This story originally aired on Dateline NBC on July 27, 2008. An update aired on May 22, 2009. Courtroom and surveillance footage is marked by italics.
ANCHORAGE, ALASKA — One by one, they came here to Alaska, each for his -- or her -- own reason.
Its wildness is part of what called them. That, and getting away from what had come before. Good place for that; many locals still refer to the rest of the country, way down there, as "The States".
John Carlin IV: There was something neat about Alaska. Something about it that just felt neat.
And one by lonely one, coincidence brought them together here in Anchorage, where they lived and desired and schemed through what would become the most significant few months of their lives.
Oh, and before long, one of them would be dead.
And suspicion would fall on the others. Was one of them the murderer? Or more than one?
There was John Carlin the Third, a former steelworker from New Jersey who brought his dying wife and teenage son, John Carlin the Fourth, here on vacation and then stayed.
John Carlin IV: It certainly wasn't an easy situation by any stretch of the imagination.
There was Scott Hilke, a traveling salesman from California. Perhaps the most mature of the bunch.
Also, Kent Leppink, a lonely fisherman who was making a fresh start after leaving the family business in Michigan.
Ken Leppink: I think he found his niche in Alaska.
And in the middle of the whole tangled mess, Mechele Hughes, a young and captivating beauty from New Orleans.
Honi Martin: She was very much a homebody. Just a really down-to-earth, good person.
Mechele Hughes came here to Alaska on little more than a whim, really. It was a trip with a friend. But once here she discovered the possibilities of making some real money, of paying for the college education that up until then she was unable to afford. She could save all the money she needed, she realized. To friends and family she could still be Mechele. But in this new job, she'd be "Bobbi Jo."
Now before you get the wrong idea about a young woman who decides to work at a - what do they call it? Gentleman’s club? - You should realize, says Mechele's friend Honi Martin, that this is sometimes the only available way for good people to get a start in life. It was the mid-'90s. Mechele was just 21.
Honi Martin: She went to work to dance, to put money away -- to do something with her life. She wanted to work with children. She had a gift when it came to animals.
Mechele danced at a place called The Great Alaskan Bush Company in Anchorage. A favorite haunt of businessmen, fishermen, oil field men on R-and-R.
Honi was dancing there too, and just when she met Mechele. She was in dire need of a place to live.
Honi Martin: She's like, "Well, I have a spare bedroom, you can live with me." You know? It's like, "OK." And she didn't even know me.
By all accounts, Mechele's plan was paying off. Often, she was earning more than a thousand dollars a night, had soon bought a home in the suburbs. She was so good at what she did that some of her customers would pay her just to sit and talk. Video: ‘I am not a monster’
Honi Martin: She could talk about the weather and make it sound good. And she remembered people's names. And that would make the person feel special. Like, "She remembered something about me. And so I must be special."
She loved to care for strays, said Honi, animals - or humans - in need of friendship. If Mechele had a fault, said Honi, it was a surprising degree of naïveté.
Honi Martin: I worried that she didn't look at people as potentially dangerous.
Keith Morrison, Dateline NBC: She trusted people.
Honi Martin: Yeah, she was very trusting. And that scared me.
Still, the men showered her: furs, jewelry, trips, cash.
Honi Martin: They're as much to blame. You're not gonna just say, "Oh my gosh, you know how much money you've spent on me? You really gotta stop it." You know? (laughs) You're taking your clothes off. You're there to make money. It's like you do not want to go home with the same amount of money you would make as a waitress.
Mechele was sufficiently endearing that three of her clients not only spent lavishly for her attention, they had apparently fallen in love with her.
It was that traveling salesman Scott Hilke who fell first, and she, apparently with him. Though he was 17 years older than she.
Honi Martin: I just thought he was just too old for her. And you know, eventually she'd find the right person. He just didn't seem to be the right person.
Back at the beginning, it was during those first incautious days back in 1994. Mechele agreed to marry Scott. An official engagement.
Honi Martin: We even went to Natchez, Mississippi to look at a place for a wedding to be held.
And just a month after Mechele met Scott, in walked the fisherman, Kent Leppink.
Honi Martin: I think he was a very shy man.
Kent had come to Alaska to give himself a new start. Video: Linehan: My wife ‘is not capable of this crime’
And one fine evening, soon to be many evenings at the Great Alaskan Bush Company, shy though he was, Kent found himself enjoying the company of the delightful Mechele. He'd spend hundreds of dollars just to keep her nearby.
Honi Martin: He probably considered himself very fortunate to be able to have a friend like that.
Kent knew about Scott, of course. That relationship would have been obvious.
Not least because Kent, apparently at Mechele's invitation, started hanging around her house, even slept on the couch some nights, while Scott shared Mechele's bed.
Honi moved out, left Alaska, and Kent moved in.
Oh, but it got even more crowded.
John Carlin III, the former steelworker. He'd recently come into some money -- a settlement in a lawsuit over lead poisoning. His son, John Carlin IV, was just 16 then.
John Carlin IV: My mother had just died. My father most likely was very lonely, probably very depressed. Hanging out with Mechele, associating with Mechele, a beautiful young lady, it made him feel good. What's wrong with that?
Oh, perhaps nothing at all.
Just three lonely men and a babe.
It was a bizarre relationship that was about to go very sour.
Life at Mechele Hughes's house in Wasilla, Alaska was getting very complicated, and a little crowded.
There was the fiancé, the traveling valve salesman Scott Hilke.
And there was the tall, lanky, commercial fisherman, Kent Leppink, or T.T. as they called him.
Honi Martin: There was something that definitely bothered me.
Keith Morrison, Dateline NBC: Something off.
Honi Martin: Something very off.
Something about Kent that unsettled the female guest, Honi Martin.
Honi Martin: An obsession. An obsessive way that he watched her around the house. And if she would move from room to room, you know, he couldn't take his eyes off of her.
Kent Leppink certainly seemed to need friends.
He'd grown up in Michigan. Loved hunting and fishing.
Like his brothers, he was expected to work in the family grocery stores. But it simply wasn't for him.
And then his family discovered money was missing. Quite a lot of money. His parents, Ken and Betsy Leppink.
Ken Leppink: He caused some problems in the family business as we moved along. And decided that maybe some other occupation was gonna be a better program for him.
Kent left Michigan and drifted, picked up that nickname, 'T.T.,' and finally found something he truly enjoyed in Alaska.
Brother Craig had never seen him happier.
Craig Leppink: When he gets to Alaska and he's working on the fishing boats, which really is no glamorous job –
Keith Morrison: It's hard work.
Craig Leppink: Yeah. And fish guts up to his chest a lot of the time, sucking them out of the tender boats. He was in love with it.
And then a boat came up for sale. His dad lent him some money, and things began to fall together.
Ken Leppink: What he was doing just - he was just thrilled with it.
Betsy Leppink: He became what Kent really could be.
At the age of 33, Kent Leppink, T.T., was finally an independent man, with the help of some family financing. The fishing tender he ran here was successful. He'd spend weeks, or even months, on the sea off Prince William Sound. But fishing can be a lonely business. So when his family heard he'd found a girl, they were delighted. Of course, he didn't tell them where he found her.
Betsy Leppink: He did not tell us she was a dancer. He let her tell me that. But he was head over heels -- boom.
And so he was in love for the first time. He had never had a girlfriend before.
Betsy Leppink: He had girls who were friends. But my take is I think he had a complex. I think he felt a little inferior to be a boyfriend.
In the summer of 1995, Ken and Betsy, along with their son Ransom and his wife, went to Alaska to see Kent. And the young woman he said he would one day marry, they'd been hearing about it for more than six months by then, his romance with Mechele.
It was on that trip when Ransom began to worry.
Ransom Leppink: He picked out an engagement ring but that was the ring that was OK for now but that later on he'd be buying a bigger ring because Mechele didn't like the small ring that he had picked out. And that-- immediately a little red light went on.
Ransom Leppink: It wasn't such a tremendous concern or terrible that my brother's dating a stripper. And then he's buying nice things for her. The greater concern was you don't seem to see that same feeling, that same caring coming back the other way.
Betsy Leppink: The feeling was not there with her. It just was not.
But then, there was so much the Leppinks didn't know.
They didn't know Mechele was actually engaged to that salesman Scott Hilke, and that she was to marry Scott in just a few months.
Nor did they know about her new friend, John Carlin, and how on the very night Carlin met Mechele that same summer at the Bush Company, he invited her on a trip to Europe. And she went!
Platonic, supposedly. But still.
Nor did Kent's family quite comprehend the arrangement that followed. Video: ‘I am not a monster’
Mechele needed some house repairs. Carlin invited her to move in with him.
Kent, as usual, followed.
About then, Scott moved back to California, to continue the relationship with Mechele long distance. So it was Kent, Mechele, Carlin. All together now.
John Carlin IV: It's not like there was orgies going on all over the living room. You know, everybody had their own bedroom.
For little John, or Carlin IV, it was, he says, a little like having a special aunt or an older sister move in.
John Carlin IV: I think that Mechele, by nature, just has a very outgoing and friendly personality. And I was kind of sucked up into that the same way everybody else was.
By then, you'd need a scorecard.
Scott and Mechele's marriage didn't happen. They broke up briefly in late 1995 but soon were seeing each other again.
Kent was still in the Carlin house, mooning over Mechele and planning his fishing season -- and his wedding. He'd even been putting together a "to-do" list.
And John Carlin III, in whose house they were living, was in love, and waiting in the wings.
John Carlin IV: I knew that my father was infatuated with Mechele. And I probably knew the same for Kent as well.
Ah, but three men in love with the same woman can get sticky. Somebody is apt to get hurt.
Betsy Leppink: He called us and said "I’ve met the most wonderful gal in the world."
Kent Leppink was - for the first time in his life - in love.
And, so what if she was an exotic dancer at The Great Alaskan Bush Company. He told his family so often for a year and a half that they were already planning the wedding. He'd put her name on his fishing business, had written up a will leaving everything to her, named each other as beneficiaries on their life insurance policies. Kent was covered for a million dollars and Mechele was approved for 150,000.
Kent even asked his brother Ransom to be his best man.
Ransom Leppink: He was excited to be getting married. And excited to be engaged.
But of course, Kent's family didn't have any idea about the living arrangement in the home of that ex-steelworker, John Carlin. Or that Mechele and Carlin had taken son John Carlin IV aside and...
John Carlin IV: I don't remember exactly how it was said. But Mechele showed me her ring. And they were getting married. Oh, cool! (laughs)
Nor did the Leppinks know of Mechele's previous engagement to Scott Hilke. That's three engagements in a year and a half.
Nor did the family realize that Carlin and Leppink seemed determined to outspend each other on Mechele. Carlin spent thousands on a fur coat, both men contributed thousands to her home renovation, and both men bought jewelry for her --from the same jeweler.
Dana Danford: Kent would ask me for an estimate to make something or how much a particular item was. And generally that day or by the next day, John Carlin would either call me or come in and ask for the same exact thing.
In fact, Carlin spent $11,000 on a ring for Mechele. At the same time, Kent was rapidly burning through cash he'd need for the fishing season.
So now, the competition was a contest larded with misinformation. Though they all seemed to be very fond of each other, they weren't exactly truthful.
And the lies? Well, that took some keeping track. For example: Kent had been led to believe by somebody that Carlin was impotent. Carlin thought that Kent was actually gay and therefore not a serious competitor.
Mechele was still occasionally going to visit Scott in California. That romance was still quite hot.
Kent, however, explained to his family that it was Scott, the ex-fiancé, who was the gay one.
He, Kent, was going to marry Mechele. They'd even set tentative dates, though, lately, that wedding date seemed to have been sliding. Mechele seemed less available and Kent's finances were spinning out of control.
His dad flew up to Alaska again to sort out the money and a date for the wedding.
But the very day his father was to arrive, Kent called his mother back in Michigan. Said Mechele was missing -- had gone to a secret cabin in a tiny town 90 miles away. To a place called Hope.
Betsy Leppink: He said, "Mom, I’m on my way to Hope." I said, "You're going to Hope? Why?" And he said, "I have reason to believe that Mechele is in Hope, at a cabin in Hope. I’m looking for her."
Kent had found a note in the house he shared with Mechele and Carlin suggesting Mechele was having some secret rendezvous - with someone else - in Hope.
So he drove the 90 miles down the highway, a photograph of Mechele in hand. He stopped in at the Discovery Cafe to ask around.
Maria Motoyama: He said that she was his fiancée. And she was in town for the weekend to help a friend with the roof over a cabin.
No one had seen her. So Kent returned to Anchorage empty handed, and picked up his father at the airport.
He told his father Mechele was in Hope with a friend, and that John Carlin knew where she was and wouldn't tell him.
It was worrisome, yes, and strange, and about to get even stranger.
Keith Morrison, Dateline NBC: He gave you something while you were there.
Ken Leppink: Yeah, he did. He reached in his pocket and he comes out with an envelope. And he said, "Here, this is for you." And so I, opened it up. And it was a change of beneficiary to a life insurance policy.
It was a million-dollar policy on Kent's life. Kent, unable to find Mechele, and upset, had changed the beneficiary from Mechele to his own parents and a brother.
The policy, he told his father, was a wedding gift from Mechele's grandfather.
Ken Leppink: I said, "Nobody gives a life insurance policy for a wedding present." I said, "Kent, this is dangerous." I said, "You better either cancel this policy. You better do something with it real quick because I don't like the smell of this." "Well," he says -- "I’m a big boy, you know, I can handle myself." Video: Linehan: My wife ‘is not capable of this crime’
And so Kent's father flew home to Michigan. And soon he received a package from the son he had just left back in Alaska.
The package Kent sent to his parents back here in Michigan was very strange indeed. It was an envelope, about that big, and inside were a letter and a second, very carefully sealed envelope. If anything bad should happen to me, Kent had written in the letter, open that second seal.
Betsy Leppink: For us it was panic.
Here is some of what he wrote:
"Put the enclosed envelope in your safe deposit box. Do not open it. I talked to you about "insurance policies." This is mine. If I didn't think that things could get a little "rough" up here, I wouldn't have sent you this. Don't get all nervous and call me on the phone about this."
But of course, Kent's mother Betsy called right away. No answer. She left a message.
Betsy Leppink: "Kent, this is mom. This is an emergency. Call us as quickly as possible."
Oh, there was a call, alright. But it wasn't Kent.
Ransom Leppink: A sheriff's deputy showed up at my house. It was about 3:00 in the morning. He knocked on the door. So I jumped out of bed and rushed to the door. And he shared with me that, "Your brother's been involved in a homicide in Soldotna, Alaska." And it struck me and confused me. And I said, "My brother is dead?" He said, "Yes."
They found his body on a dirt access road not far from the little hamlet called Hope. The first bullet was to his back, the last to his face. The killer did not try to hide him, or bury his body. Just left him there.
Betsy Leppink: It never stops, Keith. Never. It never, ever will be over. They take a piece of your heart and destroy it. And you never grow that back again. Just have a hole there.
But why? Who? Of course, Kent had sent his family that letter: open if something happens to me. They did.
Ransom Leppink: In the letter, he spelled out who his murderers were.
It would be hard to imagine a more dreadful series of revelations for the Leppink family in Lakeview, Michigan.
First, Kent's parents received a bizarre letter from their son, a set of instructions: What to do in the event of his murder.
And then they learned that by the time the letter arrived here, Kent was already dead.
Betsy Leppink: It's called hell. It's called hell.
But who did it? Who could possibly have wanted Kent dead?
The physical evidence was spare: three shell casings, two sets of footprints going up this rise and only one set coming back down again.
In his pockets at the time of his death: a copy of the change of beneficiary form on his life insurance policy, a receipt for the package he'd sent to his parents, and a name: Mechele Hughes.
Investigators went to her first.
Trooper: What can you tell me about Kent, that's what we're here to talk about.
Mechele Hughes: Um. We're engaged. We haven't been getting along so great...
Troopers, by the way, had at this point not yet told Mechele that Kent was dead.
They watched her reactions carefully.
Trooper: OK, you said you were engaged?
Mechele Hughes: Mm-hmm.
Trooper: ...you said you've been having some troubles?
Mechele Hughes: Well, not troubles troubles, um, we have a very unique relationship, it's a, um, how do you say, you know.
Trooper: Open relationship?
Mechele Hughes: No, like a conventional, not conventional, it's um, oh, it's a—
Trooper: Well, explain to me a little bit if you can.
Mechele Hughes: I have a boyfriend.
The boyfriend, said Mechele, was Scott, that traveling salesman who'd moved back to California.
She explained that she and Kent had a business together -- Kent's fishing tender.
But they weren't romantic. Or at least, she wasn't. They'd never even had sex, she said.
Trooper 2: OK. So your relationship with Kent is not as a fiancé? Or is it?
Mechele Hughes: It's a fiancé, yes. We don't have any dates set, um, he's in and out with his family, he's not in good relations with his family, so basically I let him tell his family I was his fiancée, only met them once.
Trooper 2: I see.
Mechele Hughes: So, technically, because I said I was his fiancée to his family, I am, but no, we don't plan on getting married.
Did he have any enemies? Financial trouble? After 20 minutes, Mechele had grown impatient.
What, she wondered, was this about?
Mechele Hughes: Where is he?
Trooper: Well, we're not gonna mess around with it anymore. It's, he's dead. Ah, his body was found. And that's why we're here and that's why it's real serious…
Mechele Hughes: How?
Trooper 2: How?
Trooper: I can't tell you that. We can't, we can't give a, a lot of information out here. OK?
Through her tears, Mechele told the troopers Kent had been acting very strangely lately, was delusional about their relationship. She said she'd merely allowed him to tell his family they were engaged so he could hide a secret from them.
Trooper: Mechele? Is he homosexual?
Mechele Hughes: I don't know, I guess he's bisexual. I don't know!
Trooper: Oh, he's never shared that with you?
Mechele Hughes: He likes guys.
Trooper: He likes guys, OK.
Mechele Hughes: But his family doesn't know that.
Trooper: I see.
Mechele Hughes: I don't want them to know that.
Two days later, investigators were back, asking if she knew of anyone with a motive to kill Kent.
Trooper: Do you know of any, if anybody has anything to gain from Kent’s death?
Mechele Hughes: No, other than, um, life insurance.
Trooper: Life insurance?
Mechele Hughes: Me, yeah.
At that, the investigator's ears perked up. Life insurance can certainly be a motive for murder.
But it's not like Mechele was trying to hide the insurance.
Oh, and, by the way? When Kent was murdered, she was thousands of miles away, down at Lake Tahoe, visiting Scott Hilke.
But what about John Carlin III? He was in Anchorage at the time of the murder.
Investigators knew from bullets recovered from Kent's body and shell casings found at the scene that whoever killed him had done so with a .44 caliber pistol called a Desert Eagle. But they'd never found the gun.
They questioned John Carlin: Did he own a Desert Eagle?
Trooper: One thing I didn't ask you the last time I spoke to you ah, John, was I wanted to ask you, ah, we talked about a ah, 44 gun. But I didn't ask you specifically if you had owned a Desert Eagle 44.
John Carlin III: No.
Trooper: OK. You never bought one of those anywhere?
John Carlin III: Nope.
And thousands of miles away, in Michigan, here was Betsy Leppink, trying to make sense of it.
Betsy Leppink: We have three other wonderful sons. We love 'em to pieces. But no one can take his place, ever.
When the family learned of Kent's murder, they followed that strange instruction he had given them, and opened the second envelope, the one sealed inside his letter, and were stunned by what Kent had written:
"Since you're reading this, you assume that I'm dead. Don't dwell on that. It was my time and there is nothing that can change that."
"I hate to be vindictive in my death, but paybacks are hell."
And later, the bombshell:
"Use the information enclosed to take Mechele DOWN. Make sure she is prosecuted."
"Mechele, John or Scott were the people or persons that probably killed me. Make sure they get burned."
Ransom Leppink: My brother was not a letter writer. If he sat down and took the time to write a letter and send it to my parents just before he was murdered, that's what happened. That's exactly what happened.
In his letter, Kent said he'd call to explain just what he meant. But of course, he never got the chance.
Could the man have accurately predicted the identity of his own killers? It was certainly macabre, but not exactly evidence you could take to a jury.
And before long, just weeks really, the three friends Kent fingered in his letter... scattered, left Alaska, moved back to where they'd come from.
Ten years passed.
And each year, the question of who killed Kent Leppink faded deeper into obscurity.
The chance of solving it diminished, it seemed, to virtually nil.
Of course, for the Leppink family it wasn't over. It never would be. But they'd pretty much given up on ever getting the answers they craved. And then, suddenly, the investigation, like Lazarus, rose from the dead. Alaska state troopers found themselves with sufficient funding for a cold case squad. There was the Leppink murder practically begging for a solution. So they re-interviewed the cast of characters, now scattered nationwide, and what do you know. A remarkable piece of evidence hitherto entirely unknown jumped right up and said hello.
John Carlin IV: Do I regret ever mentioning it? Absolutely. It's the biggest regret of my life.
Keith Morrison, Dateline NBC: Right around here, huh?
Jim Stogsdill: Yeah, generally this area...
This is Alaska State Troopers Investigator Jim Stogsdill.
And here, Stogsdill believes, is what happened in the last seconds of Kent Leppink's life.
Jim Stogsdill: Spun around probably like that, because the shot's over here, moved around this way, got it here again and then fell backwards, and then one in the face.
Keith Morrison: Boy, that's gotta be, you gotta be cold to do a thing like that. Or angry, as you say.
Jim Stogsdill: Angry is more likely.
It was one of those flukes of state budget politics that brought Jim Stogsdill here to the place Kent Leppink met his end years ago.
Stogsdill had been minding his own business as a fishing guide, long retired from the force, when the Troopers set up a cold case squad and asked him to join it.
Jim Stogsdill: I'm looking for somebody who knows this fellow well and wants him dead.
As Stogsdill read the old Leppink murder file, he found that strange letter Kent had written to his parents, a dead man accusing his friends of murder.
But there was nothing in the file to prove it. Mechele wasn't even in the state when the murder happened.
And back then, when police talked to John Carlin III, he seemed to know nothing that would aid an investigation.
John Carlin III: I don't, honest to God, I do not.
Still, the more Stogsdill read, the more his suspicion grew: John Carlin III and Mechele Hughes must have been involved somehow.
And then, a discovery. Not of a piece of evidence, mind you, but the lack of one. Something you'd think would be in the record, but wasn't.
Jim Stogsdill: One of the very largest missing links was a comprehensive interview with John Carlin IV, the son of John Carlin III.
Keith Morrison: Why wasn't it there?
Jim Stogsdill: Well it wasn't there because it was never done.
Why? Because he was a minor then. His father had the right to be present during any interview.
Jim Stogsdill: You weren't going to get much from Carlin IV, the son, especially if what he knew might be incriminating to Carlin III, while III is standing there.
Now the boy who was like a fly on the wall when whatever happened, happened, was all grown up, and living far away from his father.
So, in 2005, investigators tracked him down in the Seattle area, and - according to young Carlin - leaned on him a little.
John Carlin IV: They went into their whole thing about how they could have me thrown in jail for perjury. And, you know, "Not telling something you know is just as bad as committing the crime."
Keith Morrison: They were sweating you.
John Carlin IV: Yeah. As much as I hate to admit it, yeah.
And something the younger Carlin told them must have been important, because suddenly everything seemed to change.
A grand jury was assembled.
Even though, as Detective Stogsdill admitted, there simply wasn't any forensic evidence of the sort that might have made the case more of a sure thing.
Jim Stogsdill: This was a case of motive, opportunity and means, you know? So we're not looking at DNA stuff or scientific evidence but we're looking at what people are doing, the actions they're taking and the fact that they're capable of doing it. And, in fact, did do it.
By the time the grand jury assembled here in Anchorage, every one of those surviving Alaska friends had long since moved on to different parts of the country and new lives.
John Carlin was back in New Jersey; he'd taken a Russian bride, was helping raise her little girl. But when he heard about that grand jury, did he run, did he try to hide? No. Carlin volunteered to go right up to Alaska and deal with whatever questions anybody might still have.
Scott Hilke, who'd married an old girlfriend and settled into a life in northern California, testified at the grand jury hearing, then returned home to wait for news.
And here in Olympia, Wash., Mechele and her husband - it was Mrs. Linehan now - let the police know they were around and prepared to face whatever questions that jury might have.
Mechele Linehan's life had finally become what she'd always hoped it could be. Married to a doctor -- an American military veteran, a beautiful child, a life occupied with motherhood and local charity work and a key role in a brand new dermatology business which -- with her husband's skill and her considerable business acumen -- was taking off. And then one day, the past came knocking at the door.
Colin Linehan: While Mechele was at work, the squad of police surround the house and are like, you know, "Where's Mechele?" I’m like, "She's at work." She's like, "Well, we need to drive up there." I’m like, listen. The bottom line is she's cooperative.
Dr. Colin Linehan is Mechele's husband.
He says Mechele told him about Kent's murder when they first started dating.
Colin Linehan: Something like she's really close to somebody. And it started not to be that way. But he ended up getting killed. And she was investigated. She said, "They thought I had something to do with it." And she was like it really shook me.
He pointed out Mechele had once worked for the Washington State Ethics board.
Her innocence, he said, would be easy to prove. More difficult? The image he said was emerging from investigators and media in Alaska of someone who bore no resemblance to the woman he knew.
Colin Linehan: That was the main tactic throughout the whole thing was to define who Mechele was.
Keith Morrison: Define her as what?
Colin Linehan: A manipulative woman who has an insatiable greed for money who cares nothing about other people.
The grand jury issued two indictments: Scott Hilke was not charged. But both Mechele Linehan and John Carlin were. First-degree murder.
If convicted, each could face a maximum sentence of 99 years.
Kristina Hermach: It was incomprehensible that this could be happening.
Kristina Hermach is one of Mechele's closest friends in Olympia.
Kristina Hermach: The woman that she is, and has been, is a woman with a beautiful heart.
Mechele, said Hermach, was a constant volunteer for local charities, a wonderful mother and a careful businesswoman.
Kristina Hermach: Femme fatale she is certainly not. She's certainly not greedy. She met Colin when he was so poor he didn't have a car. She never seemed to be interested in attaining or getting.
Did the state actually have a first-degree murder case against the doctor's wife?
Colin Linehan: You've got to dehumanize her to make her able to commit this crime because the evidence sure wasn't there.
Was it? Against either Mechele or John Carlin?
Perhaps it depended on what the son John Carlin IV told those investigators.
Once upon a time in Alaska, for a moment in the mid-'90s, was a house full of desire. The salesman, the ex-steelworker, the fisherman: three men and one exotic young woman.
And now, 11 years later, the state would try to prove that Michele Linehan, as the vixen puppeteer, so controlled her would-be lover, John Carlin III, that he willingly put a bullet - three of them - in the body of his rival.
Passion, manipulation, murder.
This was the state's case: for the love of the stripper, the steelworker murdered the fisherman.
And she made him do it.
They pleaded not guilty. She was now out on bail. Carlin would be tried first.
Pat Gullufsen: It's a story that is going to involve passion, greed, manipulation and deception.
Prosecutor Pat Gullufsen began the trial by telling the jury it was those explosive forces that led to Leppink's murder, claiming that John Carlin was so desperately in love he'd do anything for a greedy Mechele -- even commit murder, if she asked him to.
And what was Carlin's motive for murder? To ensure Mechele got Kent's million dollars in life insurance and that he, Carlin, got the girl.
The irony is, claimed the prosecutor, that neither Carlin nor Mechele knew that Kent had just removed Mechele as the beneficiary, as they plotted their crime with a method that left its own distinct fingerprints all these years later: e-mail.
They were all e-mailing during those months of jealousy and desire before the murder, said the prosecutor. E-mails flew among Kent, Mechele, Carlin III, and Scott Hilke.
Pat Gullufsen: Ms. Hughes was sending to Mr. Carlin a copy of an e-mail she'd received from Mr. Leppink.
Linda Branchflower: Yes.
In court, cold case investigator Linda Branchflower offered a review. The e-mails, she said, revealed Mechele was manipulating Kent - conning him - and at the same time plotting with Carlin to kill him.
For example, in one e-mail, Carlin tells Kent he's no romantic rival, in essence, he says: "I’m fat, bald, have no social graces...and besides, I’m impotent."
But at the same time, Carlin was e-mailing Mechele, expressing his deep love, thanking her for giving him the most special night of his life. And on March 31, John Carlin wrote to her about how difficult it was for him with Kent in the house:
"I get so frustrated," he wrote, "I don't want to wait, just do it now. But your future is at stake and I am forced to wait. I love you so much and cannot show it."
And April 24, a week before Kent's murder, a long e-mail, Carlin to Mechele...
Linda Branchflower: ‘...The one I've fallen in love with, the one I'd do anything in the world for including giving up my life.’
April 28, three days to the murder, this aside in an e-mail from Mechele to Carlin:
Did you know that you can buy a citizenship in the Seychelles for around ten mill. And no matter what crimes you have committed they will not extradite.
By the time that e-mail was sent, said the prosecutor, the trap was set.
Betsy Leppink: He said I’m looking for Mechele. John Carlin knows where she is and he won't tell me.
The trap... 'The Hope Note.' The prosecution claimed it was a carefully crafted lure to get Kent to Hope, where he'd be executed.
Back in 1996, investigators found this note in the glove box of Kent's car, parked outside the Carlin home.
It's a note between Carlin and Mechele, suggesting she planned a tryst with another man somewhere in this tiny village 90 miles from Anchorage.
The top part of the note, the typed portion, was written by John Carlin. It reads, in part:
The roof on your cabin in Hope is finished. It will not leak anymore...
It goes on in great detail, saying Carlin is happy he bought the cabin for Mechele, that it makes a fine getaway. And it ends,
"You guys enjoy your stay in the cabin this weekend. With all the love I can have for a wonderful woman as you."
And at the bottom is a hand-written reply from Mechele, saying, in part,
"Great. Please don’t let anyone know where we're at but you already know that. When will the generator be rebuilt and the back door does it close now?
Kent, discovering the note left out for him to find, would have no idea there really was no generator... no back door... in fact, that the cabin didn't even exist.
Inventive, for such a blatant lie.
Remember, Mechele was at Lake Tahoe with her real boyfriend, Scott Hilke.
The prosecutor claimed Carlin and Mechele wanted to make Kent jealous, wanted to make him to go to Hope and try to find her.
He would fail to find the non-existent cabin, of course, the prosecutor said, would have no choice but to ask John Carlin to take him there. And that's when, the prosecutor claimed, Carlin walked Kent up that dirt trail, and pulled out a Desert Eagle pistol and shot him three times.
Or did he? After all, nobody else was there to see it.
Pat Gullufsen: Did she refer to Kent Leppink's death while she was there?
Mechele Hughes: Yes, she did.
The prosecutor called Mechele's sister, a woman named Melissa Hughes, a reluctant witness who testified Mechele had gone to see her not long after the murder.
Melissa Hughes: She said he got what he deserved, that people didn't like him and that he hunted and stuffed animals and she thought he got what he deserved.
Mechele's cruel comments, the Hope Note, the e-mails, the insurance, all of it seemed suspicious, sure. But proof beyond a reasonable doubt of murder? Maybe. Maybe not.
But then the prosecution was about to call its key witness. And both who that person was and what he had to say would be explosive.
Now John Carlin IV had already told anyone who'd listen that his father was innocent.
And much of his testimony seemed to add little more than details of that unusual living arrangement in which he said Kent Leppink didn't get too much respect.
John Carlin IV: He seemed to be a bit of an errand boy.
Young Carlin said Kent followed Mechele around like a puppy in love.
Then, the prosecutor went to the night Kent disappeared. Who saw him last? What was going on?
John Carlin IV: It was the evening and I was going up to bed.
Pat Gullufsen: He was downstairs?
John Carlin IV: That's right.
Pat Gullufsen: And who was he with?
John Carlin IV: With my father.
So far, nothing new. But then the testimony that could put his father away for life.
Pat Gullufsen: Was there a point in time when you came into the house and your father and Mechele were near the bathroom?
John Carlin IV: Yes.
Pat Gullufsen: Do you remember seeing a pistol in the sink?
John Carlin IV: Yes.
Now that was big.
John Carlin IV: I remember coming around the corner and seeing Mechele and my father and there was a firearm in the sink and the sink was about half full of a clear liquid.
Pat Gullufsen: Could you smell anything that you associated with the liquid?
John Carlin IV: I did smell bleach.
Why else would you clean a gun with bleach than to get rid of inconvenient evidence?
And remember, for years the elder Carlin denied he ever owned the type of gun used to kill Kent Leppink. So the prosecution called a man who said he sold a Desert Eagle to a man right around the time the Carlins moved to Anchorage.
Pat Gullufsen: Are you able to tell whether or not these are the items you sold with the Desert Eagle?
Stilchen: Yes, sir. They look like the exact items I sold.
Those items -- a holster, gun case, belt and ammo pouch -- were found in Carlin's home.
But the defense said none of it was proof of murder, and besides, they had another suspect in mind. And here was a hint: a very clever woman.
Marcy McDannel: She had the motive, opportunity and means to do it.
Keith Morrison, Dateline NBC: So she's your most likely suspect.
Marcy McDannel: Absolutely.
Marcy McDannel: After reading the grand jury transcript, I think my first impression was - where's the part that proves his guilt?
There are, of course, at least two sides to every story, but it helps if at least one could be proved, said John Carlin III's defense attorneys Sidney Billingslea and Marcy McDannel.
And the state, they said, for all its story telling, didn't prove a thing.
Any number of men could have killed Kent Leppink, they said. Or even a woman like Mechele Hughes herself.
It's true Mechele had been away in Tahoe, said the defense, but records proved she did fly back to Alaska around the time Kent was murdered.
Couldn't she have done it?
Marcy McDannel: This is a case that frankly cannot be solved and certainly cannot be proved beyond a reasonable doubt in respect to Mr. Carlin. No way, not even close. You will not get past a "maybe."
For starters, why was Scott Hilke eliminated as a suspect? Wasn't he also named in that letter Kent sent to his parents? The defense questioned the lead investigator from the time of the murder.
Marcy McDannel: You have no indication of where Hilke was May 1 and 2 except for Mr. Hilke's word.
Dehart: I suppose that's accurate.
In fact, investigators asked for copies of Hilke's phone records, credit card records but never received them. And one more thing: Hilke failed a polygraph test. It's not necessarily a sign of guilt, of course, and he was ruled out early as a suspect.
But then there was John Carlin IV, who, remember, testified that he watched his father cleaning a pistol in front of Mechele after the murder.
John Carlin IV: There was a firearm in the sink and the sink was about half full of a clear liquid.
He also said he last saw Kent in the company of his father in their home the night before the murder. Just hours later, Kent was dead.
But could Carlin Sr. have driven Kent to Hope to kill him?
Not a chance, said Carlin IV. Had his father opened the garage door to take out the car. His dog would have let him know.
Sidney Billingslea: What would Roscoe do every time the garage door would go up if you guys were in bed?
John Carlin IV: He would howl.
And Carlin's defense lawyers did not seem too fazed by those e-mails. They said the prosecution's theory that Carlin was so love struck he would kill for Mechele was simply untrue.
In fact, the defense claimed, Carlin knew full well that while he wanted a romance with Mechele, she was taken. Not by Kent, but by the other boyfriend, Scott.
Sidney Billingslea: Next one is one counsel asked you about, it's the Seychelles. At the bottom of that email, "have you given any thought to where you might like to go... Cancun, Cabo..."
Linda Branchflower: Right.
Sure those two were plotting, agreed the defense. But murder?
Nonsense, they were planning a vacation. And the part about the Seychelles? One more random bit of trivia in e-mails full of trivia. And written not by Carlin, remember, but by Mechele. The prosecution had taken the words out of context.
As for washing that gun? The defense said that wasn't proof Carlin had pulled the trigger. He could have been cleaning up another one of Mechele's messes.
Pat Gullufsen: Do you remember retrieving a note regarding a cabin in Hope?
David Dullis: Yes, sir, I do.
And what of the prosecution's claim of conspiracy?
The "Hope Note" for example, that piece of creative writing the prosecution said Carlin and Mechele used as a lure to get Kent to Hope?
That note, said Carlin's lawyers, was meant only to keep Kent from stalking Mechele as she'd claimed he had done before when she'd traveled with Scott Hilke.
All those bits of circumstantial evidence presented by the prosecution, the emails especially, interpreted a certain way, implied that something pretty bad was afoot. But implication of intent and proof that a crime has been committed are two very different things, of course, and so the question really became this: if you read all the emails and then looked at the Hope note and the letter and considered the movements of the various players involved, did that add up to proof of murder? Or not?
There is a general rule of thumb followed by many defense attorneys: Don't put your client on the stand unless you have to.
In this case, John Carlin III sat through it all, silent.
And by the time they got to closing arguments, Carlin's attorneys felt, if not confident, then something pretty close to that. The state had not put together a solid case against their man. The jury, they felt sure, would agree that someone other than their client could have killed Kent Leppink.
Marcy McDannel: Mechele, the scorpion, is gonna use these guys, any of these guys, for any reason. Because that's her nature. That certainly dictates that we look out beyond this narrow circle in all of these other triangles that were virtually completely ignored by the police.
For John Carlin, sitting silent as the sordid details of his personal life were aired in court was torture. He listened as the prosecution painted him as a lovesick pawn, willing to do anything for the woman he loved -- even kill her fiancé.
And now he, and his attorneys, waited as the jury determined his fate.
Marcy McDannel: I thought the state had not even come close to proving its case.
But what did the jurors think?
Foreman: I kept thinking that the prosecution doesn't have it. Don't have the proof.
In the jury room, one piece of evidence didn't, at first, quite register with some members of the panel.
Freddie Wake: The Hope note, as we call it.
Foreman: When they first presented it, I had a hard time trying to incorporate that into how that could weigh upon his guilt.
That was the partly printed, partly hand-written note prepared by both Carlin and Mechele.
It was quite believable - Carlin telling Mechele he'd fixed up a cabin in this little town so that she could spend some secret time here with an unnamed person. A lover, perhaps?
She responded in her own hand with thanks and a mundane follow-up question about the latch on the back door.
Donald Sanford: There is no cabin. There never was a cabin. That kind of floored me.
Some of the jurors were floored during closing arguments by the sudden realization that the 'Hope note" was purely and only a cruel ruse by Mechele and Carlin, so it must have been intended to lure Kent Leppink to Hope -- the place he was murdered.
And by then, many jurors were convinced Carlin would have done anything Mechele asked him to do. Anything.
Freddie Wake: I always felt that he helped to plan. He was a part of all that.
And he did lie about owning that gun, said the jurors… And his own son said he saw him washing it with bleach.
And, despite the defense's explanation, all those e-mails, taken together, looked to them a lot like a conspiracy.
The jurors couldn't help but think back to that love note from Carlin to Mechele, which said:
Donald Sanford: I think his - close to his words were "I’d give up my life for you."
Freddie Wake: OK.
Donald Sanford: Which is exactly what he did.
And so after less than two days of deliberation, a verdict:
“We, the jury, find the defendant guilty of murder in the first-degree as charged in the indictment.”
And sitting there in the courtroom, defense attorney Marcy McDannel was visibly stunned.
Marcy McDannel: I have clients that, you know, deserve a fair trial but probably should go to jail but not this guy. Not this guy.
Guilty? Sure, said Carlin's attorneys, guilty of tampering with evidence, guilty of poor judgment. But murder? Not a chance.
Now they feared the real culprit would get off the hook.
Marcy McDannel: My prediction is that this will substantially diminish her chances of being convicted, which is tragic. I mean if anyone was involved in this case, anyone, it was her.
Murder, as everybody knows, sends poison ripples through lives and generations of lives. Tragic what can happen to people connected by blood and testimony. JC III was on the basis of evidence supplied by his own son, convicted of being the triggerman who ended Kent Leppink's life. And yet that convicting son, John Carlin IV, says he is absolutely convinced that his father did not do it.
He's now had 12 years since Kent's murder to think about it.
Keith Morrison, Dateline NBC: There must of been some times during that period when you thought, "Well, may - maybe he did." And –
John Carlin IV: Well, I can honestly say no. I can honestly say no. For lack of a better answer, all I can say is he's smarter than that. He's smarter than to screw something like that up that badly.
A person as smart as his father, said Carlin IV, would have thrown the gun in the ocean on his way home, not brought it back to the house.
John Carlin III said not a word to the crowded courtroom during his trial. But once it was over, he had no shortage of things to say about the trial, his defense, and about Mechele Linehan.
John Carlin III: The prosecutor was prosecuting Mechele. My attorney was prosecuting Mechele. The jury got pissed off at Mechele, and I was sitting there.
And now here he was, convicted, waiting to be sentenced, waiting to see if, because of his conviction, Mechele Linehan might well walk free.
So now, John Carlin had a lot to say.
On the way out of Anchorage, Alaska, on a curving road leading out of the city, stands a giant warehouse sort of structure. All cold, hard edges. The Anchorage Correctional Complex. The new home of a bitterly unhappy man named John Carlin III.
John Carlin III: I don't feel good about sitting in here. I'm wasting my life for nothing. I'm not happy about it. And I think I’ve been, quite frankly, I’ve been rather nice about it.
His misfortune, Carlin tells us, is that he, quote, "has the face of an ax murderer." He just knew, he said, what the jury was thinking.
John Carlin III: "We know he's guilty. We just don't know why. We don't know how. We don't know anything. But we're gonna say he's guilty." John Carlin ain't guilty.
But in fact, the jury had decided John Carlin III would have done anything for the woman he loved. Even commit murder.
And one of the worst things about it, said Carlin, was having to sit there in court and not say anything. His silence is now his biggest regret.
John Carlin III: I wanted to testify. It was my attorneys, day in and day out, yapping at me not to do that, not to do that, not to do that. And I should have.
His lawyers said they had good reason for advising him not to testify: it would have opened the door to some very damaging prosecution questions.
Still, said Carlin, he would have told the jury that anybody could have killed Kent Leppink, even Mechele.
Of course, on cross-examination his credibility might have suffered just a little.
He had, after all, lied to investigators, claiming he never owned the type of gun used in the murder.
And at first, as we visited with Mr. Carlin here in jail, he was, frankly, not forthcoming on that question.
Keith Morrison: Is there any particular reason why you had a Desert Eagle?
John Carlin III: I didn't say I had one.
Keith Morrison: You're telling me that gun was not yours.
John Carlin III: No, I’m saying I can't talk about it right now.
But as we talked, he opened up. He did have a story about the gun, he said. And 11 years after it happened, he was finally ready to tell it.
Carlin said the Desert Eagle had been missing for weeks when his son found it in a closet after Kent's murder:
John Carlin III: I heard "Don't touch it. Don't touch it. Don't touch it." And I went around the corner this way and I see John standing there holding the gun that was missing.
When he saw that gun, Carlin said, he was struck by the fear that he or his son would be blamed for the murder.
His first and continuing belief, he told us: the real killer planted the gun in his house in an effort to frame him.
John Carlin III: I cleaned John's prints off the gun. I put ammonia and water, that's what we did in the Marine Corps, hot water and ammonia. When I was cleaning it, Mechele came walking in and she stood there and she saw the solvent in the sink and just looked. And then John came around a minute later because he followed her in and he stood there and he watched it.
Then, he said, he decided to get rid of it. He told Mechele he was going to bury it under the house. But instead, he stuck it down his pants, tossed it in a dumpster behind a grocery store.
Keith Morrison: You didn't want Mechele to know where you buried it.
John Carlin III: No, I didn't trust her.
And what about that "Hope Note," which the jury felt was a carefully calculated lure to get Kent to Hope where he'd be shot?
John Carlin III: The note was specific for one reason - so he wouldn't be tracing around thinking she was out of state. Scott was her boyfriend. That was - that's the bottom line of that.
Keith Morrison: Well, so why didn't somebody just say to T.T., "Scott’s her boyfriend. Lay off. This is over for you."
John Carlin III: Why didn't she do that? I don't know.
Keith Morrison: Why didn't you do that?
John Carlin III: Not –
Keith Morrison: Why did –
John Carlin III: --my job.
Besides, Carlin pointed out, Kent - or T.T. - went to Hope, showed Mechele's picture around, and - the first time at least - came back just fine.
As for the e-mail exchange in which Mechele said you can buy citizenship in the Seychelles for $10 million and they won't extradite no matter what you've done?
Pure trivia, said Carlin.
He was interested in that sort of thing, and Mechele knew it.
Anyway, he could never have $10 million.
John Carlin III: You would have to kill a lot of T.T.’s to attain that amount of money to make that possible.
Carlin says the jury got it wrong, the idea that he was so lovestruck he would actually give up his life or take someone else's for Mechele. In fact, he says, the relationship was fizzling.
Keith Morrison: At that point, you still thought she might want you?
John Carlin III: No. If you read (laughs) no, if you read that last note of mine a week before T.T. Dies, I said, don't go to Scott. If you go to Scott, it's over. It's the end. There is no more."
Keith Morrison: And she went to Scott.
John Carlin III: And she went to Scott. And that's fine. You know, you made your choice.
And though the prosecution presented evidence to dispute it, Carlin said he has an alibi for the day Kent died.
John Carlin III: During that time I was actually in John's school because John was being expelled from school at that time, mighta given me an alibi if they bought it up. My phone records, well, I’m on the phone. Computer records, I’m on the computer. I'm not there.
The jury, of course, bought the prosecution's argument that Carlin had plenty of time between the school visits and phone calls...
But Carlin himself said he just didn't have a reason to kill Kent. He didn't need to get him out of the way - he was going anyway. Fishing season was just about to begin.
John Carlin III: I don't have any motive whatsoever to kill this man. None.
He is convinced, he said, there was someone else, still unidentified, who wanted Kent dead. But nobody will believe him.
John Carlin III: From the very beginning, they had this Hollywood scenario in their brain. And that's what they wanted to prove. And it's wrong. They owed me more. They owed T.T. more. They owed T.T.'s parents more. They owed Mechele more. They owed everybody more.
Carlin says he knew Kent had changed the beneficiary on his life insurance. And the will?
John Carlin III: I knew T.T. stopped his will so Mechele wasn't gonna get anything. So for me to go ahead and kill him, where's the motive?
As for Mechele, she would have her own jury to decide who did what to whom. And John Carlin III was not the only one to offer the following prediction. From jail, awaiting sentence, it was his parting shot.
John Carlin III: She'll get out of it. You know why? Because they're still arguing the same things that are wrong.
And, like so many others who claim they were wrongly convicted, he said:
John Carlin III: I'm here because my lawyers were bad.
In 1995 she was a favorite dancer here at the Great Alaskan Bush Company.
By early 1996 she had been engaged to at least three men.
In the spring, one of them was dead.
Now, in 2008, another was convicted of playing the role of triggerman and she, with husband and daughter in tow, arrived to confront the charge that it was she who pulled the strings. Remember, she was thousands of miles away with a boyfriend when the murder happened.
Pat Gullufsen: If it wasn't for Mechele Linehan, Kent Leppink would still be alive today.
Prosecutor Pat Gullufsen portrayed Mechele Linehan as a seductress who toyed with men to get money and gifts, even promised to marry one, only to manipulate another into killing him.
Pat Gullufsen: All she needed was somebody to do the dirty work and she found an able and a willing partner in John Carlin III.
She herself sat quietly and watched, her husband in the gallery behind her as the prosecutor produced a man from her past.
Scott Hilke: My last name is Hilke...
Scott Hilke, the old boyfriend.
He confirmed that Mechele wasn't exactly straight with people back then, even him.
Pat Gullufsen: Did she inform you she'd agreed to marry Kent Leppink?
Scott Hilke: No.
Nor did he ever get the impression, he said, that Kent was stalking them, as he continued to see Mechele.
In fact, he said, on one trip together, Kent served them coffee in bed.
Pat Gullufsen: Was there anything that you observed, saw, that led you to believe Mr. Leppink was a problem for you and Mechele getting together?
Scott Hilke: No.
He and Mechele broke up again, he said, early in 1997, almost a year after the murder. He was upset to find some of his things in her home. Things he said she stole from him.
Scott Hilke: A print that my sister that is now passed away gave me. And another is a candy dish that my present wife gave me many, many years ago. (teary)
Scott Hilke was done with Mechele. Or was he? The prosecutor used Hilke to show Mechele hadn't changed, that she continued to be dishonest in relationships.
Pat Gullufsen: Did you visit her a couple of times in Washington?
Scott Hilke: Yes, and one time in Minnesota. The meeting in Minnesota was the last time.
An affair. By this time, years later, they were both married to other people.
Mechele's husband, Colin Linehan, was in the military, was serving in Iraq.
Mechele took her daughter to Minnesota with her, said Hilke, and when the girl was asleep, Mechele slipped into Hilke's room.
And then, the prosecutor asked what seemed a harmless question about their time together earlier back in the mid-'90s.
Pat Gullufsen: Did she have a movie that seemed to be her favorite?
Scott Hilke: There was a movie called "The Last Seduction" that she liked, that movie a lot.
But what would a movie have to do with a murder?
The judge wouldn't allow the jury to see it, but he did let a former stripper named Lora Aspiotis tell about watching "The Last Seduction" with Mechele not long before Kent's murder.
The plot? A seductress steals from her doctor husband, persuades her young lover to kill him, then in the end, she kills her husband herself and pins the murder on the lover.
Lora Aspiotis: She told me that that was her heroine and that she wanted to be just like her.
Aspiotis worked with Mechele, saw her with Kent, or "T.T."
Lora Aspiotis: T.T. was just a puppet on a string for her. He did everything that she would ask him to.
There was more, of course, a lot more.
Such as that million-dollar life insurance policy, paid for by Mechele a month before Kent's murder. In an e-mail, Mechele reminded Kent to go sign the papers. And, just before his murder, she called the insurance company from Lake Tahoe.
The prosecution said the reason for that e-mail and phone call was to try to make sure the policy was actually in effect. Of course, she wasn't told she'd been removed as Kent's beneficiary.
Linda Branchflower: "I love you so much mom. So are you going to be able to make our wedding?"
And this, a tongue-in-cheek e-email which the prosecutor said Mechele wrote to her mother to show she had no intention of marrying Kent at all. In the note, she joked, that it was important to Mechele her mother attend their wedding. And wrote this:
Linda Branchflower: "All my dreams came true that day. I took one look at this man and knew I wanted to be pregnant with his children."
The prosecution pointed out the e-mail ends with a string of "HA HA HAs". Said it was proof of her disdain for Kent.
Her mother replied, "Got your crazy e-mail. Think you should become a writer like Stephen King."
Just two days after Mechele sent that e-mail to her mother, she wrote to Kent saying she didn't want to delay the wedding and:
Linda Branchflower: "I hope I can make you a happy husband... I will try my hardest to make our family strong, loving and sturdy... I love you."
And before long, the "Hope Note" was left out for Kent to find.
Every day of the trial, Mechele's husband sat in court and listened as her dirty laundry was aired in this very public forum.
Now, he was about to step up and fight for his wife.
Colin Linehan: It kills me that in their hearts that they think Mechele had anything to do with that.
Colin Linehan: They needed that picture of this evil. They needed that. Or else, their story would not fly. It would not fly with the evidence they had.
Pat Gullufsen: She, at least, wrote the ending.
The prosecution in Mechele Linehan's murder trial had painted a portrait of a wiley manipulator. Here, they said, was a conniving young seductress who reveled in her sexual power over lonely men.
Who succeeded in persuading one fiancé to kill another so she could cash in on his life insurance policy.
Mechele was represented in court by two respected private defense attorneys -- Kevin Fitzgerald and Wayne Fricke. Now, it was their turn.
Wayne Fricke: There is not going to be any evidence, not one bit of evidence, that Mechele in any way wanted it to happen, asked that it happen, made any solicitation, made any plan or knew that it was going to happen or that she was even present.
Their defense? John Carlin III acted alone, killed Kent "T.T." Leppink for reasons of his own.
As for the idea Mechele manipulated men? Remember, said the defense, Mechele was a stripper; getting money from men, having them imagine romance with her, was her job.
But there were other issues to tackle.
Such as that really dreadful comment Mechele made to her sister after Kent's murder.
Pat Gullufsen: What does she say she told her sister?
Jim Stogsdill: That if I would have done it, I would have tortured him.
How could anyone defend a comment like that? Well, Mechele, said her attorneys, had just learned that Kent had once embezzled from his family, had stolen personal information from her, had read her private e-mails.
What she said was terrible, but she was upset, said her lawyers, and the comment certainly didn't prove murder.
Pat Gullufsen: Did you and Mechele Hughes watch movies a lot?
Lora Aspiotis: Yes, we did.
But few people riled the defense -- and Mechele Linehan -- like the prosecution witness Lora Aspiotis.
Her credibility was deeply suspect, said the defense, and her story? Nothing more than a misunderstanding.
Fitzgerald: Isn't it true that she told you with regard to "The Last Seduction", she told you she liked the actress, Linda Fiorentino?
Lora Aspiotis: No.
Fitzgerald: I like movies. I like Al Pacino in "Scarface," but that doesn't make me a drug dealer, trying to kill rivals.
Lora Aspiotis: Not necessarily.
As for the prosecution's thesis that Mechele took out insurance on Kent only so she could then have him killed and collect the million dollars? It was an interesting theory, said the defense, just not true.
Mechele wasn't involved in a murder plot.
The defense argued that call to the insurance company Mechele made shortly before Kent's murder was exactly what the phone message indicated -- she wanted a refund. In fact, said the defense, Kent had made a similar call a week before.
Fitzgerald: All we know is that Mr. Leppink on April 23, wanted some money back.
Leirer: I believe that was the date that was mentioned.
And those e-mails, which certainly appeared suspicious, had been taken way out of context, said the defense, bits and pieces cherry picked by the prosecution to make her look guilty.
And the Hope note? That was just a way of keeping an obsessed Kent from following her to Lake Tahoe, where she'd gone with Scott Hilke.
In fact, according to the defense, Mechele was convinced a snooping Kent had discovered her car at the Anchorage airport and knew she wasn't in Hope. And therefore she wrote this to Carlin from Tahoe:
E-mail Mechele to Carlin:
"Tell T.T. I flew to Barrow... if you see him tell him Brett got hurt and I went to take care of the girls..."
Brett was another boyfriend who lived 1,000 miles away.
This was proof, said the defense, that Mechele wasn't trying to lure Kent to his death.
Mechele Linehan's husband Colin had been biting his tongue through it all. Waiting for his turn to talk about the woman he'd been married to for nearly 10 years.
He told the jury his wife is no gold-digger. That she worked and went to school during his residency.
Colin Linehan: She worked in a restaurant, Chophouse. She also volunteered teaching CPR classes. Also was involved in day and after - taught kids science before and after.
They had a baby. Mechele got her master's degree, started a business.
Colin Linehan: It kills me that in their hearts that they think Mechele had anything to do with that because I know from the bottom of my heart and soul that she did not.
Caring mother? Community stalwart? Or manipulating murderess?
Mrs. Mechele Linehan chose not to testify.
And at the end of the testimony, she joined her husband and 7-year-old daughter to wait for her fate.
Go home? Or go straight from the courtroom to prison?
Betsy Leppink: I believe with all my heart - I believe Mechele is guilty. And I only think by the grace of God's will that jury will believe, too.
After a four week-long trial, Mechele Linehan's fate was in the hands of the jury. And the questions that jury had to answer went to the heart of some very deep-seated moral issues. Certainly nothing could be more immoral than murder. But what about that job she once had? Exotic dancer. Meaning, of course, stripper.
She used her sex to manipulate men, that's what strippers do, she persuaded them to give her things... and do things for her. Would the jury pre-judge a woman who'd been in that line of work?
Robin Ruttle: It didn't phase me at all one bit. The fact is, she worked her butt off. And 11 years later, this comes back to get her.
If the question lingered, it did not do so in the conscious minds of members of the jury. When the nine women and three men first began deliberations, they were split down the middle.
Lisa Pagano: Six guilty, six undecided.
And so, one by one they went back through all those e-mails, dissected them for whatever meaning they could discern.
Lisa Pagano: It was emotionally challenging. For three days, I could not think of anything else.
They discussed the testimony, conducted several secret ballots.
KeithMorrison: Do you remember the moment of deciding finally what your verdict was going to be?
ChristineEagleson: Oh, yeah. When that last one went around and our person was counting them up and he read it, and our foreperson said, "OK, say it again."
They had reached a verdict. Mechele and her attorneys were called to the courtroom. The judge allowed Mechele's husband to move up to the defense table and stand with her to listen to the verdict. And here it was.
JudgePhilip Volland: We the jury find the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree as charged in the indictment.
Colin Linehan: It's impossible to articulate. It's just this feeling of being just hollowed out in a matter of nanoseconds.
The Linehans were permitted a last embrace before Mechele was taken away to jail. For the Leppink family, the moment was - you can understand - entirely different.
Betsy Leppink: I'm feeling very, very blessed. And very grateful and I thank god for just taking care of our family one more time.
So, what was it that persuaded the jurors? That manipulation thing.
Most said they believed Mechele possessed a lethal combination of charm and insatiable greed that led to Leppink's murder.
Lisa Pagano: It's a chase to the money. I thought it was all about the money.
They thought about the possibility that Carlin, alone, killed Kent. Quickly ruled it out. More likely, they felt, Mechele had both men dancing on a string.
It all added up, said the jury. The insurance policy on Kent's life, the Hope note that lured him to his death... all those lying e-mails. A bit of fate intervened, by the way. On the last day of the trial, one of the jurors was excused.
Later she said she would have deadlocked the jury, said no one could have convinced her of Mechele's guilt.
Julie Thrasher: It's hard knowing that she would be home right now had I been in there.
And now Mechele's supporters were trying to figure out what happened in that jury room. Mechele's husband thought the worst the jury might see was lots of evidence of dishonesty. But not murder.
Colin Linehan: There is no question in my mind that the burden of proof was put on Mechele to prove her innocence.
Mechele Linehan and John Carlin were now both convicted of first-degree murder. The two would be sentenced separately, Carlin first. He had sat silent as the tomb through his murder trial. But not now. Now he sat before the judge and swore he was innocent, and then offered a truly strange alternative. Said Kent or T.T. was coming unhinged before his death. And so...
John Carlin: I have come to the belief that T.T. orchestrated his own death to be in close proximity to a cabin that he actually believed was in hope.
Orchestrated his own death??? Yes, as strange payback, said Carlin. Kent's way of getting even with him...and Mechele and Scott Hilke. But paying them back by having himself killed?
Judge Philip Volland has heard a lot in his time on the bench. But that? He proceeded with sentencing.
Judge Philip Volland: I sentence Mr. Carlin to serve 99 years in prison.
The maximum allowed by law. The question of Mechele Linehan, however, would perhaps be a little more nuanced. For one thing, she had a husband in her corner.
Dr. Colin Linehan stood by her through the trial, and defended her now.
Colin Linehan: This media narrative that characterized Mechele as a manipulative spider queen, evil person- that I have heard over and over again. It is not who she is. And nobody knows her better than I do.
Mechele, like John Carlin, had invoked her right at trial not to testify. But now was her last chance to attack that reputation... which still clung, like some malignant rash.
Mechele Linehan: I am not the monster that has been painted by the prosecution. I have not lived a life of greed, manipulation, or that of this fictional character of a Hollywood movie. More than a decade ago I made the choice to work at the bush company. While working there I made poor choices. I accepted gifts and money from Kent Leppink and the prosecution would only have you focus on this 3-month period of my relationship with Kent. And the fact is, I considered him a friend. My reaction upon hearing of his death was horrible.
She admitted she did say very unkind things about him not much later, and she was sorry about that.
Mechele Linehan: I shouldn't have said those things.
Yes, but she did, and Kent Leppink's mother Betsy told the judge that this was the true Mechele:
Betsy Leppink: Mechele told her sister that Kent should have been tortured like the animals he killed, like the fur coats she enjoyed putting on her back. Your honor, may it please Mechele to know that he was tortured, by her.
So which one? Which was the real Mechele: the manipulative spider queen, or the kindly young mother who cared for children, animals and the homeless?
Judge Volland: There are in my judgment two Mechele Linehans wrapped into one.
And so, the moment of truth.
Judge Volland: I can find no distinction between the puppet who pulls the trigger and the puppeteer who pulls the strings.
Judge Volland: I sentence Ms. Linehan to 99 years.
KeithMorrison: 99 years.
ColinLinehan: 99 years, yeah, that's pretty incredible. Video: ‘I'm wasting my life for nothing’
In Olympia, Wash., a busy doctor - military veteran - in practical terms, single father - does what he can to protect his daughter, preserve his practice, and help prepare his wife's appeal. Not an easy balance for an angry man.
ColinLinehan: The passion, the animation, the anger that I feel is from within at the injustice that I see has happened. And that injustice is to a woman that I truly, truly love. And we're not stopping the fight. It's not over.
John Carlin the third wasn't stopping the fight either. He was planning an appeal from his prison cell in Seward, Alaska last October when three other inmates paid him a brutal visit. It was the third time Carlin had been beaten there. This time, he became a murder victim himself. A dreadful end for him, but it created an ironic twist: Carlin's death in custody means his conviction will be vacated. It will be as though his trial never happened.
Not far from the Alaskan hamlet of Hope there stands a little memorial. To a man who was clinging to his last hope - for love - as he walked up a small rise to the death which had been prepared for him.
And if there are souls to rest when justice is done, then perhaps Kent Leppink's does. It's the living souls that cannot let it go.
Betsy Leppink: It never stops, Keith. Never. It never, ever will be over. They take a piece of your heart and destroy it. And you never grow that back again. Just have a hole there.
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