Was Utah Doctor's Wife Victim of Foul Play?

Photo: The MacNeill family
Share
Copy

The foothills of the Utah's Wasatch Mountains seem like a picture-perfect place to raise a family, and the MacNeill family fit the bill.

Martin MacNeill, 51, was a respected doctor, who also held a law degree and taught Sunday school at the family's Mormon church. He was married to Michele, a former beauty queen from California, and together they were raising eight children -- four biological and four adopted -- in the gated community of Pleasant Grove. But on the morning of April 11, 2007, their seemingly perfect world fell apart.

Watch the full story on '20/20' Friday at 10 p.m. ET CLICK HERE to see photos of the MacNeill family.

Martin MacNeill returned home after picking up the youngest member of the MacNeill family, 6-year-old adopted daughter Ada, from school and asked her to check on Michele, who was recovering from plastic surgery. What Ada saw when she entered the bedroom horrified her: Her mother was lying in the bathtub, unconscious. Ada screamed for her father, Martin, who called 911.

"I need an ambulance immediately," MacNeill yelled into the phone. "My wife has fallen in the bathtub!"

To dispatcher Heidi Johnson, the caller seemed agitated, and she had difficulty understanding him.

"Is your wife unconscious?" Johnson asked.

"She's unconscious. She's underwater!"

"OK, did you get her out of the water?"

"I can't. I couldn't lift her up!"

"Is your wife breathing?

"She's not! I am a physician. I've got CPR in progress."

MacNeill told Johnson his 50-year-old wife had a face-lift a week earlier. Over the course of five minutes, MacNeill hung up the phone three times, but Johnson was finally able to decipher the address and figure out where to send the ambulance.

"It was really hard to understand him because he was yelling very hysterically at me," Johnson said. "So I tried to calm him down and tried to get the information from him, but … he didn't want to stay on the line with me, and he hung up."

MacNeill sent Ada next door to get help from a neighbor. When neighbor Kristi Daniels ran into the bathroom, she said MacNeill then told her, "I've already called 911. I need a male's help."

Daniels was surprised he needed help but called her husband, Doug Daniels, who arrived minutes later. "I just immediately went straight to her ... and grabbed her legs, and Martin grabbed her upper body and we lifted her out of the tub and onto the floor," Doug Daniels said.

Doug Daniels said MacNeill then began performing CPR, alternating between moments of concern and anger.

"He would calmly be doing puffs of air, and then he would suddenly have an outburst, yelling ...'Why, why? All for a stupid surgery!'" Doug Daniels said.

When the ambulance arrived, Michele MacNeill was rushed to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Daughter Suspects the Worst: 'He Killed Her'

As the chaotic scene unfolded in the MacNeill home, Martin received a call from his daughter, Alexis MacNeill, now 28, who attended medical school in Nevada. Alexis, who idolized her father and wanted to follow in his footsteps, said she received a voice message from her dad earlier that morning between classes and returned the call.

"He said, 'Your mom, she's in the tub. She's not breathing. I've called an ambulance.' And then he hung up," said daughter Alexis, who recalled her alarm.

"I just dropped all my books and just ... started driving to the airport, and I was just screaming. Just screaming, 'He killed her.' That was my first instinct. He killed her," Alexis said.

Though it was a shocking accusation, Alexis MacNeill had reasons to believe her father might have had a hand in her mother's death. Just two days earlier, Alexis said her mother made a warning that sounded ominous to her as she washed her hair.

"She started to cry. [My mother] said, 'If anything happens to me, make sure it wasn't your dad,'" Alexis said. "I kind of got upset. I said, 'Mom, What do you mean?'… And she just said, 'You know, make sure if anything happens to me, it wasn't your dad.'"

Alexis and her sister, Rachel, who had also been trying to call home and finally reached her father, rushed home. When the two girls were together that afternoon, Alexis told her sister her belief that their father might have been responsible for their mother's death. Rachel was in disbelief until Alexis recounted what their mother had told her two days earlier.

Who Is Gypsy Willis? Wife Feared Affair

Why would a seemingly healthy 50-year-old woman collapse in her bathroom a week after facial surgery?

It turned out that the surgery Michele MacNeill had was one she neither asked for nor wanted, according to her daughters. She did it, they said, because her husband wanted her to.

A few months before, in early 2007, after Michele MacNeill had turned 50, Alexis and Rachel said their father appeared to be in the midst of a midlife crisis.

"He'd go to the tanning salons. He'd start exercising just all the time -- just in the middle of a conversation, jumping and doing pushups, things like that," said Rachel, now 31.

The daughters also said their mother suspected their father might be having an affair, saying he would disappear for long stretches. Alexis said her mother asked her to do some late-night investigating into her father's activities.

"While he was sleeping, I logged on to his phone and printed out all of his phone records, and we found this number that he'd been calling a lot," Alexis said.

An online search of the number revealed the name of the person MacNeill had been calling day and night: Gypsy Willis.

"We thought it was maybe some stripper or something," Alexis recalled. "Who's named Gypsy?'"

Did Husband Push Wife to Get Face-Lift?

Michele MacNeill confronted her husband about the phone calls. According to Alexis, MacNeill told his wife that Gypsy was a woman he'd worked with, and that she'd be renting a property they leased.

"My mom said, 'Well, why have you called her? It's three o'clock in the morning, all these strange hours,'" Alexis recounted.

MacNeill said Gypsy worked the night shift, but according to Alexis, her mom doubted her husband's tale and feared he was cheating. However, Michele did not press the matter further. But Alexis said that the next day, Martin came to Michele with an odd request: He wanted her to get a face-lift.

"My mom had never talked about that before or anything," Alexis said. "She'd never been into plastic surgery."

It took some convincing, but according to Alexis, Michele "saw my dad … tanning, getting all in shape. And so I think my mom was just a little concerned too. 'Oh, maybe I should do a couple things. You know maybe that will help.'"

Michele reluctantly agreed to the face-lift. She wanted to wait until the summer, but Alexis said her father insisted she do it sooner. Within a week of the initial consultation, Alexis said the surgery was scheduled.

A Face-Lift, Powerful Painkillers, Sedatives: Reason for Suspicion?

On April 3, 2007, Michele went under the knife for the face-lift procedure. Alexis, who attended the consultations with the surgeon, said her father insisted the surgeon prescribe a combination of powerful painkillers and sedatives -- Lortab, Percocet, Ambien and Valium -- which are almost never administered for this recovery from this kind of procedure.

The surgeon agreed, said Alexis, because "he knew my dad was a physician, so he thought … he knew how to dose different medications.

"It was just bizarre because my mom was very sensitive to medication anyway," she said.

Alexis was prepared to care for her mother at home, but the next evening, she said her father abruptly told her to leave.

"He said, 'Alexis you need to get some rest,'" she recalled. "I said, 'No, I want to stay right here by my mom.' He said, 'I'll take care of her, her medicines tonight.'"

The next day, Alexis said her mother was heavily medicated when she checked in on her.

"She was completely sedated and out of it," Alexis said, adding that her mother mentioned that her dad kept upping her medications.

After Alexis confronted her father about the dosages, MacNeill allowed his daughter to take over her mom's care, and after four days, Michele seemed to be recovering.

With her mother seemingly on the mend, Alexis flew back to Nevada to resume medical school. But within 24 hours, her mother was dead.

Sister Sleuths Play Detective

At the family home, the day of Michele's death, Alexis told "20/20" that she'd asked her father where the remaining sedatives and painkillers were, but MacNeill's answers kept changing.

"He said, 'I don't know. … The police must've taken [the medications]. I don't know where it is. Check in the garage,'" Alexis recalled him saying.

When nothing turned up, she said she asked her father again, and this time he said they were thrown out. His explanation: "It was making him too sad to look at it. To see this medication," Alexis said, "As soon as I heard that, things were just starting to add up. Everything was adding up."

But if events raised eyebrows for Alexis and Rachel, nothing about Michele MacNeill's death seemed to appear suspicious to the Pleasant Grove, Utah, police. They did not treat the house as a crime scene, collect evidence or interview anyone besides Martin MacNeill, who according to the police report, told them he believed Michele "passed out while preparing the tub."

"I thought that, OK, if this is a healthy woman who died that there would be some sort of big police investigation," said Alexis. "Their police report into my mother's death is about 2½ paragraphs."

The medical examiner ruled that Michele MacNeill died from natural causes, stating that hypertension and an existing heart infection called myocarditis had caused Michele's heart to fail. Police closed the case.

Husband Hastily Arranges Funeral, Hires 'Nanny'

In the meantime, Martin MacNeill seemed to move on quickly. He hastily arranged a funeral three days after his wife's death, and two days later, returned to work as medical director of the Utah State Developmental Center.

His grown daughters said a few days later that MacNeill had insisted that the family hire a nanny to care for the four younger adopted daughters. Though Rachel and Alexis say they offered to help, MacNeill seemed to have his mind made up, and even had a potential nanny on the short list.

The name was one that was familiar to Alexis: Gypsy Willis -- the woman whom Michele thought Martin was having an affair with during their marriage.

"There was only one candidate and that was Gypsy," Rachel MacNeill, said.

Two weeks after Michele's death, Gypsy Willis moved into the family home. But what kind of "nanny" was she? Her role seemed to be more like a girlfriend than a nanny, according to Alexis and Rachel.

"She didn't cook, she didn't clean, she didn't take care of the children in any way," said Rachel.

Suspicious, Alexis and Rachel MacNeill began a long personal and legal battle with their father. Alexis went to court to try to gain custody of the three youngest adopted MacNeill children, Ada, and Sabrina and Elle, who are from Ukraine

Alexis and Rachel said their father was upset.

"He said, 'If you fight me, I'm going to get you thrown out of medical school,'" said Alexis. "We were basically… pushed out of the house by my dad."

"I was told that I needed to leave the home because I wasn't nice to Gypsy," said Rachel. "He wanted to make it known that it was either Gypsy or his children, and he chose the 'nanny.'"

CLICK HERE to read part 2 of this story.

CLICK HERE to watch the full story on the latest episode of '20/20.'

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...