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Cruise Ship Killer Murdered Wife with Bare Hands, Say Feds

The Carnival Elation cruise ship sits in port in San Diego, Calif. July 16, 2009.

SAN DIEGO (CBS/ AP) They were former high school sweethearts who found each other decades later and renewed their love. Robert and Shirley McGill were marking their 55th birthdays just days into their luxurious Mexican cruise when she was found beaten to death in their cabin.

The discovery led FBI agents to intercept the Carnival Elation cruise ship while it was at sea and interview dozens of witnesses, including Robert McGill. During questioning, the school teacher from Los Angeles told investigators he killed his wife "in the bathroom of their cabin with his bare hands," court documents revealed Friday.

McGill made the confession after being informed of his Miranda rights and telling interrogators he was willing to answer questions without the presence of an attorney, FBI Special Agent James B. Stinnett wrote in a probable cause affidavit attached to the criminal complaint charging him with one count of murder.

Calls to McGill's attorney were not immediately returned. At his court appearance earlier in the day, she declined to comment on the case.

McGill is charged with killing his wife on July 14, the day of his birthday, as the ship steamed home after a stop in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. U.S. District Magistrate William McCurine Jr. entered a plea of not guilty on McGill's behalf, as is common practice in federal court at initial appearances.

(AP Photo/ California DMV)
Shirley McGill's California Department of Motor Vehicles photo.

McGill was distraught during the brief hearing and argued with federal public defenders about whether he could make a statement to the court as his family members sobbed in the gallery. He appeared without handcuffs and wore a white jumpsuit.

"They're suffering now," McGill was heard saying as he gestured to his family. "I don't think it is for the best. I think they are suffering and need to hear from me."

"That's putting more financial burden on top of the pain and horror that I've caused this family," he added before the hearing resumed.

It wasn't immediately clear to what McGill was referring.

McGill's family, including two adult sons, declined to comment after the hearing, as did Assistant U.S. Attorney Joanna Curtis.

Shirley McGill turned 55 just six days before she died. The San Diego County medical examiner's office said she died of strangulation and blunt force injury to the head and torso.

Stinnett noted in the court papers that Robert McGill's knuckles "appeared as if he had been in a fight."

Friends and neighbors said they were shocked to learn of the charge.

"Bob and Shirley never said anything negative about each other," Michael Hougardy, a neighbor in McGills' cul-de-sac in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, told The Associated Press. "I saw Bob a couple days before they left. He was excited. He was looking forward to it."

The first sign of trouble came last Tuesday, July 14, three days into the five-night cruise, when a passenger contacted ship security to express concerns that a woman might be dead, said Keith Slotter, a special agent in charge of the FBI's San Diego bureau.

The death was reported to Carnival crew members around 8:20 p.m., but authorities have placed the time of Shirley McGill's death about two hours before, according to the court documents. Robert McGill was not in the room when the body was found, but was taken into custody by ship security later on, authorities said.

He was placed in the brig and about 20 FBI agents intercepted the ship on a U.S. Coast Guard cutter late Wednesday and interviewed McGill and more than 50 witnesses while the Elation was still at sea.

McGill was divorced when he reconnected with Shirley through the Internet, colleagues said.

Court records show McGill was divorced from his first wife in 1998 after a 2½-year proceeding and then filed for bankruptcy in 2001. Two years later, he married Shirley McGill in Las Vegas.

In bankruptcy papers, McGill listed assets of $50,000 to $100,000 and debts of $100,000 to $500,000. The attorney who handled the case did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Colleagues said McGill spent years teaching at-risk teens, became burned out by the job a decade ago but was revitalized when he came to work at the West Valley Leadership Academy in Canoga Park, a county-run alternative high school to help at-risk youth. The county closed it in June because of dwindling attendance.

Shirley McGill retired last week from the state Department of Motor Vehicles, and her husband had planned to retire soon as well, acquaintances said.

Hougardy said Shirley McGill planned to move to Oregon, where her family and her children from a previous marriage lived. McGill was going to join her when he retired.

"Bob and Shirley loved each other very much. Their marriage was the most important thing in his life," Paul White, a teacher at the school where McGill taught, told the AP. "They were childhood sweethearts."

White said he worked with McGill for nearly 11 years and knew him to be calm and pleasant.

"He's a great friend, he's great with kids, he's a great dad, he's a great husband," White said.

A detention hearing in the case is set for July 23, with a preliminary hearing on July 30.

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