JOSHUA TREE — Charles Leppan will be held to answer for the death of a woman found in a shallow grave in Wonder Valley almost a decade ago, Judge Rod Cortez ruled Thursday, Feb. 6.
A man and his dog found 33-year-old Jean Leppan’s remains in a shallow grave May 12, 2004. Although detectives interviewed her ex-husband, Charles Leppan, shortly after her body was found, they did not arrest him until October 2013, when they traveled to re-question him at his new home in Michigan.
Prosecutor John Thomas called two investigators to the witness stand in a preliminary hearing Thursday to determine if enough evidence exists to hold Leppan on a murder charge. Testimony centered on what the detectives said were inconsistencies in Leppan’s statements in the different interviews he gave after his former wife’s body was found.
Leppan’s defense attorney, Ben Sasnett, pointed out that of the several 911 calls made from the Leppans’ house, all were for assaults by Jean Leppan or friends of hers, and none were for violence by Charles Leppan.
He also said because Jean’s remains were so decomposed, no cause of death was ever determined. “We don’t know for certain there was a homicide,” Sasnett said.
At the end of the day, the judge agreed the former U.S. Marine should stand trial for murder.
Suspect described violent marriage
Jean and Charles Leppan were living in a house on Golden Bee Road in Yucca Valley shortly before her death. Divorced, they were trying to reconcile, but detectives said her drug use was a constant source of arguments between the two. She disappeared after a fight, and Leppan remarried another ex-wife, Jennifer Leppan, about 16 days afterward.
Charles Leppan called San Bernardino County homicide detective Bobby Dean after friends told him they had read a story in the Hi-Desert Star about human remains, accompanied by a photo of Jean Leppan’s tattoo.
The two agreed to meet at Leppan’s Golden Bee house.
In his living room, Leppan told homicide detectives he had met Jean while stationed in Virginia Beach, Va., and moved with her to his new station in Twentynine Palms. The two had a daughter, but because of Jean’s drug use, he said, he sent the girl to live with his mother in another state in 2002.
Theirs was a relationship marked by domestic violence, Dean and the other testifying detective, Gerald Davenport, said. Leppan told Davenport about one fight in Virginia Beach when he made fun of her pronunciation of the word “chocolate” as she ordered a malt at a drive-through restaurant. Jean responded by driving the car into oncoming traffic. When Charles Leppan managed to hit the brakes, she punched him and he punched her.
In another fight, he told Davenport, she armed herself with a mop and he held a sword.
In January 2004, Leppan told homicide investigators, he was assigned to two weeks of field operations in Yuma, Ariz. He told Jean to take her belongings and leave while he was gone. When he returned to the house on Jan. 26, 2004, she was still there.
Dean said Leppan told two different stories about what happened next.
“At this point, the first interview, Mr. Leppan never mentioned to you they had a fight when he returned to the house?” the prosecutor asked.
“No … he said nothing about an argument,” Dean replied. “He said her bags were packed and she went, and he never saw her again.”
However, three days later, Leppan agreed to go to sheriff’s headquarters in San Bernardino for a second interview. There, he told a detective they had a violent fight before she left.
In his second interview, Leppan said he told his ex-wife to leave because their daughter was coming to the house and he didn’t want Jean around the girl.
“An argument erupted because Jean wanted her daughter. A fight ensued, pretty violent,” Dean said.
Leppan told the detective Jean threw things at him. He said he hid in a room with a locked door, but she kicked down the door. He escaped out another door and ran down the street.
When he returned later, he said, she and her belongings were gone, and he never saw her again.
But Dean said he heard from someone else that Charles and Jean Leppan had been together later that day, giving a friend a ride to a parenting class.
“There were some discrepancies between what he was saying and what we knew had occurred,” Dean said.
Leppan maintained he had not hurt his wife in any way that could have led to her death.
Not believing they had enough testimony, the district attorney did not file charges against Leppan, and he went on with his life, eventually divorcing Jennifer, moving to Michigan and starting a relationship with another woman.
Cold case team takes up investigation
In October 2013, a cold case team including Davenport and the prosecutor, Thomas, traveled across the country, interviewing Leppan at his new home with his fiance in Michigan.
“I could see he was nervous,” Davenport said. “Just the way he stopped abruptly when he saw my ID badge. … His hands were shaking nervously, he was speaking very fast.”
Leppan agreed to talk with investigators outside on his deck. There, Davenport said, he told another version of what had happened the day Jean Leppan disappeared.
Leppan said when he returned from Arizona, Jean was packed but she hadn’t left yet.
“They got into an argument over Jean wanting to take a digital camera that he had paid for,” Davenport said.
Leppan said the locked room he had referred to in the 2004 interviews as the place he had hidden was an office where he stowed electronics and military gear so Jean and her friends couldn’t steal them.
“He said he was in the kitchen when Jean kicked in the door to the room where the electronics were,” Davenport said. “He kind of changed the story a little, indicating he left out of the garage, walked around the desert for a couple of hours and when he returned, Jean was gone.”
Davenport also said Leppan told him his only vehicle at the time of Jean’s disappearance was an inoperable Jeep, and he was relying on taxi cabs and friends to give him rides.
However, Dean had testified that in the 2004 interviews with Leppan, he had told detectives on the day Jean disappeared, he had left for work in a Toyota he owned.
That Toyota was later found abandoned on Bannock Trail, and was towed and destroyed, Dean said.
“Did you confront him about why his story had changed?” Thomas asked.
“He said he was — discombobulated I believe was his word, by all the detectives’ questions,” Davenport replied.
The team arrested Leppan and took him to the Clarkston, Mich., sheriff’s office. There, in an interview, they accused him of killing Jean.
“He never denied it,” Davenport said. “What he said was, ‘I couldn’t have done this because I didn’t have a car to transport her body.’”
Despite Sasnett’s arguments that there was no way to even tell how Jean Leppan had died, Cortez ruled he had heard enough to hold Charles Leppan on the murder charge.
Now that he has heard the evidence, Leppan, who pleaded not guilty after his arrest, will have a new opportunity to enter a plea Feb. 27.