SAN DIEGO — Robert McGill, the man accused of killing his wife on a Mexican cruise, made a dramatic first court appearance in San Diego, arguing with public defenders as family members sobbed loudly in the gallery.
The 55-year-old man asked a judge Friday if he could make a statement, then had a hushed but emotional conversation with two federal defenders.
During the talk, McGill gestured to his family and could be heard saying: “I think they are suffering and need to hear from me.”
McGill also said: “That’s putting more financial burden on top of the pain and horror that I’ve caused this family.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what McGill was referring to.
U.S. District Magistrate William McCurie Jr. entered a plea of not guilty on McGill’s behalf and set a detention hearing for July 23.
Robert McGill and his wife seemed to be living a romance story: ex-high school sweethearts who found each other decades later and renewed their love.
So friends and neighbors were shocked to learn the veteran Los Angeles County school teacher is accused of killing his wife on his 55th birthday during a domestic dispute on a Mexican cruise. Shirley McGill had turned 55 just six days before she died.
“It doesn’t make any sense. You are talking about a situation that just doesn’t have any connection to the people I know as neighbors,” said Michael Hougardy, who lives on the McGills’ cul-de-sac in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.
“Bob and Shirley never said anything negative about each other,” he told The Associated Press on Friday. “I saw Bob a couple days before they left. He was excited. He was looking forward to it.”
McGill was arrested for investigation of murder and jailed Thursday after the Carnival Elation returned to San Diego.
Debra Hartman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego, declined Friday to say whether he had been charged but said she would provide information later in the day. McGill could make a first court appearance as early as Friday afternoon, she said.
An autopsy was also tentatively set for Friday, according to the San Diego County medical examiner’s office.
The first hint of trouble came on Tuesday, three days into the five-night cruise to Cabo San Lucas, when a passenger contacted the ship’s security to express concerns that a woman might be dead, said Keith Slotter, a special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Diego bureau.
Crew members found the body of Shirley McGill in the cabin and later detained her husband and placed him in the brig as the ship sailed home.
It wasn’t immediately known if McGill had an attorney.
McGill was a divorced father of two sons when he reconnected with Shirley through the Internet, colleagues said.
Court records show McGill was divorced from his first wife in 1998 after a 2½-year proceeding and then filed for bankruptcy in 2001. Two years later, he married Shirley McGill in Las Vegas.
In bankruptcy papers, McGill listed assets of $50,000 to $100,000 and debts of $100,000 to $500,000. The attorney who handled the case did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
“Bob and Shirley loved each other very much. Their marriage was the most important thing in his life,” Paul White, a teacher at the school where McGill taught, told the AP. “They were childhood sweethearts.”
White said he worked with McGill for nearly 11 years and knew him to be calm and pleasant.
“He’s a great friend, he’s great with kids, he’s a great dad, he’s a great husband,” White said.
McGill, whose gray hair falls below his shoulders, played guitar, liked to ride horses and hike and “was always out every morning walking the dogs,” Hougardy said.
McGill has worked for the Los Angeles County Office of Education since 1979 but would likely be placed on administrative leave if his case is prosecuted, spokeswoman Margo Minecki said.
Colleagues said McGill spent years teaching at-risk teens, became burned out by the job a decade ago but was revitalized when he came to work at the West Valley Leadership Academy in Canoga Park, a county-run alternative high school that White founded to help at-risk youth. The county closed it in June because of dwindling attendance.
McGill had switched teaching jobs a few years ago and was tutoring pregnant teenagers in an independent-study program.
Mo Freedman, who worked with McGill at the county education agency for 20 years, called him “a free thinker” who enjoyed his work.
“We all get a little cynical at one time,” Freedman said. “I thought Bob was like that years ago, and then he reacquainted with his high school sweetheart, Shirley. He was reinvigorated. And Paul (White) kind of pulled him out of the doldrums, working with the kids.”
Shirley McGill retired last week from the state Department of Motor Vehicles, and her husband had planned to retire soon as well, acquaintances said.
Hougardy said Shirley McGill planned to move to Oregon, where her family and her children from a previous marriage lived. McGill was going to join her when he retired.
Her former colleagues at the Canoga Park DMV office were shocked when they heard about Shirley McGill’s death on television.
“They took it very hard,” George Wong, the office’s administrative manager, told the Daily News. “She was a very loving person and a kind person.”
Associated Press writers Sue Manning, Solvej Schou and Anthony McCartney in Los Angeles and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas contributed to this report.