In April 2007, the eight kids of the MacNeill family lost their mother, Michele MacNeill, in what authorities quickly determined to be due to natural causes, just days after she had undergone facelift surgery.
But some of those children and others in Michele MacNeill's family led a dogged campaign to have a thorough investigation opened into her death, which eventually uncovered some alarming facts. Michele's husband, Dr. Martin MacNeill, had withheld decades of secrets from his family - from mistresses and falsified transcripts to a hidden felony conviction – a history that bolstered the family's suspicions that he had killed his wife.
Watch the full story on "20/20" Friday, June 14, at 9 pm EST on ABC
Six and a half years after Michele MacNeill’s death, he was put on trial for plotting to kill his wife of 29 years in what prosecutors said was a plan to start a new life with a woman with whom he was having an affair. MacNeill was convicted of murder in 2013.
The MacNeills: A big, happy family?
Michele MacNeill “was a dream of a big sister,” Linda Cluff told ABC News. "[Michele] was popular, she was athletic, she was great in school. She also loved music and she played the violin… we were all very proud of her.”
Michele met Martin MacNeill at an event for young Mormon singles. They married when she was 21 and quickly started a family. She gave birth to four kids in five years.
“All she cared about, I mean, is her family. I mean, her family was her life,” her daughter Alexis Somers said.
The couple adopted four more children, three from Ukraine.
Those who knew him said Martin MacNeill made sure to let people know he was both a doctor and a lawyer.
“He walked in the room and sort of took it over, like, ‘Look at me,’” Cluff said. “Like he was above everybody. I never liked him. He seemed arrogant to me. He seemed all about himself.”
One of the MacNeill’s biological daughters, Rachel MacNeill, said her father changed when he turned 50.
“He started acting very strangely…He became just very obsessed with losing weight and his appearance. He’d go to the tanning salons,” she said.
Michele MacNeill began to suspect her husband was having an affair and confronted him about it. He turned the tables on her, suggesting that she should also make some changes to her appearance.
Martin MacNeill decided that his wife should get a full face-lift “out of the blue,” Somers said. “My mom had never talked about that before or anything. She’d never been into plastic surgery.”
He found a plastic surgeon, insisted that the operation occur immediately, and then just prior to the surgery, Martin gave the doctor a list of post-op medications he insisted he prescribe for Michele. They included Valium, Ambien, Phenergan, Percocet, and Lortab -- all central nervous system depressants, never meant to be taken at the same time.
Michele had the surgery on April 3, 2007.
“She looked bad,” said Somers of her mother when she came out of surgery, adding she was in “in a lot of pain."
After Michele’s first night back home, “My dad told me to, to leave. He said … ‘I’ll take care of her medicines tonight.’”
The next morning, Somers returned and found, “When I walked in there, she was completely sedated and out of it.” Somers confronted her father, who she says admitted he had given Michele too much medicine. “And he said, “Oh and your mother threw up so then I gave her more medicine.”
Somers, who was in medical school, told her father she would be giving her mother the medication going forward. At that point, Michele was still wearing eye patches.
“She told me, she said, ‘Give me each of the pills so I can feel it with my finger so if he tries to give me something else, I’ll know what he’s giving me,’” Somers remembered.
Over the next few days, her mother then appeared to be recovering well. But before Somers returned to medical school, her mother confided in her a chilling request.
“She started to cry. She said, ‘If anything happens to me, make sure it wasn’t your dad,’” Somers said.
Michele MacNeill found dead in family home
A week after Michele returned home from surgery, her husband went to work as normal, picked up their daughter Ada from school, and the two arrived back at the house.
“Ada said my dad picked her up from school and told her to, ‘Go check on your mother,’” Somers said. “So she ran in, just calling, ‘Mommy! Mommy!’ And my dad stayed in the kitchen while she went into the bathroom and found her.”
Michele MacNeill was lying lifeless in the bathtub.
911 operator Heidi Johnson remembered it was hard to understand Martin MacNeill’s call.
“He was yelling very hysterically at me,” she told ABC News. “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."
Johnson was able to call Martin back and says, "He yelled, ‘I am a physician, I have initiated CPR,’ and disconnected the phone call again.”
Somers says that morning she had talked to her mother, who seemed to be doing fine. But later, she received an odd phone message from her father that she needed to call her mother immediately. When Somers tried contacting her mother, it was Martin who picked up the phone.
“He said, ‘Your mom. She’s in the tub. She's not breathing. I’ve called an ambulance.’ And then he hung up. I just started driving to the airport and I was just screaming. Just screaming. He killed her. That was my first instinct.”
Somers wanted to count how much of the medication was left to see how much her mom had taken, but found out her father had already asked someone to flush the remaining pills down the toilet.
“He said... it was making him too sad to look at. To see this medication,” Somers said. “As soon as I heard that, things were just starting to add up. Everything was adding up.”
However, police never questioned the family, and believed Martin MacNeill's story that it was an accident. They closed the case slightly less than two months after Michele’s death.
The medical examiner ruled the manner of death as natural, due to cardiovascular disease.
“She just turned fifty years old. I mean, she, she had a few issues. She had a little bit of high cholesterol, some high, high blood pressure, but who doesn’t? … I thought that, okay, if this is a healthy woman that died that there would be some sort of big police investigation,” Somers said. “Their police report into my mother’s death is about two and a half paragraphs.”
But Somers had a hunch. About a month before her Michele’s death, at the request of her mother, she had logged onto her father’s phone while he slept, she remembered.
“[I] printed out all of his phone records. And [my mother and I] found this number that he’d been calling a lot… Gypsy Jillian Willis.”
The other woman
“We met online. He sent me a message,” Willis told ABC News in 2013. “He asked me what I knew about quantum physics… There was just instant chemistry. He was tall, he was handsome, he was very well spoken.”
Willis knew he was married but said that didn’t ring any alarms for her.
“I wasn’t looking for a serious relationship,” she said. “He told me that he had a perfect life. That he had a perfect wife.”
And although she had never met that “perfect wife”, Gypsy decided to show up for Michele’s funeral, which Martin had forbade many in Michele’s family from attending. Somers says he also demanded that Michele be buried just three days after her death.
Rachel and Alexis volunteered to care for the younger children, but their father had another plan in mind.
“He said ‘Oh, I found the perfect nanny.’ And I said, ‘What’s her name?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I think it’s, I think it’s Jillian?’ And I said ‘Dad? Gypsy Jillian Willis?’” Somers remembered. “I said, ‘I know that woman. I know mom was worried you were having an affair with her and you are not to bring her in the home.’”
But within weeks after Michele's death, Willis moved in anyway.
“I moved in to help with the kids. When we had opportunity, I still slept with him,” Willis said.
When Somers questioned her dad, he threatened her.
“He said, ‘If you fight me, I’m going to get you thrown out of medical school… I’m going to take you down,’” Somers said. “I was told that I needed to leave the home because I wasn’t nice to Gypsy.”
Both Somers and her sister were kicked out of the home, “without our keys or shoes,” Rachel MacNeill said. “He wanted to make it known that it was either Gypsy or his children, and he chose the ‘nanny.’”
Martin MacNeill’s identity unravels as investigation into his wife’s death continues
Long after the police had closed its case on Michele MacNeill’s death, her family continued to fight for further investigation.
“I’d try to go to the authorities. I'd go to the governor’s office,” Somers said. “I went to every single newspaper in Utah, trying to get someone to listen… My mother was murdered. She was murdered. And no one cares.”
The family pressure finally got results -- Doug Witney and Jeff Robinson, investigators with the Utah County Prosecutor's Office, were assigned to investigate the case.
Witney obtained an investigative subpoena, digging into MacNeill’s background as far back as college and his post-graduate career.
“If you take a pyramid and you build it with bricks, and you pull those foundation bricks out, you have nothing, it crumbles,” Witney told ABC News.
Witney said he discovered Martin MacNeill’s entire career was based on two falsified transcripts from different colleges so he could gain admission to medical school.
“I found that the transcript used for Martin MacNeill to get into medical school was totally falsified,” he said. “Instead of taking his transcript and altering it, he got somebody else’s. The transcript was completely fake.”
He also uncovered that MacNeill had been discharged from the military after briefly serving because he had claimed that he was schizophrenic and hearing voices.
MacNeill collected $3,000 a month for more than three decades from Veterans Affairs after serving less than two years in the military.
When he was in his early twenties, he opened a checking account and wrote fraudulent checks to furnish a house, and buy jewelry including diamond rings and watches, 60 pairs of socks, dozens of pairs of shoes, and a year’s supply of chocolate covered cherries, according to Gary Ryan, who prosecuted the case in 1978.
MacNeill was convicted of forgery and grand theft, went to jail for 180 days after he married Michele, and was on felony parole when he got into medical school.
“We basically found out that our entire lives had been based and surrounded on lies,” his daughter Rachel said.
Stealing his own daughter’s identity
While Rachel, Alexis and Michele's sisters were trying to get authorities to pay attention to the circumstances behind her death, MacNeill was trying to get another family to adopt the three youngest girls.
He also arranged for the oldest of the adopted daughters, Giselle MacNeill, who was 16 at the time, to return to Ukraine for the summer. It was supposed to be a two month visit, but it stretched into almost a year as Martin made no arrangements for her to come back to the U.S.
In the meantime, Martin and Willis stole Giselle’s identity while she was gone. Willis assumed this new identity, amassing a fraudulent social security number, ID cards, and birth certificate.
“They went into court and changed the birth date 20 years,” Witney said. “That’s called perjury. Now there is two people with that Social Security number, two people with that name.”
Willis told ABC News the plot for a new identity “was Martin’s idea, this was Martin’s activity.”
“When I got together with Martin, I had a lot of tax debt. Probably in the range of $50,000 or $60,000,” she explained. “I knew this was breaking the law and I didn’t want to do it. I said I didn’t want to. He said that this is the best way to do it, it’s temporary, it’s not gonna hurt anybody, no one will notice.”
Willis said she trusted him because he was an attorney.
“Martin was very powerful. He was very influential. I just assumed that he knew what he was doing. He’d been successful all of his life,” she said.
Willis used the identity Jillian Giselle MacNeill, and Martin claimed she was his wife and at other times, his daughter.
He transferred the house to her, which had been in Michele MacNeill’s name.
Michele MacNeill’s sister, Linda Cluff, discovered Giselle was still back in Ukraine. She sent her daughter, Jill Harper, to go there, and Harper found her cousin was living in deplorable conditions.
“There’s one room, and it has a pull-out sofa bed, and it’s her, her sister, her sister’s husband, and their two kids, and they all share that bed,” Harper said. “There was a little pan on the floor and I was like ‘What’s this?’ in the bathroom. And she like, ‘That’s our shower. You just stand in there.’ I mean I don’t even know what movie I’ve ever seen anything that horrible in.”
Once their false identity plot was uncovered by authorities, Martin MacNeill and Willis were both arrested, convicted of identity theft and other federal charges and sentenced to serve time at separate prisons. They also both pleaded guilty to state fraud charges.
While Martin was incarcerated, Witney and Robinson continued their investigation into Michele’s death. They succeeded in convincing the state medical examiner’s office to take another look at her toxicology report. It showed what amounted to a toxic cocktail of drugs. As a result, the manner of death was changed from “natural” to “undetermined”, opening the door for prosecutors to pursue criminal charges.
Martin MacNeill goes to court for murder of his wife
In July 2012, MacNeill was released from prison after serving three years for fraud. He returned to the same home where he and Michele had lived together.
Even though MacNeill was finally free, prosecutor Chad Grunander was preparing to put him back behind bars. After less than two months of freedom, MacNeill went back into custody at a Utah county jail on a $1 million cash bond, facing murder charges in the death of his wife.
On October 17, 2013, he finally went on trial for the murder of Michele MacNeill, after more than six years of his children's pushing for him to face justice.
Dr. Scott Thompson, the plastic surgeon who performed Michele's facelift, took the stand to explain the litany of medications she was prescribed.
He said he wrote the prescriptions because MacNeill had asked, he was a physician and said that he would be taking care of his wife. Thompson said he would not have prescribed the medication if MacNeill had not been a doctor and that it was never his intention, when he prescribed these medications, that she take all of them together.
Most of the MacNeill daughters took the stand and testified about their relationship with their father, how their trust had slowly eroded, and how they came to believe that he killed their mother.
“To be actually in that court room and to have my father having to listen was kind of surreal,” Somers said.
While the judge did not permit Somers to tell the jury that her mother had said "'If anything happens to me, make sure it wasn’t your dad,'" ruling it hearsay, Somers’ testimony was nonetheless powerful.
Somers testified that her mother told her MacNeill kept trying to give her medication, despite her throwing up.
Somers also told the jury her mother asked to feel each of the pills in her hands so she’d know what her husband was giving her, because she had bandages over her eyes and couldn’t see.
Somers’ brother Damian and his girlfriend at the time, Eileen Heng, were at the family home that day, too. Hang testified her boyfriend’s father asked her to flush his wife’s pills down the toilet.
She explained she complied “because he asked me to and he just lost his wife and I wanted to help.”
One of Martin's previous lovers, Anna Osborne Walthall, also took the stand to discuss the disturbing pillow talk they shared.
She told the jury that MacNeill at one point, “bragged about how he could induce a heart attack, but make it look like it was naturally caused,” Grunander said.
Willis testified that she portrayed herself as married to Martin MacNeill, and that their “marriage day was April 14th…2007… That is the day of [Michele MacNeill’s] funeral.”
“[Martin MacNeill] committed a fraud on the federal government with Gypsy in applying for a spousal military I.D. card for Gypsy. And on that application for that I.D. card, they put down, as far as a marriage date, the date that Michele was buried,” Grunander said. “That was a very significant piece of evidence. From my perspective, it was-- it was akin to an admission. I killed Michele, I killed my wife to be with this woman, Gypsy.”
“Martin's demeanor in court was always very stoic,” he added. “The only time he showed emotion was when Gypsy was on the stand testifying…he could be observed wiping away tears.”
The two wrote letters to each other while they were both incarcerated for fraud. Willis was forced to read those letters to the jury.
Jason Poirier, who had served time with MacNeill at the local county jail leading up to trial, testified that MacNeill explained to him why and how he killed his wife.
“It was going downhill, that they were trying to get his money, that she was not gonna let him keep cheating on her. She wasn’t going to allow that,” Poirier said. “He pretty much just opened up about it. He said he gave her some…sleeping pills and got her to get in the bathtub.”
The MacNeill family finally gets closure
After a 22-day trial, MacNeill’s fate was in the hands of the jury. They deliberated for 11 hours.
On November 9, 2013, more than six years after Michele MacNeill’s death, the jury found Martin MacNeill guilty of both murder and obstruction of justice.
“I’ve been fighting for this so long and I never thought we’d come to this day,” Somers said. “We’re just so happy he can’t hurt anyone else.”
At the sentencing hearing, the MacNeill family asked for the maximum sentence.
“I remember them talking about the lack of remorse that they could see in their dad,” Grunander said. “In fact, Martin was joking and talking throughout the sentencing with his attorneys, showing a complete lack of respect for his own daughters.”
The judge sentenced him to 15 years to life in prison.
“I do believe that Gypsy was involved with my mother’s death,” Somers said. “She was the motive and I know she knows more than she portrayed in court.”
Willis never faced any charges for murder. She denies knowing about the murder or being in on it.
“We couldn’t prove that she was involved, as either a direct participant in Michele’s murder or even an accessory”, Grunander said. “We believe she was the motive … but we simply did not have the evidence to prove that she murdered Michele or was an accessory to her death.”
“I don’t believe Martin murdered Michele. We have to respect the jury but I don’t,” Willis said. “I would say to [Michele MacNeill’s family], I am so sorry for any part I played in anyone’s pain.”
On April 9, 2017, after serving two and a half years, Martin MacNeill was found dead at the Utah State Prison. Officials later confirmed that he took his own life.
Now, the family’s mission is to do its best to erase the husband and father's dark legacy and keep their mother’s memory alive.
Somers became a doctor and got married. She successfully adopted her little sisters Ada, Sabrina and Elle, and has three kids of her own as well.
She changed her last name, MacNeill, to her mother’s maiden name, Somers, and now practices family medicine.
“I wanted to graduate having my mom’s maiden name. I don’t want to be Dr. MacNeill,” she said. “I don’t want to have any part of my dad.”
Somers’ sisters are doing well too. Ada graduated from high school this month. Rachel is in school now to become a social worker, and visits her sister Alexis nearby nearly every weekend. She loves being an aunt.
Both Sabrina and Elle had their first children this year.
“They're just beautiful, wonderful, wonderful girls,” Somers said of her sisters. “That's something that I was, personally, so blessed with…I don't know what I would've done without having my sisters to fight for.”
Her husband’s name has been removed from Michele MacNeill’s gravestone -- a volunteer agreed to sand off the words “wife of Martin” from her plaque forever.
Every year on their mother’s birthday, the sisters get together to celebrate over chocolate cake, Michele’s favorite.
She would have been 62 this year.