It was Thursday, July 19, 2007, around 12:30 p.m. when San Diego, California homicide investigators J.C. Smith and Brett Burkett arrived at Tim MacNeil's home on Marraco Drive.
Tim MacNeil had come home at noon to have lunch with his stepdaughter, Brae.
"Dispatchers received a phone call, from Brae Hansen…she and her father had been tied up and she described witnessing this masked intruder shoot and kill her father right in front of her," says Detective J.C. Smith. "…the victim was face down in a pool of blood. He was wearing a dress shirt and no pants. There was a zip tie near one of his hands."
The 911 Call
Listen to excerpts of Brae Hansen's call to police following the murder of Tim MacNeil.
"The stepdaughter, Brae Hansen, had been zip tied, was crying," says Investigator Burkett. "She was upset, she saw what happened," adds J.C. Smith.
Based on the information they had, investigators thought a masked intruder was still on the loose. They believed Brae, 17, the only surviving victim of the crime, was now their best eyewitness.
"A lot of times we don't have witnesses in murder cases, so she was our number one key to getting who did this," Burkett tells 48 Hours contributing correspondent Tracy Smith.
If they were going to solve the case, police needed her help.
Brae told investigators the shooter fled out the back door, where the gun had been found. Next, police canvassed the neighborhood on foot and with search dogs hoping to find more evidence and witnesses.
"I heard, pop, pop, pop, pop," neighbor Ernest Torgeson says. "I didn't think anything of it and then 20 minutes later, something like that, the place was just crawling with police and helicopters."
People in the neighborhood say they heard the shots and then they saw a young man jump out of hedges and take off in broad daylight down the street and up a flight of stairs.
"You could see he was definitely putting a lot of effort into it and he was definitely trying to run away from a situation," eyewitness Christopher Miles explains. "He immediately started to run directly down [the] path and all the way up the stairs… at that point that's where I lost track of him."
Investigators soon discovered two key pieces of evidence near the stairs.
"About halfway or three quarters of the way up the stairway, where witnesses saw this person running from house, up in a tree, they found a wad of black clothing that got caught in a branch. That was a black shirt and the mask," says J.C. Smith.
Neighbors, like Torgeson, were stunned by the murder of Tim MacNeil.
"We didn't go out and have dinner or anything like that," he says, "but it's someone you see on a regular basis - you say 'hi' and, you know, to see them gone, it's like wow - it hits you hard."
Police were also surprised. "He doesn't fit the stereotype of the typical homicide victim," J.C. Smith explains. "He didn't live a high-risk lifestyle, his behavior - his activities weren't something that you would expect someone to kill him.
Tim MacNeil, 63, was a well-respected defense attorney.
"He was a great guy, the best possible big brother I could ever have," says Rick MacNeil. Younger brother Rick says Tim also had a wicked sense of humor. "He was a very big joker. He could find humor in just about anything."
College fraternity brothers Dr. Jim Wilson and John Keifer say Tim MacNeil had skills on the court and in the courtroom.
"We played basketball together. He was called 'The Spider," says Wilson.
"He was a master in the courtroom and he won all the time," adds Keifer. "I never saw him lose a case."
Erin MacNeil Ellison, Tim's daughter from his first marriage, describes her father as, "the funniest, most easy going, nicest guy. He just could walk into a room and work it. He could talk to anybody."
After divorcing Ellison's mother, Tim MacNeil met and married Doreen Hansen and quickly took on the role of stepfather to her young daughter, Brae.
"Brae always called me her sister," says Ellison, "and since I didn't have any other siblings, and she was younger than me, I always let her kind of do that… She was super happy. She was always smiling. She was smart. She learned French, she could speak French fluently."
Brae shared a close relationship with Tim McNeil. "Oh, he was 'daddy.' It was 'daddy,'" says Ellison. "I never even called him 'daddy.'"
"Brae was just cute, Tim really liked her," says Bonnie MacNeil, Tim's sister-in-law. "She called him 'daddy.' Everything a father does, he did."
With a deep sigh, Ellison says her dad treated Brae "really, really well. Even in the will, you know, it was this 'I raised her as my daughter' I mean it was a split 50/50, so I think that pretty much says how important she was to him."
When Ellison learned the terrible news about her father's murder, she immediately thought of her stepsister. "Where is Brae? How is Brae? Is she OK?"
Ellison got a call from her Aunt Bonnie telling her Brae was safe. "And when I heard that I just went, 'Oh my God, what is she going to do now?'"
As investigators continued to interview Brae that afternoon, they came back to one part of her story that puzzled them: Brae had told the 911 operator the masked gunman had disguised his voice.
"I think we asked a second time, 'What was the suspect's voice disguised like?' And we heard 'a cartoon character,'" J.C. Smith says. "People who do home invasion robberies, they want to come across as very intimidating. It was just unusual. I haven't heard in my entire police career that a home invasion robber used a cartoon character voice. And think we both thought it was a little strange."
Several hours after the shooting, police took Brae to her Aunt Bonnie and Uncle Rick's house.
"They had asked Brae if there was a place that she wanted to go where she would feel safe, and she wanted to come to our house," says Bonnie MacNeil.
As police continued to question her there, the 17-year-old said another strange thing: she called the masked gunman by the name "Nathan."
J.C. Smith says, "Brae said 'Nathan.' Detective Rivera wrote it down, let Brae continue to talk, and she switched back to the masked intruder and Detective Rivera let Brae finish her statement and then said, 'You said the name Nathan a few minutes ago.' It wasn't so much that she said the name Nathan, it was when she denied saying it."
Investigators were growing suspicious. Brae Hansen, the surviving victim of a brutal crime, was beginning to look like she knew more than she had at first let on. And sure enough, after police left for the night, Brae said yet another strange thing.
As her cousin, Shelly, showed Brae a sketch of an unmasked man neighbors described running in the neighborhood shortly after the shooting, Rick MacNeil says, "…she said something to the effect of, 'Oh, no. His chin wasn't that square.'"
"Shelly looked at her and said, 'Oh, really? I thought you said he was wearing a mask?' says Bonnie MacNeil. "Brae just kind of backed up and Shelly came out and called Rick. Rick said, 'Call the detectives.'"
When investigators heard that Brae had described the gunman's face, they knew she had been lying to them all along. They rushed back to Rick and Bonnie MacNeil's house. Their victim was now a suspect.
"We thought we had enough at that point to arrest her," says Burkett. Around 11 p.m. that night, less than 12 hours after the crime, Brae Hansen was arrested for the murder of her stepfather, Tim MacNeil.
"She stood right up, turned around and put her hands behind her back," says J.C. Smith. When asked if that's typical behavior, he says, "it's typical of someone who knows they've been caught."
"If you're not guilty, you're gonna protest," adds Burkett.
Investigators were now sure that Brae was somehow involved in her stepfather's murder. They began to interrogate her to find out exactly what she had done and why.
"I was initially surprised at how small she was," J.C. Smith says. "She was tiny, she was a little, tiny girl."
Brae Hansen knew she was caught. She began to give investigators details about a complicated and diabolical plot to kill her stepfather.
"At first I thought my dad had won and that Nathan had gotten shot," she tells them. "But then I looked back and I saw my dad saying, 'You shot me, you killed me.'"
Watch excerpts of Brae Hansen's interview with San Diego police.
It was a plot she said was executed by Nathan, her older brother and Tim's stepson. It was a plot that got out of hand. Brae says she couldn't stop it.
"You did everything you could to stop it?" asks Tracy Smith.
"[I did] everything in my mind that I could think of at the time to stop it," Brae says in an exclusive interview with 48 Hours Mystery. "I did think about calling the police once or twice and I had it dialed. I just couldn't push the send button. I was too afraid."