When Suicide is Murder

Dan Leach was an asshole with a problem…

62.5%

The Percentage of murders and non-negligent manslaughters solved by American law enforcement agencies in 2012, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.

Leach at his sentencing

Houstonian Dan Leach made headlines worldwide when he walked into the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s office to confess to murder. The crime itself didn’t draw attention for the grisly details. It was interesting because of the reason behind the confession.

Leach claimed he experienced overwhelming guilt after watching Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.

The news made headlines around the world. It was generally featured in crime sections as something bizarre. In the waxing commentary on the impact of Gibson’s film, few writers noticed that Leach successfully framed murder as suicide.

It’s almost impossible to tell how many people have gotten away with murder by making it look like a suicide. A British dentist successfully killed his wife and his lover’s husband by making their deaths look like a murder-suicide pact. He wasn’t caught until he informed members of his church almost two decades later. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the case is that one of the victims was an expert crime scene investigator.

Stories of attempted murder via a staged suicide are fairly common. But perpetrators are almost always caught. Almost.

The circumstances that facilitated Leach’s successful murder were unique and impossible to replicate. It also demonstrates the importance of those that work in law enforcement but don’t carry a badge.

In early 2004, Dan Leach had a problem. He had gotten a girl pregnant after a one night stand. Leach was less than happy about the upcoming child, so he formulated a plan, later describing his state of mind as, “like a machine.”

His first step was to get his intended victim, Ashley Wilson, to write a note.

Suicide notes are strange things. A dark piece of personal writing can be dismissed as just that when the author is still alive. When found next to a dead body with clear indications of suicide, the same words can be evidence of intent to hurt oneself. Only about one in six people that commit suicide leave a note.

“We received a call to investigate a death. This one looked very cut and dry because of the way the whole situation played out. The evidence in the apartment suggested that there had been a suicide — the way the body was positioned, the door being locked from the inside, and a note suggesting suicide,” Fort Bend County Sheriff Milton Wright told The Christian Broadcasting Network. “While it didn’t actually say she was going to kill herself, it did state that she was extremely depressed because she was pregnant and the person she was pregnant by was not going to be there for her to raise the child.”

Still, the scandal coincided with Wilson’s murder. Considering the willingness of police to accept Wilson’s death as a suicide, perhaps a closer look at the evidence might not have made a difference.

Sheriff Wright explains why crimes like this usually fail but worked for Leach, “When a murder is planned like this, almost all the time the perpetrator overlooks one minor detail, and like a thread on a piece of cloth, the crime starts to unravel from that point. This one looked very cut and dry because of the way the whole situation played out. Had he not come forward and confessed, this one would never have cleared.”

How exactly did Dan Leach get away with murder?

A former Air Force veteran, Leach was used to planning and following a mission. After learning about Wilson’s pregnancy, he started prepping her murder.

He got her to write the note and later asked to come over on the night of January 19, 2004. Leach placed a pillow over Wilson’s head and hands, limiting scratches and DNA evidence, then he wrapped an extension cord around Wilson’s neck, strangling her.

Her parents never accepted the official version of events. For starters, the lights and TV were off. She was also missing her house key, which is how he was able to make it appear that the door was locked from the inside.

“To me, that meant that somebody was there and had taken the key,” Wilson’s mom told the Houston Chronicle.

The official version of events stood until six weeks later when Leach confessed to authorities after watching The Passion of the Christ, though he had already been wracked with guilt immediately following the crime. As tragic as the death of Ashley Wilson was her friends, family, and killer, one last plot twist remained.

In 2003, the state of Texas passed a law making the death of a fetus commissioned in the death of the mother a capital crime. Offenders risked the death penalty.

A significant amount of time was spent by pathologists and attorneys determining whether or not Wilson was actually pregnant at time of death. She wasn’t.

Despite a positive pregnancy test from her doctor, and the medical records to back it up, Wilson had likely miscarried before she was murdered. Had Leach simply waited rather than enacting his heinous plan, his “problem” would have resolved itself. There was no need for Ashley Wilson to die.

If she were pregnant, Leach would have been the first Texas offender charged under the Prenatal Protection Act and might have received the death penalty. After considering his confession and seemingly genuine displays of remorse in the courtroom, a Texas jury sentenced Leach to 75 years in prison, requiring he serve at least half that time. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2041 when he’s 59 years old.

A well crafted villain is a treat for many audiences. In many ways, Dan Leach is tailor made for crime fiction. He’s intelligent, meticulous, and horrifyingly ambitious. Had he not committed a terrible crime, Leach might have had a great life. Now he won’t.

Ashley Wilson’s parents are left with the unfortunate knowledge that they knew the truth about their daughter’s death. They were right but there’s nothing to compensate for the death of a child.

Dan Leach is not worth idolizing. I was going to refer to him by a pseudonym, something like Douche Lecherous, but decided it wasn’t worth it. We have no idea how many people got away with murder. Clearly, the number is greater than zero. Leach felt enough guilt to confess his crime, which makes him better than some he serves time with.

That’s not enough either. While I haven’t reached out to Wilson’s parents to ask, I imagine nothing ever would be.