Published July 09. 2009 4:00AM
Her gun-wielding ex-husband left his basement "bunker" to investigate a noise Tuesday night, and Nancy P. Tyler said she seized the opportunity to save her own life.
Exhausted after a day of terror at the hands of Richard J. Shenkman, Tyler unscrewed an eye-bolt that tethered her to the wall and ran out the basement door of 96 Tumblebrook Drive in South Windsor.
She ran across the yard and was climbing a fence to escape when a man in camouflage gear appeared like an "angel from war" and grabbed her. They ran to the police command center "with lots of cover," and she finally was safe.
The 57-year-old attorney described her ordeal in a brief phone interview Wednesday after meeting with police at the site of her former family home, which had burned to the ground as a daylong standoff with Shenkman came to an end.
Tyler stayed Tuesday night at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford following her escape to safety and said she would spend Wednesday resting with her family. Her car was destroyed in the fire, her cell phone was missing and Tyler knew she would have to find a good crisis counselor.
But she had survived.
Shenkman allegedly kidnapped her in the parking garage near Hartford's City Place officer tower Tuesday morning about an hour before they were both to appear at a court hearing related to their ongoing divorce battle. Tyler said Shenkman came up behind her as she was going to her car. She had spotted his car, become alarmed and called a friend, who dialed 911.
"He grabbed me around the head and said, 'I've got a gun. You're coming with me,' ''
she said. "He grabbed the phone and screamed, 'I've got a gun.' "
Shenkman shoved her into the front seat of her car, climbed in the back and told her to drive to South Windsor, she said. He told her, "Don't signal anybody or you're dead," Tyler said. They reached Tumblebrook Drive, where Shenkman barricaded them inside the house by locking the garage and putting a steel bar across the kitchen door.
"He put me in a chair, put me in handcuffs and explained to me that the house was wired with explosives," she said. "He said he wasn't fooling around and that if it didn't go well he would kill me."
Tyler said Shenkman had set up video viewing screens in every room with video feeds from every part of the property, and he could see police wandering around as soon as they arrived.
"He immediately got on the phone and said if they didn't get off the property, I was going to die," Tyler said. "He shot one shot and they moved. It was like that all day."
Shenkman spent the day threatening to kill her, making demands of police and talking on the phone with relatives and acquaintances. As the day wore on, Tyler said, his demands of police grew more impossible.
"Every time he got crazy and agitated, he got the gun," she said. "He started waving it around and slapping me in the head with it."
The police refused Shenkman's request for a priest to administer last rites to Tyler, but they did obtain a marriage license from Town Hall. Shenk man wanted Judge Jorge Simon, who had presided over their divorce last year, to remarry them, with Tyler's sister, Marilyn, serving as a witness via Skype, an online video-phone service. The judge did go to the scene, Tyler said. The police also complied with Shenkman's demand to clear the property and sent a copy of the SWAT team's procedural manual, which Shenkman had demanded.
Tyler said she was hoping Shenkman would let her go, but then the demands started getting "ridiculous," with Shenkman insisting police call him on certain phone lines.
"He kept saying to me, 'I'm not going to kill you. If he (the police negotiator) meets all 12 demands, you'll walk,' " she said. "What he had planned was clear. The demands were going to become increasingly impossible and he was going to have to kill me. Then it would be at their hands. It would be something they had to live with."
Tyler said she spent the day praying and thinking about her friends and family, who had gathered at the local police station to wait out the incident.
Tuesday night, the police sent a robotic device used in hostage negotiations up to the front steps of the house, and that put Shenkman "over the edge," she said. Shenkman took her down to a basement room that he referred to as a "bunker," which was filled with all kinds of paraphernalia, she said, including wires, pulleys and ropes.
"He kept saying, 'We've got to blow the house and we're going to do it from the bunker and we'll live,' " she said. He bolted her to the wall using handcuffs and an eye-bolt, held a gun to her face and called the police, demanding that the robot be removed or he would kill her. He counted down from 10 at one point, and Tyler said she thought her life was over.
"I truly don't know why he didn't kill me at that point," she said. "I was lying against the wall thinking, 'I'm going to let him do it.' "
Tyler made her escape when Shenkman heard a noise and left her there for a moment. After unscrewing the bolt from the wall, she ran as fast as she could, fearing he would come up behind her and shoot her in the head.
After she was safely out of the house, she was told that Shenkman "tried to get the police to send me back in," she said.
Tyler said all she could think of after learning that Shenkman was alive and in custody was that he might get out of prison someday.
"It scares me, because he's got one focus for everything that has gone wrong in his life," she said, "and that's me."