Conn. man convicted of kidnapping ex-wife, arson

AP News
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Posted: Oct 25, 2011 7:07 PM
Conn. man convicted of kidnapping ex-wife, arson

A former advertising executive is facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison after being convicted Tuesday of kidnapping his ex-wife, holding her hostage for nearly 12 hours and burning down the Connecticut home they used to share.

Richard Shenkman, 62, showed no visible emotion as the six-person jury in Hartford rejected his insanity defense and convicted him of all 10 charges, including kidnapping, arson, assault, threatening and violating a protective order. His ex-wife, who escaped without serious injury, testified that Shenkman fired a handgun near her head, prepared a noose for her and claimed to have rigged the house with explosives.

The standoff in 2009 ended when Shenkman came out of the burning home and pointed the gun at his head. Police subdued him with rubber bullets and stun guns and took him into custody. Two psychiatrists testified that Shenkman was psychotic at the time, but the prosecutor argued that he was just acting mentally ill to avoid prison and presented experts who testified Shenkman wasn't psychotic.

Shenkman, who didn't testify, has been detained since his arrest. He is set to be sentenced Jan. 4. The 10 charges carry up to about 90 years in prison.

He also awaits trial for allegedly burning down his and ex-wife Nancy Tyler's former beachfront home in East Lyme in 2007.

Prosecutor Vicki Melchiorre said Tyler was relieved that the trial was over and that he was found guilty instead of not guilty by reason of insanity, which would have resulted in him being sent to a state psychiatric hospital for criminals with periodic reviews on whether he should be released.

"She wants her life back," Melchiorre said.

Tyler, a civil litigation attorney, didn't talk with reporters at the courthouse after the verdict but sent an email to The Associated Press late Tuesday afternoon.

"I'm so grateful to the jury for their hard work and careful deliberation," she wrote. "My family and I are pleased with the verdict and appreciate the prosecutor's hard work, dedication and skill."

Shenkman's lawyer, Hugh Keefe said he was disappointed with the verdict, but wasn't surprised because insanity defenses are hard to prove. He said such defenses are used in only 1 percent of criminal trials and only a quarter of those succeed. He also said he believes juries are biased against mentally ill defendants.

"He knew how difficult this defense was, and he knew he didn't sound pretty on the tapes," Keefe said, referring to recorded calls between Shenkman and police during the crisis.

Jurors declined to comment while leaving the courthouse Tuesday. They began deliberations at the end of the three-week trial Monday afternoon.

On July 7, 2009, police said Shenkman kidnapped Tyler from a downtown Hartford parking garage at gunpoint and forced her to drive about nine miles to the South Windsor home they once shared.

Authorities said Shenkman and Tyler were due in court for a divorce-related hearing later that morning, and he was supposed to turn over the house to her or face jail time for contempt of court.

Tyler testified at the trial about her harrowing ordeal, saying Shenkman handcuffed himself to her, fired a handgun twice near her head, prepared a noose for her and claimed to have rigged the house with explosives as swarms of police surrounded the home. Tyler had called a friend on her cellphone in concern over seeing Shenkman's minivan near her Hartford office and urged her to call police just before she was kidnapped.

Tyler said that Shenkman handcuffed her to an eyebolt in a basement wall at one point, and that she managed to unscrew the bolt and run outside when Shenkman went upstairs to check on police activity.

Shenkman talked on the phone to dispatchers and police officers several times during the crisis. The jury listened to the recorded conversations, in which Shenkman sometimes sounded frantic, screamed, used profanity and several times counted down the seconds to his threatened killing of Tyler.

Police testified that the nearly 15-hour standoff ended when Shenkman came out of the burning home, which was uninsured at the time, and pointed a handgun at his head. Minutes later, officers shot Shenkman with rubber bullets and used a stun gun on him twice before subduing him and taking him into custody.

Shenkman and Tyler married in 1993 and she filed for divorce in 2006. A judge approved the divorce in 2008, but court proceedings continued as Shenkman appealed.

Tyler also testified that Shenkman once told her that he had learned he could get his way in many situations if he acted crazy.

Melchiorre told the jury during closing arguments Monday that Shenkman kidnapped Tyler and burned down the home because he was upset she filed for divorce and he didn't want her to have the house. She also said he was scared to go to prison.

"Fear of going to jail is not psychotic," Melchiorre said, "especially when you're a 60-year-old, short, out-of-shape guy with an annoying disposition. It's not something that would make him popular in jail."

In the East Lyme house fire, Shenkman is being detained without bail on charges he burned that house down just hours before he was to hand it over to Tyler as part of the divorce.

Shenkman is the brother of Mark Shenkman, founder and president of one of the nation's largest money management firms, Shenkman Capital Management. His former advertising firm, Primedia, once produced the former "Gayle King Show" in 1997 starring Oprah Winfrey's best friend, who now has a new TV show with the same title.