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Missionary Guns Down Wife on Valentine’s Day as Present to Alleged Mistress, Prosecutors Claim
Denise Leuthold was just 39 years old when she was gunned down in the entryway of her Peoria, Illinois home on Feb. 14, 2013.
Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate love, but for one Illinois mother the holiday served as the backdrop for the ultimate betrayal.
Denise Leuthold, 39, was gunned down on Feb. 14, 2013 as she walked into the Peoria home her family shared with her parents. The mother of three — who had just returned home after dropping off her youngest child at afternoon daycare — barely made it inside the door before she was shot once in the head.
“She didn’t even have time to take her coat off, gloves, anything,” Detective Shawn Curry told Dateline: Unforgettable. “So when she entered that door, that shot was immediate.”
The shocking murder rocked the quiet Peoria, Illinois neighborhood where the Leuthold family lived. It’s a case that has stuck with Dateline reporter Andrea Canning for more than a decade.
“So many of the stories I’ve covered haunt me. Often it’s the senseless loss I can’t shake, but this one sticks with me not just because of what happened, but when it happened,” Canning explained. “Maybe I’m a romantic, but I see Valentine’s Day as such a whimsical holiday. A day devoted to love and affection, but to those involved in this story, Valentine’s Day will forever be associated with cold-blooded murder.”
Nathan and Denise Leuthold's Marriage
Nathan and Denise Leuthold were once childhood sweethearts. Although their strict religious background prevented them from dating in school, Nathan told Canning he was smitten with his future wife as early as elementary school at Faith Baptist Christian School.
“I was in third grade and she was in fourth grade at the time, and I doubt she even knew I existed, but even then, I thought she was the cutest girl in the school,” he recalled. “It was the bouncy curls and just the happy-go-lucky smile.”
By the time they reached high school, the pair were good friends and loved spending time together.
“He practically lived at our house,” her mom, Diane Newton, remembered.
When Denise graduated high school and headed to college in Minnesota, Nathan soon followed and the pair were quickly engaged.
In July 1995, the couple got married and settled back down in their hometown. But Nathan felt a higher calling and soon convinced his new bride to leave behind her life in Illinois to become a missionary in Lithuania for a year.
They returned home and welcomed two children, but the couple’s work overseas wasn’t done. They soon headed back to the northeastern European country.
“I think it was very hard for Denise to leave her family, to leave everything she’d known and to go over to a strange country, you know, with a toddler and a baby. It was — it was a traumatic experience for her,” Newton recalled. “She was supporting him. It wasn’t really her calling, I mean, she was basically being a wife and a mother.”
Although she may have felt some trepidation about the overseas missionary trips, Denise quickly immersed herself in the country, sharing her love for music with others. During their stints in Lithuania, the couple got close to many local families, including the young teen Aina Dobilaite.
Dobilaite — who shared Denise’s love of music — often babysat for the Leutholds and their three young children.
“We just trusted her 100 percent with them and that’s how she came to be a part of our family,” Nathan explained.
By 2010, the family was back in the United States and Nathan and Denise stepped up to sponsor Dobilaite as she started college in Florida.
Just three years later, tragedy struck when Denise was found dead in her family’s home. Nathan told police he arrived home that afternoon, with the couple’s youngest daughter in tow, and found the garage door open with no car inside. After spotting broken glass near an exterior door, he drove his daughter to the neighbor’s house across the street and called 911.
“We’ve got a break in,” he calmly told a 911 dispatcher.
Denise Leuthold's Murder
Investigators quickly arrived on the scene and made the grim discovery inside. Denise had been shot once in the head with a .40 caliber handgun.
“Everything stopped. I’m looking at my 4-year-old daughter who is the image of her mother, curly hair and bouncy step, and I just kept looking at my daughter and I wanted to hug her and I wanted to just let out all the pain that was associated with knowing,” Nathan said of the moment he learned his wife of 17 years was dead.
Initially, investigators believed Denise may have interrupted a burglary in progress after learning that a laptop, digital camera, jewelry, and two guns including a .40 caliber handgun — the same type of weapon used to kill Denise — were all missing from the home.
But after a closer examination, they came to believe Denise’s death was not an average burglary.
Denise was found laying on top of her car keys, yet someone had found a spare set of keys and drove her car to a nearby park, where it was abandoned. The extra key was later found in a trashcan at the park.
Curry didn’t believe a burglar would “wait to try to find a spare set of keys” after shooting someone.
It also appeared the burglar had ransacked the kitchen, an unusual spot for a thief to waste time, and left behind valuable items inside the house.
“I work at a store that sold high-def TVs and we had a lot of small ones that they could have just picked up, taken away, you know, electronics, Blu-Ray players,” Diane said. “None of those things were touched and I only had probably three rings that were of any value, but those three rings were taken. Well, why would a burglar know that those were the only three that were valuable?”
Nathan told detectives his .40-caliber glock had been locked away in a box. Detectives believed it could have been the murder weapon, but both the weapon and box were missing.
“A burglar is not going to take a busted lock box with them,” Curry said.
Was Nathan Leuthold Having an Affair?
Detectives' suspicions only grew after learning about the unusual relationship between Nathan and Dobilaite.
Although both insisted there was no sexual aspect to their relationship, investigators learned that Nathan often visited Dobilaite in Florida and she was asked to leave the school, according to school records, because of an “inappropriate” relationship the school believed she was having with her sponsor, including overnight stays at a hotel.
The day Denise was killed, Nathan told detectives he had gone to a local spa to get a gift card for his wife for Valentine’s Day, but investigators learned he was more frequently seen at the spa with Dobilaite. According to the spa’s owner, he drove and paid for Dobilaite’s waxing appointments.
“My stuff would be in the front yard if my wife found out that I was waxing up a 20-year-old. It just didn't make no sense,” Curry said.
When investigators asked Dobilaite about the appointments, Curry said she “would glare” and refused to answer.
There was also a question about Nathan’s activities the day his wife was killed. According to detectives, there was more than a hour gap when his actions were unaccounted for, between 11:30 a.m. when he was at a local Starbucks and 12:45 p.m. when he showed back up at the same store.
Then there was Dobilaite’s bizarre reaction to the news that Nathan’s house had been robbed the day of the murder.
“Interesting,” she wrote, followed by a smiley face emoji.
At the time of the murder, Dobilaite had been attending a Christian college in Chicago about 160 miles away.
But perhaps even more damaging were Denise’s own words in a note she had written and tucked in her day planner.
“I have tried to please you for seventeen years and never succeeded. I've never been good enough. Never done enough. I know that you want me dead. I'm not stupid,” she wrote, according to court records, later saying she believed her husband was trying to “humiliate me by running around with a 20 year old.”
Nathan Leuthold Convicted
Three weeks after the murder, Nathan was arrested for his wife’s murder.
At his 2014 trial, Peoria County State’s Attorney Jerry Brady argued that Nathan drove his car to a nearby park, walked to the family’s house, waited for his wife to return home, shot her in the head, and then drove her car back to the park, abandoning it there and then returning to Starbucks in his own vehicle.
They also called one of Nathan’s fellow inmates, who testified that Nathan told him that he had killed his wife for a chilling reason.
“This was his Valentine’s Day present to Aina and that is despicable,” Brady said.
Nathan has refuted that claim and insisted he never hurt his wife.
Both Nathan and Aina Dobilaite, who was given immunity and testified for the prosecution, have continued to insist there was no romantic aspect to their relationship.
For a jury, however, the evidence against Nathan was overwhelming. They convicted him in just 90 minutes of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison.