A bitterly cold end to May-Dec. romance

Prosecutors expect strategic trick from theft, death suspect

March 14, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

Jack Watkins, a widower from Reisterstown, fell in love with a much younger woman. But when he disappeared more than a decade ago, few people noticed.

About the same time, in May 1996, authorities in Northern Virginia were trying to identify a 111-pound man who had been found drugged and strangled. The body had been packed into a black steamer trunk and left beside a trash can near the Appalachian Trail. For seven years, no one claimed him.

Loudoun County, Va., detectives finally made a match in 2003, and the body was that of 76-year-old Watkins.

Incredibly, prosecutors say, the suspect hadn't gotten far: His one-time paramour, Nancy Jean Siegel, was still in Maryland, cashing Watkins' Social Security checks years after his disappearance.

Today, Siegel, 58, is scheduled to appear in federal court in Baltimore in a case that prosecutors describe as the cold-blooded killing of her older boyfriend. She has been in prison for more than three years awaiting trial.

In documents filed yesterday, federal prosecutors say Siegel plans to plead guilty to theft of government property, bank and wire fraud, and identity theft. But authorities say she does not plan plead guilty to conspiracy to commit murder, a charge in the original indictment.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Christine Manuelian and Tamera Fine object to Siegel's plan, arguing in the new court documents that if she does not admit murder conspiracy, she will not be held fully accountable for Watkins' death.

"Clearly - as defense counsel has already admitted - she seeks to gain strategic advantage," the prosecutors wrote, "disrupting the government's ability to present its case in a comprehensive and comprehensible manner."

The U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore argues that the killing of Watkins was especially egregious, the culmination of a two-decades-long scheme to bilk friends and husbands - Siegel has had at least three - out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Siegel's attorney did not return a call for comment yesterday. Some of those who know Siegel call her deeply troubled, a Baltimore native who once danced on the Buddy Deane television show, lost her father at an early age and developed a serious gambling addiction, court records show. She maintained her innocence for years, according to her attorneys.

Prosecutors have a more sinister description of the wife and mother of two. They say Siegel lured friends and husbands like a siren, only to ruin their good credit and drain their bank accounts.

In 1994, she turned her attention to Jasper Frederick Watkins, known as Jack.

To family and friends, creditors and government agencies, Siegel assumed different identities, according to prosecutors. Sometimes she was Watkins' girlfriend, other times the fiancee. Sometimes she was his daughter.

After she gained access to his accounts, Siegel rerouted the mail from his address to hers to avoid detection, prosecutors said.

She persuaded him to mortgage his home on Sungold Road in Reisterstown, authorities said. In 1995, he paid off the first mortgage and refinanced, passing along more than $20,000 to Siegel so that she could buy her own condominium, court papers show.

Instead, Siegel rented her condo and pocketed the money, according to court papers.

Soon, Watkins' financial resources started to dry up, and Siegel "attempted to get Watkins committed to a residential facility under a diagnosis of dementia by misinforming medical personnel assessing his condition," prosecutors wrote in court papers.

When that didn't work, authorities say, Siegel slipped him sedatives and deprived him of food. In May 1996, Watkins threatened to leave and tell police what had happened, according to court papers.

That is when Watkins was killed, prosecutors say.

With his head in a pillowcase and his chest covered with a pajama top, Watkins' body was found in the black trunk May 13 in a parking lot off Route 340.

According to the court papers, Siegel admitted dumping Watkins' body in Virginia but told family members that she had found him dead with a rope around his neck.

He had high levels of diphenhydramine, a drug found in Benadryl and other medications with sedative effects. An artist made sketches from photographs to help with the investigation.

Still, no one came forward.

Then, in January 2003, investigators got a break.

A third attempt to match fingerprint records paid off with records recently entered from World War II-era soldiers. A decorated veteran, Watkins had served in the Army in the 1940s.

Working with Social Security officials, detectives learned that starting four months after his death, Watkins' benefits checks were being sent to an address on Dorsey Hall Road in Columbia, Siegel's address at the time.

In 1997, the address was changed to a post office box in Ellicott City. Detectives said in court papers that they watched Siegel go to the post office, pick up the mail and deposit Watkins' checks.

On Aug. 5, 2003, investigators closed in.

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