Legal fight ensues over woman's body

Nique Leili

Nique Leili

LAWRENCEVILLE -- A legal tug-of-war between the family of a slain Lawrenceville mother and the husband whom police have called a suspect is scheduled to be decided in Gwinnett Probate Court next week. At issue: Who should control Nique Leili's body and dictate her funeral?

Leili's eldest daughter, Alex Page, 19, filed a petition with the court as a means to halt funeral proceedings and take control of her mother's remains. Page and other family members are fearful they could be barred from attending her funeral, which they say Leili's husband, Matt Leili, has not invited them to.

The Gwinnett County Medical Examiner's Office released the remains Wednesday to a Lawrenceville funeral home at the request of Matt Leili, the legal next-of-kin. Authorities won't disclose if a cause of death has been determined, or if further tests are pending.

There was no reason for forensic experts to keep the body any longer, an official said.

For now, the remains of Nique Leili are being kept at Tom Wages Funeral Home in Lawrenceville. "We are a family company and we will certainly respect this family's request," the funeral home's CEO, Rick Johnson, said Thursday.

Lawrenceville attorney Noel Benedict, who represents Nique Leili's family in two separate petitions in the case, said a hearing is scheduled Tuesday morning in Judge Walter Clarke's courtroom to decide who can control the remains.

The case will hinge on a brand-new statute effective July 1 meant to resolve funeral disputes between family members in controversial cases, Benedict said.

"No one can do anything with the remains until we resolve the dispute as to who makes the decisions," Benedict said.

Whether the remains are cremated or not should not affect the investigation at this point, Benedict added.

"None of us knows what the police or medical examiners did or didn't find on the body. You have to assume they did their job," he said. "If there's evidence, they should have obtained it. It shouldn't affect the criminal case one iota."

Nique Leili's sister, Amy Elk, said the family has resigned itself to the fact that a memorial service planned Saturday in Athens will not include her sister's body.

"My family needs to proceed with the memorial service," Elk said Thursday.

Matt Leili, 43, the only suspect police have singled out in his wife's homicide, broke his silence Wednesday by issuing a press release through his attorney proclaiming his innocence and downplaying media reports that he hasn't cooperated with investigators. He initially told family members his wife had vanished the morning of July 9, following a fight the couple had the prior night at home.

Gwinnett police said Matt Leili retained an attorney and ceased cooperation with detectives on Friday, the day before volunteer searchers found his wife's decomposed body beneath leaves and sticks in their Lawrenceville neighborhood, less than a mile from their Sidneys Cove home.

No charges have been filed.

In cases involving a death, state law indicates the spouse is the legal next-of-kin and can make funeral arrangements, unless they have been charged with murder or voluntary manslaughter.

Matt and Nique Leili, 44, had been married 13 years and have two daughters, ages 9 and 12. Nique Leili's father has filed a petition for custody of those children. A hearing in that matter could be weeks away, said Benedict.

"The (family's) first concern is to make sure the grandchildren are safe and on a good path. There's a lot of love there," the attorney said. "Second in priority, they want whoever murdered Nique to face appropriate criminal prosecution. Finally, they would like to put their daughter at rest ... The concern for the living is first."

Matt Leili, 43, filed for divorce July 13, claiming his wife had abandoned him and their two minor daughters. The divorce complaint was dismissed Tuesday.

The discovery of Nique Leili's body, confirmed by dental records Monday, marked the end of a relationship her friends and family described as rocky of late. Ten days before her disappearance, she called 911 to report her husband was barring her from leaving the home. Responding officers spoke to both sides individually, found no evidence of abuse and advised them of family violence laws. Neither wanted to leave, police said.

The case is attracting national interest. A segment aired Thursday evening on HLN, featuring a live interview with Elk.