October 16, 2013 - Brandon Twp.- Neighbors of Charles Patrick Leppan in the Clarkston Lakes Mobile Home Park expressed disbelief on Tuesday morning that an accused murderer had been living among them.
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"Are you (expletive) kidding me?" asked a woman who resides on Cherry, upon being informed her neighbor had been arrested for murder. "My kids play with their kids all the time. I've met him, but don't know him. He's quiet and kind of weird. We've talked once or twice with the kids coming over, but never a conversation. That's scary— you don't know who anyone is anymore. That's nuts."
Leppan, 41, was arrested just after noon Oct. 13, in the front yard of his mobile home located in the 3800 block of Cherry, for the 2004 murder of his ex-wife, Jean Lizette Farrias Leppan, 33, of Yucca Valley, Calif.
At Leppan's Cherry address on Tuesday, numerous toys were scattered about, and a small pink bicycle was near the porch. A woman who answered the door identified herself as Leppan's fiancee. When asked if she was aware of Leppan's history, she replied, "He has no reason to lie, he has nothing to hide. He's told me everything and he's being falsely accused."
Leppan has four children with the woman, ages 5 and under, and it is believed he has lived in Michigan since about 2007 and resided in the mobile home park for at least the past two years (much longer than most, noted another neighbor, who adds that he tries to avoid knowing any of his neighbors and the "park is going to hell."). For the past five months, Leppan, known as "Pat" worked from 6 a.m.-10 a.m., four days a week, feeding cows at Cook's Farm Dairy, said Clark Cook, who described Leppan as a "good" employee and "an average guy."
It appears Leppan had crafted a new life in Michigan. But his past caught up to him Sunday with the arrival at his home on Cherry of Detectives Ryan Ford and Jerry Davenport of the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department in California, and San Bernardino Deputy District Attorney John Thomas. They were accompanied by Oakland County Sheriff's Office Detective Bill Baldwin and Deputy Craig Rathbun of the Independence Township substation. Leppan was transported without incident to the Independence substation for an approximately 4-hour interview regarding the murder of Jean Leppan. Following the interview, he was lodged at Oakland County Jail, where he awaits extradition to California to face a first-degree murder charge.
That murder is believed to have taken place around Jan. 26, 2004 in the home Charles Leppan shared with Jean, his ex-wife, in Yucca Valley. The actual date of the murder is difficult to determine because Charles Leppan never reported his ex-wife missing, nor did anyone else.
On May 12, 2004, a man was walking his dog along Ironage Road in a desert area when he discovered a human skull in a shallow grave, just 22 miles east of where Leppan was stationed as a U.S. Marine Corps sergeant at Twentynine Palms. On May 24, a newspaper article reported the found body and its location in the desert. At this time, four months after his ex-wife disappeared, Charles Leppan told police Jean Leppan was missing. A few days later, on May 27, 2004, dental records confirmed the skeletal remains of the adult female with traumatic injuries were those of Jean Leppan. The coroner ruled the death a homicide, although investigators can't disclose what means were used to cause her death.
In initial interviews with police, Leppan said his ex-wife was trying to reconcile with him, while he was trying to kick her out of the home. The couple originally met in Virginia, while Leppan was stationed there. Their marriage lasted only about two or three years and was turbulent. Domestic violence charges were filed in Virginia, and their troubles continued in California. San Bernardino Court records show Leppan filed a domestic violence petition against Jean on April 18, 2002. The case was dismissed and he was ordered to return personal items to Jean, including photos, through a third party. Charles Patrick Leppan filed for divorce on Dec. 18, 2002 and the marriage was dissolved on June 19, 2003. The couple had one child together, a daughter who was 3-years-old at the time of her mother's death.
Heather Hellums was the sister-in-law of "Jeannie." Hellums, a Washington state resident, was married to Leppan's brother, Adam, for two years until their divorce in 2003 and developed a long-distance friendship with her then-sister-in-law.
"She was a very loving mom and didn't want anything but the best for her daughter," said Hellums by phone on Tuesday. "She had said to me that if anything happened to her, 'it was Pat, don't think someone else did it.' She was very afraid."
Hellums said the Leppan family was not close and Jean wasn't close to her family, either.
"She didn't talk about her mom, she had nowhere to go," she said. "Everything really hit the fan for Jean in 2003, she was very scattered and she was really lost. They were trying to get back together and work things out and fighting. She wouldn't tell me what they were fighting about, just that he was very controlling and very angry. One of the family members had their daughter, because they were constantly fighting and moving. It was better for their daughter not to be there... Jeannie was a good person with a kind heart, she was a good mom, and I truly hope her ex-husband pays for what I am certain he did to her... He could have just left her, he didn't have to hurt her. I just really hope that he will be punished. No one has ever spoken for Jeannie, I haven't been able to find anyone who knew her."
Jean Leppan has someone to speak for her now.
Ford said that while the case went cold, it was never fully closed. In 2008 the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department created a cold case team, consisting of Ford, Davenport, and district attorneys John Thomas and Denise Yoakam. The team is funded in part through a $500,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant called "Solving Cold Cases with DNA."
"We flagged this case as important and as a good candidate for reinvestigation using funds from the grant," said Ford, who explains that grant funds are only allowed to be used in cases where there is a strong likelihood of locating DNA profiles.
While DNA testing was available in 2004, Ford said the field has made advances in leaps and bounds every year, with growing knowledge of DNA and test kits that can detect more.
"We can now find a profile today where we couldn't two years ago," said Ford. "In this case, it's an accumulation of different aspects, not just DNA, but new witness statements and analysis of the investigation— who had the most to gain from a person's demise? A search of (Leppan's) house was conducted in 2004 and evidence was collected during our investigation. There has been new, additional evidence since 2004."
On their way to Michigan last week, the San Bernardino cold case team stopped in another state and interviewed Jennifer, the woman Leppan remarried just two weeks after the disappearance of Jean and whom San Bernardino court records show as the woman who filed for divorce again from Leppan on March 1, 2007. She also filed for a personal protection order at that time.
Eight months after reopening the case, District Deputy Attorney John Thomas was the one who made the determination enough evidence, both old and new, had been gathered to determine Charles Patrick Leppan had committed the murder of Jean Leppan beyond a reasonable doubt.
"Most of the witnesses were interviewed back then and there were things we needed to clear up," said Thomas. "A lot of times in cold cases like this one, people break up with significant others and spouses over the years. Back then, him and Jennifer were connected more than they are now."
Thomas noted that the passage of time is not necessarily a detriment to a case.
"Memories don't always fade too much, it depends on the case. Someone who witnesses a murder in front of them will remember all the details years later, whereas if you just see a car and a license plate, you won't remember as much."
Hellums still thinks of her ex-sister-in-law often and it was during a search for information on the case Monday night that she came across the news that Charles Patrick Leppan had been arrested. She notes her ex's family had never told her if Jean had even received a proper burial.
San Bernardino Court records show that in August 2007, a petition was filed to establish Jean Leppan's death, more than three years after the identification of her remains, never claimed by Charles Patrick Leppan. Ford said Jean's father and sister had to petition the court to be named next of kin and to be able to finally take custody of her remains, until that point kept by the coroner.
Now, the cold case team hopes to finally bring the case to a conclusion and find justice for Jean.
"It's a very good thing to have a cold case unit that reviews these cases," said Baldwin of his California colleagues that have more than 700 cold cases in San Bernardino County alone. Oakland County also has detectives that work cold cases, he notes. "With the number of cases to investigate, some things go unanswered because there's not enough evidence at the time, but look at what DNA does. It's nice to know that justice will sooner or later catch up to a person."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville