It was around 3:40PM on Valentine’s Day of 2013 when police in Peoria, Illinois, received a report of a burglary. They arrived at the home on W. Mossville Road to investigate and found the lifeless body of 39-year-old Denise Leuthold just inside the front door. She had been killed with a single gunshot wound to the head.
Denise lived at the home with her husband, Nathan Leuthold, three children and parents. They had just recently returned to the Peoria area from Lithuania. Denise was a Baptist missionary and her family had very close ties to the church, with Nathan having delivered a sermon at Crossroads back in October 2012 for revival month.
In fact, Denise and Nathan had served as missionaries in Lithuania since 1998.1 They had divided much of the past 15 years between the United States and Lithuania, where they travelled throughout the country starting churches and taking part in Christian outreach efforts.
Police asked the public not to panic but exercise caution and report anything suspicious. “Lock your doors. Lock your windows. Pay attention to strangers in your area or strange cars,” said Police Chief Steve Settingsgaard.2
By all appearances, Denise’s murder was a robbery gone wrong and fear swept throughout the community. If somebody was willing to kill a stranger during a burglary then what’s to say they wouldn’t do it again? “If it’s really a burglary went wrong and a 39-year-old woman lost her life, that’s cause for concern, and police need to make that clear,” said one local.3
Fearing that a killer was in the midst, District 323 administrators placed a “soft lockdown” on all schools in the area. This included the locking of all doors, banning outside recess and closing classroom doors through the day. Police would attempt to dispel the fears of the community by stating: “I want the public to be assured we are working on this case feverishly.”
Meanwhile, Denise’s funeral was held at Cornerstone Baptist Church. Her pastor would remember her as a “kind-hearted” and “sweet-spirited” woman. He described her as an embodiment of Christian values, stating: “She was a very kind, compassionate, godly lady.”4
The 911 call had come in from Nathan, who had just returned home at around 3:15PM, with their youngest child. He entered the home through the garage door and after he saw broken glass from a window at the rear of the home and saw some items strewn around, he left the home and called police. He waited outside for police to arrive and clear the house, which was when Denise’s body was found.5
A search of the home indicated that some items had been stolen. Denise’s car had also been stolen and found a short distance away, parked in a Robinson Park lot. Police were still investigating the slaying when they publicly stated that it could have been the result of a random burglary or even a targeted murder committed by somebody who knew Denise.
There were no public developments in the case until the beginning of March, when a shocking announcement was made. Police arrested Denise’s own husband, Nathan, in connection with her murder. In announcing the arrest, Police Chief Settingsgaard said: “We believe the husband committed this murder, and it was staged to look like a burglary.”
As it transpired, police had looked at Nathan as a suspect from the very beginning. They had considered that his behaviour and actions were “ a little unusual.” Just the day after Denise was murdered, prosecutors had filed a sealed request blocking him from getting access to safety deposit boxes at JP Morgan Chase Bank. In their request, they wrote that if Nathan accessed the boxes, he could have used the contents to flee the country.6 A search of Nathan’s car turned up foreign currency, the safety deposit box keys and passports.
Police also believed that the scene inside the home had been staged to look like a burglary and yet there was no evidence of a break in. Moreover, a neighbour reported that they had seen Nathan at around 12:20PM, walking on Mossville Road towards the house and away from the parking lot where Denise’s car was found parked. When Nathan spoke with police, he claimed he left the home at 11:15AM and then didn’t return until around 3PM, when he called police.
Soon enough, police had a potential motive in the gruesome murder. An investigation had uncovered that Nathan had been having an affair with a young Lithuanian woman, Aina, who had been living in the United States, attending college and being sponsored by the Letholds. Aina had initially denied that she was involved with Nathan but then admitted that he had come to Chicago to visit her around 20 times, and that she had been dismissed from another college for having an inappropriate relationship with Nathan.7 Nathan and Aina had shared a bank account which he used to buy her food, clothing and fund her living expenses.
Towards the end of March, Nathan was indicted on two counts of first-degree murder and his murder trial began in July of 2014. During opening statements, Prosecutor Jodi Hoos said that Nathan had killed Denise to be with his 20-year-old mistress. “She was his real Valentine,” she said. “I believe the evidence will show that before the murder and after the murder, the relationship that he had with Aina was much more than just a sponsored student.”8
Defence attorney, Hugh Toner, on the other hand, said that Nathan had not killed his wife. He revealed that the day the trial opened, it would have been their 19th anniversary. “And he is going to have to sit here and listen to accusations that he murdered his wife.”
Early testimony would focus on a note that Denise had written. The note was found in a day planner in the couple’s bedroom and it read that Nathan was “running around with a 20-year-old” and humiliating her. Handwriting analysis determined that the note had been written by Denise, and it had been written on the same day that she was killed.
It read in part:
“I really don’t think there is anything I have done or not done to deserve this. I have never been good enough or done enough for you I know you want me dead. I am not stupid, but I am not that brave. I quit, I will not please you anymore. No more of that game. If I haven’t pleased you in 17 years then nothing I will do will do it.”
Police Officer Richard Linthicum told the jury that when he arrived at the scene, Nathan stood across the road. He said that after he found Denise’s body, he came out and retrieved his bulletproof shield from the car and waited for backup with his weapon drawn. While Nathan was standing nearby, he didn’t enquire as to what was going on or ask whether his wife was okay.
Inside the home, he said the scene did not fit the pattern of a burglary. Electronics in the living room had not been stolen and drawers were placed on the floor as opposed to dumped. A crime scene technician would agree, testifying that the home did not show any evidence of a struggle. He would also testify that a black sweatshirt had been found in the closet and this sweatshirt had gunshot residue on it.9
The jury would hear from 20-year-old Aina Dobilaite. She said that she had met Nathan in her home country of Lithuania when she was 6-years-old. Then when she turned 18, Nathan brought her over to the United States to study. She described how Nathan paid for her expenses, took her on trips, went shooting with her but said she didn’t stay overnight with him.
She claimed she never told Nathan she was in love with him, but State Attorney Jerry Brady produced an email from Aina to Nathan in which she promised to work harder at their relationship. It read: “I let you down. From now on, I want to do all that I can for you and this relationship. I am so blessed to have you in my life.” It was revealed that after the murder of Denise, Nathan’s parents had tole Aina not to speak to police.10
A cellmate of Nathan, David D. Smith, told the jury that Nathan confessed to the murder of Denise. He said that he had waited in the closet for his wife to come home. “They had words and then he shot her in the head,” he testified.
Ultimately, the jury would find Nathan Leuthold guilty of the murder of Denise Leuthold. It took them just 90 minutes to reach the determination. He would be sentenced to 80 years in prison. In handing down the sentence, Judge Keith Lyons called Nathan a “thief” for robbing their children of their mother, and taking Denise away from the rest of her family.
Denise’s parents were able to provide a victim impact statement. They said: “We are repulsed at his calculated, evil scheming. He has robbed us of the rest of our daughter’s life. We’ve had to wrestle with Nathan’s hypocrisy in claiming to be a man of God.”11
- Pekin Daily Times, 17 February, 2013 – “Denise Leuthold”
- The Peoria Journal Star, 15 February, 2013 – “Woman Killed in Peoria”
- The Peoria Journal Star, 16 February, 2013 – “Neighbors Cautious After Peoria Homicide”
- NewsTribune, 19 February, 2013 – “Police Hunt for Killer of ‘Godly Lady’”
- The Peoria Journal Star, 7 March, 2013 – “Man Arrested in Wife’s Death”
- Pekin Daily Times, 7 March, 2013 – “Police Arrest Murder Suspect in Pekin”
- Pekin Daily Times, 8 March, 2013 – “Another Woman Might Have Led to Valentine’s Day Slaying”
- Pekin Daily Times, 15 July, 2014 – “Affair Was Motive in Slaying of Denise Leuthold”
- Pekin Daily Times, 16 July, 2014 – “Testimony Focuses on Victim’s Note”
- Pekin Daily Times, 17 July, 2014 – “Alleged Girlfriend Testifies”
- Associated Press, 11 September, 2014 – “Peoria Man Gets 80 Years in Wife’s Murder”