Fisherman charged in wife's lake killing despite no body

Joe Mandak
Associated Press

A commercial fisherman's story about his wife disappearing into the depths of Lake Erie on a boating trip isn't adding up, and Pennsylvania authorities believe they know why.

They say he's the one who put her there.

This undated photo provided by the Erie County Department of Corrections in Erie, Pa., shows Christopher Leclair, a commercial fisherman jailed on a charge of criminal homicide in the presumed death of Karen Leclair, his wife of nearly 26 years. Karen Leclair's body has not been found since Christopher Leclair reported June 11, 2017, that she fell overboard from his commercial fishing boat. Christopher Leclair's attorney Bruce Sandmeyer said his client "is continuing to assert his innocence." (Erie County Department of Corrections via AP)

Christopher Leclair, 48, is jailed on a charge of criminal homicide in the presumed death of his wife of nearly 26 years, Karen, whose body has not been found.

Leclair told authorities he and his wife were on a trip Sunday, June 11, on his 52-foot craft, the Doris-M, when she got a queasy stomach and decided to sit on a bucket perched on the side. He said when he glanced over to check on her 15 minutes later, she was gone, having apparently fallen overboard. He then contacted the Coast Guard.

Two days later, a review of surveillance video from the Erie-Western Pennsylvania Port Authority led state police to arrest Leclair. The video showed he got on the boat alone that Sunday at a dock in Erie, Pennsylvania. The same dock cameras, however, showed Leclair getting on the boat with his wife the day before — and returning hours later without her.

The Coast Guard spent more than $600,000 on a 30-hour search that covered about 1,400 square miles. They officially declared Leclair's 51-year-old wife dead. Investigators believe her body is still in the lake.

Investigators are considering "the possibility he weighted it down with nets," state police Lt. Wayne Kline told The Associated Press.

The surveillance video strongly suggests Karen Leclair's body is in the lake, Kline said. "If that's not the case, you know, why wouldn't he talk to us? If he dropped her off on another dock or whatever, he surely would be more cooperative," Kline said.

Leclair's attorney, Bruce Sandmeyer, said his client "is continuing to assert his innocence." He wouldn't address the discrepancy between Leclair's account of her disappearance and the dock video.

A commercial fisherman’s story about his wife disappearing into the depths of Lake Erie on a boating trip isn’t adding up, and Pennsylvania authorities say they know why. They believe Christopher Leclair is the one who put her there. Leclair is jailed on a charge of criminal homicide in Erie County in the presumed death of Karen Leclair, his wife of nearly 26 years.  (Christopher Millette /Erie Times-News via AP)

Leclair faces a preliminary hearing July 31 at which prosecutors must show they have enough evidence for the case to go to trial.

Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri said it's possible to prosecute a homicide case without a body, though it's unusual and something he's not had to do since taking office almost eight years ago.

"If you don't have a body, you're going to have to have a strong circumstantial case," he said.

The prosecutor and Kline believe they do, including other statements from Christopher Leclair that also don't jibe, according to police affidavits filed with search warrants and criminal complaints.

Christopher Leclair acknowledged he's been having an affair with a 44-year-old woman from the couple's hometown of Albion, Pennsylvania, for several months. That woman, on probation for illegally possessing prescription painkillers last year, told police that Leclair spent the night with her June 10 into 11. That contradicted Leclair's statement that the last time he saw and had sex with the woman was Friday night, June 9, and that he spent the next night with his wife before their ill-fated voyage June 11, the affidavits said.

Leclair's girlfriend also told police he mentioned a $30,000 life insurance policy on his wife when Leclair had pizza with the woman and her children at a restaurant about two months ago. On the morning of June 11, Leclair spoke to his girlfriend about moving into his house before he left for his boat that day, she told police.

Police have since seized three cellphones belonging to the Leclairs and the girlfriend, as well as a tablet computer and the GPS from his fishing boat.

Kline wouldn't detail what's been found except that GPS records suggest the boat was stationary for 30 to 40 minutes the afternoon police believe Karen Leclair really disappeared into the lake. A New York State Police dive team has since helped search for her body but found nothing in waters that are typically 50 to 70 feet (15 to 21 meters) deep, Kline said.

Prosecutors are still proceeding with their case. "We wouldn't have filed the charge if we weren't confident we could prove it," Daneri said.