Focus in Dad's Murder Shifts to Stepdaughter

Tim and Brae smilingCourtesy Erin MacNeil Ellison
Tim and Brae smiling

It was a pretty summer day, July 19, 2007, in the Rolando area of San Diego when a 911 call shattered the quiet of a residential neighborhood. Operators fielding the call heard the desperate, shrieking voice of a young woman.

"I think we've been robbed ... my stepfather's been shot ... I think he's dead!"

The caller was 17-year-old Brae Hansen. Amid her panicky screams she told the 911 operator that a masked intruder had shot her 63-year-old stepfather, Timothy MacNeil, during what appeared to be a robbery gone awry.

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Police rushed to the scene. On the way to the house, veteran Det. J.C. Smith was briefed on the situation: a home invasion robbery with a surviving victim.

"We were hoping that the patrol guys were on the trail of the masked gunman that ran out the back door," Smith told ABC News correspondent Mary Fulginiti.

Inside the house, the responding officers found MacNeil, dead from his wounds, lying in a large pool of his own blood in a downstairs room. Brae Hansen was cowering in the corner, her wrists bound with a zip tie. She told the cops she had managed to dial 911 with her tongue.

Word of the incident spread through the community, and soon MacNeil's brother and sister-in-law, Rick and Bonnie MacNeil, got word that there had been a tragedy. They, too, rushed to the scene, shocked by the death of MacNeil and seriously concerned about Hansen.

"My first reaction when we got there, I just kept screaming, 'Where's Brae, where's Brae, where's Brae?'" said Bonnie MacNeil. "Is Brae OK?"

While Brae received medical attention, police combed the house. They found a .357 magnum revolver on the back porch, and a balled-up shirt tangled in a tree along with what they surmised was the killer's getaway route. They also collected neighbors' eyewitness statements about a man seen running away from the house and climbing into a truck and driving off.

At the police station, a shocked Brae Hansen gave her first videotaped statement to the police.

"The first thing I see is my dad standing sideways and a person all in black," she said. "I turned around and I saw him shooting him in the face, and I saw my dad go down." Breaking down, Brae continued: "And then I saw him shoot him in the back of the head and run out."

Intruder Murder: Twist in Brae's Story

Brae also told the police that she did not see the killer's face, which was obscured by a black mask with eyeholes cut out. She said she could not identify his skin color because he was wearing gloves. And she said he disguised his voice "like a cartoon character's. It was high pitched, kinda squeaky."

This detail gave Det. Smith and his partner, Brett Burkett, pause.

"...A home invasion robber, they want to sound like the bogey man," Smith said. "They don't want to sound like Daffy Duck."

The detectives wondered if perhaps the intruder was someone Tim MacNeil knew from his work as a defense attorney, such as a disgruntled client.

But it seemed that MacNeil had no enemies, a fact to which his daughter, Erin MacNeil Ellison, could attest.

"He got along with everyone he met," she said. "He would start conversations with strangers.... He was really just a child at heart."

Since MacNeil's second wife, Doreen, had died, he had lived with Doreen's daughter, Brae. Brae's brother Nathaniel had been at college in Arizona since 2005.

Now Brae was grappling with the death of her stepfather -- whom she called Daddy -- all alone in a police station in downtown San Diego. After she was questioned, she asked to be taken to Bonnie and Rick MacNeil's house.

Later that evening, detectives visited Brae again so they could photograph her wrist wounds made by the zip ties. While being questioned for a second time about what had happened, Brae suddenly blurted out a name she hadn't mentioned before.

"I heard my dad ask [the intruder], 'Why are you doing this, Nathan?'" Brae said. "That's all I know... ."

Stunned detectives tried to wrap their heads around the new information.

"She said this name, 'Nathan,' and she goes, 'It's not my brother, my brother's named Nathan, but it's not him,'" said Det. Burkett.

"She started to get a little more defensive," said Smith. "Brae volunteered that she had a brother named Nathan, but Nathan was definitely not the killer."

Police recorded the revised statement and began to wonder if there was even more to the story. Nathan lived in Arizona and seemed to be a clean-cut student with a bit of a goofball Internet presence. Could he have been involved in the awful crime?

Intruder Murder: Another Slip of Tongue

Could Brae herself be involved? All signs pointed to the fact that she adored her stepfather -- he had doted on her and she had, by all accounts, adored him in return.

At the MacNeil house, Rick and Bonnie were beginning to have doubts as well. Brae's demeanor had changed and her story seemed to be fluctuating.

It was another slip of the tongue that started things moving. While looking at reports about the crime published on the Internet, Rick and Bonnie's daughter, Shelly, pulled up a police sketch of the killer. Brae glanced at the computer and remarked that the sketch wasn't correct -- the jaw line of the intruder was not how it had been drawn.

Shelly froze as she realized that Brae was contradicting herself. After all, Brae had claimed a black mask completely obscured the intruder's face. Now she was saying she'd seen him.

Shelly told her parents, who advised her to call the police. It was the beginning of an evening that would change the lives of all involved.

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