Martin MacNeill: Was his wife Michele’s death accidental or was it murder?
Editor’s note: For more than a year, Deseret News reporter Sara Lenz has investigated the life of Martin MacNeill. The information in this story comes from court documents, 911 calls, police reports, an autopsy report, a search warrant affidavit, psychology reports and dozens of interviews with investigators, attorneys, police officers, neighbors, victims and family members detailing why some believe MacNeill may have killed his wife, Michele.
A scripted life?
Utah County investigator Jeff Robinson compares Martin MacNeill’s life to the movie “Catch Me If You Can,” but says the movie “paled in comparison.”
MacNeill, the former Utah State Developmental Center clinical director and Pleasant Grove resident, is serving a prison sentence for fraud, forgery and identity theft. But investigators believe he spent a lifetime getting away with other crimes — including murder. And family sources expect a murder charge may be filed against him next month.
“MacNeill’s a thespian,” said investigator Doug Witney, who has spent nearly three years researching MacNeill and the suspicious death of his wife, Michele. “It appears his whole life was scripted and staged.”
Witney said MacNeill used his position as a doctor to have access to women and used his title as attorney to get around the law.
But three and a half years ago, many people who now believe MacNeill killed his wife, thought he was an upstanding citizen, a devoted husband and a loving father. One daughter went into medicine because of his example of helping others. Another daughter said she became an avid reader thanks to her father, who spent hours and hours discussing hundreds of books with her.
“The father that I knew was a fictional character. It was an act the whole time,” his oldest daughter, Rachel, said.
Neighbors also said the MacNeill family seemed “perfect” on the outside. But relatives of MacNeill’s wife say they had an inkling from the beginning that something wasn’t right.
Helen Somers was afraid for her daughter the first time she met Martin MacNeill.
Her soon to be son-in-law didn’t seem genuine. “I had a bad feeling about him,” she said.
Her bishop even called her and warned her not to allow her daughter Michele to go out with him, she said, but he couldn’t say why.
“I thought he was just a big actor,” recalled Michele’s younger sister, Linda Cluff. “He walked in like he owned the house. He just gave me the creeps.”
Despite her family’s misgivings, Michele fell for Martin hard. Partly because the family didn’t approve, the couple’s dating became secretive. She felt sorry for her new boyfriend. “She would defend him and say, ‘If you only knew about his childhood …,’ ” Cluff said of her sister.
Shortly after learning Martin had eloped with Michele, Somers spotted a newspaper article about her new son-in-law with the headline: “ ’Brilliant’ forgery spree inspired by TV.”
Just before meeting Michele, Martin had forged $35,000 in checks and had gone on a three-day spending spree buying diamond rings, 60 pairs of socks, couches, chairs, a grandfather clock, watches, bicycles, a refrigerator, 20 pairs of shoes, TVs, tires, a wardrobe of clothes and more.
“I don’t know why I did it,” Martin later told a court psychiatrist. “I didn’t want the stuff. I didn’t need the stuff.”
Martin told police he got the idea after watching a “60 Minutes” episode about how check forgers worked. He told friends he could do it better and with fewer risks.
Somers wanted to learn more about her new son-in-law. She obtained records about his crimes and soon learned that Martin was discharged from the military for schizophrenia after hearing voices.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he killed her some day,” Somers remembers telling two of her other daughters 31 years ago.
Now, three and a half years since Michele’s death at her Pleasant Grove home, Utah County investigators believe Martin murdered his wife, then covered it all up, according to an affidavit filed in 4th District Court.
An autopsy concluded that the mother of eight died suddenly due to natural causes, including myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart), cardiovascular disease and hypertension. However, the Deseret News has learned that investigators just recently convinced the Utah State Medical Examiner’s Office to change the manner of death to “undetermined” and “suspicious.”
But Michele’s mother, four of her five siblings, and now Martin’s own children — who grew up idolizing their father as a well-respected doctor and attorney in Utah County — have told the Deseret News they believe the cause of death should be homicide.
The family believes, and investigators from the Utah County Attorney’s Office wrote in an affidavit, that Martin had the know-how to kill his wife and make it look like an accident.
Some even suspect Martin may have killed others.
Michele was a tomboy growing up in Concord, Calif., but she later picked up the violin, participated in theater, became a cheerleader and even won homecoming queen in high school. She excelled at everything she did, was a straight-A student and was an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She later became a model and participated in four beauty pageants — culminating in being crowned Miss Concord in 1976.
Everyone seemed to like Michele, Cluff said, especially the boys. She always had more guy friends than girlfriends. Shortly after she returned home from being an exchange student in Switzerland, a Swiss boy came to California to visit her.
Right after this, Michele met Martin at an LDS young adult activity and they “went into a whirlwind of dating,” a family member said.
Michele’s relationship with her family became somewhat strained after she eloped in 1978, and even more after the family learned of Martin’s criminal behavior.
Four months after tying the knot, Martin served a six-month jail sentence for his forgery, theft and fraud charges. Their first child, Rachel, was born the next year.
The young family lived in Mexico in 1980 while Martin attended a semester of medical school, then moved to California, New York and later to Utah, where Martin obtained his medical license in 1987. By this time, the couple had added three other children to their family.
Martin worked part time at the BYU Health Center while earning a law degree. He graduated from BYU’s law school in 1990 and worked as a physician at the Health Center for some time before taking a position as director of Medical Law Comp in Washington and then returning to Utah.
A few years later, the couple adopted five more children — four from the Ukraine. One of those adoptions was later terminated, making a family of eight children: Rachel, Vanessa, Alexis, Damian, Giselle, Sabrina, Elle and Ada.
Friends and family describe Michele as one of the most kind, generous, loving people they had ever met. She devoted her life to her family, said daughter Alexis, who called her mom her best friend.
“She made everything and everyone not just look — but feel — beautiful,” said her oldest daughter, Rachel. “She was an angel walking among us.”
“She told us we were her princesses,” Elle said during her mother’s funeral.
Neighbor LoRene Hernandez considered Michele her mentor and said Michele was always serving those around her.
“It’s still hard for me to drive by her house,” Hernandez said. “There is just such a void. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her and her kids.”
Not so perfect
In 2000, Martin was appointed by then-Gov. Mike Leavitt as clinical director of the American Fork Training School.
Alexis remembers wanting to go to his clinic for her birthdays and following her dad around all day. Growing up, she wanted to be a doctor and make people feel better. She finished medical school earlier this year.
Alexis thought just a few years ago that her family was pretty normal and that her dad loved her mom and her family.
“I thought he was rough around the edges but sweet,” Alexis said.
Hernandez said she, too, thought Martin was a good guy. She thought the MacNeills had “the perfect family.” What most people didn’t know was the couple was struggling the last few years before Michele’s death.
Martin threatened to kill Michele and himself with a butcher knife after she caught him looking at pornography in August of 2000. After hearing screaming and seeing what was going on, a friend at the house called police. The MacNeills’ son was able to get the knife away from his father shortly before police arrived, and Martin spent the night at Wasatch Mental Health.
A few years later, Alexis said her father became verbally and mentally abusive to her mother and threatened to leave the family. She remembers him saying that he no longer loved Michele and didn’t want the adopted daughters anymore. Michele expressed concerns that her husband was having an affair.
The family moved from their Orem home to a smaller one in Pleasant Grove about a year before Michele’s death, and Michele told two of her daughters she was afraid it was in preparation for a divorce.
The suspicions of an affair heightened about six weeks before Michele’s death, and she began confronting her husband more and more.
One woman Michele suspected was Gypsy Willis, whose number had shown up repeatedly on Martin’s phone bill. Just days before her mother’s death, Alexis remembers her parents arguing over the allegations of an affair and her mother telling her father that she was not going to let the issue die.
After Michele’s death, several women came forward with information about affairs and even accusations of rape against Martin.
Michele’s last days
Michele underwent plastic surgery just eight days before her April 11, 2007, death. Alexis said her mother had talked to her about wanting to lose weight before getting the face-lift, but said her father insisted that she have the operation immediately and even set up the appointment for her with a doctor in Draper.
The surgeon prescribed Lortab syrup, Ambien, Oxycodone and Valium. The doctor told investigators he had “never prescribed the combination of drugs listed above to a patient and would not have in this case had it not been for the recommendation of Martin MacNeill, and then only on the condition that Mr. MacNeill monitor the administration of the substances as a physician.”
The first night after the surgery, Alexis remembers her father forcing her to leave her mother’s side to go to bed. The next morning, she found her mother “listless and unresponsive.” When she confronted her dad, he said he may have overmedicated her mother but wouldn’t elaborate. She didn’t leave her mother’s side after this.
Alexis said her mother had not asked for any medication and didn’t need any for the pain. Her mother had strong reactions to any medication and had always taken less than was prescribed, and her father was aware of that.
Michele was worried about her husband’s intentions. Her eyes were still covered and swollen from the surgery, and Michele feared her husband was giving her too much medication — so much it made her throw up and was making her feel drowsy, she told Alexis. Michele asked Alexis to let her hold each pill in her hand in order to know what each pill was that her husband was giving her.
Alexis remembers her mom saying: “If anything happens to me, make sure it was not your dad.”
Five days later, on the night of April 10, Alexis returned to Las Vegas, where she was attending her first year of medical school.
Within 18 hours, Michele was dead.
Yet Alexis had left her mother in “terrific spirits.” Michele even told Alexis the morning of her death that she was surprised how kindly her husband was treating her. Just an hour later, though, Alexis received a disturbing voice mail from her father.
Your mother won’t stay in bed, he told her. This confused Alexis because her mother had been up doing laundry again and was back to her normal routine. After trying to call her mother several times that morning, Alexis said her dad picked up Michele’s phone and told her he had just called 911 and was attempting CPR and then he hung up.
She dropped her backpack, ran to her car and started driving to the airport, screaming as she drove: “He’s killed her! He’s killed her! He’s killed her!”
“I just had this overwhelming feeling that he had done it,” she said. “I was very, very close to my dad. My whole world turned upside down. I am a pretty rational person, but that was the feeling. It was very strange, unsettling and horrifying to come to that realization.”
The day of Michele’s death, Martin made numerous inconsistent statements regarding the facts surrounding his wife’s death. He also withheld information from hospital personnel, the police and the medical examiner, wrote Doug Witney an investigator with the Utah County Attorney’s Office, in an affidavit.
In a recording of the 911 call, Martin can be heard yelling to the dispatcher that his wife is unconscious and underwater in the bathtub.
Yet Martin apparently told others his wife was found hanging on the outside of the tub. According to a report from one of the emergency room doctors who attended to Michele, lividity formed on the back of her legs and buttocks, suggesting Michele died on her back. Lividity, or settling of the blood in the lower portion of the body, usually forms within an hour of death.
When asked by the dispatcher if he could get her out of the tub, Martin says he can’t, then says he let the water out, then angrily says she’s out of the water. He can be heard saying something like, “CPR in progress,” then hangs up.
After the dispatcher calls Martin back, he twice yells that he’s performing CPR, explains that he’s a physician and his wife had surgery a week earlier, then hangs up again.
It’s unclear how or if he was able to perform CPR while his wife was still in the bathtub. “It would be virtually impossible to give chest compressions to someone in that position,” Witney wrote in a search warrant affidavit.
Years later, the Pleasant Grove dispatcher says she can still hear Martin’s “aggressive, angry and condescending” voice as she tried to offer assistance. The calls were so unusual that the recordings were saved in order to provide training for other dispatchers.
Earlier that morning, investigators say Martin had gone to a safety fair for the Utah State Developmental Center (formerly known as the American Fork Training Center), where he still worked as the facility’s clinical director. While at the fair, he apparently acted so “belligerent and nervous” that an employee filed a complaint against him. The employee also said Martin was “very insistent” that she take a photograph of him, “so that people would know that he was present.”
How long he was at the safety fair is unknown.
Martin picked up his 6-year-old daughter, Ada, from school at some point that morning. When they arrived home, the young girl found her mother fully-clothed in the tub, which she later told an interviewer at the Children’s Justice Center was full of reddish-brown water. Her mother’s head was above the water level and neighbors also said they saw her mother sitting up in the tub.
Martin, however, told others that he had gone into the house first and had left Ada in the car.
In some reports, he told people his wife must have fallen while preparing a bath, and said he found his wife draped over the tub with her head submerged in the water. Alexis said her father told her he found her mother submerged in the tub with only her feet above water.
Martin instructed Ada to go find a neighbor to help him pull her mother out of the tub. But when she returned with neighbor Angie Aguilar, Martin told them he needed a man to help him because he wasn’t strong enough and demanded that the neighbor go find one. Aguilar recalled seeing no water in the tub and said Michele was only wearing an upper undergarment.
After neighbor Doug Daniels finally arrived, he and Martin pulled Michele out of the tub and started CPR. Daniels told investigators that he did not see the chest rise while they performed CPR.
“Why Martin, who was a licensed physician, did not make efforts to open the trachea by manipulation of the head and upper torso, by use of the Heimlich Maneuver, or other medical procedures, is unknown,” Witney wrote.
After emergency responders showed up, Martin told them his wife had been taking a lot of medication and that he’d found her hunched over the tub, with her head inside, the affidavit states.
A doctor at American Fork Hospital said Martin told him his wife must have passed out and fallen into the tub.
Pleasant Grove emergency responders said that while they performed CPR on Michele, she threw up a lot of water. Witney wrote that if Martin had performed CPR correctly, the water should have been regurgitated within the first few breaths of CPR.
Regurgitating water during CPR can be an after-effect of swallowing water during submersion and can also be an after-effect of “dry drowning,” Witney wrote in his affidavit. Dry drowning is where an airway spasm shuts off the lungs after first exposure to water to prevent additional water from going into the lungs. The body, however, is no longer able to extract oxygen from the air.
Utah State Medical Examiner Dr. Todd Grey said there are no scientific tests that can be done to prove drowning. While his office received no evidence from her autopsy suggesting Michele did drown, that’s not to say that it is impossible, he said.
After Michele’s body was taken by the medical team, Daniels — who had helped with CPR — tried to clean up the bathroom but could not find any towels. He went into the laundry room and found a pile of towels that were wet and bloody. Investigators are unsure who used the towels and when, but Daniels said no cleaning was done after he arrived.
“This would indicate that Martin MacNeill would have to have stopped any lifesaving measure long enough to wipe up blood and water on the floor,” Witney wrote in an affidavit. “The only other alternative to this inconsistency is that there was another person in the home during this time, assisting MacNeill.”
Alexis suspects her father had help from his girlfriend that day, though no one knows for sure.
In pictures taken by police, a pile of Michele’s clothes that appear to be wet are next to the tub. Alexis and Rachel found those clothes hours after the death in the garage and confirmed they were soaking wet with blood on them.
Also complicating the case is the amount of time it took paramedics and police to arrive at the house. Paramedics were dispatched to the wrong address because they could not clearly hear Martin on the phone and 30 minutes elapsed before they arrived on scene.
In two police reports written on April 11 and 12, 2007, Pleasant Grove investigators appear to conclude the death was accidental.
“The victim had apparently slipped and fell after filling the tub with water,” one report states. “He (Martin) said he found her hunched over the tub as if she had passed out while preparing the tub.”
Another officer reported, “It appeared the female was drawing a bath when she possibly passed out or fell.”
Michele’s initial autopsy indicated she died a sudden, natural death partly due to myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart), which can be caused by a hypersensitivity to drugs, according to Grey. He said certain drugs can cause the body to attack itself and can kill someone over time or quickly. It is unlikely, however, that someone could know which drugs another person could be hypersensitive to as this attack on the body occurs when a person is exposed to the drug for the first time, he said. Grey said there were four different drugs in her system at the time of her death.
Michele had acute and sub-acute inflammation of the heart, but Grey said doctors can’t be sure what caused it.
However, in October 2010— after consultations with Utah County investigators and other forensic and toxicologist teams that were hired to look at Michele’s death report and toxicology levels — Grey changed Michele’s cause of death to include drug toxicity, and under manner of death, it says that Michele could not have administered medication to herself.
Witney believes the medical examiner who performed Michele’s autopsy was not given complete information and may have come to a different conclusion if she had been given more facts surrounding the case. The fact that Michele threw up water was only discovered through investigation a year later. To complicate matters, however, that medical examiner — Dr. Maureen Frikke — has since died.
Grey maintains that Frikke’s investigation was thorough. Several months ago, he said the MacNeill case would require “a specific set of investigation findings to overcome the lack of any physical findings on the body” in order to indicate a possible homicide. While he could not say what specifically caused him to amend the autopsy results, he offered a hypothetical.
“If in a particular case investigators’ information is strongly suggestive of a non-natural event (such as a homicide) and the physical findings on the body show, pathologically, something that could explain death, but there are added features that make you say, ‘Wow, I’m not sure, but it’s possible these non-natural factors may have played a role, but I’m not certain.’ That would be a (comparable) situation.”
Grey said his office receives three to four requests a year to reconsider the cause of death because someone believes it was a homicide. Of those requests, he said less than 5 percent are actually reopened.
“Most homicides are pretty clear,” he said.
For months before Michele’s death, Martin had been telling neighbors and members of his LDS ward that he was dying of a rare form of foot cancer, had multiple sclerosis and even used a cane during Michele’s funeral. Witney said he believes the ailment “appears to have been contrived” and wrote that he suspects he may have been setting up a scene in which he would have needed help pulling his wife out of the tub.
Family members said he had no such ailments. Rachel saw her father bring sheet rock down the basement stairs just days before her mother’s death and he had allegedly helped haul hay just weeks earlier in Wyoming.
Randy Spencer, Martin’s attorney, said his client does have a neurological condition that causes parts of his body to go numb if he stays in a certain position too long, and said that he did have a large swollen toe from an earlier injury.
Police and paramedics who responded to the MacNeill home that morning described him as “extremely agitated” at them and then at Michele. Medical personnel at American Fork Hospital, where resuscitation efforts continued for 45 minutes, described Martin’s behavior there as “bizarre” and inconsistent with a bereaving husband. One doctor said Martin offered him $10,000 to continue lifesaving techniques beyond the 45-minute mark.
Drugs and suspicions
Frikke, the medical examiner who analyzed Michele’s blood, which was drawn right after her death, noted that the drugs prescribed to her after her surgery had been administered to her less than an hour before her death. Such a finding greatly concerned Alexis, who said her mother had stopped taking those medications, and she worried her father may have crushed them up and put them in her food.
Right after Michele died, Martin also instructed his son, Damian, and Damian’s girlfriend to dispose of all the pills their mother had been taking “because he couldn’t bear to have them as a reminder of her death,” the affidavit states.
Co-workers told investigators that Martin would have known the importance of saving a patient’s drugs to help in resuscitation efforts or death investigations.
When Alexis confronted her dad about the missing pills, he told her he did not know where they were and said police must have taken them.
Pleasant Grove police, however, did not look for or confiscate any medications, even though Martin had told them that his wife had been taking a lot of medications since her surgery.
“Unfortunately at the time when officers arrived, there was no evidence suggesting foul play,” said Pleasant Grove Police Capt. Mike Smith.
Damian told the Deseret News his father wanted him to get rid of the pills that day because he wanted to keep his mother’s face-lift a private matter and said his father was also afraid he would try to overdose on the drugs himself.
The days after
Michele’s funeral was held three days after her death. Martin spoke at the funeral, quoting the story of Job from the Bible and then told stories of his own family, whom he described as “the definition of dysfunctional.” He spoke about trials in life but only mentioned Michele in passing and never spoke about her life or characteristics.
“What have I done to cause this?” he said during the funeral.
Michele’s older brothers, Mick and Steve Somers, had driven from California, where they lived, to Utah for the funeral, but Martin had one of his children call them and tell them not to come.
The two didn’t want to upset the girls, so they held their own ceremony the next day. But both said they felt immediately when they heard about Michele’s passing that Martin probably had something to do with her death.
“We knew something was wrong,” Mick Somers said.
Steve Somers said they didn’t think beforehand that Martin would go to such an extent, but the circumstances in which she died and how Martin reacted afterward confirmed it in their minds. “He thought he could get away with anything, and he did for years,” he said.
The night of Michele’s funeral, neighbor Hernandez said she went over to the MacNeills’ house. Martin wasn’t crying and didn’t seem sad. She found it especially odd that he gave her a tour of the house and told her about the improvements he was planning. That next morning, he brought her some flowers from the funeral and she recalled that “he seemed almost happy.”
Three days after the funeral, Martin told his children he needed a nanny to help with the younger kids — something the older daughters told him was unnecessary. Martin asked Rachel to go with him to the LDS Mount Timpanogos Temple to pray about a nanny.
Just outside the temple, a woman whom her dad pretended not to know walked out of the temple and up to Rachel and Martin and began talking to them. Rachel said her dad acted very strange.
“This was the first time I realized something was wrong,” she said. “The whole thing had been scripted.”
Not only did her father know this woman, he had been dating her for 16 months, she would later learn.
During a phone conversation when he later announced the new nanny’s name, Gypsy Willis, Alexis told him she knew that name because her mom had believed he was having an affair with her. Because of that conversation, Martin held a family meeting and told her adult siblings that Alexis was no longer a part of the family and she was not allowed to talk to her four younger siblings.
Within a couple of weeks, Willis moved in with the family.
The daughters later learned Willis was not the only woman their father was involved with sexually before their mother’s death.
Surrounded by suicides
One of these women — who said Martin was planning on moving away with her — told investigators she believes Martin is a “serial killer.”
She claimed Martin confessed he’d killed people before and even tried to kill his mother when he was young, “but his sister had called 911 and the medical personnel were able to revive her,” an affidavit states.
The woman claimed he also told her he’d killed his brother, Roy MacNeill, who “had repeatedly attempted suicide for attention, and had become an ‘embarrassment.’ He claimed he found his brother in the tub and that both of his wrists were bleeding in an apparent suicide attempt. Martin told (the woman) that he pushed the head of his brother under the water and drowned him,” the affidavit states.
The Utah County Attorney’s Office confirmed Roy MacNeill was found dead in the family home when the family lived in New Jersey.
However, at his wife’s funeral, Martin said his mother found Roy deceased with a needle still in his arm. “Ten nickel bags were his ticket out,” Martin said during the funeral.
He also told those at the church service that his oldest brother “drank himself senseless,” had a stroke at age 50 and died 20 years later in a nursing home. Another brother died in 2006, but his body was ravaged from years of booze and heroin, he said. Another brother took his own life just two months before Michele died. A sister died in her early 20s after strangling herself.
His only living sibling, a sister, declined requests to be interviewed.
“MacNeill has a whole history of people dying around him,” Witney said.
The woman who said they planned to run away together also claimed Martin once even offered to kill her husband “to relieve her of an abusive relationship.”
She admitted both loving and fearing Martin, and told investigators she had sent the information about Martin to Pleasant Grove police after learning of his wife’s death, but police later told prosecutors “that communication was never forwarded through the proper channels.”
The woman told investigators Martin also considered killing another family “embarrassment,” when shortly after Michele’s death one of his daughters approached him about her drug addiction problems, and Martin’s solution reportedly was to suggest they both commit suicide.
Martin’s only son, Damian, committed suicide in January 2010 by overdosing on prescription drugs.
At first, the family wondered if Martin had been involved with the death. Alexis believes it was probably her younger brother’s own doing, but still thinks her father’s actions influenced the act. “No matter what, my dad was involved, even if it was a suicide,” she said.
During the last six or seven months before his death, Alexis said her brother had turned to her father for unknown reasons. Damian was the only sibling who said he did not believe his dad killed his mother.
In an e-mail to the Deseret News two months before his death, he wrote: “Some people are quick to infer that because of my father’s actions following my mother’s death, he had to also be involved somehow in the death itself. This seems ludicrous to me.”
Spencer, Martin’s attorney, said his client was devastated over the death of his son.
Rachel remembers her father threatening to commit suicide many times. She said she now realizes that around the time of each of those threats, her father was doing things he could have gotten in trouble for — whether by his wife or by the police.
One such incident occurred in 1994, about the same time he was accused of having sexual relations with one of his patients at the BYU Health Center. Rachel said her father threatened suicide then and again after Michele caught him looking at pornography in 2005.
The relationship between Martin and Willis had been “heating up” prior to Michele’s death. Her two roommates told investigators Willis even talked to them about poisoning Martin’s wife or cutting the brake lines of her car. Willis also told them she had been stalking Michele, and once broke into the MacNeill home in Pleasant Grove and stole a photo of her.
Michelle Savage also recalled that the first time she met Martin was when he came over to the North Salt Lake apartment she shared with Willis and gave her $200 to get lost for a few hours so Willis and Martin could have the place alone.
The roommates also said Willis told her she and Martin would secretly have relations — including a time when Martin and Michele were at an event and Willis and her roommates were also there. Willis pointed out Martin to the younger roommate and told her Martin would tell his wife he was going to the bathroom, then had sex with Willis in a closet while his wife remained at the table.
Savage described Willis as turning “dark and violent” after she started taking methamphetamines to lose weight for Martin. When Martin said they might have to break off their relationship for a time because his wife was suspicious, that is when Willis started contemplating ways to get rid of Michele, Savage said.
The roommate said she remembers once watching a TV show with Willis about a doctor who poisoned his wife with a drug. The next day, she said Willis “demanded that (she) give her the name of the drug, claiming she needed to get rid of the woman keeping her from her man,” the affidavit states.
Prison for two
Right after Michele died, prosecutors say Martin and Willis began altering Willis’ identity, obtaining false military IDs, a Utah state ID card, and opening numerous bank accounts under the false name and identity.
They used the identity of his 16-year-old adopted daughter, Giselle — a daughter investigators say he had “flown to the Ukraine and left there to fend for herself” in the summer following his wife’s death.
Willis took on the identity of Jillian Giselle MacNeill, and the two even used Michele’s funeral date as their supposed marriage date — showing a “callousness and a coldness,” said Karen Fojkt, a U.S. attorney who worked on Martin’s identity theft case.
Martin was indicted in federal court in January 2009 on nine counts of aiding and abetting in aggravated identity theft, misuse of a Social Security number, and making false statements. He pleaded guilty to two counts of aiding and abetting in aggravated identity theft.
In August of 2009, Martin was sentenced to four years in prison.
Willis was also indicted on 11 different counts, including misuse of a Social Security card. She pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated identity theft and was sentenced to 21 months in prison. But a month before she was to begin serving her time, she was arrested after prosecutors said she planned to flee to Mexico. She was ordered to start serving her sentence immediately.
In September of 2009, Martin also pleaded guilty to three felonies of false and inconsistent statements, insurance fraud and forgery in Provo’s 4th District Court, and Judge Samuel McVey ordered him to serve three years in jail. He will serve his state sentence concurrently with his federal prison sentence, after which he will be on probation for six years.
In December 2009, Willis was charged in Provo’s 4th District Court with one count of identity fraud, two counts of false and inconsistent material statements and one count of wrongful lien. That case is still pending.
When Martin’s wife passed away, the house had been in her name. Martin had not wanted to go through probate or pay taxes, so instead acted as his deceased wife’s attorney, pretended she was still alive and had the property transferred to his name.
The same day the transaction went through, Willis filed a $1 million lien on the house, which is illegal because there was no reason to file the lien. Investigators believe it was likely done to discourage Martin’s children from claiming rights to the house because one of his daughters was trying to obtain custody of her three adopted younger sisters at the time.
When the federal government realized what was going on, it had an agent act as an intended buyer of the house. A few days after Willis went to remove the lien, she and Martin were arrested.
“(Willis) was an integral part of this. She was not an innocent bystander,” said Witney.
James Wissler, federal agent for the U.S. postal inspection service, spent several months collecting documents in conjunction with numerous other agencies including the Social Security office, military office, Veteran’s Administration and Department of Professional Licensing for the white collar case against Willis and Martin.
He called Martin’s past “disturbing.”
“It was astounding that someone could have that amount of incidents in the past and avoid additional prosecution,” Wissler said. “I can tell you he was very articulate, intelligent, well-educated and he premeditated these criminal acts.”
Wissler well remembers the surprised looks on family members’ faces when he testified in court about Martin’s past.
“They just looked overwhelmed,” he said. “They were amazed with some of the new things that were coming to light.”
One of the most interesting things to Wissler was discovering that after his wife died, Martin changed his will to give just $1 to each of his children. Everything else was to go to Willis under her false identity. To Wissler’s knowledge, the will remains the same.
Both Martin and Willis — who are in federal prisons in Texas — have declined to speak with the Deseret News. Willis’ current release date is March 12, 2011, and Martin’s is July 8, 2012.
Jeff Robinson, chief investigator of the Utah County Attorney’s Office, and Witney both went to Texas in October to interview the two. Willis spoke to the investigators, but Martin refused to talk to them.
Thoughts of their father being released so soon, however, scares both Rachel and Alexis.
“Not only will our family be threatened, but all the people he meets in the future will be in danger,” Rachel said. “There are future victims at risk.”
Alexis said her father has threatened to destroy her personally.
“He’s lived his whole life getting away with things,” she said. “I don’t want him to get away with murder.”
Cluff always suspected foul play in her sister Michele’s death. But when she told police about her suspicions, she said the officers were rude and mocked her and her sisters when they asked for the case to be reopened. “It was like we were in the Twilight Zone,” she said.
A Pleasant Grove police report was filed in June 2007, mentioning her suspicions that Martin was involved and possibly paid off the doctor for the autopsy results. “The case will be closed due to the autopsy results,” the report states.
Yet Smith, the department’s spokesman, now says the case was never officially closed.
The Utah County Attorney’s Office began investigating Michele’s death in January 2008, after Cluff wrote several letters and e-mails to them and to former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
Witney said he had no idea what he was getting into when he first started investigating the case.
“This was a case that because nothing was known about the individual, nothing was done,” he said, adding that Martin’s position as a doctor and attorney caused few people to question him.
Witney and Robinson would never have looked into the death had it not been for the concerns and suspicions of family members and their persistence to reopen the case. A letter from Michele’s mother and documents kept by her drew Witney’s attention into the case.
“There is probable cause to believe that Martin MacNeill had the opportunity, the motive, the psychological disposition, and based on his lifestyle … the capability of killing his wife, Michele MacNeill, which I believe he did on the morning of April 11, 2007,” Witney wrote in a search warrant affidavit used to confiscate Martin’s computers, cell phones and camcorder.
Their investigation has unraveled what they call “years of lies and deception” by Martin.
History of lies
Investigators traced Martin’s first lie back to when he got into the military at age 17.
He was put on disability leave two years later when a medical officer deemed him a “latent schizophrenic” with “other mental and psychological infirmities,” according to documents Utah County investigators obtained in their research.
Rachel and Alexis never saw signs of schizophrenia in their father and they do not believe he ever had such tendencies.
Witney and even U.S. District Jugde Dee Benson questioned whether or not Martin’s schizophrenia was real.
But Martin had been receiving Veteran’s Administration and Social Security benefits for his alleged disability — even after he became a doctor and a lawyer with a six-figure income.
He had been receiving VA benefits up until January 2010, Alexis said.
In 1977, after he was caught forging checks, Martin unsuccessfully tried to plead not guilty by reason of insanity and even told the psychiatrist he heard voices: “The patient before has gotten into trouble with the authorities due to his desire to kill people at the command of voices,” a psychiatric report states.
But the examiner deemed him mentally fit to stand trial.
Within a couple of years after being charged with his first few felonies, Martin falsified transcripts with inflated grades and lied on applications to get into two different medical schools — and later to BYU Law School, according to documents obtained by the Utah County Attorney’s Office.
Investigators found records indicating that Martin graduated from Saint Martin’s University in Washington in psychology and sociology, but 65 of the credits he attained were supposedly from the Army’s extension program and their validity has been questioned, Robinson said.
Cluff said she remembers finding a Saint Martin’s seal and St. Martin’s stationery in the back of her mom’s car. Cluff and her mom made an impression of the seal because they were not sure what it was or if it would prove to be important later on.
It did, and helped investigators figure out that Martin falsified his Saint Martin’s transcripts to get him into medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico, while he was still on probation from his felony charges in 1978.
After one semester in Mexico and while still on probation, Robinson said, Martin transferred to Western University of Health Sciences in California with his previous falsified transcripts, which also stated that he had been at the Guadalajara medical school for a full year.
The same year he transferred, he had an interview with the Army to check up on his disability leave, during which he allegedly told the examiner that he had not been working or attending school. Robinson said that made him eligible for 50 percent disability pay from the Veterans Administration and he later received 100 percent pay.
Martin also managed to receive 100 percent pay from Social Security.
Three years later, Martin received a license to practice as an osteopathic physician and surgeon in Utah.
He started working part time for the BYU Health Center, but failed to disclose that he had a diagnosed psychological disorder and had been convicted of felonies.
His work at BYU was punctuated by accusations of rape, complaints of unprofessional conduct and misdiagnosis. He was terminated in 1999 for undisclosed reasons.
“It is amazing story about how he got from one place to another through lies,” Robinson said. “Whenever you can become a doctor and an attorney based on lies, that is an amazing thing.”
“This is the first time that anybody has put a timeline on this guy and has seen everything that has been going on with him for 30 years,” said prosecutor Fojkt.
Alexis said her dad told her in July 2007 to accompany one of her adopted siblings, 16-year-old Giselle, back to Ukraine for the summer to visit her biological sister, and if she didn’t, she couldn’t see her younger siblings again.
She was also instructed by her father to keep Giselle’s U.S. passport because “Giselle may lose it,” he told her.
Family members and even Fojkt with the U.S. Attorney’s Office now believe the trip was to be permanent and a ploy to steal Giselle’s identity.
“He knew he was plotting and planning (to steal her identity),” Fojkt said.
Despite Martin’s reticence, family members were finally able to reach Giselle through a translator they had worked with during the initial adoption.
Giselle had been trying to reach her father for many months and did not have any money for food or school for several months, Alexis said.
Earlier this year, Giselle was released from a structured foster home after dealing with everything that happened to her while she was there, Cluff said.
Shortly after taking Giselle to Ukraine, Alexis said her father sent a text message to all the older siblings and told them he was giving away their youngest sisters, who had also been a part of the family for five years, to old family friends in California — a family Alexis said she had only seen once in the past 16 years.
Alexis now has custody of the three youngest children (ages 9, 16 and 17), and she and Rachel had been taking care of the kids until this summer when Alexis was married and Rachel moved to California. Alexis, who is in her first year of residency, said she has never received any money from her dad to help with the three girls.
Alexis changed her last name to her mother’s maiden name, because she said she doesn’t want to be known as another “Dr. MacNeill.”
Martin’s daughter also complained that her father didn’t put a gravestone marker on their mother’s grave for more than a year after she died. He wouldn’t let anyone else in the family put one up either. After complaining to his lawyer about it and to the court as she was trying to get custody of her three younger siblings, Alexis said Cluff found him one day creating his own gravestone out of concrete he mixed.
The stone is about 6 feet tall and Alexis said it looks like a surfboard. She said she is not sure why her dad did it, but she assumes it was to save money. Many people complained to Highland Cemetery about what Alexis called an “eyesore” and Martin finally put a plaque on the outside of it several months later. Alexis and Cluff wish they could just replace it with a normal gravestone.
Since her mother’s death, Rachel has received dozens of phone calls from people who say her father hurt them. Many women have called to say Martin either propositioned them, had sexual relations with them or raped them.
Some have cried on the phone to her for hours.
“It’s horrifying to hear their stories and how their life has been affected by my dad,” Rachel said. “He really knew who he could take advantage of. I thought I had an idea of who my father was, but I had no idea. The father that I knew was a fictional character. It was an act the whole time.”
One of the women from their LDS ward told Rachel she was propositioned by Martin over the Internet. Another man said he witnessed Martin raping someone years ago when Rachel was still a toddler.
Rachel wishes these people would had come forward earlier, because she believes her mother would have left him. “To think if my mom would’ve known, her life would’ve been saved.”
Karen Wright, now 56, was the first woman to call Rachel. She claims Martin took advantage of her 14 years ago when she was his patient at the BYU Health Center.
Wright had eight children and told Martin she was recently divorced and an “emotional basket case.” She remembers Martin telling her he was not only a doctor but a lawyer and that he drove a Jaguar. He said he didn’t have a good sexual relationship with his wife and that she was beautiful.
“He manipulated me,” Wright told the Deseret News, “but he managed to do it in a seductive way. I didn’t tell anyone because I thought it was my fault. I think he knew I wouldn’t report it. That’s why he made me think I was so attractive.”
Wright said Martin also had sexual relations with her a second time in his office shortly thereafter. She said these assaults had a profound effect on her life. She was wracked with guilt until she found Rachel’s contact information on the Internet and learned more about Martin and his history with other women.
But the alleged abuse wasn’t just outside the family. Martin also has a case pending in court for sexual abuse of Alexis.
“Alexis stated there had been two incidents where she had been fondled by her father” within three months of her mother’s passing, a police report states.
Martin admitted in a recorded phone call with Alexis that he inappropriately touched her while she was sleeping because he thought Alexis was his wife.
“Mr. MacNeill was reported to have told his daughters that even though his wife is dead, he is still a sexual person and has desires that need to be met,” according to Pleasant Grove police records.
Alexis wants to protect her family and others from her dad. “I don’t want him to hurt anyone else.”
Each new discovery about Martin causes family members to question memories and statements they had never wondered about just three years ago. For example, Alexis said her father worked with Dr. Jack Kevorkian for a little while either during or right after he was in medical school.
Her father used to joke that Kevorkian did not start killing people until after he worked with him.
She also remembers her dad pulling out his medicine book when she went with him and her mother to the pre-surgery appointment in Layton. She said she had never seen him use that book before, but he looked through it then when he was suggesting to the doctor what to prescribe her mother.
“He knows medical things that people don’t know,” Alexis said. “He also had access to medication.”
She also remembers that for several months before her mom passed away, her dad kept all his work on the computer “very secretive.” She said he erased all of his e-mails and his searches.
Neighbor Hernandez said she and Michele and two other women from their LDS ward called themselves the Ya-Ya Sisters after seeing the movie “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” together. They would have lunch every so often, but the last two times before her death, Michele was unable to make it. She remembers in March 2007, Michele was sobbing on the phone that Martin had kept her too busy and she couldn’t come to a planned birthday lunch.
“But I really need my Ya-Ya Sisters,” Hernandez remembers her saying through tears.
Hernandez has only thought about this since everything has come out about Martin. She thought she knew him pretty well and remembered the time he organized people to help her move and paint her basement.
But she also recalls being afraid to call the MacNeill house phone because Martin might pick up and he was “very intimidating.”
Many family members and friends immediately felt that something wasn’t right when Michele died and some suspected Martin.
“It’s in his nature to be finished with people,” Cluff said of her brother-in-law. “He was on to bigger and better things and Michele was in his way and starting to figure him out.”
She believes Martin thought a divorce would be too messy and pricey. Over the years, the family tried to forgive and forget and get along with Martin, but he would often twist situations to make his wife believe her relatives were against her. “Everybody was afraid of Martin.”
And toward the end of Michele’s life, her voice betrayed that she wasn’t happy, Cluff said.
But Michele never spoke negatively about Martin and wouldn’t let anyone else, either.
It’s hard for Helen Somers though, when the loss of her daughter is often in her mind.
She still remembers her little Michele secretly collecting soda cans for months to raise money to buy her a brown teapot for hot chocolate, which still sits in her kitchen.
Michele was always service-oriented, always trying to help people, she said. Martin must have played off of her goodness.
“I sure do miss her,” Somers said. “I hope Martin is in jail forever.”
Martin MacNeill: Was his wife Michele’s death accidental or was it murder?