Oxygen Insider Exclusive!

Create a free profile to get unlimited access to exclusive videos, breaking news, sweepstakes, and more!

Sign Up for Free to View
Crime News Deadly Waters with Captain Lee

Man Claims Wife Fell Into Lake Erie While Seasick — But It Was Actually a Murder Plot

Christopher LeClair claimed his wife, Karen, was terminally ill with ovarian cancer when she reportedly fell overboard a few miles from the Pennsylvania shore. But her coworkers had a different story.

By Jax Miller

A husband’s report that his wife fell from their fishing tug into Lake Erie sent search and rescue teams scrambling to find a Pennsylvania woman. But what really happened?

How to Watch

Watch Deadly Waters with Captain Lee on Oxygen Saturdays at 9/8c and next day on Peacock. 

On June 11, 2017, commercial fisherman Christopher “Chris” LeClair of Erie, Pennsylvania, sent a distress signal after his wife, Karen LeClair, reportedly fell overboard from his fishing tug. The Doris-M was positioned about three miles from the Presque Isle State Park at a time when the lake was not ideal for treading water — even for Karen, described by many as a strong swimmer and scuba diver.

“Knowing this is early June here in Erie, Pennsylvania, the waters are anywhere from 50 to 60 degrees,” Sergeant Brandon Huffman of the Pennsylvania State Police (P.S.P.) told Deadly Waters with Captain Lee, airing Saturdays at 9/8c on Oxygen. “We know within one to six hours hypothermia is going to set in. The survivability after that comes very slim.”

Back at the dock slip, Chris told police that he and his wife went out to retrieve their fishing nets, according to P.S.P. Sergeant Eric Rogers. Chris said he and Karen had boarded the boat around 11:45 a.m.

“Once they were out there, the water was pretty rough, and his boat has diesel engines,” Huffman explained. “Chris says that Karen was feeling ill due to diesel fumes as well as motion sickness.”

Chris described being in the enclosed pilothouse while his wife of nearly 30 years waited at the aft (rear) of the vessel. He said he checked in on her around every 15 minutes, but then, at one point, she was just gone.

Massive air and sea searches were deployed, but four- to five-foot waves made it difficult to spot anyone in the water, said Lieutenant Commander Ryan Beck of the United States Coast Guard (U.S.C.G.). Searchers had to race against daylight to search the massive lake — about 9,900 square miles — when visibility would be nil, and temperatures would further drop.

“We are looking at wind, waves, air temperature, in order to find Karen,” said Beck. “But as night falls on our search, it became much more difficult to spot anything in the water.”

By the following day, a search and rescue effort had become a recovery effort.

Who was Karen LeClair?

Karen LeClair’s loved ones, including nieces Dawn Leombruno and Ginny Huber, cited Karen as a caring woman who regularly volunteered at church.

The missing woman’s sister, Theresa Case, said they were the youngest of 14 children and part of a “blended family.”

Karen Leclair featured on Deadly Waters with Captain Lee Season 1 Episode 7.

“Karen and I loved the outdoors,” Case told Deadly Waters. “We were always around the water; we went swimming all the time. She was just bubbly and sweet and caring.”

Relatives said Karen and Chris dated through the 1980s, and in the 1990s, the pair married and opened their own bait and tackle shop. Later, they purchased the Doris-M to get into commercial fishing, where more money could be made.

The couple took trips regularly, and both loved embarking on scuba diving adventures.

“Chris was always looking for ways to impress her, and he swept Karen off of her feet,” Leombruno told Deadly Waters. “One of the reasons that I think Karen fell in love with Chris was because he was strong. She wanted security, and he loved her, and she loved him.”

Karen worked at the accounting office of an auto dealership, and when not there, she typically joined Chris on his weekend trips to collect fish.

What happened to Karen LeClair?

Back with State Police, Chris told investigators that on June 10, 2017 — one day before his wife disappeared — he and Karen went to retrieve the nets. But then Karen, who Chris said was terminally ill with ovarian cancer, fell from her ailments, forcing them to return to land.

For more in true crime:
Days After Getting Married, Man Dies in Wife's Arms While Defending Her from Serial Killer Intruder
Beloved Teacher Found Slain Right Before Christmas — Who Attacked Her In Broad Daylight?
“He Was Worth More Dead Than Alive”: Woman Hires Brother to Kill Husband for $500K

They returned to sea the next day to finish the job, when Chris said Karen fell overboard.

“Chris said that they had a great relationship,” said Erie County District Attorney Elizabeth Hirz. “They never fought, and they got along very well.”

Christopher LeClaire admits to having another lover

Not long into their interview, however, Chris admitted to police that he was involved in a two-year-long extramarital affair with a woman named Tracy Butler, something Sgt. Rogers called a “red flag.” Chris said the relationship was strictly sexual because, since Karen was sick with cancer, the wife allegedly permitted Chris to have his physical needs met elsewhere.

State Police brought Butler in for questioning, and the single mother of two said she and Chris had actually been together for five years and saw one another several times a week, contradicting Chris’s claims. She stated she was with Chris on the weekend of Karen’s disappearance because, or so Chris told her, Karen was down in Florida.

Chris even told Butler that he and his terminally ill wife had separated.

“Another thing the mistress had told us — she actually saw a newscast about a missing woman on Lake Erie that had fallen off of a vessel,” Huffman told Deadly Waters. “On Sunday, June 11, 2017, she called Chris on her cell phone. She asked him, ‘Hey, do you know anything about that missing woman out there?’ He claimed he did not know anything about it.”

Detectives soon visited Karen LeClair’s colleagues at the auto dealership, and at one point, Chris reportedly told his wife’s boss about her being sick with cancer. But when confronted by her concerned coworkers, Karen told them, “I’m not sick,” according to D.A. Hirz.

Investigators theorized Chris made up the cancer story to “justify” her disappearance and/or his affair.

Damning video evidence contradicts Chris LeClair’s version of events

The P.S.P. contacted border patrol to aid them in searches, but every one came up empty. Later, they contacted the Erie Port Authority in hopes of inspecting video footage from Dobbins Landing, where the LeClairs kept the Doris-M. Surveillance video proved that on Saturday, June 10, 2017 — one day before Karen allegedly fell into the water — husband and wife parked their SUV in the nearby lot, which “exactly” matched Chris’s statements to police, according to Huffman.

Both left on the fishing boat at 12:30 p.m., but when it returned, it was parked far from its designated slip… and only Chris LeClair disembarked.

The next day, when Chris claimed Karen fell overboard, Chris showed up at the Doris-M at 12:06 p.m. and headed for the depths of Lake Erie alone.

“I speculate that on June 10, Chris parked his boat at that different location thinking no one would see who got on and off of that boat at that location,” said Sgt. Huffman.

“Now, if he actually killed Karen, that shows premeditation,” stated Sgt. Rogers.

Christopher LeClair is arrested for murder

Police reinterviewed Chris LeClair’s paramour, Tracy Butler, hoping to tighten their timeline. Butler said she and Chris planned to meet on June 10 at 2:00 p.m., but that he failed to arrive, and later texts by Butler went unanswered. At 4:00 p.m., Chris texted Butler a photograph of himself on the boat, claiming he was “cleaning nets,” according to Huffman.

The pair met for dinner at 7:00 p.m., and Chris decided to spend the night at Butler’s house, which was “weird” since he’d never slept over before, Huffman told Deadly Waters.  The following day, Chris left around 10:00 or 11:00 a.m., telling Butler he had to clean the fishing nets, which was “in direct contradiction” to Chris’s previous statements to police: that he spent that night with his wife.

Butler then led the police to a possible motive.

“And then Tracy told us that on June 9, 2017, she gave Chris the ultimatum that he had until that weekend to decide if he was going to choose her or his wife,” Huffman said.

On June 13, 2017, police secured a search warrant for Chris LeClair’s Albion residence — about 30 miles southwest of the Erie docks — and issued a warrant for his arrest. Authorities stopped the sole suspect in his vehicle as he passed his home, where tactical units continued to search the dwelling.

“When I heard Chris was arrested, I couldn’t believe it,” said Karen LeClair’s sister, Theresa Case. “I don’t know anybody who could do something like that unless they’re evil.”

Still, prosecutors knew there would be challenges in taking the case to court since, by then, Karen LeClair’s body had yet to be recovered.

“There’s always the challenge when you don’t have the body,” said D.A. Hirz.

Karen LeClair's Body Is Found

On the Fourth of July weekend in 2017, three weeks after Karen LeClair disappeared, a family fishing in Lake Erie called the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office in New York. They reported finding what they initially believed was a blow-up doll about four miles out to sea off the shores of Dunkirk, New York — roughly 50 miles northeast of Erie — later realizing it was a decomposing body.

“The body was bloated from the decomposition, but what I observed was a two-tone, blue rope tied around the ankles of the body,” Sgt. Rogers told Deadly Waters. “And then there was what I would refer to as a typical nautical-type white rope tied around its upper body just underneath the armpits, and that had an anchor attached to it.”

Investigators later re-searched the Doris-M, finding matching two-toned blue rope cut from a hammock left on board and a locker containing a set of anchors missing just one.

Dental records would later confirm the body in the water was Karen LeClair, and she had sustained a single gunshot wound to the head.

“When I learned Karen had been shot, I was like, why? Why didn’t you just divorce her instead of killing her?” said Karen’s sister, Theresa Case. “I just can’t believe how horrible he was, but at least finding her was a relief.”

The murder trial began in October 2018, but the defense said Chris didn’t kill Karen and that, instead, Karen killed herself over the affair. Chris claimed he heard a loud bang while operating the Doris-M, soon finding his wife dead on the deck with the revolver.

“The defense was he didn’t want anyone to think poorly of her, so that’s why he tied an anchor to her and put her into the lake,” said D.A. Hirz. “It was just so ridiculous.”

A jury didn’t believe it either, and after less than two hours of deliberation, Chris LeClair was found guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“She was such a good person, bubbly, always friendly,” Case said. “Karen and I did a lot of things together. I really miss that.”

Watch all-new episodes of Deadly Waters with Captain Lee, airing Saturdays at 9/8c on Oxygen.