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On the night of April 27, 2012, everything changed for seemingly happy married couple Chad and Lisa Cutler.
At around 1 a.m., Chad called 911 from the pair’s home in Mt. Zion, Illinois to report a shocking discovery: His wife and the mother of his two children was blue and unresponsive in the bathtub.
Chad told authorities that he and Lisa had turned in at around 10 p.m. after putting the kids to sleep. He said she complained of back pain, and so he suggested that she take a hot bath.
As she ran the water, he fell asleep, and when he woke up in the middle of the night, he found her dead in the tub submerged in water. He pulled her out and began performing CPR to no avail.
What first appeared to authorities to be an accidental drowning, however, soon evolved into much more.
From the beginning, things were amiss at the crime scene. When authorities arrived, they found that the bed in the master bedroom appeared untouched as if it hadn’t been slept in. Chad was also fully dressed, and his demeanor seemed strange for someone who had just gone through a traumatic experience.
"There was no sense of urgency in his voice," Jonathan Butts, a retired lieutenant for the Macon County Sheriff’s Office, told Oxygen’s “Accident, Suicide or Murder.”
Butts also questioned how a “normally healthy athletic person” could “accidentally drown in their own bathtub.”
The paramedics who responded to the scene immediately began life-saving measures on Lisa and rushed her to the emergency room, but she did not survive.
At the hospital, Chad’s strange behavior continued, retired Macon County Sheriff's Office sergeant Jim Hermann told producers. In the emergency room, Chad interrupted the doctor giving a report on Lisa's condition to ask, "So, is she dead?" Hermann recalled.
The details surrounding her death also didn’t add up. A nurse reported that Lisa had more water in her lungs at the time of her death than was usual for a fatal drowning, according to Hermann.
While Chad had claimed that his wife took medication for anxiety and depression, and that the pills may have put her to sleep and caused her to drown, authorities weren’t buying his explanation.
"From my years of experience in working other cases, none of it made any sense," Hermann told producers. "Drowning in a bathtub just doesn't happen without other underlying causes, such as extreme intoxication, overdose, cardiac arrest, or a large amount of medication in the system, or, unless you're being held down."
Less than 12 hours after Lisa was pronounced dead, a forensic pathologist performed an autopsy and ruled that she had died from drowning, but the manner of death was not specified. There was also unexplained bruising on Lisa’s head and elbows, which was evidence that her death may not have been accidental.
The sheriff's department shared their suspicions with the state attorney's office, and soon, the Illinois State Police joined the investigation. Chad was brought in for questioning, and his behavior continued to mystify officials.
"Chad seemed relaxed. He didn't seem to be upset when recounting the story of finding Lisa, [which was] unusual,” Doug Leconte, a retired special agent with the Illinois State Police, told producers. “However, people react differently to grief and stress.”
Chad claimed that Lisa’s declining mental health had led to her demise. He asserted that his wife had seen multiple psychiatrists over the last decade and was on prescription pills. She sometimes took too much, Chad claimed, but he couldn't recall if she had taken her medication on the day that she died.
As investigators dug deeper into the couple’s relationship, they learned that although they seemed like the perfect couple, their marriage had become strained after Chad lost his high-paying job as a maintenance supervisor at an agricultural company. The bank foreclosed on their home, and Lisa’s mental health started to decline.
Speaking with authorities, Chad admitted to struggling with alcoholism and that Lisa had filed divorce paperwork. He claimed, however, they had reconciled before her death.
Investigators only grew more suspicious of Chad after executing a search warrant on his person and finding scratch marks on his upper arm. He claimed that he had scratched himself because he had dry skin, but authorities suspected foul play.
"We were definitely suspicious of those scratches. We felt those could have been evidence of a physical struggle between Chad and Lisa," Leconte told producers.
The following day, investigators returned without warning to the Cutler home, where they found interesting items in the garbage: paperwork proving that Lisa was moving forward with the divorce, and a handwritten list compiling possible life insurance payout amounts.
Authorities requested a second autopsy, and it proved to be a vital move in the case. Pathologists found new evidence of a struggle that they hadn't observed the first time. There was hemorrhaging underneath the skin of her elbows and other unexplained injuries that were not typically consistent with an accidental drowning.
Like investigators, Lisa’s loved ones continued to be mystified by Chad's behavior, particularly at her funeral, which they called "extremely painful" to witness.
"Chad acted like he was out at a bar," Lisa’s friend, Heidi Ford, told producers. "He acted excited, hugged other women and told them how nice they looked. He took all of the flowers off her casket and gave each of us a rose and didn't leave any for Lisa."
Following the publication of Lisa's obituary, authorities received a shocking tip. A Walmart employee reported that she had sold Lisa a TracFone the week that she died. Investigators studied the phone records and found that Lisa had been communicating with a local doctor, whom she had reportedly started dating.
When Chad found out about the relationship, he was furious and left the doctor a threatening message, which Chad denied while speaking with authorities.
Investigators were dealt yet another surprise when Chad consented to have his phone records searched. They discovered he too had been engaging in a secret relationship with a female friend. Even more startling, records showed that on the morning after Lisa died, Chad texted the woman in question and told her that she could move into the house and referenced his late wife's "secret life insurance policies."
While Chad admitted to making a "crass remark" about his wife's death, he maintained his innocence, explaining, "I said what I said. I've got nothing to hide."
Authorities later found that Lisa had multiple accidental death insurance policies that had been taken out just days before she died, and Chad was the sole beneficiary for each one. They also discovered that the email address used to apply for the policies was created at the couple's home at a time of day when Lisa, a teacher, would have been at work, a detail they confirmed with her co-workers.
After executing a search warrant, authorities’ suspicions were confirmed, finding proof that Chad had created the email account. Meanwhile, Lisa’s loved ones became convinced that Chad had killed her.
"It was not suicide. It was not an accident. It was not a drug overdose. There wasn't some mysterious intruder that came into the house. It was so obvious that her death had been at the hands of Chad," Lisa’s brother, David Ransdell, told producers.
When DNA testing came back on Lisa’s remains, the results further weakened Chad’s defense. Underneath Lisa’s fingernails, there were traces of DNA that either belonged to Chad or the couple's 11-year-old son.
Shockingly, when confronted by investigators about the results, Chad implicated his own child.
"What kind of parent would do that? This is a child who loves his mother. To point the finger towards their son, and say, 'I didn't do it, it had to be our son.' It's terrible,” Butts told producers.
In October 2012, six months after Lisa's death, investigators called aquatic death expert Andrea Zaferes for help with the case. After reviewing the evidence, Zaferes believed that Lisa's death was a murder, and she pointed to the numerous injuries on her body as evidence of foul play.
"You don't die and flop around in a bathtub," Zaferes told “Accident, Suicide or Murder.”
She went on to theorize that Lisa may have been killed outside of the bath and later placed in the water, which is when the killer could have set the scene to look like an accidental drowning.
Authorities also found it strange that when Lisa was found, her skin was not wrinkled, despite Chad's claim that she had been in the tub for hours. Furthermore, a second forensic pathologist who conducted additional testing confirmed that Lisa did not have any drugs in her system that would have incapacitated her enough that she would have accidentally drowned.
The pathologist also ruled that the injuries to her body resembled those sustained by victims who have been forcibly drowned.
About a year and a half after Lisa died, authorities were finally able to charge Chad with first-degree murder, and his trial began another six months later.
During the proceedings, prosecutors brought in the actual bathtub in which Lisa had died to illustrate just how gruesome her murder was. The dramatic move worked — a jury took two hours to find Chad guilty. A judge sentenced him to 45 years in prison without the possibility of parole.
For more details on the murder of Lisa Cutler, including what her family and friends hope that other women can learn from her death, watch “Accident, Suicide or Murder” now at Oxygen.com. New episodes air every Saturday at 6/5c on Oxygen.
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