Eric McLean, the father of two who shot and killed the 18-year-old student who was having an affair with his wife, told TODAY host Matt Lauer it was an accident.
It was a statement composed of a single, emotion-choked word: “Yes.”
Lauer’s exclusive interview took place in the Knoxville, Tenn., jail where McLean is being held on a first-degree murder charge while awaiting trial for the March 10 shooting. Also present was McLean’s attorney, Bruce Poston.
McLean had called 911 to report an intruder at his house. Seven minutes later, his wife, Erin McLean, called 911 to report that her husband had shot Sean Powell, the student with whom she had been having an affair. Poston said his defense is going to hinge on what happened between the two calls.
“I have to ask, ‘What happened in those seven minutes, Eric?’” Lauer said.
Before McLean could answer, Poston intervened, saying, “That we can't go through. That's gonna be — that's critical to the trial.”
Poston and McLean sat at a table across from Lauer. McLean frequently hung his head, his handcuffed hands clasped in front of his face. At times during the powerful interview, McLean’s words came in chunks separated by sobs, especially at the end when he talked both about his family and that of the victim.
More than a friendship?
McLean, 31, admitted that he suspected his wife, a graduate student who was student-teaching at West High School in Knoxville, was having an affair with Powell. From the beginning of the fall semester, he said, his wife talked excessively about the young man who had been given up for adoption at age 6 but who later reunited with his mother, Debra Flynn.
Initially, Powell’s name came up when Erin McLean talked about her students with her husband. “She just told me about his past and that he had a really troubled past and stuff like that,” Eric told Lauer.
But that soon changed as Erin began to have frequent phone conversations with her student.
“It was like in a friendship way but it was just odd, you know?” McLean said. “I didn't think it was normal and I told her that. Like, ‘It's not normal for you to be talking to students like this on the phone so much every day.’”
Then, “a couple of weeks ago,” McLean’s sons, ages 11 and 7, told him that Powell had accompanied them and their mother on a trip to the park, “and that they were holding hands and stuff like that.”
“Why not leave her?” Lauer asked.
“I just couldn’t leave her,” McLean replied.
“Explain that. Why not?”
“Cuz I love her,” McLean said, breaking down.
The McLeans had married 11 years earlier, when she was 19 and he 20. In recent years, he had put his hopes of earning a bachelor’s degree and becoming a band director at a school on hold to put his wife through college and graduate school. He worked delivering pizzas and played in a local rock band.
He didn’t talk at length or in depth with Erin about what was happening. “I just told her I didn’t want to hear about him anymore,” he told Lauer.
‘It's just a total disaster’
On March 10, Powell came to the McLean’s house as Eric was moving things to prepare for a remodeling job.
“And he pulled up and I told him that he couldn't be here. And I told him to leave. And then he didn't ... He got out of the car and I told him that he couldn't be here. Then he just started to ignore me and walked up to the yard.”
In Eric’s 911 call, he tells police that Powell was stalking his wife. He told Lauer that Powell had “been sleeping in his car in front of my house for two days.”
Eric admitted he killed Powell, but what led up to it is a story that will be told in court, Poston said.
Lauer observed, “It's hard not to sit across from you and not feel some compassion for what you're saying. And then there's a part of me, Eric, that wonders if perhaps I'm being taken for a little bit of a ride here. And if the young man across from me plotted to commit a crime and is not trying to get off with a lesser crime.”
“I think if you knew everything that you wouldn't think that,” Eric responded.
He has not had any contact with his wife since the shooting. Asked what he would tell her, he responded, “Sorry — I was, you know ... Sorry. I still love her.”
Talking of his sons, he broke down again as he said, “I love them. And I hope I see them again some time, some day. I think about them all the time.”
Thoughts of Powell and his family also torture Eric McLean: “Every day, like, I think — I think about Sean's family and I just feel really horrible ... and I just wish that none of this had happened. It's just a total disaster.”
Observed Lauer in the TODAY studio after the taped interview had run:
“This man who wanted to keep his family together and not get a divorce has guaranteed that his family will be shattered forever.”
—Mike Celizic, TODAYshow.com contributor