In Ukiah, murder is the talk of the town
UKIAH - Peter and Susan Keegan were the toast of Ukiah.
He was a Harvard-educated doctor with a thriving family practice. She was a popular college English teacher and community theater actor.
Through most of their 32-year marriage, they were rock stars of the town’s west side literati, with him expressing early public support for medical marijuana and her fighting to stamp out tobacco use among children.
It ended suddenly in 2010 when Peter Keegan dialed 911 from their Whitmore Lane house to report he’d found his wife dead in the bathroom.
At first, investigators concluded she’d died from a fall after loading up on alcohol and pain killers.
But after learning the couple had been in throes of a bitter divorce and reviewing forensic evidence, prosecutors reopened the case. Last week - nearly seven years after Susan Keegan died - a grand jury handed down a murder indictment to the only other person at home at the time: Peter Keegan.
Ever since, the town of 16,000 people has buzzed. Some insist the doctor, estimated to have served half the population at one time or another, is innocent. Others claim he’s guilty, citing a hair-trigger temper.
“Everybody’s talking about it,” said James Little, as he clipped a customer’s hair at Executive Barbershop on West Perkins Street, the county courthouse looming in the distance through a plate glass window. “The town is so small everybody knows everybody.”
At Schat’s Bakery next door, a popular eatery also in the shadow of the courthouse, customers ruminated over coffee and toast.
“Anybody’s capable of anything,” said Phillip Castro, a Ukiah chef.
A jury trial promises to be a public spectacle the likes of which have not been seen for many years in the seat of Mendocino County.
Prosecuting the case is Tim Stoen, a longtime deputy district attorney and author, best known for his connection to Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple during the 1970s. His 6-year-old son Jonathan was among the 918 people who died in Guyana in 1978 in a mass suicide ordered by Jones in which they drank poisoned Kool-Aid.
Stoen is expected to argue detectives bungled the initial investigation and the coroner mistakenly ruled the death an accident. He’ll introduce autopsy photos showing two wounds on Susan Keegan’s head consistent with bludgeoning as well as bruises on her forearms suggesting she tried to defend herself.
A Santa Rosa forensic pathologist, Jay Chapman, credited with developing the three-drug protocol for lethal injection, is expected to testify for the prosecution.
“This was, in fact, an assault and a murder and not an accident,” said Mike Geniella, a spokesman for District Attorney David Eyster.
Stoen will face off against another North Coast legal luminary, Santa Rosa attorney Chris Andrian. A criminal lawyer for more than 40 years, Andrian successfully defended Petaluma Dr. Louis Pelfini against charges he smothered his own wife, Janet, in 1999. A judge dismissed the case after video emerged showing the prosecutor had coached a testifying forensic pathologist.
Like Keegan, Pelfini was indicted by a grand jury instead of a through the preliminary hearing process in which both sides are allowed to cross-examine witnesses.
The fact that Eyster chose that route to try Keegan suggests the evidence against him is weak, Andrian said.
“There’s an old saying that you can indict a ham sandwich,” said Andrian, who is expected to seek another dismissal. “My experience tells me if you waited seven years and you go to the grand jury, you’re just trying to appease somebody. You’re trying to get it off your plate.”
But prosecutors counter the 19 grand jurors offered an impartial review after hearing testimony from Keegan, Chapman and others. It took so long to get there because of lapses in the original probe. Now, Keegan, free on a $300,000 bond, will return to court Oct. 20 to enter a not-guilty plea. The 65-year-old physician did not return a call Thursday seeking comment. He is battling cancer, Andrian said.
A trial date has not been set.
The Keegans, both East Coast transplants, arrived in California in the 1970s by motorcycle. They lived in San Francisco before settling in Ukiah where they raised two sons.
Peter Keegan graduated from the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine in 1979 and is a licensed family practitioner and surgeon. Most recently, he was a part-time doctor with the Round Valley Indian Health Clinic in Covelo.
Susan Keegan was born in New York City. She attended Radcliffe College and went to Sonoma State University, where she earned a master’s degree in English literature.