A federal judge sentenced Nancy Jean Siegel to 400 months in prison Thursday in the killing of an elderly Reisterstown widower and stuffing his body in a steamer trunk - the culmination of a decades-long gambling addiction that led her to con friends and family out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, even spending the dead man's Social Security checks for years after his death.
Siegel, 61, held fast to her declaration of innocence. Addressing the court for the first time, her 5-foot frame drowning in a yellow prison jumpsuit, she apologized for the pain she had caused but denied killing anyone. She'd sooner kill herself than someone else, she said, sobbing.
The pronouncement drew a firm and contradictory response from U.S. District Judge Andre Davis.
"You are a murderer," he said, shortly before handing down his 33-plus year sentence, which he acknowledged wasn't life but close enough. "Given your age, it's highly unlikely that you will come back to the community, and there is justice in that."
In March, a jury convicted Siegel on 20 counts, including mail, wire and bank fraud, and identity theft. She was also found guilty of witness tampering by killing 76-year-old Jack Watkins in 1996 to keep him from revealing her financial crimes.
But first she alienated him from everyone he knew and then swindled him out of everything he owned, including the house he bought with his late wife, prosecutors said.
"She stripped him of his self-respect and dignity," Watkins' stepdaughter told the court Thursday.
Siegel met Watkins in 1994, when she was selling burial plots door to door and he was a debt-free man living on $1,200 a month. She romanced him into leasing her a $44,000 car, prosecutors said, and selling his house to give her the proceeds.
It was her pattern, according to prosecutors, who described during the trial how she stole from prior husbands and her daughters.
"She has essentially survived on grift and fraud her entire life," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Tamera L. Fine.
The court ordered restitution to Watkins' estate and others yesterday, though it's unlikely that repayment will occur.
Siegel's lawyer compared her to the Shakespearean characters of Othello and Macbeth, strong people with redeeming qualities but ultimately fatal flaws. Her mother never wanted her, the lawyer said. And Siegel's father, whom she adored, was killed during a mugging when she was 16.
Still, cousins described her as "bubbly" in those days. She danced on The Buddy Deane Show as a teen-ager, was pretty, witty and kind. She married, raised two daughters and then snapped, her lawyer said, lured into a world of gambling, theft, deceit and eventually murder.
It's like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, said defense attorney Thomas Saunders, who plans to file an appeal. There's "an underlying flaw, which once activated or ... exploited, brings death or havoc."