Trial begins for man in Conn. hostage-arson case

AP News
Posted: Oct 03, 2011 7:07 PM
Trial begins for man in Conn. hostage-arson case

Just seconds before a woman was allegedly kidnapped from a Hartford parking garage by her ex-husband and held hostage for a dozen hours, she urged a friend during a cell phone call to contact police as he approached her, the friend testified in state court Monday.

The testimony came during the first day of former advertising executive Richard Shenkman's trial in Hartford Superior Court on charges including kidnapping, assault and arson. He's accused of abducting his ex-wife, attorney Nancy Tyler, and holding her hostage in July 2009 before burning down the home they once shared. She escaped without serious injury.

At the time, Shenkman and Tyler were involved in bitter divorce proceedings.

Tyler's friend, Susanne Arnold, was the first witness and testified that Tyler called her on the morning of the alleged kidnapping, saying she was concerned because she saw Shenkman's minivan on a street near her downtown office.

Arnold said she then heard Shenkman's voice in the background saying, "Nancy, I just want to talk."

"She immediately said, `Richard, get away from me,'" Arnold testified. Tyler then told Arnold to call police before the phone went dead, Arnold testified.

Later, after police surrounded the home in South Windsor, about 9 miles northeast of Hartford, Shenkman called Arnold three times, she testified. In the first call, he sounded agitated and said police were "jerking him around," she said. In a second call, Arnold testified that Shenkman asked for help in getting a priest to go to the house to administer last rites. Arnold said she declined to answer the third call on the advice of police.

Tyler escaped about an hour before Shenkman surrendered to police as the house went up in flames. Police said Shenkman had threatened to blow up the house and kill Tyler while demanding that the media remove his and his wife's names from their stories.

Tyler has said that she spent much of the time handcuffed to Shenkman. She said she escaped after Shenkman handcuffed her to an eyebolt in a basement wall while he went upstairs to check on police activity, and she managed to unscrew the bolt.

Shenkman, who appeared in court wearing a black suit, a white shirt and no tie, has pleaded not guilty to all charges. His lawyer, Hugh Keefe, said Shenkman was legally insane at the time and will mount a mental-illness defense. Keefe also suggested Monday while cross-examining a police official that Shenkman was trying to get police to kill him.

Tyler is expected to testify later in the week, perhaps as early as Wednesday. The trial, which is expected to take several weeks, is to resume Tuesday before a jury of four men and two women and Judge Julia DiCocco Dewey.

At the time of the incidents, Shenkman was an advertising executive whose Bloomfield firm once produced "The Gayle King Show" starring Oprah Winfrey's best friend and did commercials for state government.

His brother, Mark Shenkman, is founder and president of one of the nation's largest money management firms, Shenkman Capital Management Inc., which has offices in Stamford and New York City.

Authorities say Shenkman kidnapped Tyler just before they were due in state Family Court for a hearing related to their divorce. Lawyers said Shenkman was supposed to pay Tyler $100,000 for legal fees or turn over the South Windsor home.

The couple married in 1993 and divorced in July 2008 after two years of court proceedings. But the court case continued as Shenkman filed appeals.

As part of the divorce, Tyler was awarded the couple's beach home in the Niantic section of East Lyme. Police say Shenkman burned that house down in 2007 hours before he was to hand it over to Tyler. Shenkman awaits trial on an arson charge in that case.

Court records also allege Shenkman frequently violated a protective order and repeatedly threatened Tyler's life and his own, saying the only way they would be divorced was if one of them died.

South Windsor Police Chief Matthew Reed testified Monday that 80 to 100 police officers and other authorities responded to the scene, including regional SWAT team members and National Guardsmen. He said police snipers had the "green light" to shoot Shenkman up until the time Tyler escaped.

Keefe then suggested while cross-examining Reed that Shenkman was on a "suicide mission" and wanted police to kill him.

Reed responded, "In my mind, he felt that by the end of the event he would be dead."

Reed also testified that he saw six cameras set up outside the house. Tyler told police that Shenkman monitored video feeds wired into televisions inside the home, talked of suicide and had printed information from the Internet on carbon monoxide poisoning and how to blow up a house with explosives. Police did not find any explosives at the scene.

Another police officer testified that he heard a single gunshot go off inside the home.