A fertility doctor strangled his wife and then staged her body to make it look like she had a fatal fall down the stairs in their San Clemente home, a prosecutor told jurors on Tuesday, Nov. 28, at the outset of the doctor’s murder trial.
Dr. Eric Scott Sills, now 58, has denied that the 2016 death of Susann Sills, 45, was the result of foul play. His defense attorney argued during opening statements in a Santa Ana courtroom that the death was a tragic accident and accused investigators of wrongly focusing on Dr. Sills.
The couple was married for more than 10 years and worked together at the Center for Advanced Genetics, a fertility clinic in Carlsbad. He handled the medical work while she ran the business side. The Sills had twins, a boy and girl who were 12 years old at the time of their mother’s death.
On the morning of Nov. 13, 2016, Dr. Sills called 911, reporting that he and his daughter had awoken to find Susann Sills’ injured body at the bottom of the stairs after an apparent fall. In a 911 call that was played in court on Tuesday, Dr. Sills referred to Susann as a “patient,” not his wife, wording a prosecutor said shows him feeling detached and unemotional but that the defense attorney countered was actually him going into “doctor mode.”
Arriving paramedics quickly determined she was dead.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker told an Orange County Superior Court jury that the “substantial injuries” Susann Sills had on her face and neck didn’t match up to what she would have suffered in such a fall.
Susann Sills’ cause of death was determined to be strangulation, the prosecutor said, and investigators came to believe that the doctor had “squeezed the life out of” his wife and then tried to cover up the slaying. After a lengthy investigation that included multiple rounds of DNA testing, the doctor was arrested in April 2019.
The prosecutor said she wouldn’t be able to prove to jurors the exact motive for the death. But she noted there was evidence of strife in the marriage.
After losing a bet in a chat room over whether Donald Trump would win the Republican nomination for president, Susann Sills paid off by posting a topless photo of herself. A printout of an exchange she had with a chat member about whether the posted photo would upset her husband was found by a printer in the doctor’s office after her death.
Also, Susann Sills had texted her husband that she “wants out,” the prosecutor said.
“She is frustrated, upset, feels trapped and feels like he is killing her,” Walker told jurors. “She tells him in these texts, ‘You are killing me, don’t you see?’ “
The weekend of her death, Susann Sills was suffering from a migraine headache and sleeping in her daughter’s room. The couple’s son told police that he woke up around 4 a.m. to the sounds of his parents arguing — including yelling and screaming — in the girl’s room. The prosecutor noted that the estimated time of Susann Sills’ death was around 5 a.m., more than an hour and a half before the 911 call.
Bloodstains were found on curtains and a wall in the daughter’s bedroom and matched to both the doctor and his wife. A clump of the wife’s hair was also found in the room, Walker said.
“The blood and the hair shows this victim fighting for her life,” the prosecutor said.
Eric Sills’ attorney, Jack Earley, flatly denied the doctor killed his wife.
The defense attorney told jurors that a combination of medications she was taking in the midst of her migraine likely impacted her balance.
“None of this stuff was staged,” the defense attorney said. “None of it was planned. What happened was a horrible accident.”
Earley argued that Susann Sills suffered a spinal injury in the fall that left her unable to breathe. And he added that DNA belonging to the family’s two large, playful dogs indicated that they tugged on a scarf that Susann Sills was wearing as she was slumped unconscious at the bottom of the stairs, explaining the injuries to her neck.
“I’m not blaming the dogs for anything,” Earley said. “They are just dogs. They do what dogs do. They like to tug on things.”
Earley questioned the work of the pathologist, noting it took her a year to reach a conclusion about the cause of Susann Sills’ death. The defense attorney said the pathologist backed away from initial findings that the wife’s injuries could be consistent with a fall after meetings with police investigators who suspected foul play.
The defense attorney also told jurors that the lost bet and picture posted of the wife online wasn’t a secret to the family, noting that the doctor had offered to take the photograph. And he described the comments Susann Sills made in the texts as an example of an outburst of anger when she was frustrated during another migraine episode.
The couple had arguments, Earley acknowledged, including during times when money was tight; the doctor paid alimony to an ex-wife who he shared two other children with.
But, the defense attorney said, there was no history of violence and they were considered a happy, tight-knit family by those who knew them.
Sills has been free on $1 million bail since just after his arrest.
Source: Orange County Register