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PROVO — An emotionally distraught Rachel MacNeill testified against her father Thursday, saying he insisted an autopsy be conducted on her mother’s body in case police launched an inquiry and accused him of murder.
“He specifically said to me he was concerned there would be a police investigation, that he didn’t want anyone to think that he had killed my mother,” a tearful MacNeill said. “It was shocking to me. Why would anybody think that?”
Michele MacNeill was found unconscious in the bathtub of her Pleasant Grove home on April 11, 2007. Utah County prosecutors say Martin MacNeill over-medicated his wife with painkillers she was given after plastic surgery and then drowned her in the tub. They believe MacNeill killed his wife to begin a new life with his mistress, Gypsy Willis.
A former osteopathic physician and lawyer, Martin MacNeill, 57, has pleaded not guilty to murder, a first-degree felony, and obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony. The trial is in its second week and is expected to last until mid-November.
An initial autopsy by the Utah State Medical Examiner’s Office found that Michele MacNeill died of natural causes related to heart disease. An updated report by the same office in 2010 concurred but called the manner of her death suspicious and undetermined. A third examiner, who is a witness for prosecutors, found that the former California beauty queen drowned.
None of the examiners concluded the death was a homicide. Utah County authorities began investigating the death in 2008, but criminal charges in the case were not filed until 2012.
He specifically said to me he was concerned there would be a police investigation, that he didn't want anyone to think that he had killed my mother. It was shocking to me. Why would anybody think that?
Testifying was clearly difficult for Rachel MacNeill, who said that as a child her father was her “best friend.” She broke down repeatedly, her lip and chin visibly quivering, sometimes closing her eyes and shaking her head. At times, she seemed angry or confused by the questions of both prosecutors and defense attorneys, and she had trouble remembering things she said in the past.
She also became so upset when asked to use the tub inside the court to re-enact her father’s demonstration of finding her mother’s body that Judge Derek Pullan called for a recess.
“He said she was under the water. … He said he couldn’t lift her out,” Rachel MacNeill said, her face twisting in pain. “He said that she must have fallen or hit her head. … I didn’t want to listen to it. It was so horrible.”
The eldest of the MacNeills' seven daughters, Rachel MacNeill also had a clear memory of meeting Willis outside the Mount Timpanogos LDS temple in American Fork.
Martin MacNeill met his daughter at the temple six days after Michele’s death in order to “pray” about hiring a nanny for the younger kids. Willis approached them, introducing herself under the pseudonym “Jillian” as they sat on a bench outside, and Martin MacNeill pretended as if he was meeting Willis for the first time.
Within two weeks, Willis had been hired as the nanny and moved into the house, although Rachel MacNeill said Willis “didn’t do anything related to the children” but sat around the house “all goo-eyed at my dad.”
“I expected her to be focused on the children,” Rachel MacNeill said with a sneer. “It was very different than it was with my mother.”
Rachel MacNeill also testified that her father had said her sister Alexis Somers “was no longer in the family” because both she and Michele had accused him of having an affair with Willis.
“He said that was ridiculous,” Rachel MacNeill said.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Susanne Gustin picked through Rachel MacNeill’s testimony from past hearings, noting the discrepancies and noting when she offered information Thursday that she had not previously disclosed.
Gustin also tried to discredit Rachel MacNeill’s testimony by asking about her mental health history, including a 2012 medical report from an emergency room physician indicating she was suffering from delusions and psychosis.
“I don’t know,” Rachel MacNeill said, pausing before giving an answer. She also said didn’t remember telling a doctor that she had “altered reality testing” but did acknowledge that she had been diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder.
Earlier in the day, Judge Pullan held a two-hour hearing to consider whether the MacNeills' youngest adoptive daughter, Ada, will be allowed to testify in the case. She was the first to discover Michele in the tub. She was 6 at the time and is now 12.
Defense attorney Randall Spencer objects to Ada testifying and contends her memory may have been tainted over time by conversations with others, specifically her elder sisters, Somers and Rachel MacNeill, who pushed for their mother’s death to be investigated as a homicide.
Spencer has said he fears Ada’s memory has been so compromised that “there is a high probability of false memories.”
Prosecutors questioned investigators Doug Witney, now a Utah County Commissioner, and Jeff Robinson and Somers about their interactions with Ada over time.
All said investigators had asked Somers to query Ada about the details of what she saw that day, including her mother’s position in the tub, the water level and if she was clothed. Ada was also asked to diagram her mother’s position in the tub — an exercise that was supervised by Somers, who is now Ada's legal guardian.
Somers assured the court that she had not “tainted” her sister’s testimony by suggesting details to her about the alleged crime or letting her see any newspaper or television accounts about the case. She conceded, however, that Ada is familiar with Somers’ own conclusions about the case.
“I know she’s aware that I think my dad killed my mom,” Somers said.
Pullan said he will issue a ruling on the matter Friday.