Bellingham man guilty of plot to murder wife’s new boyfriend on Valentine’s Day

A Bellingham man must serve 13 years in prison for trying to murder his estranged wife’s new boyfriend on Valentine’s Day, a judge ruled Monday.

Patrick Allen Leach, 44, pleaded guilty to attempted murder in the second degree for trying to kill the man with a 12-gauge shotgun. Outside an apartment complex on Northwest Avenue, the couple wrestled the loaded gun from Leach before he could shoot.

“I remember thinking: I’m not calling Jon’s parents to tell them my ex killed him,” the defendant’s ex-wife, Stacey Leach, wrote in a statement to the judge. “Pat would need to shoot me first.”

Stacey Leach filed for divorce in December 2014. Divorce papers recount Patrick Leach’s mental breakdown and abusive behavior: He put a tracking device on his wife’s phone, and hacked into her Facebook page to post “terrible things,” according to his wife and daughter.

In court records, Stacey Leach pointed to her husband’s mental health – medical records showed three recent suicide attempts, and a photo of a knife held to his wrist that he sent to their daughter – to argue she should have custody of the children.

In the meantime Stacey Leach started dating someone new, Jon Hildebrand. A few weeks into the relationship Hildebrand, 36, saw a sexual text that Patrick Leach sent to Stacey. So he called Patrick Leach, introduced himself, and explained he was dating Stacey now. Hildebrand asked him not to do that again.

“He just flipped,” Hildebrand told a reporter for The Bellingham Herald that month. “I mean, she’d told me in the past that the guy had some mental health issues.”

Leach followed up with death threats, about 35 of them by Hildebrand’s count.

On the evening of Feb. 13, 2015, the estranged couple got into a fight that turned physical at their son’s apartment. Police were called but no one was arrested. Stacey Leach recalled that she was in so much pain the next morning, from how her soon-to-be ex-husband hurt her, that she could not lift her arms to wash her hair. Hildebrand got a few more texts around 11 a.m. from Patrick Leach’s phone.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, have fun you guys,” one text read. Followed by, “You (expletive) (expletive).”

About five minutes later Stacey’s van, a green Ford Aerostar, rolled up to the apartments at 3422 Northwest in the Birchwood neighborhood.

Stacey Leach and Hildebrand thought her son might be returning the van to her, so they went outside to meet him. Instead they saw Leach opening the driver’s door, and bringing out a shotgun in a soft case. The three of them got into a scuffle in the parking lot, as Leach kept reaching for the trigger of the shotgun.

“He’s got a gun! He’s got a gun, and his finger is on the trigger!” Hildebrand shouted, according to charging papers.

Police arrived and pulled the gun, still halfway in the scabbard, from the dog pile of people. The safety was off, and the gun was loaded with two rounds of Remington birdshot, which can be fatal at close range.

Within minutes Leach confessed to an officer wearing a body camera: He came up with the plan to kill Hildebrand the night before, and that morning he stole a Benelli Nova shotgun, two rounds and a fifth of whiskey from his cousin’s house on Starry Road. He took the battery out of his phone so he couldn’t be tracked. The plan was to get Hildebrand drunk so he could shoot him, said his public defender, Starck Follis.

“It almost defies logic,” Follis told the judge Monday, “and I think this is really reflected in his distorted, disorganized thinking.”

Follis told Judge Ira Uhrig that Leach was a “severely damaged human being,” who had suffered a traumatic brain injury. In the defense’s view, the injury had a direct bearing on Leach’s plan to kill Hildebrand. When Follis met Leach for the first time in jail, his mouth was crooked, he had a difficult time articulating words and in follow-up meetings he remembered little of what was said.

A neuropsychologist hired by the defense confirmed that Leach had brain damage, but not to the degree that it would make a viable defense at trial.

The prosecutor, Dave McEachran, said it was critical to note that Leach waited until his cousin left home to sneak in and steal the gun. That suggested he was capable of formulating a plot to carry out the murder.

At his court hearing Monday, Leach made a one-minute statement to the judge. He spoke without notes. He said he has been healing, mentally, over the past 1 1/2 years he has served in jail.

“It didn’t really seem serious at the time,” Leach said. “Over time, as I’ve been healing, I’ve noticed that it was a very serious crime. So I do apologize, and I have no intentions of ever doing it again.”

Uhrig sentenced Leach to 13 years in prison, as suggested by the plea deal.

The Leachs’ divorce was official in September 2015. Stacey Leach and Hildebrand, who are still a couple, sat together in the courtroom gallery Monday. The prosecutor read a letter to the judge on their behalf. They plan to wed soon.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb