"I just started driving to the airport and I was just screaming. Just screaming. He killed her. That was my first instinct.”
It was the 11th of April 2007. Fifty year old Michele MacNeill was at home recovering from surgery in Pleasant Grove, Utah, United States. Her adult daughter, Alexis Somers, looked after Michele when she was first discharged from hospital and then Michele's husband, Dr Martin McNeill, took over her care.
Michele and Martin met at an event for young Mormon singles and she married Martin when she was just 21 years old. It was almost thirty years later and they were still married. Martin practiced psychiatry and Michele, a former beauty queen, worked as a model. They both wanted children and they had four children in just a five year period after they married and later adopted four children. Three of the children were from the Ukraine.
Michele and Martin MacNeill
That day, the 11th of April, Martin took his young daughters to school. Four of their children were adults and the other four were still minors who lived at home. Alexis, who had left the day before to return to medical school, rang Michele at 8.45 am that morning to see how she was doing. Michele told her that she was doing great. Just a little over a week earlier, on the 3rd of April, Michele had a facelift. She was prescribed medication and told to rest. Alexis looked after her for a few days before returning to school. Michele told Alexis that she was feeling well and planned to pick up the girls from school later that day.
After Martin dropped the girls off at school, he went to work. He was presented with an award that morning and asked the photographer there to ensure he took a photograph of him. He left after the award ceremony and collected his daughter at 11.30am and they returned home. When they got home, Michele didn't answer when they called her name so Martin and his daughter looked for her around the house. She was in the bathroom and her daughter saw her “all the way in the bathtub, lying in the water, still in her clothes."
Martin told her to get help and she ran to a neighbor's house. Martin called 911 and told the dispatcher that he was administering CPR and he called a colleague and told him he was doing a code on his wife. Alexis called Martin and he told her:
“Your mother's in the tub and she's not breathing.”
A few of Martin's neighbors ran into the bathroom to try to help and saw Martin “hunched over” Michele's face. Michele was face up and her head was under the faucet. Michele's legs and feet were inside the bathtub. They helped lift Michele out of the bathtub and Martin began CPR. When the paramedics arrived, they took over CPR. They heard a gurgling sound and Michele threw up a lot of fluid from her mouth a number of times.
Martin told the paramedics that he wasn't out of the house long and Michele must have overdosed on her pain medication and slipped in the tub. He told them that she hit her head. Martin told the paramedics that when he found Michele, she was slumped over the bathtub and her lower body was outside the bathtub.
Michele was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. The Medical Examiner, Dr. Maureen Frikke, determined that the manner of Michele's death was natural and her cause of death was cardiovascular disease with hypertension and myocarditis.
Nine days after Michele's funeral, a woman called Gypsy Jillian Willis moved into Martin's house. He told his children that he hired her as a nanny so that she could look after the four young children who were still at home. But Martin's adult children were disturbed. Alexis questioned him about his relationship with Gypsy and he told her to leave the house.
It transpired that Gypsy was not working as a nanny in the house, she was living as Martin's partner. They travelled to Wyoming together and Gypsy introduced Martin to her family as her fiancé.She even referred to herself as Jillian MacNeill. Martin proposed to Gypsy just three months after his wife died.
Martin MacNeill and Gypsy Jillian Willis
Alexis, her sister Rachel and Michele's sister, Linda Cluff, did not believe that Michele's cause of death was natural and they asked police to look into her death. They were convinced that Michele was murdered. They had to work hard to have the case reopened. They went to every newspaper in Utah, the Governor's office and the authorities. Michele's case was eventually reopened. A Toxicologist looked at the toxicology report from the Autopsy and noticed that at the time of Michele's death, Michele's blood contained Valium, Percocet, Phenergan, and Ambien in concentrations likely to render her “severely obtunded and difficult to arouse." A Medical Examiner, Dr. Todd Grey, looked at the report and changed the manner of death from natural to undetermined. Michele's cause of death was changed from heart disease to the combined effects of heart disease and drug toxicity.
Police looked into Martin's background and discovered his entire life was based on a lie. In his twenties, he wrote fraudulent checks to fund a lavish lifestyle. He was convicted of forgery and grand theft and spent 180 days in prison. When he was released, he went to medical school. Police discovered he was offered a place in medical school based on two falsified transcripts. He used someone else's transcript to apply for a place. Police also discovered Martin had been discharged from the military when he told them that he was schizophrenic. He received $3,000 a month for more than three decades from Veterans Affairs after he was discharged.
Police investigated further. After Michele's death, Martin tried to find a family to adopt the three children they had adopted from the Ukraine. He sent one of his daughters, sixteen year old Giselle MacNeill, back to the Ukraine on the pretense that it was for a summer vacation. While she was gone, Martin and Gypsy assumed her identity. Gypsy obtained a fraudulent social security number, ID cards, and birth certificate and they both went to Court and changed the birth date by twenty years.
Martin and Gypsy were both convicted of identity theft and other federal charges. They both pleaded guilty to state fraud charges. Martin spent three years in prison and when he was released, he was charged with murder, a first degree felony, and obstruction of justice, a second degree felony.
It was the Prosecution's case that Martin murdered his wife and it was premeditated. They believed that he persuaded her to have a facelift so that he could carry out a perfect murder. It was their case that he convinced the Surgeon who did the facelift to prescribe certain medication that he knew he needed to carry out the murder. They believed he drugged Michele with that medication after her cosmetic surgery and then drowned her in the bathtub of their home. It was their case that he did this so that he could be with his mistress Gypsy. The Court heard that it was Martin that pushed Michele to get a facelift even though she had never mentioned having one before.
The Jury heard about the events leading up to Michele's surgery. Rachel and Alexis saw a change in Martin when he turned fifty. He began working out, losing weight and went to tanning salons. Michele was worried that he was having an affair and asked him about his obsession with his appearance. He told her that she should look after her appearance too and suggested a facelift.
Michele, Martin and their children
Michele confided in her daughter Alexis in March 2007 and told her about her fear that Martin may be having an affair. Michele looked through his phone records and discovered a number he called frequently. She confronted him about it but he told her she was being ridiculous and offered to pay for the facelift for her and said that they could then take a two week cruise afterwards together.
It was the Prosecution's case that Martin began the affair long before Michele's surgery. Martin had been having an affair since November 2005 with Gypsy Willis, the woman he claimed he only met after Michele's funeral and who he hired as the children's nanny. They met online. Gypsy confirmed that she knew he was married.
The Prosecution believed Martin began creating a plan to murder Michele so that he could be with Gypsy months before Michele's death. It was their case that he pretended he was ill so that it would appear, if suspicions ever arose about Michele's death, that he was not physically capable of carrying out an attack on his wife. He told different people different things and began to walk with a limp and with the use of a cane. At church, he told members of the church that he had cancer and had less than a year to live. He told one of his colleagues that he had a “peripheral neuropathy” in his toe that “wouldn't get better”. He later told another colleague that he had “cancer in his big toe” and told a third person at work that he had a “neurological problem similar to MS.”
The Prosecution then outlined Michele's surgery and what happened afterwards. It was their case that it was Martin's actions after Michele's death that created the biggest red flags in the case.
In March 2007, Martin arranged for Michele to meet a plastic surgeon. He attended the appointments and consultations with Michele. Michele was nervous but she agreed to go through with the surgery. Before the surgery, he went with Michele to see a primary care physician to determine if it was safe for her to proceed. The primary care physician discussed Michele's high blood pressure with her and he suggested that she should postpone the surgery. But despite that suggestion, Martin and Michele went to the appointment for the preoperative evaluation with the surgeon. Alexis went to that appointment with them. Before they attended the appointment, Alexis saw Martin writing down medications that he wanted the doctor to prescribe.
Michele and Martin MacNeill
On the way to the appointment, Michele said that she wanted to postpone the surgery so she could get her blood pressure under control. Martin was angry and said:
“If you don't have the surgery now, you're not getting it.”
Normally after a facelift, the medication that was prescribed by the Surgeon performing Michele's facelift included a pain reliever (Lortab), an antibiotic (cephalexin), a sleeping medication (Ambien), an anti-inflammatory (Medral Dose Pack) and an eye ointment (erythromycin). Martin asked the Surgeon to prescribe oxycodone (a stronger pain reliever), Lortab in liquid form and more than the typical amount of Phenergan and Valium (an anti-anxiety drug). The Surgeon agreed and told Michele to take one pill at a time and certainly to avoid taking all of them together.
Michele had the surgery two days later. It was a one day surgery and she told Martin she wanted to stay the night in hospital. He was angry and wanted her to go home. But the Surgeon told Martin that he wanted Michele to stay overnight. She was allowed go home the next day.
Alexis planned to stay at home for a while to help take care of Michele. When Michele was back home, she appeared to be very sedated and when Alexis asked Martin about it, he told her that he must have given her too much medicine.So Alexis told him she would take care of Michele's medication. Michele told Alexis that Martin gave her a lot of medication and it caused her to throw up. She asked Alexis to allow her to feel each of the different pills so that she would know what he was giving her if he tried to give her more. At that stage of the recovery process, Michele still had bandages on so could not see.
In the days that followed, Michele's recovery was going really well. Her bandages were removed and she started to look after herself and walk around a bit. She was taking less than the prescribed dosage of her medications. Despite that, Martin asked the Surgeon to refill Michele's prescriptions for Percocet and Phenergan. He did.
Michele and Martin MacNeill on their Honeymoon
Alexis returned to school as it appeared that Michele was recovering well and able to manage. But the next day, Michele was dead.
The Jury heard of the unusual events that followed after Michele was discovered in the bathroom. Martin's youngest daughter reported that, on the day of Michele's death, Martin had picked her up from school and the two returned home to find Michele in the bathtub and still in her clothes.They heard that Martin called 911 but initially gave the dispatcher a false address and hung up. He called a second time and said:
“My wife has fallen in the bathtub. She is unconscious. She's under water.”
He told the dispatcher that he could not lift her so he was letting the water out of the bathtub and then hung up. The dispatcher called back and Martin again hung up.
A few neighbors saw Michele in the bathtub and one testified that they performed chest compressions while Martin leaned over Michele's head to administer rescue breaths but they did not observe his mouth ever touching Michele's mouth. It was only when the paramedics took over CPR that Michele's color changed and a gurgling sound was heard.
The Jury heard how Martin's account of how Michele was found was different to how others recalled it. He claimed she was hunched over the bathtub but the lower half of her body was not in the bathtub. That was in stark contrast to the description his daughter and neighbors provided. The Jury also heard that the emergency room doctor saw no injuries on Michele that were consistent with her falling into the bathtub.
The Court heard that when Alexis returned home after finding out Michele was dead, she went to the bedroom to get her medication. They were missing. Other items, such as the hospital bed and blankets, were missing too. Alexis found a pile of wet towels and clothing and the bathroom rug in the garage.
The Court heard that Martin's son Damian returned to the house with his girlfriend Eileen after Michele died and Martin asked Eileen to flush Michele's pills down the toilet. Eileen testified that she flushed them down the toilet and she had observed that some of the bottles had hardly any pills left inside them. She also noticed that there was no trace of any blood in the bathroom despite Martin saying that there had been blood everywhere.
The Court heard that on the day his wife died, Martin spent the day communicating with Gypsy. They spoke twice on the phone twice and texted each other thirty times.
The Prosecution called a Cardiologist to give evidence and he testified at the Trial and told the Court that the inflammation in Michele's heart was benign and not severe enough to present a significant risk of cardiac death. An expert in forensic pathology testified that he found no evidence of myocarditis and instead believed that the cause of death may have been drowning. This was based on five points:
1. When emergency responders performed CPR on Michele, she regurgitated large amounts of water. This indicated that she had swallowed water.
2. Water was found in Michele's airway. This indicated that she had inhaled a significant amount of water.
3. Michele's lungs were twice as heavy as typical lungs.
4. Fluid was found in the chambers of Michele's lungs.
5. Michele's blood was significantly diluted. This occurs when someone inhales water and it streams into the blood vessels and into general circulation.
The Prosecution called five jailhouse informants to testify. One of the inmates testified that he saw a television show in prison about Martin and he told him about it. Martin initially did not go into detail but , according to the inmate, later told him that he gave Michele some oxy and some sleeping pills and then he got her in the bathtub and he held her head under the water for a little while.
Another inmate asked Martin about what happened to Michele and Martin told him “The bitch drowned.” The other inmates testified about how Martin spoke about how he could get away with things and they would never to be able to prove it.
It was the Defense's case that Michele's death was the result of natural causes. They referred to the different Medical Examiners who had been involved in the case. None of them could say with certainty that Michele died as a result of a homicide. They said that it was their case that Michele had a heart attack and fell headfirst into the bathtub. The Autopsy noted Michele had an enlarged heart, a narrowing of the heart arteries and liver and kidney deterioration.
More than six years after Michele's death, Martin was found guilty of murder and obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to fifteen years to life in prison.
Gypsy never faced murder charges but some of Michele's family believe she was aware of the plan. But Gypsy said that she was not aware of any plan to kill Michele.
Martin appealed his conviction and lost and he took his own life in prison after serving just two years of his sentence.
Michele's death would have remained closed if it wasn't for the persistence of her family. It was a battle to have Michele's case reopened and looked at again but they would not give up until the truth was revealed. As soon as they heard Michele was dead, they believed that she was murdered and that Martin had killed her. And Michele herself had a gut feeling that something wasn't right when she was alive.
Alexis told ABC that Michele said to her :
"If anything happens to me, make sure it wasn’t your Dad”.
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"The criminal justice system will take a hard look at what happened to Matthew Eappen. It is up to the rest of us to take an even harder look at who is minding our children."
- Eileen McNamara, the Boston Globe
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- Sandra Pupatello