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In Ukiah, murder is the talk of the town

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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.

She held a number of jobs in the Ukiah area over the years, including reporter, business manager for the Ukiah Players Theater, and an English and business teacher at Mendocino College. She also was community services director of the local chapter of the American Cancer Society. She wrote fiction, sang with a local quartet and acted with the local theater group.

At the time of her death, Keegan, 55, was separated from but remained living with her husband. She was looking forward to starting a new life on her own, said her friend, Mary Pierce, who met with Keegan at her Santa Rosa home the night before she was found dead early on Nov. 11, 2010.

Keegan was upbeat and talking excitedly about being cast in a production of Hamlet, although she revealed her relationship had become emotionally abusive. Some say Peter Keegan lashed out when he learned he would be splitting his assets with her.

Still, she left that night in good spirits, Pierce said.

“I never believed Susan went home and overdosed,” she said. “It was completely out of character for her. She was not a drinker. She was not in any way suicidal.”

The death initially was called “undetermined,” but in August 2012, law enforcement officials declared a continuing investigation had determined it was a homicide.

Susan Keegan died from inhaling vomit, the result of blunt force trauma to the head, according to Mendocino County sheriff’s officials. She had hydrocodone and high levels of alcohol in her body, but they did not cause her death, according to the autopsy. Sheriff’s officials said they had a “person of interest” in mind but no official suspect was named. And Peter Keegan refused steadfastly to cooperate, Geniella said.

Finally, late last month, a grand jury was assembled and prosecutor Stoen presented his case against Keegan behind closed doors. After about a week of testimony, the panel deliberated four or five hours before finding there was probable cause to indict Keegan for second-degree murder, which is a killing without premeditation.He faces a life sentence if convicted.

Keegan, who remarried, is supported by at least one of the couple’s two sons and numerous friends and former patients. Simon Keegan wrote on his father’s Facebook page Aug. 12 that “we, the family, stand steadfast by our father’s side.”

“A lot of people were saddened by my mother’s death,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, many of those people are misguided in their attempt to have ‘justice.’”

But Susan Keegan’s cousin, author Karyn Feiden of New York, believes prosecutors are pursuing the right suspect. She has helped maintain the website, justice4susan.com.

“We waited a very long time for this and were grateful to see it move forward,” Feiden said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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