Michele Dee Gates gained notoriety in Portland in the 1980s for drowning two children while she was only a child herself, and later for attempting to hire a hitman to kill a woman and burn down her house.
Lawyers, psychiatrists and journalists opined that Gates’ behavior and mental state had something to do with her unstable upbringing, and the fact that when she was 11, her mother was shot in the face by her grandmother’s husband.
The grim saga – which generated scores of headlines and raised troubling questions about Oregon’s juvenile justice system – took another fateful turn the Friday after Christmas.
Gates’ father, 72-year-old James C. Gates, is accused of fatally shooting her husband, 51-year-old Mark Leland, during a domestic dispute at a home south of Colville.
The elder Gates is being held in the Stevens County Jail on a second-degree murder charge, with bond set at $250,000 and an arraignment scheduled for Friday morning. Prosecutors expect him to claim self-defense.
Michele Gates was released from federal prison in 2005, and her probation ended in 2008, court filings indicate. Now 53, she uses the surname Leland. Her first name is sometimes spelled “Michelle” in public records.
Until recently, she and Mark Leland lived together – with two young daughters – in Glendora, California. They had been visiting the home near Colville, at 980-B Westover Road, for the holidays when Mark Leland was shot.
Susan D. Alexander, who is listed as a resident of the home, reported the shooting to police, according to charging documents filed in Stevens County Superior Court.
Two sheriff’s deputies responded to the residence just before 10 p.m. Dec. 28, the records state. When the deputies arrived, they found Alexander, James Gates and Michele Leland standing near the garage door.
When asked who shot Mark Leland, Alexander pointed to Gates, who was immediately detained. Alexander also handed over what she said was the murder weapon: a .357 Magnum pistol.
Deputy Mark Coon wrote that Gates declined to answer questions without an attorney present, but when placed in handcuffs he said, “It was self-defense.”
Mark Leland, meanwhile, was bleeding out on the floor of the garage, pleading for medical attention. Cpl. J.M. Foster wrote that Leland had two apparent gunshot wounds in his abdomen. While he was able to talk, Leland told the deputy he had not given Gates any reason to shoot him.
“Mark said he entered the garage and saw James on the floor,” the records state. “Mark said he asked him what happened and James told him, ‘You pushed me,’ then James shot him. Mark said he did not push James. Mark said he was in too much pain to talk anymore; he just wanted medical attention.”
An ambulance arrived shortly afterward, and Leland was taken to Providence Mount Carmel Hospital in Colville, where he died later that night.
Alexander and Michele Leland told deputies they had been inside the house and had not witnessed the shooting. Alexander said Gates told her that Mark Leland had pushed him to the ground.
The two women said Gates and Mark Leland did not usually get along, though the men had not been fighting that day. They said Leland had beaten up his father-in-law a few years earlier at home in California.
After talking to Alexander and Michele Leland, Cpl. Foster wrote that “neither of them appeared to be emotional from the incident.”
Deputy Coon described Gates as “very calm and collected” and “stoic and non-remorseful.” Coon wrote that when he informed Gates he’d be going to jail, Gates replied, “How far is it? I need to pee.”
At the jail, deputies collected Gates’ clothing as evidence. They noted three small scratches on his leg, buttocks and lower back.
Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen said an autopsy had been completed, but toxicology results would not be available for about six weeks. He said Gates is represented by Spokane attorney Tim Trageser, who did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday.
Several days ago, a family friend set up a GoFundMe.com page to raise money for Michele Leland and the couple’s two young daughters. It says nothing about the grisly manner in which Mark Leland died – only that he passed “unexpectedly.”
Michele Leland declined to comment when a reporter reached her by phone on Tuesday.
Her story, as it’s usually told, began on Jan. 4, 1980. Rain had fallen into an empty, above-ground swimming pool in the backyard of her home in Portland, filling it with about 10 inches of water.
Michele Gates – then known as a happy, friendly 13-year-old with braids and a knack for swimming – lived in that house with her grandmother and step-grandfather.
That day, police found the body of 4-year-old Ruth Anne O’Neil in a pile of refuse in a neighboring yard. The girl was barefoot, wearing blue corduroy trousers and a blue sweater.
Detectives interviewed Michele, who had been Ruth’s baby sitter on previous occasions, and noticed inconsistencies in her story.
According to reports in the Oregonian newspaper, Michele told them that “maybe” Ruth’s mother had given Ruth drugs, or that “maybe” Ruth had been raped and suffocated. Then Michele told them that she and Ruth had gone wading in the pool, and that she had gone into the house and had come back to find Ruth dead.
Eventually, Michele admitted she had taken Ruth wading in the pool and held her face down in the shallow water until she no longer moved. Then, Michele told detectives, she had lifted the girl’s body over the fence into the neighboring yard.
In the same interview, Gates also took credit for a previous drowning death, saying she had pushed her 3-year-old cousin, Natyah Ottino, into a duck pond at the Washington Park Zoo in November 1978. Authorities at the time had seen no indication of foul play, and no charges were filed in Ottino’s death.
For the next five years, the Gates case worked its way up and down the Oregon court system. The Oregonian filed suit to open up her court hearings, which a judge had closed to the media and public.
Psychiatrists deemed the girl a sociopath, incapable of controlling short-term impulses. She almost avoided prosecution because of debate over her mental state. She spent time at a home for troubled kids in Maine, and at one point before the case was resolved, police were alarmed to learn she had been hired as swimming coach at the local YMCA.
Finally, in January 1985, when she was 18, Gates was convicted of the juvenile equivalent of murder. She avoided prison because state law at the time forbade incarcerating female juvenile offenders past the age of 18. That conviction was later expunged, allowing her to legally say on job applications that she’d never been convicted of a crime.
That lasted until 1992, when Gates, then 26 and using the last name Shorthouse, was indicted in federal court on charges of arson and solicitation to commit murder. She was accused of hiring one of her former boyfriends to kill her fiance’s ex-girlfriend.
Gates had blamed the woman for telling others of her criminal past, and Gates wanted to help her fiance win back custody of his young son, prosecutors alleged. She pleaded guilty that year to lesser charges of abetting arson and interstate travel with intent to commit murder, and was sentenced to 15 years in federal custody.
While on probation in 2008, she was working as a supervisor at the Union Gospel Mission thrift store on West Boone Avenue in Spokane, court filings show.
It wasn’t immediately clear when she married Mark Leland and moved to California.
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