toxicity were the cause. None, however, could declare definitively that the manner of death was homicide.
But prosecutor Jared Perkins told the jury during closing arguments that medical examiners interpret scientific evidence of the body, not culpability or motive.
“The fact that they don’t find homicide is a limitation of their role and a limitation of their science,” he said, explaining that it is a jury's job to decide who is responsible for someone's death.
Testimony in the mostly circumstantial case included some 40 witnesses — 36 called by the Utah County Attorney’s Office — knitting together stories about MacNeill’s odd behaviors and inconsistent statements to illustrate proof of his guilt.
For example, MacNeill forced his wife’s facelift, but raged before neighbors and emergency personnel after her death that she didn’t need it. He offered a doctor $10,000 to keep resuscitating an already dead Michele, instructed his son to flush her medications down the toilet, insisted on an autopsy and worried out loud about whether the police might investigate.
“It’s the most difficult case I’ve ever tried, in terms of emotion, in terms of certain aspects of the evidence,” said Grunander, who was assigned to the case three years ago. “Tough case. A lot of (district attorneys) wouldn’t file these charges."
In the end, Grunader said, his office studied other cases around the country where multiple medical examiners also failed to find physical evidence to conclude their victims had died as a result of homicide. But one similar case from Texas stood out because the suspected killers had obstructed justice by tampering with evidence and manipulating a crime scene.
“We had evidence of that here,” he said.
That seemed to be what convinced the MacNeill jury to convict, said Cluff, who met with the panel along with prosecutors and her family members about 1:30 a.m..
“A couple of them said that (MacNeill) destroying the evidence was really key,” she said. “It just speaks so loud.”
Grunander declined to discuss the substance of his conversation with jurors, whose names have not been released and so far have not responded to requests made through the court to speak with media.
“They were very convinced,” Grunander said, adding that there were parts of the case they didn't think were important that were "potentially problematic."
“Nonetheless they found enough (evidence),” he said.
Grunander said the MacNeill case is an example of what can be accomplished — even with circumstantial evidence — when victims and prosecutors persevere.
“You can win,” he said. “Don’t give up. Prosecutors, do the right thing. Push for justice. Victims, push for justice and just be courageous.”
Defense attorneys primarily relied on a MacNeill co-worker from the Utah State Developmental Center in American Fork, his young daughter’s teacher and an ergonomics expert to argue that MacNeill could not have been home at the time of Michele’s death and that he would have had trouble lifting her 180-pound body out of the oval-shaped sunken bathtub on his own.
In his own closing argument, Spencer said MacNeill was living an “alternative lifestyle,” maintaining the appearance of a perfect family life while keeping Willis on the side. But however odd and eccentric his behavior or personality may be, MacNeill was not a killer and the circumstances of the case didn’t add up to murder, he said.
Spencer made a quick exit from the courtroom after the verdict and declined to say if they would file an appeal.
“Of course I’m disappointed, but I don’t have any comment,” the normally upbeat and optimistic attorney said.
MacNeill faces a possible punishment of 15 years to life on the murder charge and another one to 15 years on the obstruction of justice charge when he is sentenced on Jan. 7, 2014. Fourth District Judge Derek P. Pullan will decide the sentence, although Utah’s Board of Pardons and Parole ultimately will decide how much time he spends behind bars.
“With his age and the circumstances of this case ... I believe he will die in prison,” Grunander said.
Michele’s family will be at the sentencing and will be allowed to address MacNeill.
Cluff isn’t sure yet what she wants to say. After 30 years of a strained and hurtful relationship with her brother-in-law — who Cluff claims tried to destroy the family — there is a lot to address. No one in the the family ever quite understood why Michele married him or stayed in the relationship.
“Maybe it will be, ‘You can’t hurt us anymore,'” Cluff said. “He’s an absolute monster. That’s how I look at him.”
She believes Michele would be grateful and proud of the work her daughters, sisters and others who loved her carried out over the past six years so that the truth about MacNeill would come out. And with the trial over and the journey for justice nearing its end, Cluff said she feels like a fog that has hung over the family is finally beginning to lift.
“It’s amazing. All day today there’s a certain calmness and a sense that (Michele) is at peace as much as she can be,” said Cluff. “It’s a new day.”
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