On the morning of May 2, 1996, Kent Leppink, a 36-year-old commercial fisherman, was found shot to death near Hope, Alaska, about 90 miles from Anchorage. A pathologist estimated Leppink was killed sometime between mid-day on April 30 and the early morning hours of May 2.
Police investigating the murder questioned 23-year-old Mechele Hughes, a former stripper who was at Lake Tahoe at the time of the murder, and 39-year-old John Carlin III. Carlin and Leppink had met Hughes while she was working as a stripper and all three had lived together for several months in Anchorage. Leppink was described as infatuated with Hughes and at one point said she was his fiancée, although Hughes said they were never really engaged and they did not have a romantic relationship.
The police obtained a note that Leppink had sent to his family in Michigan before his death. The note, which carried instructions that it was to be opened only if he died, said that if he died under suspicious circumstances, Carlin and Hughes were probably responsible.
For years, no one was arrested for the crime. In 2004, the Alaska State Police cold case unit re-opened the investigation. Based on new witness interviews and an examination of emails recovered from two computers, police came to believe that Hughes had solicited Carlin to kill Leppink and that Carlin had lured Leppink to Hope and shot him there.
By then, Hughes was married to a physician and living in Olympia, Washington under her married name of Linehan. Police accused Linehan of helping compose a note to Leppink saying that she was staying in a cabin in Hope, which police claimed prompted Leppink to travel to Hope to search for her.
Carlin, who had moved to New Jersey, and Linehan were arrested in the fall of 2006 and charged with first-degree murder.
Carlin went on trial first, and was convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Linehan went on trial before a jury in Anchorage Superior Court in September 2007. Prosecutors contended that Linehan wanted Leppink killed so she could cash in on his $1 million life insurance policy. However, five days before Leppink’s death he had changed the policy so that his father was the beneficiary, and after he died, his father collected the insurance money.
The case against Linehan was circumstantial. The prosecution presented the note written by Leppink before his death saying that if he were murdered, Carlin and Linehan were likely behind it.
Lora Aspiotis, a former co-worker and friend of Linehan’s until they had a falling out at the end of February 1996, testified that she and Linehan had watched a movie together called “The Last Seduction.” Aspiotis said the movie was about a woman who was married to a physician and convinced him to sell pharmaceutical cocaine for $700,000. The woman then stole the money and ran off to a small town, where she befriended a man she met at a bar and convinced him to murder her husband for the insurance. In the movie, the woman escaped with all the money and was not prosecuted and the man went to prison.
Aspiotis testified that after she and Linehan watched the movie, Linehan told her that the protagonist “was her heroine” and that “she wanted to be ... just like her.” However, the woman's diary, in which she recorded the movies she viewed and who watched with her, said that Aspiotis watched the movie with someone else--not Linehan.
The prosecution presented evidence that Leppink was infatuated with Linehan—and that he repeatedly refused to abandon his relationship with her, even though he knew that she was seeing other men, and even though his lawyer and members of his family advised him to end the relationship.
Leppink's lawyer, Brian Brundin, testified that Leppink came to see him several times in the month before he was killed. Leppink said that Linehan, who he referred to as his fiancée, was having an affair with Carlin. On April 26--days before he was murdered—Leppink told Brundin that Linehan had left, that he did not know where she was, and that his expensive computer was missing, along with some rugs and a $400 bronze statue.
Leppink's mother, Betsy Leppink, testified that in April 1996, she received a telephone call from her son saying that he was on his way to Hope. He added, “Mom, you know [that] often I can't find Mechele. She's missing again, and I want to find her; I need to find her. And I have learned that she's in Hope.”
Leppink's mother said she tried to talk him out of going, but he insisted upon traveling there.
The jury convicted Linehan of first-degree murder on October 22, 2007 and she was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Carlin appealed his conviction, but he died in prison in 2008 before the appeal had been decided, and it was dismissed.
On February 5, 2010, the Court of Appeals of Alaska overturned Linehan’s conviction, ruling that the evidence of Leppink’s note blaming Carlin and Linehan and the testimony about Linehan’s description of the movie should not have been admitted.
The Alaska Court of Appeals held that the evidence was grossly unfair. “The unfair prejudice of this type of evidence is most acute in a prosecution like this one, where the State’s case is based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence,” the Court said. “The State’s ability to secure a guilty verdict hinged on convincing the jury to view a large number of ambiguous facts in the light most favorable to Linehan’s guilt.”
The court ordered a new trial and Linehan was released on bond in May 2010.
In December 2011, a judge dismissed the indictment, ruling that the grand jury that indicted Linehan had heard inadmissible testimony, and prosecutors would have to present the admissible evidence to a new grand jury. Prosecutors said they wanted time to consider whether they would seek to re-indict Linehan.
Meanwhile, Linehan’s attorneys were re-investigating the case and uncovered evidence that the prosecution had not disclosed to the defense prior to Linehan’s first trial.
The information included the fact that after the murder, some of Leppink’s family members went to prosecutors and said that they suspected Leppink’s father was involved in the killing. These family members told the defense attorneys that they had told state investigators that Leppink had embezzled significant sums of money from the family business and had borrowed tens of thousands of dollars more from the family to finance the purchase of a fishing boat—though much of the money was squandered. Leppink’s father had been in Alaska at about the same time that Leppink was murdered, according to family members.
The defense also discovered that the lead detective in the investigation was writing a book about the case at the time of the trial and was attempting to sell it to a publisher—evidence the defense contended was a financial motive to obtain a conviction.
On August 6, 2012, after Linehan’s attorneys presented the newly discovered evidence to the prosecutors, the prosecution abandoned its effort to seek a new indictment. The prosecution issued a statement saying that further prosecution would not be prudent “at this time” based upon a review of the state’s evidence.
– Maurice Possley