11/05/2007 at 01:00 AM EST
Her husband slumped down. Her mother gasped and dabbed tears. But Mechele Linehan, her hour come round, betrayed no emotion. A doctor's wife, a PTA mother, a pillar of her community, Linehan, 35, was now, according to an Anchorage jury, something else—a seductress who masterminded the murder of a man 11 years ago. The judge allowed her one last embrace with her husband, Colin. And then, suddenly, she was gone, taken away in cuffs.
On Oct. 22 Linehan was found guilty of murder for persuading a former lover, John Carlin III, 50, to kill Kent Leppink, 36, a fishing business owner who lived with her and believed they would be married, in 1996. A former stripper known for manipulating big tips out of customers, Linehan later created a bright new life in Olympia, Wash., where she lived with Colin, 36, a family doctor. She earned a master's in public administration, opened a day spa and raised a daughter, Audrey, 8. "She's remarkably gracious," says her friend Kristina Hermach. "She does charitable work, volunteers at the church. What I've read of her life in Alaska is not the Mechele I know."
Could it be that both portraits of Linehan are true to life? Born in New Orleans to an Air Force father, she "always impulsively believed in the good in people," insists her mother, Sandy McWilliams, a real estate agent. But making people think she was sweet and innocent "was her power," says Lora Aspiotis, who worked with her at the Great Alaskan Bush Company strip club in the mid-'90s. "She was a great actress. She hardly did any table dances. She'd get guys to pay her to just sit and talk." In the mid-90s, Linehan lived on and off with three separate men: John Carlin, Kent Leppink and her fiancé Scott Hilke, all at least 10 years older than herself. Leppink, the most obsessed of all, told his family they were engaged to be married. "He was so fascinated by her, but she didn't seem to have any feelings for him," says Leppink's father, Ken. "We begged him to break it off, but he was head over heels in love."
One morning in May 1996, a power company worker found Leppink's body in the woods in Hope, 90 miles outside Anchorage; he'd been shot in the back, stomach and cheek. Investigators learned Linehan and Leppink had taken out a $1 million insurance policy on him four weeks before the murder but Linehan was unaware Leppink had cut her out as a beneficiary shortly before he died. Still, there wasn't enough evidence to file any charges.
It wasn't until 2004 that the cold case suddenly warmed up. Prosecutors say new technology allowed them to unearth e-mails Linehan had asked her sister to destroy; the e-mails, they claim, suggested Linehan and Carlin, a former steelworker, lured Leppink to his death in Hope. What's more, Carlin's son John—who prosecutors say was too young in 1996 to be interviewed—told police he had seen his father and Linehan washing a gun days after Leppink's death. This April, a jury convicted Carlin of the murder, though Carlin—who insists he is innocent—never implicated Linehan.
Even so, state troopers arrested her in October 2006. Besides the e-mails and gun testimony, prosecutors produced a letter Leppink sent to his parents, warning them to look at Linehan should anything happen to him. Linehan's lawyers argued that Leppink had stalked her and that Carlin likely killed him because he had made sexual advances towards his son.
It took a jury of three men and nine women just 20 hours to convict Linehan; she now faces up to 99 years in prison. "The nearly all-female jury was the death knell for her," says Anne Bremner, a defense attorney who practices in both Washington and Alaska. "She may have seduced her lovers, her husband and her lawyers, but she failed at her ultimate seduction of the jury."