OC fertility doctor sentenced to 15 years to life in wife's murder

Eric Scott Sills reacts during opening statements in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana, CA on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. Sills is on trial for the death of his wife, Susann Sills. (Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Regist

A fertility doctor was sentenced Friday to 15 years to life in prison for killing his wife in their San Clemente home.

Eric Scott Sills, 58, was convicted in December for the Nov. 13, 2016, death of 45-year-old Susann Stephanie Arsuaga Sills, who was strangled in her home.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker told jurors during the trial that Sills was "smacking around" his wife before strangling her then trying to make it look like an accident by making it look like she had fallen down the stairs. But the doctor's attorney, Jack Earley, questioned the integrity of the investigation and insisted that the migraine-suffering victim stumbled down the stairs and sustained a fatal spinal injury.

During Friday's sentencing hearing, the victim's mother, Theresa Neubauer, told Orange County Superior Court Judge Patrick Donahue that her daughter was "a dynamic person" who was a cheerleader in her teens, "ran hurdles" in high school and was her class president.

"She was a vibrant, witty and creative adult," her mother said. "And she was hard-working."

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The two lived far apart so they kept in touch with "marathon calls," her mother said.

Her daughter also had a passion for animals and rescued some, she said.

The victim managed her husband's practice with "enthusiasm," and "felt no doubt that it would be a practice that eventually (would) be one that she and Scott could both be proud of," Neubauer said.

"Several weeks before her death ... she told me during one of our marathon phone sessions that I was her best friend," Neubauer said.

The victim's half-brother, Frank Gaulden, recalled the impact his sister had on his life as a young child. The two lived together until he was 8, he said.

"She would play teacher with me," Gaulden said, adding she would give him pluses and demerits. "She would babysit me and act as my protector."

He recalled a conversation with his father as a teen thinking his sibling was 6 feet tall, despite her petite stature.

"In my mind that's how big she was," Gaulden said.

He said there was no "joy or happiness" from the trial verdict, because all of those connected to the victim have been given their own "life sentences of sorts."

Gaulden regretted falling out of touch with his sister for years at times, so he committed months before her death to reengaging more regularly. Whenever they did reconnect "it was like no time passed," he said.

"I feel sadness and regret when she died," he said. "It was like reading a novel and when it starts to get good you turn the page and the rest of the pages are blank, going on forever."

The victim's daughter, Mary-Katherine, told the judge about her difficulties since her mother's death, including being placed in foster care.

"I have experienced so much tragedy in my life," she said, adding that her foster mother died recently.

"I want my father to walk me down the aisle some day," she said as she "humbly" asked Donahue for "mercy" for her father.

Donahue denied probation because the victim was particularly vulnerable as she was "very petite." He also said the killing involved "sophistication," because it was clear from the evidence she was killed elsewhere in the house and that he used the stairs in an effort to "stage" the cause of death to make it appear accidental.

Sills received 93 days credit in custody.

Two major issues in the trial included blood on drapes in the victim's room and marks on the victim's neck indicating she was choked. The prosecutor argued the victim's husband strangled her, while defense attorney Earley contended the family's two large dogs pulled on a scarf she was wearing.

One of the jurors told Walker after the verdict that the panel discounted the defense's theory on the neck injuries nearly right away.

"He was the one who strangled Susann," Walker said of the defendant during her closing argument. "It wasn't the stairs. ... It wasn't the dogs. ... We know he's smacking her around before (killing her)."

Arguing for a first-degree murder conviction, Walker noted that experts say it takes several minutes to choke someone to death, long enough for someone to reconsider their actions and stop.

"Three minutes. That's a long time to ... squeeze the life out of someone," Walker said, referring to the legal requirement for premeditation and deliberation required for a first-degree murder conviction.

Jurors were also given the options of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, with the panel ultimately opting for second-degree murder.

Walker was put on the defensive somewhat during the trial when the defendant's twins, who are now 19 and were 12 at the time of the killing, appeared to back up their father's explanations of what happened to their mother.

"It's a tough position for the people," Walker acknowledged, adding that she did not wish to vigorously cross-examine the defendant's children.

"Both of them met with the defendant multiple times and prepared for their testimony," Walker said.

Walker, instead, relied on statements they made to investigators soon after their mother's death.

Walker also questioned why the victim would have been wearing a t- shirt with blood on it.

"You don't put on dirty, bloody comfy clothes" after work, Walker said. "Why is his blood all over her shirt?"

Walker told jurors the defendant's DNA was under the victim's fingernails.

Walker argued that the defendant was infuriated by the victim posting a topless photo of herself on an online chat group when she lost a bet with others about former President Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination. A copy of the post "is on (Sills') phone and printed in his office," Walker said.

The prosecutor also said the couple had been arguing and noted one text message sent to her husband saying, "I am trapped -- there is no way out."

"She wants out," Walker said. "He's not going to let that happen."

Earley argued that if the victim and defendant were in a life-and- death struggle, the son and daughter would have heard something.

"Don't you think she'd make a peep?" Earley said. "All of that happens before she died and there isn't a peep?"

Earley sought to explain away the "elephant in the room" -- the bloody drapes in the room the victim was sleeping in -- saying it was caused by a cut she suffered earlier while changing out a window screen. He told the jurors there appears to be an "impression" of a hand in the stain.

The couple's daughter had discussed replacing the curtains previously, Earley argued.

"And I guess he also cleaned the carpet (in the bedroom) without disturbing the dog hairs," Earley said.

The defense attorney said the victim had valium in her system and had gone a day or two without eating before she fell down the stairs.

"So it's having its effect," he said of the drug. "And we know it's late at night. And we don't know how she fell."

Earley also said that Sills had agreed to take the topless photo of his wife and was in on the joke, but when he got too busy at work their daughter took it instead.

Earley said Susann Sills was an indispensable part of the couple's Center for Advanced Genetics fertility clinic in Carlsbad. She was the center's nurse, receptionist and office manager, he said.

Before she died, the victim had taken valium, which is a muscle relaxant, and Tramadol, a painkiller, to treat her migraine, but the two aren't meant to be mixed. Earley also said she struggled with a "fainting disorder," and vertigo when her migraines hit their hardest, he said.