Nancy Jean Siegel, who is charged with killing her boyfriend, has owned up to robbing friends, stealing their identities and destroying their credits. She even told relatives, according to court papers, that she stuffed her former paramour's body into her daughter's steamer trunk and left it near a Virginia hiking trial.
Through it all, Siegel has denied killing Jack Watkins of Reisterstown.
Last week, investigators received a tip that could change all that.
Federal agents learned that the thrice-married woman may have been scribbling her most intimate thoughts about Watkins, who is believed to have died of suffocation more than a decade ago.
"So many things come to my mind that I think about what happened, you know, really can't talk about, but so many things like, you know, what I did, you know, and the coverup and everything else," she said in a recorded jailhouse call on April 16, according to court papers filed in Philadelphia this week. "Just things that I think of that I write down and jot and I think and you forget and then I remember."
With the recorded conversation in hand, authorities in Maryland persuaded a federal judge Friday to allow a search of Siegel's cell in a Philadelphia federal detention center, where she is waiting for her next date in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
The investigating agent wrote that prosecutors had hoped to find the so-called smoking gun - details written in Siegel's own hand about the killing of her one-time sweetheart and an alleged coverup that shielded her for more than seven years.
It could not be determined yesterday what was seized during the Sunday night search.
Thomas J. Saunders, Siegel's lawyer, said that the items seized by the government are under seal and will be reviewed by a judge to see if any documents are protected by attorney-client privilege.
The unannounced search offers the latest turn in a years-long legal battle that the presiding judge in Maryland, U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis, has likened to a Tom Wolfe novel. The jury trial, expected to take five weeks, is set to begin May 29.
At its center is the 1996 death of Jack Watkins, a 76-year-old widower whose emaciated, 111-pound body was found in May of that year in a steamer trunk by the Appalachian Trail in rural Loudoun County, Va. For seven years, investigators worked to identify the remains. After doing so, they discovered that Siegel was cashing Watkins' Social Security checks, prosecutors say.
In March, Siegel, 59, wanted to plead guilty to theft, including forging Watkins' signature on about $7,000 worth of Social Security checks after his death to cash them, her lawyers said. But her lawyers balked when they learned that her plea might imperil her at trial on the murder conspiracy charge.
"She denies any complicity in the death of Jack Watkins," her attorney Andrew Levy has said.
Now preparing for a trial, prosecutors paint a picture of Siegel as a black-widow figure, siphoning money off her loved ones and acquaintances and, in Siegel's case, killing him and continuing to rob him.
"First, she attempted to have him committed for dementia or placed in a facility," Assistant U.S. attorneys Tamera L. Fine and Christine Manuelian wrote in court papers filed last week.
"When that failed, she hastened his ultimate demise, finally killing him by applying pressure to his throat to cut off his air supply and strangle him. She disposed of his body by stuffing it into duffel bags and a footlocker and dumping him - nude except for a pajama top pulled over his head and without any identification - in a state park in Virginia so as to delay, or possibly, prevent, discovery of her crime."
But in new court papers, the prosecutors argue that the jury needs to hear about Siegel's other victims.
They include a woman whose wallet was stolen by Siegel in 1993 at a dance studio where their daughters studied, federal prosecutors said. Siegel "used the identity to obtain money from the victim's accounts, going so far as to impersonate the victim and claim that she had cancer in order to elicit the assistance of bank personnel," prosecutors wrote.
The next year, prosecutors said, Siegel stole the wallet of another woman, substituted the victim's driver's license picture with her own, and obtained new credit. Years later, Siegel took someone else's mail, some of which was found in her car - a BMW owned by Watkins.
Prosecutors are now asking the judge for the right to present this new information to the jury even though Siegel has not been charged with those crimes under the federal indictment. A hearing on the issue is scheduled May 17.
Siegel's attorneys have argued that Watkins willingly allowed her access to his financial accounts. But prosecutors responded in court papers that this scenario seems unlikely given Siegel's previous identity thefts.