Woman ordered to trial in lover's death

Siegel's attempted plea to lesser charges fails

March 15, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun Reporter

Nancy Jean Siegel, who admitted that she stole from at least one man but says she did not kill a Reisterstown widower, declined to plead guilty in Baltimore federal court yesterday, propelling the case to trial in May.

An exasperated U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis attempted to broker a plea during the 90-minute hearing in U.S. District Court. But when prosecutors and defense attorneys couldn't agree on the risks Siegel might face at sentencing, Davis ordered the trial to start May 28.

"This is a ... Tom Wolfe novel. Who could believe it?" Davis said, adding that the alleged crimes were "easily in the realm of human capacity."

The case centers on the 1996 death of Jack Watkins, a 76-year-old widower whose emaciated, 111-pound body was found sealed in a steamer trunk and placed by the Appalachian Trail in Loudoun County, Va.

It took local investigators more than seven years to identify Watkins' remains. They then discovered that Siegel was cashing his Social Security checks, prosecutors say.

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

The Justice Department considered - but eventually rejected - seeking the death penalty against Siegel on the murder conspiracy charge.

Wearing a yellow prison jumpsuit yesterday, Siegel, 58, wanted to plead guilty to theft, including forging Watkins' name on about $7,000 worth of Social Security checks after his death in order to cash them, her lawyers said.

She has been incarcerated for more than three years awaiting trial.

Defense attorney Andrew Levy worried that if Siegel pleaded guilty to several charges related to theft and fraud, federal prosecutors would then attempt to hold her responsible for what they call a 20-year scheme of defrauding husbands, paramours and friends that ended in the killing of Watkins.

"She denies any complicity in the death of Jack Watkins," Levy said.

Calling Siegel's attempt at a partial guilty plea "gamesmanship," Assistant U.S. Attorneys Christine Manuelian and Tamera Fine alleged in court papers that Siegel began by forcing her first husband into a debt of $100,000 by using his name and Social Security number without his knowledge.

This continued with her second husband, Ted Giesendaffer, who also suffered a substantial loss at her hands, the prosecutors said.

The fraud extended to friends, prosecutors alleged. John and Linda Mayberry provided a down payment for Siegel to buy a car, prosecutors said. When Siegel defaulted, John Mayberry learned that his friend had also used his personal information from the loan to obtain credit in his name, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors also allege that Siegel persuaded Jack Butcher to take out a $3,000 loan and give the money to her. Siegel tried to default on the loan, but Butcher threatened to go to the police, they allege.

Butcher acted too late, according to a federal indictment, because Siegel had used Butcher's personal information to obtain other credit in his name without his knowledge.

In 1994, Siegel befriended Jasper Frederick Watkins, known as Jack, prosecutors say. She "sought to restrict Watkins' contact with his family and friends, including intercepting messages on his telephone answering machine," the indictment alleges.

In addition to conspiracy to commit murder, she is charged with stealing more than $100,000 by the time Watkins' assets had run out.

With Watkins' house, belongings and good credit gone, prosecutors say, Siegel, after gaining access to his accounts, rerouted mail from his address to hers.

She is also accused of persuading him to mortgage his home on Sungold Road in Reisterstown, then taking the profits.

Prosecutors also allege that Siegel tried to have Watkins committed to a hospital for dementia by misinforming medical personnel assessing his condition, prosecutors say.

In May 1996, Watkins threatened to leave her and tell police what had happened, according to court papers. Shortly after, he was killed, prosecutors say.

Watkins' body was found in the steamer trunk May 13, 1996. According to the court papers, Siegel admitted dumping Watkins' body in Virginia but told family members that she had found him dead in Maryland with a rope around his neck.

After the body was discovered, investigators learned that it contained high levels of a sedative. Because the remains seemed to be that of an older person, sheriff's investigators guessed that he might have served in uniform and approached the military.

A search of military fingerprint records in 1996 turned up nothing, as did a subsequent one in 1999. The investigator on the case eventually retired and passed the case to another

A third attempt to match fingerprint records paid off with records recently entered from World War II-era soldiers. Watkins had served in the Army during that period.

Working with Social Security officials, detectives learned that, starting four months after his death, Watkins' benefits checks had been sent to Siegel's address in Columbia.

In August 2003, Loudoun County detectives and federal agents confronted Siegel at the Ellicott City post office.

"Nancy, this charade that you have created for yourself is over. ... We know where Jack is. ... You know where Jack is. ... This house of cards that was standing for you has collapsed," FBI Special Agent Jon Moeller told her.

A look of surprise crossed her face, investigators noted. But they said she quickly diverted her attention to the baby in her care.

"Just don't take my grandson. I'll tell you what happened," she said.

Prosecutors said she never did.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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