Man Convicted of Murdering Wife May Owe Coast Guard More Than $400,000 in Search Costs

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This undated file photo provided by the Erie County Department of Corrections in Erie, Pa. shows Christopher Leclair.
This undated file photo provided by the Erie County Department of Corrections in Erie, Pa. shows Christopher Leclair. (Erie County Department of Corrections via AP, File)

One of Erie's most notorious murder cases has led to a request before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but not over the usual issues of guilt, innocence, evidence and legal procedure.

The Erie County District Attorney's Office wants the state's highest court to decide whether Christopher S. Leclair should have to pay the U.S. Coast Guard nearly $425,000 that it spent searching for the body of Leclair's murdered wife, Karen, on Lake Erie in June 2017. He falsely reported that she fell overboard.

First Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Hirz has filed a petition for allowance of appeal, asking the state Supreme Court to hear the case. The request seeks a review of a state Superior Court decision, in July, that said Leclair does not have to pay the Coast Guard.

The state Supreme Court does not have to accept all of the appeal requests it receives, usually deciding to take cases that focus on new or unsettled areas of the law. The Erie County District Attorney's Office believes the restitution question, related to the U.S. Coast Guard and its search for Karen Leclair, represents an issue ripe for appellate review.

"It cannot be disputed that as a direct result of Christopher Leclair's false report of his wife accidentally falling overboard, the USCG suffered substantial loss," Hirz wrote in the appeal petition, filed Aug. 24. "The time, effort and expenditures resulting from his intentional criminal actions created a significant economic impact."

A three-judge panel of the state Superior Court on July 24 upheld Leclair's conviction for first-degree murder and his mandatory sentence of life with no parole.

But in the same opinion, published as precedent, the panel ruled that Leclair does not have to pay restitution to the Coast Guard. The panel determined that the federal agency does not meet the definition of a victim under Pennsylvania law.

The ruling on the restitution overturned the findings of Erie County President Judge John J. Trucilla, who presided over Leclair's trial in 2018, and ordered him to pay $424,180.20 in restitution to the Coast Guard as part of his sentence.

The Superior Court based its decision partly on a ruling issued in October 2019, after Trucilla ruled in the Leclair case. The Superior Court sided with Leclair's court-appointed lawyer, Bruce Sandmeyer, who said the appeals court dealt with an issue never before decided in Pennsylvania -- "whether a federal entity can be a victim."

Christopher Leclair, a commercial fisherman from Albion, most likely would be unable to pay the restitution to the Coast Guard if the courts ordered him to do so, Sandmeyer has said. But a ruling from the state Supreme Court would establish clear rules for restitution to the Coast Guard and other federal entities in other cases.

"To say now the USCG is not a victim," Hirz wrote in the petition, would be inconsistent with Pennsylvania law, including prior rulings from the state Supreme Court.

Leclair, 51, is serving his life sentence at the State Correctional Institution at Albion. A jury in October 2018 found that he fatally shot his wife on June 10, 2017, while the couple were out on the Doris-M, their commercial fishing vessel, and then tied up her body and dropped it into Lake Erie, weighing it down with an anchor.

The next day, Leclair called in a false distress call to the Coast Guard and reported that his wife had fallen overboard into Lake Erie, according to evidence from the trial.

The defense claimed Karen Leclair committed suicide because she could not stand her husband's ongoing affair with another woman, and that Christopher Leclair dumped her body into Lake Erie because he did not want anyone to know she shot herself. Jurors rejected that story and accepted the prosecution's claim that Leclair had planned the killing and intentionally shot his wife.

Christopher Leclair's report that his wife fell off their boat set off a search that lasted nearly 30 hours. Karen Leclair's body was found by a boater about 6 miles off the coast of Dunkirk, New York, on July 4, 2017.

The costs involved in the search included the expenses associated with two C-130 planes -- one from Air Station Elizabeth City, in North Carolina, and the other from the Canadian armed forces -- two Coast Guard helicopters from Air Station Detroit and two boats from the Erie Station.

This article is written by Ed Palattella from Erie Times-News, Pa. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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