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Her family thought her death was a tragic accident. It was years before the truth came out.

Theresa Neubauer was at work 5 years in the past at a Georgia college when she bought a cellphone name that shocked her.

Her son-in-law — a distinguished fertility physician who’d authored or edited a number of medical books — had simply been arrested on suspicion of murder in the mysterious death of her daughter, Susann Sills, 45.

Susann’s physique had been discovered at the backside of a staircase in the couple’s suburban Southern California house in 2016.

Up till that April 2019 cellphone name, Neubauer mentioned, her family hadn’t even recognized that authorities have been investigating the death as suspicious. She’d seen her daughter’s husband, Scott Sills, 59, as a man who’d misplaced his spouse in a tragic accident, she mentioned, and he or she seen herself as his ally as he raised the couple’s twins on his personal.

For extra on the case, tune in to “If These Walls Could Talk” on “Dateline” at 9 ET/8 CT tonight.

“I thought the police were satisfied with the investigation — that he had nothing to do with it and he was this poor single father,” Neubauer advised “Dateline” in her family’s first interview.

“I hadn’t thought of him as a threat in any way,” she mentioned. “It did not enter my mind.”

During Sills’ homicide trial final 12 months, the prosecutor mentioned there had been a violent battle that ended with him strangling his spouse and staging her physique on the staircase. His lawyer attributed the death to an unintentional fall.

Sills was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced in March to fifteen years to life in jail.

At the backside of the stairs

On the morning of Nov. 16, 2016, Sills dialed 911 and mentioned that he’d discovered his spouse’s physique at the backside of the stairs of their house in San Clemente, roughly 60 miles south of Los Angeles.

Susann Sills murder victim (Dateline)Susann Sills murder victim (Dateline)

Susann Sills homicide sufferer (Dateline)

“I don’t have a pulse, and she’s cold,” he advised the 911 operator, in response to audio of the name.

Paramedics arrived minutes later, and Susann was pronounced useless at 6:35 a.m., her death certificates exhibits.

When Sills advised his mother-in-law what occurred in a cellphone name the subsequent day, Neubauer recalled him saying that he’d heard a noise in a single day however didn’t trouble checking since the couple had two canines and 12-year-old twins.

“There’s always noise in the house at night — somebody’s always doing something — so it didn’t concern him,” she recalled Sills saying. “But then in the morning, he found her downstairs.”

Sills advised investigators from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department that he thought his spouse’s death was a tragic results of migraine treatment that will have triggered her to lose her steadiness and tumble down the stairs, investigator Eric Hatch advised “Dateline.”

Neubauer believed her daughter should’ve suffered a sudden and surprising ailment — an aneurysm, maybe — as a result of she had at all times been particularly agile and swish. She’d carried out ballet and gymnastics as a little one, Neubauer mentioned, and as a teenager, she’d been a cheerleader and ran hurdles.

Susann Sills murder victim (Dateline)Susann Sills murder victim (Dateline)

Susann Sills homicide sufferer (Dateline)

As an grownup, Susann — who helped her husband run their fertility clinic, the Center for Advanced Genetics — even made an audition video for the actuality present “Survivor.”

“She never fell,” Neubauer mentioned. “She didn’t even fall when she was a child.”

Neubauer mentioned she wished the detectives to know the way “physically capable” her daughter was. When she associated that data, she mentioned, one in all the investigators responded: “Yes, well, but accidents do happen.”

“Which, of course, is true,” Neubauer mentioned. “I had no reason to think they would not have done a thorough investigation. So I thought it was done and it was over.”

Another investigator trying into the death, Dave Holloway, described their communication with the family as typical for a regulation enforcement investigation: sympathetic however restricted.

“We wouldn’t come right out and tell the family that it was definitely an accident,” he mentioned. “We wouldn’t come out and say it was definitely a murder. We would tell them that we are conducting our investigation because at some point, we may need to ask them questions and we wouldn’t want to prejudice their answers.”

A combat, accidents and a topless photograph 

That meant Susann’s family members have been unaware that investigators discovered doable proof early on indicating that there could possibly be extra to her death than her husband’s concept steered.

In the bed room the place she had slept the night time of her death, the detectives discovered hair and bloodstains on a curtain and baseboard, Hatch mentioned. A preliminary post-mortem confirmed that she suffered a appreciable variety of accidents, together with what gave the impression to be defensive wounds on her arms and a ligature mark throughout her neck, he mentioned.

Her husband additionally had an harm that the detectives discovered suspicious — a fresh-looking laceration on his head that he’d coated with a beanie, Hatch mentioned. When detectives questioned Sills about it, Hatch recalled, he mentioned it had occurred whereas fixing his automotive a few days earlier. He denied realizing something about the blood in the bed room, Hatch mentioned.

Susann Sills murder victim (Dateline)Susann Sills murder victim (Dateline)

Susann Sills homicide sufferer (Dateline)

The investigators additionally discovered proof that there could have been issues in the couple’s relationship. One of their youngsters recalled his dad and mom arguing the night time of Susann’s death, Hatch mentioned, and textual content messages confirmed her telling her husband that she was “trapped” and would “never be free.”

In Sills’ workplace, the detectives discovered a cryptic be aware — a message they later realized was linked to a wager Susann had made on a conservative web site that Donald Trump would win the 2016 presidential election.

When Trump gained, Hatch mentioned, Susann fulfilled her finish of the wager and posted a topless photograph of herself on the web site. The message, which had been printed out and was sitting on Sills’ printer, was in response to her photograph.

“All I’ve got to say is you must have a super cool husband,” the message mentioned.

“That told me that this posting had been on someone’s mind,” Holloway mentioned. “That wasn’t something that just happened to be up there that day.”

When investigators requested Sills about the be aware, he denied printing it and mentioned his spouse had most likely put it there. The argument was about his spouse needing to get relaxation when she wasn’t feeling nicely, Hatch recalled Sills saying, and the texts have been about funds of their enterprise, in response to his lawyer.

A protracted-awaited reason behind death

Despite the detectives’ suspicions about Sills, the coroner was but to find out the trigger or method of his spouse’s death. That course of took a 12 months.

Elise Hatcher, a former Orange County prosecutor who later dealt with the case, attributed the delay to the complexity of the lady’s accidents. With gunshots or stabbings, she advised “Dateline,” the reason behind death is obvious and it’s far simpler for prosecutors to file prices in these instances.

But with Susann, Hatcher mentioned, the case couldn’t transfer ahead till the coroner accomplished in depth testing the ligature marks and her neck construction.

“They’re very methodical,” Hatcher mentioned. “In this case, it took a very long time.”

By November 2017, that testing was lastly full: Susann’s death was a murder, Hatch mentioned. She’d been strangled with a ligature.

Forensic testing confirmed that the blood in the bed room belonged to each the useless lady and her husband, Holloway mentioned. Stains on a shirt that Sills wore in the aftermath of his spouse’s death that he attributed to chocolate milk have been truly her blood, Holloway mentioned, and his blood was discovered below her fingernails.

While a toxicology evaluation discovered ache treatment in Susann’s system, there didn’t look like sufficient to have an effect on her steadiness, in response to the report.

As the investigators labored 

Susann’s family members had no concept about the coroner’s findings. Nor was her mom conscious of any issues in the couple’s relationship. Neubauer mentioned she spoke with her daughter weekly, and the solely points Susann’s associated to her about her husband have been minor.

“If there was a problem there, she never brought it up,” Neubauer mentioned. “And she was not the meek kind of person.”

Susann Sills murder victim (Dateline)Susann Sills murder victim (Dateline)

Susann Sills homicide sufferer (Dateline)

After Susann’s death, Neubauer mentioned, she’d remained in contact with Sills about the twins and located they labored nicely collectively. For a trip to the Caribbean along with his spouse’s family, Sills up to date the twins’ passports, stuffed out all the paperwork for diving courses and “seemed very happy about it,” she mentioned.

“He did nothing to prevent them from coming out and being with us,” she mentioned.

For Sills, life continued as if he weren’t the topic of a murder investigation.

Sympathetic neighbors mentioned they organized prayers and meal drop-offs whereas Sills continued to lift their twins at the house the place his spouse died. He appeared on a Las Vegas radio present to debate the risks of a now-discontinued contraception system, and he labored on a new ebook, “Ovarian Reboot: A Personal Journey to Hormone & Fertility Renewal.”

The detectives, in the meantime, had returned to Sills and interviewed him once more about the outcomes from the coroner and the forensics testing. He was cooperative, Hatch mentioned, however “he didn’t have an answer. He continued to deny that he had anything to do with Susann’s death — that it was an accident or she fell down the stairs.”

Although the investigation hadn’t uncovered a clear motive, investigators believed Sills was accountable in the homicide of his spouse and forwarded their findings to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. Hatcher, the prosecutor assigned to the case, mentioned that by the time she reviewed the two containers of proof, it had been roughly two years since Susann’s death.

“I felt very disturbed for the family and for Susann that it took so long to get to the bottom of it,” Hatcher mentioned. “But by the time I reviewed it, there was enough there.”

Dr. Eric Scott Sills trial for murder e. scott sills fertility dr (Paul Bersebach / MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images file)Dr. Eric Scott Sills trial for murder e. scott sills fertility dr (Paul Bersebach / MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images file)

Dr. Eric Scott Sills trial for homicide e. scott sills fertility dr (Paul Bersebach / MediaNews Group/Orange County Register by way of Getty Images file)

Hatcher mentioned she came to consider there had been a violent battle in the bed room the place the blood was discovered. That battle ended with Sills strangling his spouse and staging her physique on the stairs, she mentioned.

His lawyer, Jack Earley, maintained that Susann’s death was from an unintentional fall and mentioned the ligature marks could have come from her canines tightly pulling a scarf that had been discovered round her neck.

On April 25, 2019, as Sills drove to work, undercover deputies pulled him over and arrested the physician on suspicion of homicide.

Hatcher alerted Neubauer to the information, and 5 years later — after Covid-related delays — she was in courtroom when her son-in-law went on trial. A jury convicted Sills of second-degree homicide.

“Initially, there’s a moment of relief,” she mentioned, recalling what it was like to listen to the responsible verdict. “And then after that — but there’s no Susann. And there never will be.”

This article was initially printed on NBCNews.com

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