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Knoxville News Sentinel
Katie Allison Granju, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday, October 12, 2008
Like everyone else in Knoxville, I was shocked by the crime.
The March 10, 2007, shooting death of teenager Sean Powell took place only a few blocks from my own family’s home, as well as my office at WBIR, Channel 10. Each day, as I drove past the North Knoxville house that Eric and Erin McLean had shared with their two young sons, I wondered whether I had ever nodded to this couple in the nearby grocery store or seen them at the neighborhood park before tragedy blew their family apart.
A month or so after Eric McLean was arrested and charged in Powell’s death, I received a most unexpected phone call.
“This is Erin McLean,” the voice on the other end said. “And I think I might like to tell you my story.”
Erin explained that she had called me because we once met years earlier in the nursery of a church we both attended, when our sons of about the same age were enrolled there. She went on to say that she had read some of my published work. She believed we had friends in common.
She told me she had decided to reach out to me because she thought I could be fair in telling her version of the events that led up to Powell’s death.
I didn’t – and still don’t – recall ever meeting Erin McLean in person, but over the next months, we spoke on the phone numerous times, as she related her story to me. While she initially contacted me with the suggestion that I would publish or broadcast an interview with her, she became spooked by the idea, as – in her opinion – the local and national press coverage surrounding the infamous “Knoxville Love Triangle Case” became more and more uniformly hostile to her.
Over many hours of conversation, as well as a number of e-mail messages between May 2007 and August 2007, I attempted to convince Erin to allow me to do an on-the-record interview with her. But she ultimately decided that speaking publicly wasn’t in her best interest.
I didn’t have any further communication with Erin McLean until about six months ago, when a guardian ad litem appointed by a Knox County judge contacted me. Lisa White, named to represent the McLeans’ two sons in a custody dispute, wanted to know if I knew how to reach her young clients’ mother.
White knew me because we grew up in the same small town, and after Googling Erin McLean’s name, White found a comment Erin had left on my personal blog in August 2007, congratulating me on the birth of my daughter. It was a comment I’d never actually noticed myself.
I told Lisa White that I had not heard from Erin in many months, and had no idea where she was. But I did give her the e-mail address I’d used in the past to communicate with Erin, and I e-mailed Erin McLean to let her know that Lisa White was trying to reach her in order to make a plan on behalf of the McLean children. Erin called me back, telling me she intended to communicate and cooperate with Lisa White. I again tried to convince her to agree to an interview, and she again declined.
Erin McLean and I then again lost touch, and I assumed I would never hear from her again, and that the information she had shared with me would never ultimately become public, as she had never agreed that any of the material was on the record.
In August of this year, I left my position as an online producer with WBIR, and took a job in business development with E.W. Scripps Co. Now, as a citizen observer, as well as a News Sentinel op-ed blogger, I watched and read coverage of Eric McLean’s trial last month in Knox County Criminal Court.
I was somewhat shocked by the jury’s verdict of reckless homicide, a lesser charge.
Given Erin’s version of the events surrounding the shooting, and her stated belief to me that the killing was premeditated, I was extremely surprised that the prosecution hadn’t called her as a witness, as I thought her testimony could have given a much fuller picture for jurors to consider.
Without divulging any specifics of the confidences Erin McLean had shared with me, I even expressed my view of the outcome of the trial in one post on a local Web discussion message board. I also made one mention of the trial on my News Sentinel blog.
Then, last week, on the day after Erin McLean’s children were removed from her in Austin, Texas, where she is now living, and returned to their paternal grandparents’ care in Tennessee, I was extremely surprised to hear from Erin again.
She had decided to tell her story, and she wanted to tell it to me. Within hours, I had conducted a lengthy on-the-record interview with Erin, the results of which you now have before you.
I am writing this story in the first person because I believe that the two online public comments I made on the trial, as well as my contact with the guardian ad litem preclude me from sharing my interview with Erin McLean without divulging the full history of our association. You should know that I didn’t cover the trial as a journalist, and I have never spoken with Eric McLean, who is to be sentenced in November.
The story you are about to read is not intended to be a piece of investigative journalism. It’s merely an interview with a single individual, presenting her own version of these tragic events, just as the two “Dateline” television interviews with Eric McLean presented his version of the story on NBC.
Where does the truth lie? I make no claim to know exactly what really happened that night, and the jury has already made its decision regarding Eric McLean’s relative culpability in the death of Sean Powell. At this point, Erin McLean’s telling of her side of the story merely provides yet another window into a notorious Knoxville slaying – a window that until now, hadn’t been open for public view.
Who is Erin Myers McLean?
She is a formerly married, onetime student-teacher at West High School who admits to having engaged in a sexual affair with a troubled 18-year-old. A woman who, according to her ex-husband’s testimony, had the seductive power to drive two young men to tragic destinies – one as a convicted killer and the other his victim. Public sentiment and court testimony have declared her to be a wily temptress, a calculating Jezebel and a bad mother out to lure underage boys.
It’s an alluring caricature of a woman who in many hours of conversation revealed herself to be, in fact, highly complicated and a mass of frustrating and confounding contradictions.
Erin Myers McLean recalls her childhood as troubled. Her parents divorced when she was young and she says she ended up living with several different family members and friends.
By her mid-teens, Erin Myers was living in Knoxville. She describes herself as a gifted student who was drawn toward other artsy and musical kids. She says that Eric McLean, who would become her husband and the father of her children, was a “brilliant” and “gorgeous” slightly older boy, who played in an up-and-coming local indie rock band. Erin recalls that she had very low self esteem, and was in awe that someone as exciting and interesting as Eric McLean would take an interest in her.
The two became romantically involved and moved in together. At 17, Erin became pregnant with the couple’s first son, a deliberate decision on the part of both teenagers.
“I desperately wanted to create the love and family that I felt I had never had,” she says, adding that she feels she lost much of her youth and many of her friends once she became a teenage mother.
After a brief breakup during Erin’s first pregnancy, the couple reunited, married, and stayed together for the next 10 years. Despite facing odds against their success, the young couple managed to remain married, often happily so. They had another son and eventually bought a house of their own at 2424 Coker Ave., which is where they were living at the time of Sean Powell’s death.
“Eric and I had struggled through poverty and without help to try to live a life according to our values – continually sacrificing everything for his music, my study of English, and our children,” Erin says in a May 3, 2007, e-mail message.
Erin graduated from the University of Tennessee, winning a scholarship to a highly competitive graduate English program at Indiana University. The young family relocated to Bloomington, Ind., while Erin pursued her advanced degree, but eventually returned to Knoxville so that Eric could finish college himself, as well as begin collaboration with Knoxville musicians he admired.
“People have portrayed me as some kind of party girl during my marriage,” Erin says. “But do you really think I could have kept the grades I had, and worked, and taken care of my kids while partying all the time? No, I couldn’t have.”
Both McLeans appear to have been extremely motivated during these years, each working at various part-time jobs while juggling parenting and academic commitments. Erin says they both were loving and involved parents, with her doing most of the primary care. She says that the first time anyone ever accused her of being a bad parent was the day of Sean Powell’s death, when her in-laws suddenly called child welfare authorities.
A marriage under stress
Erin says that although there were many happy times during her marriage, there were dark periods as well. She says she was completely faithful to Eric during the marriage until she began her relationship with Sean Powell. However, she alleges that Eric cheated on her at least two times that she was aware of.
The couple struggled to find time to nurture their relationship. Erin says in the e-mail message: “The primary thing we sacrificed during our 10-year marriage was time together. We made the mistake of trying to attend college and raise children in a hands-on way, while working full time. We managed to do all these things, but in shifts, while almost never spending time with one another.”
Adding that Eric was heavily involved in Knoxville’s music scene over the years, performing with many rock bands and UT music programs, Erin says, “It particularly hurts me that anyone is now claiming that Eric was the ‘primary caregiver’ for our two sons, as it is clear from all the activities in which he was engaged that he was never home.”
She also says that Eric McLean, while generally a peaceful man, would occasionally just “snap.” She says that in the early 1990s, Eric McLean was arrested in Loudon County for attempting to shoot another young man with a crossbow, but that the incident was expunged from his record. She says that on another occasion, while the couple lived in Indiana, she awoke to find Eric threatening her with a large Bowie knife, which she managed to take from him and throw away in a Dumpster. She never reported the incident.
She alleges that in 2001, police came to their home on Coker Avenue after the couple had been arguing inside one of their vehicles about Erin’s belief that Eric was having an affair. She says her husband became enraged and rammed the vehicle they were in into their other car, which was in their driveway. She says she convinced police not to arrest him. She also claims that Eric McLean stalked a UT professor and threatened to Erin that he was going to kill the man after Eric failed his class.
The final months
Erin says that by the fall of 2006, her marriage was on the brink, and both she and her husband were emotionally troubled. She says she was working many extra hours at the West High School student teaching assignment she describes as both prestigious and overwhelming in its demands.
Eric was busy with work, school and recording an album, a lifelong dream of his. She says Eric took the children to school each morning and Erin handling parenting during the evening hours while Eric was away playing music. Erin says they hardly saw one another, and when they did, it was increasingly unpleasant.
“In fall of 2006, I literally did not spend any time with Eric except when we were sleeping,” Erin says in the May 3, 2007, e-mail message. “During our few moments together, he, exhausted, would not so much as make eye contact with me. Other times he would curse at me. He did not come home until 3 and sometimes 7 in the morning and did not feel that he owed me an explanation.”
Erin say she lost weight and felt lonely and isolated, finally approaching Eric one evening in October 2006 as he sat at their home computer.
“I was like, ‘You know what, Eric, you’re never here, and none of my needs for, like, a friend or a relationship are being met at all,” she said this month in the telephone interview. “And he was like ‘Mmm hmm.’ And I said, ‘You know what? The less I get from you, the more I’m gonna need from other people and he said, ‘I really don’t give an (expletive).’
“And then he took the jump drive that had all the work that I had done for graduate school, and my master’s degree, and he threw it across the room and it ended up in the fireplace. … And I said, ‘Eric, if I don’t find that jump drive, I’m gonna leave you just for that.'”
In the late fall and early winter of 2006, before Sean Powell came into their married life, Erin says that her husband experienced what she believes was some sort of “psychotic break.”
“He (told me) ‘how I’ve destroyed everything that was important in my life.’ He began crying hysterically all day and night. I told him that he needed psychiatric help, that this wasn’t normal. … I accused him of being a drama queen. I was exhausted and emotionally drained as he wept, smothered me, and demanded constant attention which I just could not bring myself to give after having been completely ignored by him for months.”
Erin says she deeply regrets the way she handled what she says were her husband’s mental problems during this period. She recalls a psychiatrist recommending hospitalization for Eric, but says that she opposed inpatient treatment for her husband, at one point telling him, “You know, Eric, it’s not a damn emergency when I’m depressed.”
She says Eric McLean saw a psychiatrist as an outpatient until killing Sean Powell. Erin also claims that only two weeks before Eric McLean shot Sean Powell to death, Eric began taking a prescribed antidepressant medication for the first time, a drug called Lexapro.
An ‘open marriage’
Erin says that her desire to maintain her fragile marriage stemmed from her own experiences as the child of a broken marriage. But in the fall of 2006, while she was student-teaching at West High School, and at a time she believed her husband was experiencing a mental breakdown, she conceived of a plan that she believed would give her the satisfaction she felt was lacking in her life, while holding her family together: an open marriage.
In fact, the plan proved the undoing of all involved.
Her intent was that she and Eric would remain together for the sake of their children but would agree that each could become romantically involved with other partners. And she says that after presenting the plan to Eric, he agreed.
The stage was now set for what would become a tragedy of epic proportions, breaking up a family and leaving an 18-year-old dead.
A teenage boy
Erin McLean says she first encountered senior Sean Powell as a file that crossed her desk while she was student-teaching under a veteran teacher at West High School during the fall of 2006.
“As part of my graduate research, I was required to read the cumulative records of all 35 of the 12th-grade students in the college preparatory class in which I was an intern and to compile an Excel spreadsheet with the data,” she says in the May 3, 2007, e-mail message. “One of these files, for Sean Powell, was hundreds of pages long. It detailed severe physical abuse and neglect by his mother, a prostitute addicted to crack cocaine …”
Erin says she was impressed with the way Sean Powell, who at age 6 went to live with an adoptive West Knoxville family, had dealt with his early childhood abuse. Having come from a troubled background herself, she identified with the boy.
Erin continues: “I was amazed that despite all the abuse and molestation he had survived, he was still the pleasant, functioning, extremely intelligent and talented person I saw in class every day. He was a talented writer. … When the mentoring teacher assigned a paper asking students to define ‘hero’ (as in “Beowulf”), Sean earned a generous D for his composition ‘You Can Eat a Hero.’ I took him aside and told him that I knew he was intelligent and capable of writing a much stronger paper than this – and that he did not have to interpret the assignment narrowly – ‘If you don’t believe in heroes,’ I said, ‘write about that.'”
She says she took a special interest in Sean and tried to encourage his potential.
“I called Sean’s home and asked his father to have him attend an 8 a.m. tutoring session, which Sean did. This was the only face-to-face interaction I had with Sean outside of class until January 5.”
Powell turned 18 in October 2006. In November, he was suspended from school after he was found with alcohol in the school parking lot.
Erin says she was devastated by the news.
“In tears, I asked my mentoring teacher what we could do for Sean. He was supportive of Sean during the school’s disciplinary hearing but advised me to keep my ‘professional distance.’ He also said, ‘If you want to fix this one, it’s going to take the rest of your life.'”
Erin says she reached out to Sean’s family, offering to help. She says she spoke to Sean’s adoptive mother, Scarlett Powell, suggesting a lawyer at the UT Legal Aid Clinic who had assisted students previously. Erin says she asked Scarlett Powell for permission to contact her teenage son and that Powell’s mother responded by telling Erin McLean she feared that by doing so, Erin would be risking her student teaching position.
“I remember saying to my husband, ‘I care more about being a human being than I do about a job.’ I left a message on Sean’s cell phone saying that I knew a couple of things that I thought could help.”
Sean Powell returned Erin McLean’s phone call, and although Erin says they didn’t see one another in person again until January 2007, they began a phone relationship that became confessional, intimate and eventually sexual.
Erin says that while Sean Powell was in substance abuse rehab in December 2006, he began calling her regularly. Lonely, and having decided she wanted an open marriage with her husband of the past decade, she took Powell’s phone calls, and returned them, seeing the young man as “a way out.” She says the teen – now no longer a student at West High School – lavished her with praise, listened to her problems, and began making suggestive overtures to her, which she accepted and returned.
She says her husband was completely aware of the developing phone relationship, and while he accepted it to some degree, he was conflicted. She points to an e-mail message she says Eric McLean sent to an “Open Marriage Expert” on the Web, and which is still published at About.com.
The letter, dated Dec. 28, 2006, reads: “Subject: Open Marriage?
“I have been married for 10 years. My wife has lost interest in me sexually and she wants to have an open marriage. I want her to be happy, but I’m probably going to have major jealousy issues. I’m not interested in any other woman, but I believe she is interested in a specific young man (late teens) – I’m 31 and my wife is 29.
“Now that we have discussed the possibility of having an open marriage, I keep getting mental pictures of other men with my wife, so much so that I get sick to my stomach and irritated.
“Again, I want her to be happy. I know that she doesn’t desire me anymore, which means I can’t satisfy her needs, but I don’t know if this will work. Also, she’s very attractive, so she won’t have trouble getting any number of suitors in the future. And men are probably more open to the idea of having sex with another man’s wife than women are to having sexual relationships with a married man. I’d imagine that a woman would probably demand I break off my relationship with my wife, that is if I became interested in another woman.
“Do I sound like a bad candidate for an open marriage?”
The “Open Marriage Expert” on the Web site replied that yes, Eric McLean sounded like a very bad candidate for an open marriage, and recommended marriage counseling or perhaps divorce.
In early January, Powell was kicked out of rehab just a few days shy of completing his 28-day stay. Erin says her phone conversations with him likely didn’t help him to focus on the program. But after having maintained extensive phone communication with Erin McLean, it was she whom Powell called when he needed a ride. Erin says it was actually Eric McLean who first reached out to the troubled teen, but at her urging.
“He called us in the middle of the night Jan. 5 and said he was at the Rescue Mission,” Erin recalls in the May 3, 2007, e-mail message. “I talked Eric into going to pick him up. He took him to the practice space where he and members of New Brutalism, Dixie Dirt, and Double Muslims practiced. He also took him some spinach pitas I had made.”
The next morning, Erin says, the whole family, including the children and Erin’s mother, with whom she was attempting to mend a long estrangement, picked Sean Powell up and took him to church with them at the West Knoxville Quaker meeting. After the meeting, they all ate lunch at an Indian restaurant and then dropped Powell back off at the practice space, where Powell lived for another week.
Erin says Sean Powell told them that his adoptive mother wouldn’t let him return home, so the McLeans found him free living space in an unsold house listed by Eric McLean’s father, a Realtor, Erin says.
Erin admits that after Powell left rehab her relationship with him quickly became sexual in nature. She says the pair were intimate a total of five times between Jan. 5 and March 10, the date of the shooting. She says that her husband was fully aware of this development.
In fact, Erin alleges that while she only saw Sean Powell in person fewer than 10 times during those weeks between Powell’s release from rehab and the night of the shooting, Eric McLean spent much more time with Powell, frequently taking the couple’s children over to the North Knoxville house where Powell was squatting to watch “Star Wars,” play a game the two men made up with the McLean children called “pine cone wars,” and eat pizza.
She says the relationship between the two men was very “twisted,” with Eric McLean seeking out Powell’s company, even as Powell began cruelly taunting him that he was involved with his wife.
Erin says that after one night when the trio went out drinking together, they returned to the McLean home, where Eric attempted to initiate a menage a trois with Erin and Powell. Powell rebuffed him and continued his bedroom activities with Erin, with Eric remaining in the house.
In fact, Erin says that Sean Powell was never alone with her in the family’s home. She says that every time Powell was inside the Coker Avenue house over those weeks, whether for a visit or an overnight stay, Eric McLean was also present. For this reason, she disputes a neighbor’s testimony during Eric McLean’s trial that she observed the couple’s children locked out of the house in the cold while Powell’s black Mercedes-Benz was parked nearby.
“That’s a complete lie,” she says of the neighbor’s testimony.
As the weeks passed, Erin says that Eric McLean’s jealousy became more evident but that he continued to “hang out” quite frequently with Powell and to invite him to their home. She says that she repeatedly admonished Powell to cease his taunting of her husband but that he did not. She thinks the teenager had “a death wish.”
“I really believe the whole involvement of Sean was more to do with him and Eric than it had anything to do with me. He was trying to see how far he could transgress, and I really think he was trying to get Eric to kill him. I really believe that.”
On March 9, the night before the shooting, the McLean children had gone to stay for the night with Eric’s parents. They spent the night of the shooting, March 10, there as well, a development Erin says was unusual, alleging that the extended stay was Eric’s idea, and marked the first time the children had ever spent more than one night in succession away from their parents. She believes that Eric’s insistence that the children go to his parents’ house the night before is evidence that he was planning to kill.
Erin recalls that on the evening of March 9, she and Sean Powell went together to see the play “King Lear” at UT. They returned to the McLean home, and she, Powell and Eric McLean talked and listened to music together, before Eric and Erin retired for the night to their bedroom, and Powell fell asleep on their couch.
Erin also recalls that at some point during the evening of March 9, while Powell was in their home as a guest, Eric called her back to their bedroom, telling her he had something important to say to her. When they got there, however, she says he just stood there, with nothing to say, in a manner that seemed odd and frightening.
Erin says she had no idea at that time that her husband had hidden a rifle in their house nearly two weeks previously. In hindsight, however, she suspects he called her to the bedroom because he was considering killing her, perhaps in addition to or instead of Sean Powell.
Erin says that on the morning of March 10, Powell remained in their house for a period after waking up on their couch, but he began teasing and taunting Eric McLean about the relationship he had with Erin. She says both she and Eric told him to knock it off and to leave, which he did.
The day continued without incident until evening, when Erin was bathing. She says Eric McLean entered the bathroom and told her he needed to talk to her about something important. He proceeded to inform her that her best friend of more than a decade had made a sexual advance to him, offering to have him come and spend the night with her. He told her he was considering the offer.
Erin says that this same friend, in whom Eric had been confiding about his troubled marriage, had also recently sent Eric a text message that Erin had considered inappropriate.
Erin says that while she understood that the pair had an open marriage, she believed close family friends should be “off limits,” and she found Eric’s revelation that he was considering sleeping with her friend wildly upsetting.
“I couldn’t believe it, you know, she was like my closest girlfriend the whole time we were raising the boys,” Erin says.
She says the couple argued, during which she had Eric call the friend and ask her in Erin’s presence whether she had indeed invited Eric to spend the night. The friend didn’t deny it, thus upsetting Erin further.
Erin claims that at some point, Sean Powell called and suggested that he would come to pick Erin up.
“Eric said: ‘You know what? If you go with him, don’t come back.”
An angry Erin told him OK.
Powell showed up at their door “within 10 or 15 minutes.” Erin says that as soon as she saw Powell that night, she could tell that something was “off” with him. She says he had a “wild look in his eye” and seemed angry. Toxicology results later showed that Powell had cocaine in his system and a blood-alcohol level of 0.13 percent at the time of his death.
Erin McLean says her memories of what transpired over the next hour are fuzzy, and she isn’t completely sure of the order of events. She knows she wasn’t ready to leave when Powell arrived, and that she had to go back to her bedroom to finish dressing. She says she believes that Powell taunted Eric McLean, telling him, “I’m taking your wife on a date!”
“Sean was doing everything he could to provoke (Eric),” she says.
She recalls that Eric suddenly calling the police to report an “intruder” in their house who had been “stalking” his wife. While Eric was on the phone, Erin says she asked her husband why in the world he was referring to Powell, someone he frequently welcomed into their house, as an “intruder.” She also says that as Eric McLean spoke to the 911 dispatcher, Sean Powell was backing away, telling Eric, “It’s cool, man; I’m leaving.”
Erin says that in hindsight, she believes her husband was attempting to pre-emptively convince police that Powell was an intruder because Eric held the belief – which he had expressed to her on previous occasions – that Tennessee law gave homeowners the right to kill “intruders” on their property as a matter of self defense.
Erin followed Powell out into the yard, where they sat on a swing and talked. Erin told Powell she thought he should leave, and that she did not intend to end her marriage.
She says that at some point, Eric McLean angrily threatened to lock her out of the house and get a restraining order “so that you’ll never see your children again.”
Erin said that between the 911 call and Eric’s threats, she then decided she had had it, and would leave with Powell. Sean Powell went and got in his Mercedes in front of the house, while Erin went into the house to get her cell phone and purse. While she was inside gathering her things, she heard a loud noise. She didn’t recognize it as a gunshot. However, w