Mother of three admits conspiring with young lover to kill husband
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
By the end of the hour-long proceeding Tuesday, a West Goshen woman had pleaded guilty to the first-degree murder of her husband more than two years ago, and most of the crowded courtroom was either sobbing or fighting back tears.
The proceeding – on the day the second trial of Morgan M. Mengel had been scheduled to start – marked the end of an emotional roller coaster for the family and friends of Kevin Mengel Jr. The 33-year-old landscaper and devoted father, was fatally bludgeoned on June 17, 2010, after an effort to poison him by spiking his favorite Snapple failed.
Both the prosecutor and the judge said in their collective 70 years of criminal law, Mengel’s case stood out for its depravity, Decrying the loss of society’s moral compass, Senior Judge Thomas G. Gavin called the 37-year-old defendant’s actions “beyond my ability to comprehend.” Chief Deputy District Attorney Patrick Carmody likened her to Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth – without the guilt.
Before Gavin imposed the sentence – first-degree murder carries a mandatory life term – Carmody presented the facts of the case, a requirement that typically takes a few minutes. Outlining the convolutions that led to Mengel’s arrest and conviction took more than 15 minutes.
Carmody explained that Kevin Mengel’s family became worried that he had met with foul play when he failed to show up for a Father’s Day celebration and they began receiving text messages from him that sounded as if they were written by someone else. Kevin Mengel was already dead, Carmody said, the victim of a conspiracy between his wife and her young lover, Stephen Shappell, 23, a worker at the Mengels’ landscaping business in West Goshen Township.
Morgan Mengel was sending the texts to keep relatives from getting suspicious and contacting police, an effort that failed, Carmody said. Even worse, she blamed Kevin Mengel’s “disappearance” on her mother-in-law, and she had the couple’s three children, who were 6, 10, and 12 at the time, send Father’s Day messages to their dad, he said. Carmody said she was also texting Shappell, communication that ultimately gave investigators a “play-by-play of the murder.”
According to Carmody, the case was replete with examples of Morgan Mengel’s heartlessness. He said Shappell would have testified that she scurried around her husband’s body without emotion as she cleaned up the murder scene and joked about becoming a spokesperson for Snapple . The day she and Shappell planned to skip town, she lied to get childcare but left her sleeping children without even saying goodbye.
By now, detectives were a step ahead, Carmody said. When the couple stopped at the landscaping business, authorities were waiting. As Morgan Mengel talked to one officer, Shappell sped off but was subsequently apprehended in Colorado. He will be sentenced at a later date to a 40- to 80-year prison term.
The deceit did not end once the defendants were behind bars, Carmody said. Morgan Mengel tried to use Shappell’s interest in having a family to her advantage. She lied that she was pregnant with his twins in prison, and even sent him a bogus birth announcement with names and weights, hoping to persuade him to take the rap so she could raise their children, Carmody said.
Evocative victim-impact statements followed Carmody’s recitation. Kevin Mengel’s parents, Kathleen Barton and Kevin Mengel Sr.; his sister, Michele Hopkins; and his brother, Chris Mengel, each read statements, and poignant letters submitted by each of the victim’s children were also read. All described the horrific loss of someone who was passionately committed to his family. About 40 friends and relatives surrounded Kevin Mengel’s parents in the courtroom; Morgan Mengel’s mother was accompanied by half a dozen supporters.
“…You accused me of chasing him away because I called the police,” Barton said, addressing Morgan Mengel. “All that Kevin wanted was for all of us to be together. He wanted his children to know the feeling of family.” Barton said that thanks to supportive relatives, her son’s children “are loved and they know it. It is wonderful that Kevin’s dream came true, but sad that we will not share it with him.”
Kevin Mengel Sr. called the defendant “heartless, cold-blooded and compassionless.” He said he was unable to fathom how Morgan Mengel could do what she did and show no remorse. He said his son’s love would help the family heal. “Because while you have taken Kevin from our lives, he will always live on with us in our hearts and in our memories of what a special person he was,” he said.
The defendant, wearing a black suit and white shirt, her hair in a high ponytail, had her attorney speak in her behalf. Jack McMahon said his client asked him to read a prepared statement because she feared she would become too distraught. In the statement, she said the only way to express her remorse was to accept responsibility for “leaving a hole in the Mengel family.”
“I’m hoping that by being held accountable today for my actions that we’re all able to move forward,” the letter said.
Gavin sentenced her to the mandatory life term for first-degree murder and added 20 years of consecutive probation for the conspiracy charge. “I am incapable of understanding the degree to which people can be cruel,” the judge said, calling the crime “an act beyond my ability to comprehend.”
As deputy sheriffs ushered Morgan Mengel from the courtroom, she passed right in front of her husband’s family, avoiding eye contact with them.
After the proceeding, Carmody said that referring to the case as a love triangle was inaccurate. “It’s not a love triangle because Morgan Mengel only loved herself,” he said. “I think the evidence was overwhelming that Morgan Mengel had set up her lover to take the fall.”
Kevin Mengel’s family scoffed at her alleged remorse, pointing out that she could have entered a guilty plea more than two years ago and spared the family from multiple hearings. They expressed thanks to Carmody, Assistant District Attorney Deborah S. Ryan, West Goshen Police – especially Sgt. Michael Carroll and Detectives David Maurer and Darren Sedlak- the Crime Victims Center, and everyone who helped them through their ordeal, which included a mistrial a year ago. Gavin ruled that a comment attributed to Morgan Mengel’s father that she “could be despicable” tainted the jury.
“We find some comfort and peace in knowing that she will never spend another day outside of prison,” Kevin Mengel Sr. said. He said the family underestimated “how awful and despicable she can be – as her own father described her.”