As a child growing up in Oak Ridge, Tenn., Erin Heavilin was an animal lover with a talent for taming horses no one else could tame. She met her future husband, Jon Corwin, in the fifth grade. When they started dating on Erin’s 16th birthday, Jon, one year her senior, asked her parents’ permission first. As they fell in love, she wrote him poems.
The two were an all-American couple with a fairy-tale romance. When Jon joined the Marines and the couple married young in November 2012, their future looked promising.
But when they moved to Jon’s Marine base in Twentynine Palms, Calif., in September 2013, they would meet a monster disguised as a friend.
This “friendship” would cost Erin her life, as Shanna Hogan reveals in a new book, “Secrets of a Marine’s Wife,” (St. Martin’s Press).
Conor and Aisling Malakie lived downstairs from the Corwins with their infant son, Brian. Chris and Nichole Lee and their 6-year-old daughter, Liberty, lived next door.
“While their husbands were on duty, Erin, Aisling and Nichole would stop by each other’s apartments for snacks and gossip,” Hogan writes. “When Jon, Conor, and Chris were home, the couples barbecued on the grill outside their complex or watched movies and TV shows at each other’s apartments.”
While all seemed normal at first, one of their new friends was a mess of red flags.
“At first, Chris appeared well-suited for the uniform. But other Marines noticed he often seemed preoccupied with weapons,” Hogan writes. “At least once, he was reprimanded by a commanding officer for using the rifles and rocket launchers like they were toys. Over time, Chris gained a reputation for being rash and reckless.”
The Corwins weren’t prepared for the challenges that came with being newlyweds, often fighting about money and accusing each other of overspending.
But when Erin got pregnant, she was delighted, announcing it with a blue and pink post on Facebook — which made it devastating when she miscarried several weeks later.
This took a further toll on the Corwins’ marriage. Erin withdrew socially, growing emotionally distant from her husband, who didn’t know how to comfort his wife.
Erin’s fate caught Chris Lee’s attention.
“Chris had been observing Erin when they hung out together and noticed a sorrow in her face that mirrored his own sadness,” Hogan writes. “He started spending more time with her, without Nichole around.”
One Sunday night in February 2014, the Lees joined the Corwins in their apartment. Jon and Nichole watched an episode of “The Walking Dead,” which Erin didn’t watch due to the violence. But instead of joining his wife, Chris played video games with Erin in her and Jon’s bedroom.
“Chris and Erin were alone, seated on the floor, beside each other, playing the game,” Hogan writes. “Suddenly, one of them paused the game, and Erin glanced in his direction.”
The pair started kissing, and while “it only lasted a few seconds,” Hogan writes, “that one kiss changed everything,” and they began an affair.
The affair became intense quickly. Soon, the pair was discussing leaving their spouses, and what a great stepmother Erin would be for Liberty, whom she frequently baby-sat.
‘If you ever have anything else to do with my husband, I’ll kill you myself!’
But Nichole could sense how distant Chris had become. She checked her husband’s phone and saw Chris’ texts to Erin. “You’re so gorgeous.” “I think I’m falling for you.”
Nichole confronted her husband in an hours-long tirade, and informed Jon of the affair in front of the others during one long, angry night.
“As Erin turned to leave,” Hogan writes, “Nichole stormed after her, eyes flashing with anger. She shoved her finger in Erin’s face.”
“‘If you ever have anything else to do with my husband, I’ll kill you myself!’ ” she screamed.
Erin and Chris briefly called off the affair, but several weeks later were again sneaking off together.
Chris’ time in the Marines was due to end on July 4, 2014, after which he, Nichole and Liberty were scheduled to return to their home state of Alaska.
On June 22, Erin learned she was pregnant again. This time, she didn’t announce it on social media.
The following week, on June 28, Chris planned a trip to Joshua Tree National Park with Conor to hunt coyotes, bringing along his .22 Winchester rifle. He also had a propane tank he hoped to explode, using gasoline and his rifle, in one of the park’s many abandoned mine shafts.
Conor canceled because he had friends staying over, so Chris went alone.
By coincidence, Erin was also driving to Joshua Tree that day, supposedly to scout places to bring her mother during an upcoming visit.
At around 7:30 that morning, Erin kissed Jon goodbye, told him she loved him for the final time, and left. She did not return that night, answered none of her texts, and was never seen alive again.
In the aftermath of Erin’s disappearance, the police had two jobs, one more difficult than the other.
Accumulating evidence to prosecute her likely killer was the easy part.
While Chris Lee and Jon Corwin were initially both regarded as suspects, Jon was quickly ruled out.
Chris, on the other hand, had motive, means and opportunity galore, and the evidence against him stacked up. He was caught lying about the affair to the police. An unusual garrote was found in his car. He had even done Google searches about how to dispose of a body.
The second task — finding Erin’s body — was far more difficult.
The search for Erin Corwin’s body occurred over 1,200 square miles of wilderness and involved six different law-enforcement agencies and hundreds of volunteers.
After several weeks of searching, they found nothing. The authorities made the difficult decision that on Saturday, Aug. 16, the search would end.
Late that day, a caver noticed a strong gasoline smell coming from one of the mines. Inside was Erin Corwin’s body.
Erin had been choked to death with a homemade garrote, then dropped 250 feet down a mine shaft. A propane tank was found with her, part of an unsuccessful effort to burn her body.
Chris Lee was arrested for first-degree murder with a special circumstance of “lying in wait.”
That’s because Chris and Erin did meet at Joshua Tree the day she went missing. Chris told her days before that he had a special surprise for her, and Erin thought he might even propose marriage — a prospect that excited her.
Instead, the man she loved lured her into Joshua Tree National Park and murdered her, choking her to death over five long, agonizing minutes.
At his trial, which began in October 2016, the prosecution easily established Chris’ affinity for violence, as well as his motive and opportunity for the murder.
The defense presented just one witness. Chris Lee took the stand in his own defense, and delivered a desperate — and dubious — tale.
Chris confessed to killing Erin Corwin, confirming all the evidence against him.
But then he said that while speaking with Erin in the desert about her desire to be Liberty’s stepmother, he remembered something.
“One night after his wife had given Liberty a bath,” Chris told the court, “Nichole found her daughter’s crotch to be red and irritated. Nichole . . . accused Erin of somehow causing the ‘suspicious’ rash.”
As he and his wife talked, Chris started to think that Erin seemed too emotionally attached to the little girl. This, he claimed, “turned a gear in my head.”
“Did you touch Liberty?” he said he asked Erin. “Did you molest my daughter?”
“And she said, ‘Yes, but,’ And that was the last thing I ever heard her say.”
That, Chris said, is when he lost control, grabbed the garrotte, and squeezed the life out of Erin Corwin.
The story was an attempt to be considered for a charge of involuntary manslaughter, which likely would have resulted in a relatively short prison sentence.
The jurors didn’t believe him. They found him guilty of first-degree murder with special circumstance. It took them just 15 minutes to reach that verdict.
Chris Lee was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole, and resides in the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.
Erin’s family, meanwhile, has worked to remember the good times with their beloved daughter instead of focusing on their anger at her killer.
“I decided I refuse to be bitter and angry,” said Erin’s mother, Lore Heavilin.
“He’s already taken enough from me. If I’m bitter and angry, he’s taking my mind, my soul and my heart. And I’m not giving him that.”