Mechele Hughes came to Anchorage, Alaska, looking for a new life and easy money. As an exotic dancer, she was soon getting expensive gifts from admiring male clients. Three in particular fell under her spell. Each claimed to be engaged to her and they all lived with her in the same house.
Then, in May 1996, the body of ardent suitor Kent "T.T." Leppink was discovered in a remote wooded area in Wasilla, ninety miles from Anchorage. Naturally all eyes turned to Hughes, but without a murder weapon, a witness or DNA the trail went cold.
But nearly a decade later, dogged cold case investigators uncovered shocking new evidence and pursued Hughes, who had since moved to Washington State, married a doctor and became a fixture of her community. Was she a loving wife and mother, dedicated to children, animals and charitable causes… or a murderess and a ruthless sexual manipulator as detectives claimed?
Interview By Barry Leibowitz, Senior Writer at 48 Hours | Mystery
What drew you to this story?
Rosen: The way the killers patterned their crime on the plot of the classic Billy Wilder film, Double Indemnity. I met Wilder once after a screening of his classic film at USC's film school. So when I first heard about the case, I contacted USC's Dr. Rick Jewell, the Hugh M. Hefner Professor of Film. He was my teacher. Rick advised me. I wanted to be sure I was right when I wrote about the similarities between Kent Leppink's murder and Double Indemnity's plot.
What's the most compelling or surprising aspect of this story that you can reveal?
Rosen: That a man would knowingly ride to his death for the pure love of a woman he adored.
Part of the story is the love Leppink had for Mechele Linehan, who would later be charged with murdering him.
Her murder trial, and that of her second fiance John Carlin III, brought out some really incredible details of the Leppink/Linehan relationship. Billy Wilder was a pretty cynical guy, but even he might turn over in his grave over some of the details.
What fascinating forensics came to light?
Rosen: It was the distinct lack of linking the killers through forensics that kept the case open for a decade. Finding a way to make their case without that was the challenge for the Alaskan authorities. How they met that challenge forms the heart of the story.
Is there a hero?
Rosen: Kent Leppink. There aren't too many dead guys who comment on their own murder, in advance. In that way, Leppink is similar to the William Holden character in another of Wilder's films, Sunset Boulevard.
Do you ever have nightmares because of this case?
Rosen: I thought a lot about Kent Leppink facing down his killer, knowing well in advance what was going to happen to him. And I keep thinking how the love for another human being can make you do some strange things. In the course of a person's life decisions are made that can lead us down the wrong road.
BONUS QUESTION -- Sarah Palin, who recently announced her resignation as Alaska's governor, is mentioned in Deadly Angel. What's her connection to the story?
Rosen: It just happens that by a coincidence of history, during the time of the Kent Leppink murder investigation, 1996-1997, Palin was mayor of Wasilla, where the case unfolds. I also went back a little further, when Palin was a member of the town's council, because of its relevancy to the story, specifically her championing of a strong police force.
I had finished the book, or at least thought I had, when in late October 2008 John Carlin III, the man convicted of shooting Leppink, was himself murdered in Alaska's Seward Prison. At the time, Gov. Palin was in the process of running for vice-president. So, I included that in the book and the governor's response to the event.
Fred Rosen, a former columnist for the Arts and Leisure Section of the New York Times, is one of the country's leading crime authors. He is the author of many true-crime books including Lobster Boy, Did They Really Do It?, There But For the Grace of God, and When Satan Wore a Cross.