Utah Scandal: A Father's Web of Lies

updated 04/18/2011 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/18/2011 01:00AM

Rachel MacNeill's childhood memories are of a "very loving and affectionate family." Sure, her father's busy medical career made for a lot of relocating: California, Mexico, New York and finally Utah, where he landed a plum job as medical director at the Utah State Developmental Center. But to Rachel, 31, the oldest of eight children, the youngest four of them adopted, all that moving around wasn't a hardship. "We were very much a devout Mormon family," she says. "I thought of my parents as having the ultimate love story." Her mom, Michele, says Rachel, was "the heart and soul of the family." And her dad, Martin? "A very loving, doting father. I adored him."

Not anymore. A persistent campaign by Rachel, her sister Alexis and their aunt Linda Cluff, 50, has helped land Martin MacNeill, 55, in a federal prison in Texas, convicted of identity theft. As he counts down the days to his scheduled release in July 2012, the three women are hoping that an ongoing investigation will soon result in charges of a far more nefarious crime: the murder of his wife, Michele, 50. Her death on April 11, 2007 was initially ascribed to natural causes, but information supplied by the women helped convince a medical examiner to change the results to "suspicious" in October 2010.

While Jeff Robinson, chief investigator with the Utah County Attorney's Office, only offers there is "an active homicide investigation" of MacNeill (who declined to be interviewed), an investigator in his office stated in an affidavit, "There is probable cause to believe that Martin MacNeill had the opportunity, the motive, the psychological disposition and ... the capability of killing his wife, Michele MacNeill, which I believe he did." MacNeill's lawyer Randall Spencer says his client is innocent: "Martin has always denied having anything to do with his wife's death."

The realization, soon after Michele's death, that the image of her loving dad had crumbled "was pure horror," Rachel says. "I could do nothing but scream at the top of my lungs. My dad was not the person I once knew."

The unraveling of their family began in 2005, when Dr. MacNeill, who was a general practitioner, suddenly lost weight and began tanning, Rachel says. "My mother suspected he was having an affair." A couple of years later, when he pressed his wife to undergo a face-lift, says Alexis, 28, "she thought, 'Maybe I should.'" The day after her plastic surgery, a disturbingly groggy Michele told Alexis, "Your dad kept giving me pills." A few days later, says Alexis, "she said, 'In case anything happens to me, make sure it was not your dad.'" When Michele was found dead in the bathtub of the family home in Pleasant Grove, Utah, eight days after the surgery, MacNeill claimed she may have slipped and fallen. But Alexis took Rachel aside and whispered, "Dad killed Mom."

The next few years became a "nightmare within a nightmare," says Rachel. The sisters, along with their aunt, battled to gain custody of the four youngest MacNeills-Giselle, now 20; Elle, 18; Sabrina, 17; and Ada, 10 (their sister Vanessa, 29, lives in another city)-and unearthed information that revealed a man they did not know. They learned that before MacNeill eloped with Michele in 1978, he had been discharged from the military for schizophrenia. He also falsified his undergraduate transcript to help him get into medical school in California, followed by law school in Utah, and failed to disclose an earlier felony conviction for check fraud. "He shouldn't have been accepted to those schools or hired as a doctor or lawyer," says Robinson.

During those summer months after Michele's death, he hired Gypsy Willis, now 34-"the woman Mom had suspected he was having an affair with," says Rachel-to care for his younger daughters. To gain custody of the girls, Rachel and Alexis threatened to have Michele's death investigated. "The very next day, he had the kids dropped off at Alexis' apartment in Las Vegas," says Rachel. "I picked up and moved there the very next day."

The sisters went into hiding for the next six months, staying in Vegas hotels "because there were security cameras everywhere," says Rachel. Their father, they say, waged a furious campaign of intimidation, threatening to take back their sisters and saying, "I will destroy you." Alexis says, "We feared for our safety and for the safety of our younger sisters. The stress we felt when we woke up every morning was incredible."

Earlier that summer MacNeill had sent Giselle, his oldest adopted child, back to Ukraine, her country of origin, "to fend for herself," authorities say. After securing Giselle's return in 2008, Michele's sister Linda assumed guardianship of the girl. While pursuing an adoption, she noticed that the birth date on Giselle's birth certificate had been altered. Investigators, in turn, discovered that Willis had been using Giselle's Social Security number to hide her own debt-heavy credit history. In 2009 Willis and MacNeill were each convicted of identity theft and imprisoned. But the family's travails didn't end. In January 2010 the MacNeill sisters' only brother, Damian, a 24-year-old law student, committed suicide. "My mother's death," says Alexis, "destroyed him."

Today Rachel works as a waitress in Los Angeles. Alexis, a medical resident, is raising her three youngest sisters in Utah with her husband, physician Brett Doxie, whom she married last August. All three girls are "on the honor roll," she says proudly. "They help me to see the good in life." As for Rachel, despite her ongoing anguish, she hopes someday to make peace with all that has happened. "I wouldn't be able to function with hatred in our hearts," she says. "Our mother taught us love and empathy."

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