A federal jury in Baltimore convicted Nancy Jean Siegel yesterday of murdering a Reisterstown man 30 years her senior after conning him out of everything he owned as part of a decades-long scheme that had dozens of victims, including her daughters and husbands.
The verdict was returned after about seven hours of deliberations in U.S. District Court. The jury found Siegel guilty on 20 of 21 counts, including mail, wire and bank fraud; identity theft; and witness tampering by killing 75-year-old Jasper Frederick "Jack" Watkins in 1996 to keep her financial crimes from being discovered. She was cleared on a bank fraud charge that involved changing an address on a credit account.
Sentencing is scheduled for April 23. Siegel, 60, faces life in prison.
The lengthy case has drawn varied attention, first because of its mysterious nature and later because of its facts. A Nevada writer is working on a book about it, a representative from 48 Hours attended some of the trial, and Unsolved Mysteries featured the case in 2001, when it was still far from being solved.
Police found Watkins' body stuffed in a steamer trunk and dumped in rural Virginia shortly after his strangulation in May 1996, but he wasn't identified until January 2003. Soon afterward, investigators discovered that Siegel was cashing Watkins' Social Security checks and indicted her in 2004.
As the jury forewoman repeated the word "guilty" over and over yesterday on all but one of the counts, Siegel rested her head in her left hand. She held a tissue to her eyes and made a slight gasping noise, but that was the extent of her emotional display. She remained calm and staid, as she was during the trial, while some of her family cried in the courtroom.
She never testified during the weeklong trial, and her court-appointed attorneys called no witnesses. They declined to comment yesterday at their client's direction.
The prosecution said Siegel's scheming began in the early 1980s during her first marriage. She had developed a gambling addiction and began using the personal information of others, including those close to her, to open lines of credit and steal hundreds of thousands of dollars, a pattern she repeated.
Siegel met Watkins, a sociable widower living on $1,200 a month, in 1994 when she was selling burial plots door-to-door. She soon became his constant companion, and the older man told his friends and family they planned to marry. He leased her a $44,000 BMW, sold his house and gave her the proceeds, and he eventually moved in with her, in heavy debt because of credit lines she had fraudulently opened.
Siegel tried to have him placed in a group home, hospital records show, but she wasn't successful. And then he disappeared.
Watkins' body was found folded into a trunk and abandoned near the Appalachian Trail. Siegel later said that she found Watkins dead in her Ellicott City home with a cord wrapped around his neck. She said she panicked and disposed of the body. The prosecution called it murder.
"She made a plan, she would sedate him. She made a plan, she would starve him. She made a plan that Jack would die," Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard C. Kay told the jury last week, calling Watkins "nothing more than a piece of kindling for the raging flame of her addiction."
Judge Andre M. Davis noted in court yesterday, after dismissing the jury, that jurors had found Siegel guilty of second-degree murder, indicating that they didn't believe the act was premeditated.
Investigators who had worked on various parts of the case over the years watched the trial, including Bobbie Ochsman of the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office in Virginia. She appeared on Unsolved Mysteries in 2001, when she said the case was frustratingly "stymied" because no one knew whose body had been found.
"It took thirteen years of hard work by intrepid investigators and persistent prosecutors for the trunk that served as Jack Watkins' coffin to make it from a curb in Loudoun County, Virginia to a courtroom in Baltimore, Maryland," U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement. "Today, justice has prevailed, and Nancy Siegel's horrendous life of con games and murder is over for good."