Did scam end in murder?

The Baltimore Sun

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.

Those "things" began in the early 1980s. Court records show that she used her first husband's personal information to get credit without his knowledge, putting him more than $100,000 in debt and forcing him to file for bankruptcy.

She did the same to her second husband, who threatened to go to police until she got violent. She convinced her friends to co-sign a car loan for her and to lend her the down payment, then she defaulted. She forged checks, conned bank employees and stole wallets, a crime for which she was on probation when she met Watkins.

"I have a tendency to scheme" out of desperation, she told investigators, a confession recorded and played last week during the trial.

Prosecutors say she also tried to have Watkins committed. After their Atlantic City foray, Siegel took Watkins to the Howard County General Hospital emergency room, claiming he drank too much and was confused. Doctors agreed after Watkins insisted, repeatedly, that he was going to marry Siegel.

"Patient appears delusional," hospital records read. Siegel had represented herself as Watkins' caretaker, nothing more.

But she never found a facility to take him, and Watkins went home with her.

A month later, officers found the 111-pound body of an elderly man in a trunk in Virginia, 60 miles from Siegel's home. He was wearing a pajama top and no bottoms, his body folded to fit inside two layers of zipped-up duffel bags. He had sedatives in his system and wounds on his head, knee and neck - the latter consistent with the heel of a shoe, prosecutors said. A coroner ruled the death a homicide.

But no one knew who had been killed.

The case appeared on a November 2001 episode of Unsolved Mysteries; 13 months later, authorities used military records to identify the body as decorated Army veteran Jasper Watkins.

Detectives traced Watkins' Social Security checks to an address in Ellicott City, which led them to Siegel. When they showed her a picture of the trunk, she cried.

Siegel says she found Watkins with a cord around his neck and panicked, disposing of the body in a trunk that belonged to one of her daughters. Maybe she wanted to keep the checks coming, her lawyer said, or maybe she was just afraid she would be blamed.

The jury's verdict will determine the likely truth. This week, 13 years after his death, the case might finally be solved.

timeline

Nov. 1994: Nancy Jean Siegel (then Sweitzer) meets debt-free Jack Watkins while selling burial sites door to door.

Dec. 1994: The mailing address on many of Watkins' pre-existing credit accounts is changed to Siegel's Ellicott City address.

May 1995: Watkins leases a $44,000 BMW for Siegel.

Aug. 1995: There are tens of thousands of dollars in debts on credit cards opened in Watkins' name. Watkins takes out a $44,000 mortgage on his home.

Nov. 1995: Watkins refinances and takes out a bigger loan, giving the $20,000 balance to Siegel.

Aptil 1996: Siegel pawns Watkins' belongings, helps him sell his home, and they take the meager proceeds, less than $4,000 after paying debts, to Atlantic City. Siegel later has Watkins admitted to Howard County General Hospital and tries to have him put in a long-term care facility, but fails.

May 1996: Watkins' body is crammed into a trunk and dumped in Northern Virginia. Police discover it a day or two later.

Jan. 2003: Watkins' body is identified.

Jan. 2004: Siegel is indicted.

Last week: The trial concludes and the case goes to the jury.

Today: Jury deliberations begin.

Sources: U.S. Attorney's Office, federal court records.

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