How Not To Get Away With Murder: Melanie Maguire And Floating Suitcases
Any good true crime story takes us on a stroll down the darkest alleys of the human mind; to put ourselves in the mind of a killer and try to figure out how they did it and why. And then there are stories like this one, where every answer we seek about the killer’s motives and plans for getting away with it only leaves us with more questions, and nearly all of those questions are “Wait, what the hell?!?”
The case of Melanie Maguire and the murder of her husband Bill is truly a senseless tragedy, in that absoultely no part of this case makes a damn bit of sense. There are no reasons, real or imagined, that could possibly justify any part of this murder. And every theory over motive seemed to fall apart because A) every action could’ve been resolved a thousand times better by literally doing anything else, and B) Melanie always had a completely bs yet technically plausible alibi. So, let’s climb this mountain of circumstantial evidence together, shall we?
The Three Suitcases
On May 5, 2004, two fishermen found a Kenneth Cole suitcase floating near the fourth artificial island of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, and they did what anyone should do when a piece of luggage is found floating around in any body of water: They called the police.
Let that be your first takeaway from this story. If you ever discover any strange piece of luggage floating in the water, you don’t need to find out for yourself what’s in it. Just call the cops, tell them where you found it, and be very clear that you do not want to know what they find inside. And if someone tries to inform you of its contents, you’re well within your rights to plug your fingers in your ears and shout LA-LA-LA-LA-CAN’T-HEAR-YOU!!!
That being said, inside the suitcase was a set of human legs cut off at the knees, wrapped in blue towels and black trash bags. See?!? If you were in that situation where you found a floating suitcase, how much better would you feel not knowing what was inside? Because now, not only are you left to grapple with the mental image of severed legs but you’re also burdened with the mystery of what happened to the rest of the guy.
Well, six days later, on May 11, a birdwatcher found a matching suitcase washed ashore on Fisherman’s Island 16 miles away at the end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Inside that suitcase, police found most of the rest of the body: The head, arms, and torso, detached at the waist. The good news is that police now had the parts that will best help them identify the victim. The bad news is, they now can deduce that there’s at least one more matching suitcase out there containing… let’s just say the “swim trunk area.”
May 16: One more Kenneth Cole suitcase was found, this time floating in the bay near one of the Bridge-Tunnel’s other islands, and inside was the victim’s midsection. By then, police had informed the public about the other two suitcases, so the fisherman who found this one had a pretty clear idea of what to expect and no doubt just gestured the police in the third suitcase’s general direction.
On May 21, Virginia Beach, VA. police released a composite sketch of the victim’s face. A woman in Chesapeake, VA. identified the victim as her husband’s friend, 39-year-old William “Bill” McGuire of Woodbridge Township, New Jersey. So, now that police knew who the victim was and where he came from, their next step was to try and figure out how he ended up in three separate suitcases 300 miles away from his home.
The Happy(?) Couple
Bill McGuire and his wife Melanie had been married for five years and had two children, who were four and two at the time. Bill had been working as a computer programmer, and she was a nurse at a fertility clinic. The day before Bill had disappeared, the couple had closed on a $450,000 mortgage on a new house. Many people in their lives would claim that the couple seemed to have a happy marriage. Of course, we all recognize this as the part of the true-crime documentary where the music starts getting ominous, and the camera slowly zooms in on the wedding photos as everything fades to a very grainy black and white.
By the time investigators had first spoken to Melanie about what had happened to her husband, it had been nearly a month since she had last seen him. According to Melanie, they had gotten into a furious argument on April 29, where she claimed that he had slapped her and stuffed a dryer sheet in her mouth. After she locked herself in the bathroom with her children, she heard Bill angrily pack some belongings and storm out of their apartment. She hadn’t seen him since.
The following day, Melanie applied for a restraining order against her husband, which goes to explain why she never filed a missing person report. Filing both would have sent a bit of a mixed message; like, do you want the guy to come back or not? But as investigators dug deeper to figure out how Bill McGuire went from storming out on his family to being in three separate suitcases floating in Chesapeake Bay, a lot of what they found tied straight back to Melanie McGuire. She quickly became the prime suspect, and she always had an explanation for nearly everything. The problem was those explanations only led to more questions, and most of those questions were, “Wait, what?!?”
The First Clues
The homicide investigation started to take its first strange turn when they located Bill McGuire’s car in a police impound lot. On May 8, 2004, the car had been towed to the lot after it was reported abandoned at the Flamingo Motel in Atlantic City, 100 miles from his home. This wasn’t exactly out of character for Bill. He had reportedly had a bit of a gambling problem, and would frequently come to Atlantic City to play blackjack.
Only Bill McGuire had not checked into that motel. When detectives looked at security footage they found that on April 30, someone had parked the car at the motel and simply walked away. The footage was too grainy to positively identify the mystery driver. About the best they could tell is it was not Bill McGuire.
So, investigators decided to look into the E-ZPass account on the car to see if Bill’s car had been scanned on any toll roads. This was New Jersey, after all. The state is practically one giant turnpike. They had found that Bill and Melanie were on a joint account, but it was her travel history that caught their eye. Not only had Melanie’s car been charged a total of $.90 on the Atlantic City Expressway on the day her husband disappeared, but there were records that someone had called in twice to have those specific charges removed.
But Melanie could explain that. She admitted that she had driven to Atlantic City to move his car as a “prank.” Okay … a few problems here: First, it’s more than a bit suspicious to pull that kinda prank on the same day she filed a restraining order on the guy, right? Second, a three-hour round trip just to move a guy’s car is some serious commitment to a practical joke. But most importantly, who the hell was watching her kids while this was going down?
In an interview with 20/20 in 2020 (man, it felt weird typing that out), Melanie spoke about the car moving incident, saying, “It sounds beyond ridiculous sitting here saying it, and I acknowledge that … It’s the truth.” And as for the calls to remove the charges, she stated, “I panicked. I absolutely tried to have those charges taken off because I feared that people would look and think what they ultimately ended up thinking.”
But … if she knew the E-ZPass charges would look suspicious, then she should’ve known trying to cancel them would look even more sus-- Man, this investigation has barely started and I already need aspirin.
Evidence Was Piling Up
Despite the level of decomposition, forensic pathologists were able to determine that Bill McGuire was killed from as many as four gunshot wounds. One .38 caliber bullet was found inside the body. More specifically, it was a wadcutter bullet commonly used for shooting paper targets. The bullet also had green fibers attached to it; thick polyester fibers that are used for furniture upholstery. Investigators speculated that perhaps a throw pillow was used to muffle the gunshot.
Detectives started looking into gun registries to see if anyone in Bill McGuire’s life might have owned a .38 caliber handgun. When they found no matches in New Jersey, they started looking into neighboring states, and in Pennsylvania, they discovered that a Taurus .38 revolver was purchased two days before Bill went missing, and on the receipt for the gun there was also an item sold for $9.95. Only two items in the store were listed at that price, and one of them was a box of .38 wadcutter bullets. The gun store owner confirmed the identity of the buyer as, you guessed it, Melanie McGuire.
And of course, Melanie could explain. She claimed that she had purchased the gun for her husband. According to her, Bill wanted to carry a gun for protection, but was unable to purchase one for himself due to a felony conviction on his record (he was apparently a really bad driver). What happened to the gun from there, she couldn’t/wouldn’t say. Plot convenience strikes again.
As for the fibers on the bullet, the McGuires did own a green couch, and Bill’s sister later testified in court that the couch did have green throw pillows, but no such pillows were found in the home. In fact, no evidence was found in the home. There was no trace of any blood, no gunshot residue, nothing. They didn’t specifically say that no one was murdered in the house, they just said that if someone was killed in there, the killer did an amazing job at cleaning up.
Melanie McGuire quickly found herself facing a Mt. Everest size pile of circumstantial evidence against her, but she kept finding new and inventive plot armor in her side of the story. Her E-ZPass records pinged her car traveling through Delaware five days after Bill’s disappearance (and one day before the first suitcase was found), and the road the car was on not only led to Chesapeake Bay, but also passed by several waterways that emptied into the bay. Plenty of convenient opportunities along that path to dump three suitcases into the drink, but Melanie explained that she was merely going furniture shopping.
Forensics was able to determine that garbage bags from the house “matched” the bags the body parts were wrapped in inside the suitcases… in that all of the bags were manufactured at the same facility within hours of each other. As for the suitcases themselves, Melanie admitted she and her husband owned a set of those same suitcases, but Bill could’ve used them when he packed up before storming out of the house that fateful day.
As more and more evidence started popping up, Melanie McGuire had a harder time trying to find excuses. When investigators started combing through the internet search history on the home computer, they found things like “How to purchase guns illegally,” “Undetectable poisons,” searches for various sedatives. and unbelievably enough, “How to commit murder.”
But Here’s Where it Really Starts to Get Weird
But then, investigators started finding evidence that Melanie could not brush off. Towels found in the suitcases with the body parts were traced back to the clinic Melanie worked for. Forensics found tiny traces of Bill’s flesh in her car; little specks of bone and muscle that were colorfully described by the media as “human sawdust.”
While searching Bill’s abandoned car, they found a tiny bottle of chloral hydrate, a sedative used to induce sleep before surgery, along with two syringes. The bottle was traced back to a prescription that was picked up at a Walgreens near the daycare the McGuire children attended. They were not able to determine if Melanie had been the one to pick up the prescription, but the prescription itself came from Dr. Bradley Miller… Melanie’s boss at the clinic… and the two had been having an affair for the past four years.
Only Dr. Miller had not filled out that prescription. When questioned about it, he did not recognize the signature as his own, but he did recognize the other handwriting as Melanie’s. Miller was adamant that he had nothing to do with Bill McGuire’s murder, and he even volunteered to wear a wire and testify against Melanie.
The only problem was, even in private conversations, Melanie was being equally evasive. She had been promising Dr. Miller for years that she was going to leave her husband so they could finally be together. But seeing as Bill and Melanie had just entered into a $450,000 mortgage on a new house, that idea now seemed like even more of a long shot. But Melanie had told Miller that the new house was just a way to put all of the couple’s assets into an investment that could be split in the divorce instead of a sum of money Bill might piss away playing blackjack.
This is what made establishing a motive for the murder even harder for investigators. If Melanie wanted to start a new life with her lover, why would she implicate him in her husband’s murder in the crime by using his prescription pad and towels from his clinic? She surely didn’t kill her husband for the money because A) there wasn’t a life insurance policy and B) the couple had just put themselves in a half-million dollars of debt… with interest.
Really, the only two people who could say for certain what truly happened were Melanie McGuire and Bill McGuire. Bill wasn’t talking, and all that Melanie could give were excuses. Although practically none of the evidence directly tied Melaine to her husband’s murder, all of the indirect evidence combined supported a strong enough case to charge her with first-degree murder. But right after Melanie was released on bail, police started receiving anonymous letters from someone claiming to be the real killer. Odd timing, but here we go…
The letters were written by someone who claimed to be a co-worker of Bill McGuire’s sister, Cindy. The letters contained details about the murder that were not released to the public, and one letter was included with a package that included items related to the case, including Bill’s wedding ring, an empty box of the same ammunition used in the murder, and a key to Bill’s car. The letter also stated these items were found in the trash at Cindy’s office.
Police traced the package and found that it had been paid for with a prepaid American Express gift card. They later found that the gift card was purchased at a pharmacy, and security footage showed a woman who kinda looked like Melanie but wasn’t clear enough to make a positive I.D. Her attorneys tried to argue that Melanie had nothing to do with the letters, but it ended up adding a charge of perjury to her CVS receipt of problems.
All things considered, if Melanie McGuire wasn’t the killer, it must’ve been a wizard from another dimension. And her defense team attempted everything short of subpoenaing Dr. Strange to prove option B. Their efforts were ultimately futile because the jury found Melanie McGuire guilty of first-degree murder, desecrating human remains, possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, and perjury. Bright side, though… She was acquitted on her other charges of possession of Xanax without a prescription, tampering with evidence, and two counts of hindering apprehension.
But before her sentence could be handed down, Melanie and her lawyers filed an appeal for a new trial based on a prison informant who claimed that Bill McGuire was actually killed by Atlantic City mobsters due to his gambling debts. This story was quickly debunked because the informant had been found to have a history of fabricating stories to try to gain favor with authorities. I guess when it comes to pathological liars, game recognizes game.
With her appeal request withdrawn, Melanie McGuire was sentenced to life plus five years and would be eligible for parole after 66 years. So, she has a good chance of getting out of jail just in time for her 101st birthday. Until then, she continues to maintain her innocence.
Dan Fritschie is a writer, comedian, and frequent over-thinker. He can be found on Twitter, and he thanks you for your time.
Top image: Alexandre Rotenberg/Shutterstock