Cynthia McDonnell: Murder, She Wrote (Badly)

DeLani R. Bartlette
4 min readNov 1, 2020
Cynthia McDonnell. Image courtesy of Michigan State Dept. of Corrections.

New Year’s Eve, 1998. Just outside Traverse City, Michigan: A call came in to the 911 system. On the other end, a hysterical woman kept shouting, “Oh my god, he’s dead! He’s dead!”

The woman was Cynthia McDonnell. She told the 911 dispatcher that her husband, Dan, had been shot in a robbery.

Indeed, when the Leelanau County deputies arrived, they found Dan face-down in a pool of blood on his bed, still in his striped pajamas. His left arm was underneath his body, and his right arm was at his side, as though he had been sleeping. He had a single .38-caliber bullet wound in the back of his head. All the cash had been taken out of his wallet. The weapon was nowhere to be found.

Police questioned Cynthia and the couple’s daughter, Erin. The two had gone into town to go shopping, where they had been all morning. They had the receipts to prove it.

But there was a plothole in Cynthia’s story: police could find no evidence of forced entry. And there was another strange clue: a bullet hole surrounded by gunpowder burns on a pillow next to Dan’s head.

The next day, Cynthia called the police. Between sobs, she confessed that she had lied about Dan’s manner of death. She explained that she had found him dead earlier that morning. He had committed suicide, she said, and had left her a note instructing her to stage the scene to make it look like a robbery. She said this was because Dan wanted his family to collect on his $300,000 life insurance policy — which would have been void if he committed suicide. She said she did as he instructed, tearing up the note and flushing it down the toilet, then cleaning off the gun and taking it with her before joining their daughter for a morning of shopping. She told police she ditched the gun in a field before they returned home.

She said Dan had killed himself because he was devastated about something extremely personal. He had survived prostate cancer, she said, but the surgery had rendered him impotent.

This new story seemed even more contrived than the first, so police began looking into the couple’s background.

The two had been married in 1975, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Dan had been a police officer in Albuquerque at the time. In fact, he had been hailed as a local hero for entering a flaming automobile in order to try and save the woman inside. He also worked as the lead investigator into a sex scandal within the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

Later the family would move to Rye, New York, where Dan continued to serve on the police force as a detective sergeant.

They eventually moved to Bingham Township, Michigan, where Dan was enjoying his retirement. Friends and family insisted Dan would never kill himself, and in fact had been making plans for his daughter’s upcoming birthday, and that he was planning on buying a fishing boat.

Cynthia listed her occupation as “freelance writer,” though not a successful one — no one has been able to find anything she’s published. She was also working on a murder mystery novel and had purchased several books on forensics specifically for writers. The night before Dan’s death, she had even bragged to friends at a party that she was writing the “perfect murder,” and that she could murder someone and the police would be too stupid to catch her.

The couple’s two children — daughter Erin and son Patrick — told police their parents’ marriage had been rocky for some time. They said Cynthia often insulted and berated Dan for his impotence, even in front of the children.

Then investigators began looking into the couple’s finances. Things did not look good — more money was going out than was coming in. Cynthia, specifically, had been spending large amounts of money on big-ticket items like computers and new furniture.

They also found out Dan had recently been subpoenaed. The bank was demanding answers about a trust fund he managed for a disabled relative. Apparently, money was being withdrawn from the account on an almost daily basis, totaling $50,000. When investigators looked at the ATM security footage, it showed Cynthia — and only Cynthia — withdrawing the money.

There was one final clue that made all the pieces fit into place. On the morning of Dan’s shooting, Patrick had been staying at a friend’s house. Erin had been in the shower and remembered her mother coming in to check on her several times — and, at one point, turning the radio up. She said that she had heard something like a car backfiring, but thought nothing of it at the time.

Cynthia McDonnell was arrested in April of 1999 and charged with first-degree murder. She pled not guilty.

Her trial began in February of 2000. Her defense was to stick to her story that Dan had committed suicide and that she had tried to cover it up. She even had one expert witness testify that it was possible that Dan could have shot himself in the back of the head and through a pillow.

But that could not explain how his right hand had no gunshot residue or blood spatter on it.

The jury deliberated for seven hours before coming back with a guilty verdict. At her sentencing hearing, daughter Erin urged the court to give her mother to the maximum sentence under law. Cynthia was given the mandatory minimum sentence for first-degree murder: life without possibility of parole. She is serving her sentence in Level II security in the Huron Valley Complex in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

The .38 revolver has never been recovered.