Establishing Motive: Rage, Money and a Sense of Entitlement

Establishing motive is one of the key obligations in a homicide prosecution. The evidence suggests three culprits:  Fury, money, and narcissism.  These emerge in the stories Susan told friends, and in Dr. Peter Keegan’s behavior and his emails before and after her death. Copies of relevant emails have been turned over to the authorities.

California is a common property state and after 32 years of marriage, the asset split between the divorcing couple should have been relatively straightforward:  50:50.  But the evidence indicates that Dr. Keegan decided he was entitled to keep most of their joint holdings for himself. He wanted a new life, he wanted the family assets to fund it, and he declared that Susan’s claims on her share were tantamount to theft.

Beyond her legal right to half the assets, Susan had “earned” them.  She had been the primary caretaker of the couple’s two sons as they grew up and she ran the household.  She had also worked during most of their marriage, running Dr. Keegan’s medical office, heading the American Cancer Society chapter of Mendocino County, teaching at local colleges, working at the public health department.  Dr. Keegan dismissed all that, Susan told friends, “as though I have never worked or contributed to the household.”

In their early settlement talks, the couple discussed alimony and strategies for dividing their assets sensibly – Dr. Keegan offered Susan a low-interest loan to purchase their shared home, for example.  But as hard dollar figures were put on the table during divorce mediation, Dr. Keegan became increasingly angry.

A week before her death, Susan emailed a friend:  “Peter is planning to go on state disability insurance for the next year or more… his friend will sign his paperwork…. His point was that this will greatly reduce spousal support, since he won’t be making his regular salary.”

Susan also reported that at one negotiating session, Dr. Keegan had “jumped up and down” and declared, “it’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine.”  And, after meeting with divorce mediator Norm Rosen shortly before her death, the doctor declared he was unwilling to make any alimony payments at all.  The next morning, Susan told friends “Peter changed his mind about making support payments, claiming he would not do it.”  He demanded that Susan immediately apply for low-wage, seasonal labor in a department store to reduce his financial responsibility to her.

After Susan’s death, Dr. Keegan made clear in angry emails to a friend that he felt Susan had been exploiting him for years.  He claimed that Mr. Rosen had backed him up on this, telling Susan, “you don’t just get to sit on the couch and eat bon-bons that Peter buys for you.”  (It seems highly unlikely that an attorney used such an unprofessional turn of phrase, but Mr. Rosen refuses to speak about the mediation proceedings, based on his claim of attorney/client privilege; the DA can compel his testimony, and should.  See Blog post.)

Despite her legal rights, Peter was so vehement about money that Susan began to weaken, telling friends that perhaps she would settle for less – 40%, or even one-third, just to end the battle.  Those friends urged her to stand firm, and get what she was entitled to.  (The effort to pacify an unreasonable spouse, despite the personal cost, is a textbook indication of emotional abuse.  See Blog post.)

Most contentious divorces, of course, involve financial disputes and most of them don’t end in homicide.  But there are “murders in which husbands apparently kill their wives to save themselves some consequence of divorce that they perceive to be too costly,” writes Cynthia Lewis in “Monstrous Arrogance:  Husbands Who Choose Murder over Divorce” (see Blog post). Among those convicted for killing their wives “rather than sacrifice financial, social, and various other losses through legal divorce, an overwhelming number are physicians.”

Three weeks after Susan’s death, Dr. Keegan sent this ebullient email to a friend:  “I’m taking a 3 month leave of absence from Round Valley [the Covelo clinic where he worked] so every day is full of choices.  I have enrolled in that Health Club you’re so fond of, am taking yoga classes and weight lifting daily, talking to the boys a lot, going skiing with Ed next week, a big family ski adventure is planned…”  Other chipper notes from the doctor followed soon after – including descriptions of a “big party weekend” in the Bay Area and social dancing that he called “my new super happy time.”

One victim, one suspect, and a motive.

3 thoughts on “Establishing Motive: Rage, Money and a Sense of Entitlement

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