Valerie McDaniel knew she had been found out.
Detectives had arrested the prominent Houston veterinarian and her boyfriend, Leon Jacob, after accusing them of trying to hire a hit man to kill both of their exes, and now they were facing the possibility of time behind bars.
Out on bail but still facing solicitation of capital murder charges, McDaniel wrote down her final wishes and recorded her final words on her iPad. In her audio diary entries, she said, “I have two great loves in my life -- I have my daughter, I have Leon.” She also confessed to a dark secret.
“I never wanted to hurt anyone,” McDaniel says in her last recording made on March 25, 2017.
Two days later, McDaniel jumped off her seventh-floor balcony to her death, leaving Jacob to face a trial by jury alone.
This past week, a jury convicted Jacob of two counts of solicitation of capital murder and sentenced him to life in prison.
“20/20” has been following this bizarre case, including how Jacob felt about his relationship with McDaniel, the investigators who uncovered their murder-for-hire plot and how they convinced McDaniel and Jacob’s targets to play along with their investigation. Watch the full story on ABC News' "20/20" FRIDAY at 10 p.m. ET.
How Valerie McDaniel met Leon Jacob
McDaniel was a veterinarian living in a two-bedroom condo at a luxury high-rise in the wealthy Houston neighborhood of River Oaks. When she wasn’t treating animals at the veterinary clinic she owned, friends and colleagues said McDaniel spent weekends on Tiki Island near Galveston, where she regularly hosted friends at her beach home.
She had been married to her business partner, Marion “Mack” McDaniel, but the two divorced after 17 years together and agreed to share custody of their now 9-year-old daughter. Friends said she was miserable in the marriage and her husband was never around.
“She would be very hurt by her husband,” said Dr. Brittany King, a veterinarian who worked for Valerie McDaniel. “It would be… a text or a phone call and then she would be in tears, and it’s so hard to watch someone in that much pain.”
She was largely unhappy until she was introduced to Leon Jacob, the son of her neighbor and divorce attorney who was nine years her junior.
“I was completely turned off immediately by his attitude,” McDaniel recalled in an audio recording about meeting Jacob for the first time. “I was drawn to him but disgusted at the same time.”
But eventually, Jacob won her over. McDaniel shared that their first sexual encounter “was like a movie moment… It was the most passionate, romantic moment in my life.”
Jacob moved into her condo and the two began living together in early 2017. In an interview with “20/20” last year before his trial began, Jacob said they cooked together, shared bank accounts and even told people they were getting married.
But on March 27, McDaniel chose to take her own life.
“It was just as much of a shock to me as it was to everybody else around her,” Jacob said. “There was nothing wrong.”
McDaniel's friends said they had a bad feeling about Jacob.
"[He was] very arrogant and full of himself," her longtime friend Maggie Whitley told “20/20” in a previous interview, "I've just never seen anything quite like that... I've got a pretty strong intuition about people, and I did not feel good about it. And I let her know that."
Looking into Leon Jacob’s past
It turns out some of Jacob's past relationships were tumultuous, including the one he had with his ex-wife Annie Jacob. Leon Jacob recalled that relationship as having many highs and lows.
“We would fight, fight, fight, and love, love, love, fight, fight, fight, love, love, love,” Jacob said of his ex-wife. “It was one of those relationships that people are like, ‘God, they're crazy, but they're their crazy, and we love that.’”
After 11 years of marriage, Annie Jacob filed for divorce in 2013 and later pressed charges against him for aggravated stalking and intimidation. Court documents obtained by ABC News say he made calls, sent texts and emails, threatening to inflict bodily harm. But Jacob said it was blown out of proportion.
“Attempted cyber harassment is what I plead guilty to,” Jacob said. “She went a little overboard with her complaints about me.”
Jacob served probation for attempted cyber stalking and the other charges were dismissed.
His professional life also had its ups and downs. In 2005, Jacob graduated from medical school on the Caribbean island of Grenada. Afterwards, he had surgical training in a series of residency programs at different hospitals, but never received a medical license and was let go from his last program in Texas.
Jacob moved to Ohio and entered another residency program there, but a superior said he lied about patient care following surgery and lacked medical knowledge overall. He was eventually terminated from the program.
Then in 2012, Jacob was arrested for allegedly burglarizing the home of a hospital administrator in Ohio. He pleaded guilty to criminal trespass.
By 2016, Jacob was in financial straits, filing for bankruptcy. He had also moved back to Houston and began dating a woman named Meghan Verikas. In January 2017, police were called to their home after an incident. Verikas claimed that during an argument, Jacob grabbed her face with enough force to wound her lip. According to the police report, Jacob admitted to putting his hand over her mouth.
Once again, Jacob recalled things differently.
“I didn’t put my hand on her physically,” he told “20/20” in a previous interview. “I never touched her, and subsequently, that charge has been dropped because there was no evidence.”
The assault charge was eventually dropped, but in February 2017, Jacob was charged with stalking Verikas at her workplace after she had ended their relationship. He admitted to “20/20” that at the time, he had “kept on pursuing her for a little bit” and claimed he was “waiting” for Verikas when police were called.
At the same time he was being charged with stalking his ex-girlfriend, Jacob was already living with Valerie McDaniel.
Finding a hit man
If he were to be convicted of the stalking charge, it might very well jeopardize his chances of getting a license to practice medicine. According to authorities, Jacob allegedly came up with a plot to make Verikas disappear in order to have the stalking charge dropped.
Police said Jacob gave $5,000, two Cartier watches and a laptop to a former U.S. Army sergeant and Purple Heart recipient, who went by the alias “Zach,” as payment for a hit on Meghan.
Police say Zach did take the money and disappeared, never carrying out the hit.
When Jacob could not find Zach, police say Jacob reached out to bail bondsman Michael Kubosh for help in locating him. Kubosh had not only gotten Jacob out of jail on bond after the stalking charge, but once put up bond for Zach on an unrelated matter.
“He [Jacob] said, ‘I’ve paid him [Zach] a lot of money to take care of a matter,’” Kubosh told “20/20” in a previous interview. “And I said, ‘To take care of what?’ He said, ‘I want her out of the picture.’ … and he wanted to send her out of town.”
“The way he talked to me, I felt like I was talking to Satan himself,” Kubosh added. “All of this alarmed me.”
Kubosh, who is also a city councilmember in Houston, said he immediately called his police contacts and Meghan was taken to a safe house. Police tracked down Zach, who they said admitted that Jacob hired him to kill Verikas, and they convinced him to cooperate with their investigation. With police listening in and instructing him on what to say, Zach called Jacob and -- following a storyline provided by police -- told him he had outsourced the hit job to another hitman. That so-called hitman was actually an undercover officer named Javier.
“The reason that we wanted Zach out of the picture and for me to replace Zach as the "hitman" was just to … collect evidence and be able to capture the conversation on audio and or video,” Javier told “20/20” in a previous interview.
But as Zach was talking with Jacob on that phone call, authorities say Jacob raised the stakes.
“When they’re talking on the phone, Leon says, ‘Are they going to take care of both issues?’” Harris County Assistant District Attorney Nathan Moss told “20/20” in a previous interview.
That’s when police say it was first revealed to them that a second hit was being requested -- one that targeted Valerie McDaniel’s ex-husband, Mack McDaniel.
“Upon hearing that, I was shocked that Leon wanted two people killed, and that his girlfriend Valerie would also be involved,” Javier said.
The Olive Garden meeting
According to Moss, Jacob and Valerie McDaniel met up with Zach and Javier at an Olive Garden restaurant to finalize the plan.
“This is where I first get to meet Leon and Valerie,” Javier said. “This is where I get to read Leon, what type of person he is, and it was very obvious to me during that first meeting that Leon was serious about killing Meghan and Mack.”
“Leon told me that he believed that Valerie's ex-husband was a really bad person, he mistreated Valerie. He was bringing a lot of pressure on Valerie by attempting to take their daughter away,” Javier added.
At one point during the meal, authorities say Zach and Jacob stepped outside for a cigarette break, leaving McDaniel and Javier, the undercover officer, alone together at the table.
“He finally gets her to say that she does, in fact, want him [Mack] to be killed,” said prosecutor Samantha Knecht. “She actually turns over what kind of car he drives, where he can be found, where he lives, and gives some pretty personal details so that Javier knows where to find him.”
“And that's when he said, ‘Well, if you want that done, it's going to be another $10,000,’” she continued. “And Valerie said, ‘Ok, I have to pay you out in installments of it, but I'll pay you $10,000.’”
Prosecutors say Valerie McDaniel had taken out a $1.2 million loan to buy out her ex-husband’s share of the veterinarian clinic as part of their divorce settlement so money was tight for her at the time.
Police tipped off Mack McDaniel about the alleged hit. Working with authorities, Mack McDaniel agreed to pose for photos that would make it appear like he had been murdered in a carjacking gone wrong. A fake bullet wound was fashioned on his head and he was photographed slumped over the wheel of a car.
Authorities asked Jacob’s ex-girlfriend Meghan Verikas to pose for similar photos. She agreed and was photographed by officers as if she had been kidnapped -- tied up to a chair with zip ties binding her wrists and ankles with duct tape over her mouth.
“Leon would tell me he wanted Meghan kidnapped and scared to the point where she would leave town and never come back,” Javier said. “Leon kept using the word ‘disappear.’ He would say, ‘I want her gone. I want her to go away forever.’ And I took that to understand he wanted her dead.”
The photos were taken to prove to Jacob and Valerie McDaniel that the "hit" on Mack McDaniel had taken place. Javier said he called Jacob to tell him he had “news” for him. He said Jacob asked him to come over to Valerie McDaniel’s condo. Upon arriving, Javier said, “She [Valerie] gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. I did find it a little unusual.”
After hearing from the "hitman" that Mack was “gone”, Javier says, “I then ask Leon if he wanted to see a picture and he told me he did not want to see anything.”
But then, police say Leon handed over $1,800 in cash to Javier – partial payment for the job.
Later that same night, Javier said he got back in touch with Leon to tell him that Meghan was dead as well.
The couple’s reaction to the news of their exes’ ‘deaths’
The charade continued with officers showing up at Valerie McDaniel’s condo after midnight to tell her that her ex-husband had been found dead. Jacob was also in the apartment at the time.
The officers were armed with body cameras to capture the couple’s reaction.
According to police, the two feigned shock over the news and Jacob offered up an alibi about their whereabouts -- even before officers asked them. Finally satisfied that they had all the evidence they needed, detectives arrested McDaniel and Jacob for solicitation of capital murder.
Before Valerie McDaniel was taken into custody, officers allowed her to retrieve her daughter, who was asleep in her bedroom at the time, and hand her off to her ex-husband waiting in the hallway, who, she had just been told, was in fact very much alive.
Three days after she was arrested, Valerie McDaniel was released on $50,000 bond. She visited some friends but mostly confined herself to her apartment, recording her final thoughts on her iPad.
“I didn’t wake up one day and just say, ‘Hey, I want to kill my ex-husband,’” McDaniel says in an entry. “I didn’t really want to do it.”
But prosecutors say McDaniel did want to go through with having her ex-husband killed and confessed to hiring the hitman after her arrest when she was with officers in the hallway of her condo.
“They keep having to tell her to speak up,” Moss said. “And they say things like, ‘So you wanted your husband killed? You can't nod. You have to say yes,’ and she'd be like, ‘Yes, that's what I wanted.’”
But her friend Maggie Whitley said she believes McDaniel never would have ordered an alleged hit without Jacob’s influence.
“It's something that happened to her. I truly believe that,” Whitley said. “This was not something that she would've ever done.”
According to Whitley, during Jacob and McDaniel's roughly eight weeks of dating, Whitley only saw her friend one time. She also said McDaniel told her there was a “constant barrage of hatred” from Jacob about McDaniel’s ex-husband.
Whitley said she began receiving vulgar texts from Valerie’s phone that she believes were sent by Jacob. McDaniel’s former colleague Dr. Brittany King said Jacob used to answer McDaniel’s phone for her. “She wanted that love and that attention,” Whitley said. “And I think that he used his predatory ways to somehow brainwash her.”
Jacob denied keeping McDaniel from her friends.
“When you’re first in a new relationship… you kind of isolate yourself… with each other,” he said.
Leon Jacob goes to trial
Jacob was charged with two counts of solicitation of capital murder relating to his and McDaniel’s plot. He pleaded not guilty.
During a jailhouse interview with “20/20” last year before the trial began, Jacob refused to talk about the details of the case but denied all wrongdoing.
“I am innocent of these charges. I still maintain that throughout,” Jacob said. “I find them to be atrocious in manner because I'm not some monster that wanted my ex-girlfriend killed and her ex-husband… I’m a healer by nature.”
Jacob said he did not feel responsible for McDaniel’s suicide, saying “That was a decision she made on her own.” He had asked a judge to allow him to attend McDaniel’s funeral but his request was denied.
When his trial began last week, Jacob's attorneys argued that he believed he was hiring a private investigator to help him get back together with Verikas, not hire a hitman to kill her.
After his own mother was called to testify in his defense, Jacob himself took the stand. Prosecutors refuted his claims that he loved Verikas and never wanted her hurt by playing undercover recordings where he suggested killing her with an injection of potassium chloride. He seemed unprepared when confronted with his various incriminating statements, often answering with "sure" or "if that's what you say."
The graphic staged crime scene photos authorities took of Meghan Verikas and Mack McDaniel as would-be “victims” were also shown in court.
This past Friday, a jury found Jacob guilty of both counts of solicitation of capital murder after deliberating for less than two hours. On Monday, he was sentenced to life in prison and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.
Moments after the sentence was read, Verikas took the stand to deliver a final send-off to her former boyfriend.
“You will never get to see your children grow up,” she told him, wiping away tears. “You will not be part of their lives, and they will be better for it… enjoy life in prison.”
Harris County assistant district attorney Samantha Knecht told ABC News in a statement, "We were very pleased with the swift guilty and punishment verdict. Justice was served knowing he can no longer be a danger to our community."
In a statement to ABC News, Jacob's defense attorney George Parnham said they plan on filing an appeal.
"It is my belief that we have cause for a reversal and re-trial, if necessary," he said.