Dead Man's Dancer: The Mechele Linehan Story
By Tom Brennan; Epicenter Press; 2015; 160 pages; $12.95
Admittedly, I didn't want to read a book about Mechele Linehan, the former Anchorage stripper convicted and subsequently exonerated for the 1996 slaying of Kent Leppink. The case, which drew national media attention, had all the elements needed for tabloid journalism: murder, money and a whole pile of sex. It was a squalid and tawdry affair, with a cast of characters that make the average Alaskan reality TV star seem like an upstanding citizen by comparison.
However, Lael Morgan, acquisitions editor at Epicenter Press, insisted to me that "Dead Man's Dancer" by Tom Brennan was worth reading. So, on a recent vacation I pulled it on my iPad and gave it a go. It is, without question, squalid and tawdry, as well as appalling. But like the proverbial wreck on the highway, I found myself unable to turn away.
For those who missed it the first time around, Leppink's body was found by power company workers on a section line near Hope in early May 1996. The 36-year-old fisherman had been shot three times with a .44-caliber weapon. Interest immediately focused on Linehan, then known as Mechele Hughes, a young stripper at Anchorage's Alaska Bush Company who was engaged to Leppink and two other men as well. Circumstantial evidence indicated that she was likely involved, but a full decade would pass before she was indicted and the story would be intensely covered by Alaska media.
Using trial transcripts, email records, contemporary news reports and interviews with some of the key players and investigators, Brennan reconstructs the messy interactions of the four lead characters. All were classic end-of-the-road types who wash up in Alaska after their lives have run astray.
Linehan, from New Orleans, was young, broke, attractive and opportunistic. Hoping to earn money to put herself through college, she came to Anchorage in 1994 and took a job as a stripper. While not particularly skilled in her profession, at least according to Brennan, she was a good conversationalist capable of manipulating the men who lusted after her every night.
Leppink was from Michigan. After getting caught embezzling funds from his family's business, he came north looking for a fresh start in 1993 and went into fishing.
The other two also arrived in 1994. John Carlin III was from New Jersey. A big man with a fiery temper, he migrated north with his son and dying wife after winning a large personal-injury settlement. Scott Hilke, meanwhile, was in Alaska training power plant workers and getting away from his wife in California, whom he was in the process of divorcing.
All three men found their way into the Bush Company, saw Linehan perform and fell in love. All three proposed marriage in short order. All three were promised her hand.
Compounding the craziness was the fact that all three knew about the others, all three at one point were living together with Linehan and all three were supplying her with substantial sums of money and gifts. To say that all three were lacking common sense would be a gross understatement.
Paranoia and loathing
Brennan details the bizarre living arrangement and the growing animosity between Leppink and the others. As could be expected under such circumstances, paranoia and loathing consumed the household and just days before his body was discovered, Leppink sent a letter to his parents telling them that if he was to be murdered, Linehan and Carlin should be the prime suspects.
He was, of course, murdered, but the letter offered nothing beyond circumstantial evidence. By the time of Leppink's death, Hilke was already out of the state and an unlikely suspect. Unable to pin the crime on the others, the case went cold. Linehan and Carlin soon left Alaska as well.
From there it only got stranger. Linehan went back to New Orleans, attended veterinary school, met and married a medical student named Collin Linehan, moved to Washington state, had a child and was living an ostensibly respectable life when she was arrested for Leppink's murder in fall 2006. A cold case team had finally assembled enough evidence to get a grand jury indictment against her and Carlin. Linehan was well liked in her community. Her friends and neighbors were stunned.
This was the point where the whole thing turned into a media circus. As Brennan writes, "Mrs. Linehan was returning to the city where she was once known as Mechele Hughes, hottest dancer at The Great Alaska Bush Company, Alaska's most notorious topless joint." The trials were front-page news for weeks. Reporters from Outside also converged on the Anchorage courthouse. Lurid tales of sex and jealousy abounded.
Who pulled the trigger?
Innocent or manipulative?
It's to Brennan's credit that he sticks to the story rather than the accompanying feeding frenzy. The latter part of the book is a fairly exhaustive account of the trials and includes lengthy passages from the emails shot back and forth between the main players. No one comes out of it looking like someone you would want for a neighbor.
Alaskans know the rest. Both Linehan and Carlin were convicted and sentenced to 99 years. Carlin was beaten to death in prison in 2008. In 2011 Linehan's conviction was reversed on appeal, as was Carlin's. Both had been convicted purely on circumstantial evidence. It was overwhelming, to be sure, but there was no physical evidence to tie either to the crime. At present, no one is incarcerated for Lippink's murder.
In the closing chapter Brennan offers speculations on who might have pulled the trigger. Carlin's son, John Carlin IV, was a suspect during the investigation and in some ways seems a more likely culprit than his father. Linehan, meanwhile, has resumed her life. Whether she was truly innocent or simply manipulated the appeals judge as she had so many other men is a question only she knows the answer to.
This isn't high-class literature, but yeah, it's a good book for a vacation read.
David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer and critic.