healthcare, LDS, mental health, Military, religion, true crime

Sweeping stuff under the rug leads to years of abuse…

Thanks to my regular reader, commenter, and friend Alexis, I have fallen down yet another true crime rabbit hole. Yesterday, I reposted a review of the now out-of-print book Doc, by true crime author Jack Olsen. I found out about Doc from the Recovery from Mormonism messageboard, a place where I’ve “hung out” online for years. I know from hanging out on RfM that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is no stranger to controversy. It’s also had its share of perverts among its ranks, some of whom have committed crimes that were, unfortunately, “swept under the rug”.

The story of Doc is about a non-Mormon physician named John Story who worked in Lovell, Wyoming, a heavily Mormon populated town. Story took advantage of the local mores and religious customs on Lovell as he perpetrated sex crimes on his female patients, many of whom were faithful members of the LDS church.

Alexis, who shares my interest in Mormonism, alerted me to a similar story about the late LaVar Withers, a Mormon physician from Rexburg, Idaho who similarly abused his patients. Rexburg, Idaho, like Lovell, Wyoming, is a town that is chock full of LDS church members. And, just as Dr. John Story took advantage of his patients, many of whom were sexually inexperienced and very vulnerable, Dr. LaVar Withers also took advantage of his patients. According to the Los Angeles Times, Withers was forced to give up his medical license in 1996 when someone finally spoke up about his unconventional examinations. He had been “practicing medicine” by giving his female patients inappropriate breast and vagina exams for over thirty years. Yes, people talked about it in town, but no one ever officially reported him to the police until the 1990s. He victimized women, but he also victimized young girls, under the guise of giving them “care”. LaVar Withers died in 2005.

Before I go any further, I want to state that I’m not specifically trying to pick on the Mormons. Having heard and read so much about disgraced Dr. Larry Nassar’s sex crimes against hundreds of female athletes, I know that this is a problem that doesn’t just affect members of the LDS church. However, I think it’s true that highly restrictive religions or other groups that emphasize sexual purity, virginity, patriarchy, and taking care of issues “internally” can lead to a lot of innocent people being abused by people with authority. Although gymnastics is not a religion, per se, it is a discipline that requires a lot of obedience. Gymnasts are taught to do what they’re told. Female gymnasts, in particular, are vulnerable because they’re usually children who are not yet ready to stand up to adults, particularly ones in authority like coaches and doctors. In that sense, women who are devout members of patriarchal religions, like Mormonism, may also be vulnerable to abuse by male church leaders or physicians.

Because my husband was a victim of domestic violence in his first marriage, as well as a former convert member of the LDS church, I am more aware of the cases affecting Mormons. I do know, however, that this is an issue that transcends a lot of communities– particularly those that are “closed” somehow. I would say that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its somewhat secretive (they say “sacred) rituals, patriarchal authority systems, and emphasis on “callings”, may make some members more ripe for the picking by abusive people with authority, like Dr. John Story and Dr. LaVar Withers. Story was not LDS, but he served a heavily Mormon population. And his patients, particularly the females, were trained to trust and obey people like him.

Also consider that the LDS church does not have a professional clergy. The church is led by high ranking males who tend to be pillars of the community somehow, not necessarily people with training in religion or counseling. A man with a white collar career, say a doctor, professor, lawyer, or dentist, is likely to climb the highest echelons of church hierarchy. A lowly woman, especially one who doesn’t have a career, was not likely to be believed when she complains about someone like LaVar Withers, who was a popular and well-known physician and a pillar of the community.

But there were complaints– in fact, the earliest one dated from the mid 1960s. A woman named Carol Hannah visited Dr. Withers because she was having trouble shaking a bad cold. Somehow, her complaint about her cold turned into a very intimate breast and vagina exam. When she reported him to the police, they laughed at her and accused her of “misunderstanding” what he was doing. She was dismissed and her complaints were completely ignored. Other women who complained over the years were also ignored, and none of them were willing to sign their complaints against him, anyway. It was too shameful and scandalous for them.

In 1992, a parent wrote to the Madison Memorial Hospital’s then executive director, Keith Steiner, about how Withers had examined, without a nurse present, her daughter’s breast and pelvic area after she went to the emergency room having been hit in the head by a volleyball. Instead of thoroughly investigating the issue, Mr. Steiner wrote back that he had received an “absolute denial” of the allegations from Dr. Withers. Steiner added  “I will say that I have not had any indication of this type of behavior from the doctor. He is greatly respected in our community.”

In the L.A. Times article about LaVar Withers, journalist Barry Siegel writes about what happened when a female church member confronted her bishop about Dr. LaVar Withers’ unconventional medical exams. The woman, Tee Andrew, was a convert to the church. She was highly respected and married to an accountant. Because her regular doctor had retired, she visited Dr. Withers, complaining of a severe migraine. She had heard stories about him, but figured he wouldn’t try anything with her, because her husband was in the room. And yet, even though Andrew’s husband was present, Dr. Withers still managed to feel up Tee Andrew’s breasts. He did so with a straight face, as if this was a perfectly normal and natural part of an exam for a migraine headache.

Tee Andrew then called the Idaho Board of Medicine, which reported that Dr. Withers had never been sanctioned by them. That was because there had never been any formal allegations against Dr. Withers, even though many people had informally complained. When Andrew called her former physician, Dr. Jud Miller, he said that he’d heard of “some problems”, but thought Withers had stopped. Then he advised Andrew to contact LaVar Williams’ “stake president”– that is the church leader above his bishop. Note that Miller didn’t tell his former patient to call the police or speak to the licensing authorities. She was told to keep this within the church. So she called LaVar Withers’ stake president, Farrell Young, a dentist who was the great great grandson of Brigham Young himself. According to the Los Angeles Times:

“I’m not going to mince words,” Andrew began. Then she told her story, and offered to take a polygraph test. According to Andrew, Young mainly expressed his sorrow and appreciation for her call, right up until she told him she meant to notify the police.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that now,” Young responded. “I’d appreciate you letting me take care of things from my end.”

In an interview months later with the Idaho Statesman newspaper, Young didn’t dispute this account. Yes, he agreed, he “may have said do not go to the police immediately,” because Mormon doctrine stresses forgiveness. “When people have a hurt, they should leave it alone. Put it away and look for the good.”

Sure enough… Andrew waited a month for action from Farrell Young against LaVar Withers. None ever came. He never contacted her with an update about the situation. So Tee Andrew finally went to the police and made her complaint. Then she started talking to other women in the community. Sure enough, the stories came pouring out. And that was what finally led to LaVar Withers’ resignation from medicine. However, he managed to leave the profession with a cheery news article, his reputation– temporarily– intact.

Again– these specific incidents have to do with the LDS church, mainly because that church was a specific interest of mine for a long time. It’s less so now, since Bill’s daughters are grown. But it’s not just the Mormons who have these issues with sweeping crimes under the rug and handling them “internally”. As anyone who has followed the Duggar family over the years knows, the Mormons do not corner the market on abusing women. Back in 2015, the entire planet was made aware of Josh Duggar’s propensity toward molesting women. It came out that Josh had sexually abused four of his sisters and a babysitter. And instead of reporting the issue to the police and having Josh deal with legal consequences, his parents chose to sweep the issue under the rug. Instead of getting counseling for their son, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar made him shave his head and sent him away to do hard labor for a family friend.

Years later, it came out that not only did Josh molest his sisters and a babysitter, he also cheated on his wife, Anna. Sadly, instead of divorcing Josh and taking their children away from him, Anna has stood by her man and had more children with him. Although we have not heard more reports about his misdeeds with women, I would not be surprised if the abuse continues. I’m all for letting people redeem themselves, but I don’t think the way religious groups handle these kinds of issues is particularly effective. Sweeping things under the rug doesn’t solve anything. There have to be real consequences and a commitment to contrition and restitution. Unfortunately, proven abusers, particularly those who get away with the behavior for many years, don’t tend to change their ways.

LaVar Withers was eventually sentenced to 30 days in jail on a misdemeanor battery charge against his patients. That is a ridiculously light sentence, especially given that Withers had complaints against him going back over 30 years. The LDS church also disciplined him by taking his “temple recommend” and placing him on probation. However, the whole thing was handled privately. It seems that restrictive religions tend to want to come up with their own discipline against members who violate the law. And those practices can lead to more abuse of the innocent.

Restrictive religions can also help create predators and allow them to flourish, even among non members. I reposted my articles about Heath J. Sommer, a Mormon psychotherapist who convinced female patients in the military that having sex with him would be therapeutic. After reading about Sommer, I started getting LDS vibes. I looked him up, and sure enough, he was a church member. And he no doubt used his church affiliation to make himself seem more trustworthy and humane as he told some of his clients that they should be giving him blow jobs as part of their therapy. I don’t know what Sommer’s specific issues are. I kind of wonder if maybe he has a problem with women in power, and that’s why he worked with females in the military. One of his victims was an Air Force colonel. Many people felt she should have known better, but she trusted him and expected that he would be competent. In some ways, the military can be as bad as strict religions in covering up and perpetuating abuse.

Many people will give religious people the benefit of the doubt, especially when the churchgoer is a man with multiple academic degrees and a successful career. Another example of this is Dr. Martin MacNeill, a Mormon doctor, lawyer, and bishop who murdered his wife after she’d had plastic surgery. People trusted Dr. MacNeill because of his lofty career and church status. But if anyone had taken the time to look beneath Dr. MacNeill’s “respectable” surface, they might have seen that he wasn’t as good a person as he seemed to be.

Anyway… I could write about this subject all day. It’s probably time I closed this particular post. But I will probably revisit this topic soon, because I think it’s an important one. I think our culture, especially, hates confrontation. Too many of us are willing to let things slide and sweep egregiously bad behavior under the rug. We blame ourselves when people do wrong. We look back on what we said and did for any indication that something bad that happened was our fault. This happens a lot with women, especially, and if you’re a part of a strict patriarchal group, such as a religion, the military, or even a sport like women’s gymnastics, it can be all too easy to surrender common sense and self-respect.

It can be so easy to let a fear of humiliation and shame scare us into keeping silent. It’s happened to me. Fighting back is hard, and sometimes it leads to disaster. I’m writing about this to encourage my readers to speak up rather than sweep up. Don’t let abusive people get away with their bad behavior. The longer they do it, the more emboldened they become. And if you don’t do your part to stop them, you become part of the problem and even a bit complicit when the next person suffers.

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book reviews, true crime

Repost: Dr. Martin MacNeill… doctor, lawyer, Mormon bishop, and murderer

I am reposting a couple of reviews I wrote about a couple of books by true crime writer, Shanna Hogan. I just learned this morning that three days ago, Ms. Hogan had a devastating accident at her home when she fell into her pool and hit her head. Her husband found her, administered CPR, and she’s now in the hospital in critical condition.

Shanna Hogan has written several award winning books, including a couple which have been optioned by Sony TV. She’s also the mother of a fourteen month old son, who was at the pool at the time of the accident and is fine. If you have any good vibes to spare, please do. Today, I’ll repost the reviews I’ve written of her books, plus add a new post.

This particular review was posted June 8, 2015. About a year later, a former Mormon bishop left me a comment, claiming I’m a “bigot” who paints the LDS church with a “broad brush”. It’s always fascinating to me when people who are complete strangers to me claim I’m “bigoted” based on just one thing they’ve read. I guess they don’t see how the pot calls the kettle black.

I just finished reading Shanna Hogan’s book, The Stranger She Loved: A Mormon Doctor, His Beautiful Wife, and an Almost Perfect Murder.  This book was released on March 31, 2015.  It’s the sad story of Dr. Martin MacNeill, a man who seemed to have everything a person could want.  MacNeill threw it all away when he decided to kill his wife, Michele.  He thought he would get away with his crime, but he now sits in a Utah prison, probably for the rest of his life.

At 50 years old, Michele Somers MacNeill was still a beautiful woman on the day she died in Pleasant Grove, Utah.  She was mother to eight children and had been married to Dr. Martin MacNeill for almost thirty years.  She had just undergone plastic surgery and was recovering at home.  On April 11, 2007, eight days after the surgery, Michele’s young daughter, Ada, found her mother unresponsive in the bathtub. 

Two of the four medications Michele had been taking, Diazepam and Oxycodone, would not normally be prescribed; Michele had them because her husband had requested them of her surgeon, who agreed to prescribe them only because Martin MacNeill was also a doctor.  Michele had been concerned that her husband was having an affair.  She had also been concerned that he was trying to drug her.  Daughter Alexis, then a medical student, had taken charge of administering the medications as her mother recovered.  The day before Michele died, it seemed like her mother was doing well enough not to need as much of her daughter’s help.  Alexis went back to school.

An autopsy revealed that Michele MacNeill had the beginnings of heart disease.  Initially, cardiovascular disease was the reason given for Michele’s death.  It wasn’t until Michele’s family pressed the Chief Medical Examiner to study her toxicology reports that the lethal combination of drugs was found in her system.  It was an almost perfect crime.  Martin MacNeill had administered the drugs in a way that made it difficult to detect them once Michele had died.

Dr. Martin MacNeill was an apparently religious man who had served as a Mormon bishop and was both a physician and a lawyer.  Underneath that respectable exterior lurked a monster who was eventually convicted of murdering his wife and obstructing justice.  Aside from being a killer, MacNeill is an identity thief, sexual predator, and philanderer.  For many years, he kept these dark aspects of his identity shrouded, only letting those closest to him see him for who he is. 

Martin MacNeill had a troubled upbringing and seemed determined to escape his past.  He joined the LDS church and the Army, but washed out of the service very soon due to psychological problems.  Two years after enlisting, MacNeill was put on disability leave.  He collected military benefits for many years. 

MacNeill earned a college degree, then found a way into medical school in Mexico.  He later transferred to a school stateside, earned his medical degree, and embarked on his career.  He worked at Brigham Young University’s health center for a time and had an affair with a student.  He got his law degree from BYU, but didn’t practice law.  Though he was married to a beautiful, kind, lovely woman, he cheated on her constantly.  MacNeill was having an affair when he killed his wife.  He was involved with a woman named Gypsy Willis who had some criminal proclivities of her own. 

For most of his life, MacNeill was able to fool many people into thinking he was a good man worthy of their trust– a man of faith esteemed enough to be a Mormon bishop.  He even presented the image of a generous father of a large, attractive brood.  Michele bore him four children and they adopted four more from Ukraine.  But then Martin had one of the daughters, Giselle, sent back to Ukraine, supposedly to visit her birth relatives.  There, he abandoned her and stole her name and social security number for his girlfriend, Gypsy Willis.  The new identity allowed Gypsy to erase her poor credit and tax liens… which no doubt made life easier for MacNeill and his big plans.  He even got military benefits for Gypsy by using Giselle’s identity.

I can’t help but realize that the LDS church seems to attract converts from the ranks of the seriously troubled.  My husband’s ex wife, a Mormon convert, had a terrible childhood.  She grew up wanting to present a certain respectable image and she felt joining the church was the best way to have that clean, wholesome image.  The church was like a sweet frosting on a cake made entirely of shit.  On the surface, Bill’s ex wife seemed like a good, respectable, church-going woman.  Under the surface, she was controlling, abusive, violent and dishonest.  Although she is not a criminal on the same level as Martin MacNeil is, I see a lot of the same very disturbing traits in her. (ETA: Incidentally, Bill’s daughter tells us that her mom has since kind of abandoned Mormonism, now that it no longer serves her purposes.)

Like any organization, the LDS church has many good people within it.  I think a lot of these good people are attractive prey to sociopaths like Martin MacNeill, who find a willing and trusting supply to satisfy their narcissistic demons.  It also seems to me that in order to get ahead in the LDS church, one must have the right look, the right job, the right income level, and at least a veneer of respectability.  Dr. MacNeill ticked all of the boxes.  He had pulled himself out of an impoverished childhood, become a doctor and a lawyer, married a beautiful Mormon woman, and had become a pillar of the community.  No one dug deeper to find out who he really was and he managed to skate past people, blinding them to who he really is through glib charm, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. 

Incidentally, MacNeill’s only son, Damian, apparently shared his father’s sociopathic tendencies.  He committed suicide in 2010.  He was 24 years old and a law student, but had already been deemed a person with homicidal tendencies who enjoyed the act of killing.

I’m glad I read Shanna Hogan’s book.  Her writing is very readable and she does a great job with a very complicated case.  Pictures are included as is an extensive commentary on the court case.  I think this is a good read for anyone who enjoys interesting true crime stories, but especially for those who are familiar with Mormonism.  Hogan doesn’t go too far into the church– if she had, the book would have been very long.  Hogan is an award winning journalist who has written two other books that were New York Times bestsellers.     

The whole truth about Martin MacNeill came out during his long awaited trial, which began on October 17, 2013, over six years after Michele died.  On November 9, 2013, MacNeill was found guilty of his crimes.  In December 2013, MacNeill attempted suicide by slashing his femoral artery with a disposable razor blade.  Guards found him and rushed him to the hospital, where his life was saved so he can enjoy the rest of his life behind bars.

It would take almost a year for the trial and sentencing to conclude.  Martin MacNeill was sentenced to 15 years to life for murder and 1 to 15 years for obstruction of justice.  The sentences are to be served consecutively.  He will not be eligible for parole until September 2031; by that time, he will be in his mid 70s.  There is no doubt that his daughters, particularly Alexis, who has taken her mother’s maiden name, will be fighting to keep him in prison until he dies. 

Edited to add: Martin MacNeill was found dead.  May he rot in hell.

And here’s the comment I got from a guy named “Bryce”, who thinks I’m a bigot.

BryceMay 25, 2016 at 9:57 PM

You paint an entire group of people with an ugly broad brush. You wrote “I can’t help but realize that the LDS church seems to attract converts from the ranks of the seriously troubled.” and base that on exactly one person. Wow. Bigotry. You should try to meet more LDS’s before making sweeping judgments. By the way, I was a Bishop. I had the smallest house in the ward and an average income. I like to think I’m honest and my family has enjoyed having me around.ReplyReplies

  1. knottyMay 26, 2016 at 7:10 PMHey Bryce,

    You clearly missed the part where I wrote that like any good organization, the LDS church has many good people within it. As a matter of fact, my husband was Mormon when we met. I didn’t have any negative opinions whatsoever about the LDS church until I married my husband and saw how badly he was treated in the wake of his divorce from his ex wife and when he later decided the church wasn’t for him.

    Thanks for calling me a bigot. You don’t even know me, though, so now who’s painting with a broad brush? Fortunately, I’m a grownup and can take insults from random people who don’t know me. I’ve also been called worse names by people whose opinions matter a whole lot more to me.  

    I’m glad you’ve found happiness in your church. I recommend you spend more time doing things that make you happy and less time trying to school bloggers. You’re not very good at it.

    I appreciate the time you took to comment, but I have a right to my opinion and the right to express myself on my personal blog. If you’re offended by what I write here, perhaps you shouldn’t read. 
  2. AlexisARMay 26, 2016 at 10:53 PMKnotty’s account of the calibre of many LDS converts – at least in the U.S. = was spot-on if mildly expressed. MacNeill seemed to have joined in the “golden age” of Mormonism – from the 50’s t0 the late 70’s or so, after which a great deal seemed to have changed. Back then, even MacNeill probably would have seemed a bit of a marginal convert. (Didn’t one bishop warn Michele’s parents that he was trouble?) For one thing, the church and is missionary department here seemed to have reached its saturation point. The number of stable and high-functioning individuals willing to take Mormonism seriously seemed to decline sharply after that. Now, in this age of information, we’re just not having a lot of educated and established people signing on with the church in the mainland of the U.S., or at least not sticking with it if they do join. Don’t ask me for statistics to support this because I don’t have them, but look around and see what converts are being baptized in mainland USA in recent days.

    Martin MacNeill was not portrayed by Knotty as anything resembling a typical LDS church member. Rather, she pointed out indirectly that a somewhat extreme religion occasionally attracts marginal converts. She didn’t identify the reason as being one of birds of a feather flocking together, nor did she in any way suggest that ALL Mormons are as messed up as MacNeill.

    One thing the LDS church seems to love to do is to embrace and to practically put on billboards sucessfully and famous members of its church. They don’t want to own the fallen, though. This is probably just human nature (I don’t remember the Disciples of Christ rallying around Jim Jones), and the LDS are possibly no more or less guilty of it than are members of the next church, but still the trend is notable. 

    Some members of churches with numbers placing them in a distinct minority (at least here in the US) and particularly those with religious practices veering pretty far in one direction or another cannot tolerate the mildest of criticism. Others thrive on it and cannot wait to claim “persecution.” I’m not sure which if either case Larsen applies to former Bishop , but in whatever case, he would do well to grow a thicker skin. Churches in general, including but not limited to the LDS church, are now fair game for criticism. It will probably get a lot worse before it gets better.

    I can scarcely believe that monster, Mormon or otherwise, killed such a lovely person.

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