Did scam end in murder?

Girlfriend took man's cash, killed him in '96, police say

March 16, 2009|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

Jack Watkins, who once made a daily point of greeting his neighbors, was finally so alienated from his friends and family that it took seven years before anyone knew the 75-year-old was missing, much less dead.

No one reported his May 1996 disappearance, and not even his stepdaughters came looking for him. They were cut out of his life, they said, by the much younger woman he'd taken up with, a woman he told the world he planned to marry. Then he vanished.

Police found his emaciated body almost immediately, stuffed inside a 31-inch-long steamer trunk and left to rot beside a Loudon County, Va., trash can near the Appalachian Trail. But he wasn't identified until 2003. Six more years would pass before his girlfriend, as he thought of her, was tried in his death.

Today, a federal court jury will begin deliberations to determine whether a depressed Watkins killed himself, as defendant Nancy Siegel claims, or if she murdered him to keep her secrets safe, as the prosecution asserts.

Siegel isolated Watkins, the government said, drugged him, starved him and ultimately strangled him at her Ellicott City apartment, standing on his throat until he died of "cervical compression."

But first, prosecutors say, she stripped him of everything he owned. She allegedly pawned his possessions, opened more than a dozen credit accounts in his name, took the proceeds from the sale of his home and convinced him to lease a $44,000 black BMW for her even though he received only $1,200 a month in Social Security and retirement payments (which she pocketed after his death).

And when there was nothing left, she killed him, lawyers said, to keep her fraud from being discovered and to keep him from inconveniencing a relationship she had recently resumed with a rich loan broker, who would become husband No. 3.

She couldn't take the risk that Watkins, or someone he told, would tell police what she had done, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard C. Kay said during closing arguments Thursday.

"She had to get rid of him, but she couldn't let him go," Kay said. "She made a plan that Jack would just disappear."

In court last week, Siegel's face was unendingly stern behind black-rimmed spectacles. She stands about 5 feet tall, with a round torso set upon slim legs and shoulder-length blond hair pulled into a high ponytail.

The government proved that she's a chronic thief, her lawyer conceded, a career con artist with questionable character. But there's no evidence that she murdered Watkins, defense attorney Andrew Levy told the jury.

"The fact that a young woman convinced an old man that she was in love with him and that he should spend money on her is not a crime," he said.

Siegel, who turns 61 this month, is charged with a decades-long scheme that had dozens of victims - including her husbands, daughters and multiple financial institutions. A 21-count indictment accuses her of stealing government property, bank fraud, mail fraud, identity theft and witness tampering by murdering Watkins so he couldn't tell on her.

She faces life in prison if convicted.

Before he met Siegel, Jasper Frederick "Jack" Watkins was a "sociable, energetic person," his stepdaughter Cheryl Jenkins told the court. He was into karaoke, liked to garden and went out of his way to greet his Reisterstown neighbor each evening when the man arrived home. He looked forward to a breakfast club with his friends and attended a few functions held by his late wife's family.

He was in good health, if a little on the trim side for his 5-foot, 7-inch frame, and financially responsible, with a handful of rarely used and fully paid-off credit accounts. He owned his house outright.

But witnesses said everything changed after November 1994, once Watkins opened his door to find 46-year-old Nancy Siegel standing there, selling burial plots door to door using her birth name of Sweitzer. She was a Baltimore native who danced on The Buddy Deane Show as a teenager, and she hooked Watkins from the start: He put down a $259 deposit on a mausoleum.

Watkins gushed about his new friend. He told his stepdaughters they planned to marry. He showed her off to his buddies. He appeared happy, they said. Then he stopped appearing at all. He no longer reached out to family, he skipped the breakfast club, eschewed the senior center.

Multiple credit accounts were opened in his name, and high balances accumulated. He mortgaged his home, then refinanced. And on April 9, 1996, he sold it for $90,500, clearing less than $4,000 on the sale.

He and Siegel took that money to Atlantic City, exactly where she shouldn't have been.

Acquaintances have described Siegel as deeply troubled. She lost her father at an early age and developed a serious addiction to gambling. "It will cause you to do things," she later told investigators.

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