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Fiery end to hostage drama

This story was reported by Day staff writers Megan Bard, Chuck Potter, Izaskun E. Larrañeta, Ted Mann and Karin Crompton, and written by Mann.

Publication: The Day

Published July 08. 2009 4:00AM   Updated July 08. 2009 2:36PM
Woman is freed after 12 hours, ex-husband in custody as South Windsor home burns

South Windsor - A Hartford attorney was freed late Tuesday from the home of her ex-husband after being held hostage nearly 12 hours in a house police believe was rigged with explosives.


Hours later, the house was completely engulfed in flames, and a huge team of officers was still struggling to apprehend the ex-husband, who had apparently sparked the blaze, fired his own weapon and at one point begged to be shot by police.


Shortly after midnight, fire fighters said Richard J. Shenkman had been taken from the burning wreckage of his house on Tumblebrook Drive by ambulance. His condition was unknown.


Shenkman, 60, allegedly abducted his ex-wife, Nancy P. Tyler, on the street outside her office in Hartford's City Place office tower Tuesday morning, then barricaded the couple in his home in South Windsor. The house belonged to Shenkman, but he was to have turned it over to Tyler that day as part of the ongoing resolution of their acrimonious divorce.


Shenkman then held a swarm of police, SWAT and explosives teams and federal negotiators at bay late into the night after officers stormed the house with tear gas shortly after Tyler's release at 8:27 p.m.


Police fired tear gas at 9:38 in an attempt to drive Shenkman outside, police said. The gas was not flammable, a police spokesman said, but officers observed a figure moving from place to place inside the house shortly afterward, followed soon after by the outbreak of fire. Police believe Shenkman set the blaze, but said they were unable to send firefighters into the house because he remained armed and unwilling to surrender.


A police spokesman said negotiators kept touch with Shenkman for 20 minutes after the house was engulfed. They then lost contact for another 30 minutes, until Shenkman appeared at the back door, face-to-face with negotiators, yelling at them to shoot him.


"We don't know if it's suicide-by-cop or what," said the spokesman, Cmdr. Matthew D. Reed of the South Windsor police.


Tyler had been taken by police to a local hospital, unhurt, police said.


Tuesday's events were a sudden, violent turn in the bitter divorce proceedings of Shenkman and Tyler, once successful events promoters in New London who had fallen out bitterly as they divided assets after the end of their marriage.


Shenkman was scheduled to turn over ownership of the South Windsor house to Tyler on Tuesday, Shenkman's attorney acknowledged. Shenkman has been charged with intentionally setting fire to the couple's house in Niantic in 2007, on the eve of the day he was to transfer ownership of the property to Tyler as part of their divorce.


During the standoff Tuesday afternoon, an increasingly agitated Shenkman placed four phone calls to The Day's courts reporter, Karen Florin, outlining a list of demands. They included his insistence that he be provided a SWAT team manual and that a priest come to the house to administer Tyler the last rites, though Shenkman also insisted that it was the police, not he, who posed the greatest threat to his ex-wife.


In those calls, Shenkman said he was "driven" to take Tyler hostage, adding that he wanted to be put out of his "misery."


"This life I live now is unbearable," he said in the calls. "I can't do this anymore. The only one I want to die is the cops. I get my 12 demands and Nancy walks out of here. ... They enter the property, they're dead."


The abduction and ensuing standoff triggered a massive response from police departments in Hartford, South Windsor and the towns surrounding the capital, with added support from the Hartford Bomb Squad and federal authorities, including the FBI.


The saga also prompted an instantaneous and murky debate about public information, as police begged news organizations not to report on the ongoing standoff, citing Shenkman's repeated threats to detonate the explosives he claimed to have packed into his house if newspaper Web sites or TV stations reported on the incident.


Tuesday was already destined to bring Tyler and Shenkman together; the two were due that morning in family court, attorneys confirmed. But neither showed up in court.


Tyler, according to police and published reports, alerted a friend Tuesday morning after spotting her ex-husband in the parking lot outside the City Place office tower on Asylum Street in Hartford. The friend alerted police, who arrived to find Tyler, Shenkman and Tyler's car missing, with only Shenkman's van left in the parking lot.


That prompted a bulletin to local police departments, including South Windsor's, where police were dispatched to walk the perimeter of Shenkman's property for signs of the couple.


A contingent of officers found the property quiet, said Reed, of the South Windsor police, who was one of the officers who walked the property. But they saw some ominous signs.


At that early hour, Reed said Tuesday evening, the house had appeared quiet, but the officer noticed six video cameras mounted to the outside of the building, some seemingly installed hastily.


"It looked like it had been fortified, quite frankly, to keep people from getting in or seeing in," Reed said. "It appeared to be fortified as if he had been preparing for some sort of a standoff."


Only minutes later, police in South Windsor traced cell phone signals from the pair to towers within a few miles of the town's police barracks, indicating Shenkman and Tyler could have been nearby, Reed said.


Then, around 11 a.m., Shenkman called police to announce that he had taken hostages - he did not specify at first if there were other hostages in the home, Reed said - and threatening to do them harm.


Some homes evacuated


Shenkman's arrest for arson after the summer cottage fire in 2007 preceded a series of occasionally bizarre responses from the former public relations consultant, including a recent move to legally change his last name to Tyler.


The hostage standoff shut down blocks of the placid, tree-lined neighborhood and forced the evacuation of at least three neighboring families. As the standoff continued into Tuesday evening, curious neighbors gathered behind barricades and sought updates from the assembled news media as teams of negotiators sought to keep Shenkman calm and find a peaceful end to the incident.


The mood was a mixture of profound tension and tedium as police and onlookers alike dodged repeated soakings from passing thunderstorms while negotiators tried to wait Shenkman out.


"This is a classic hurry-up-and-wait," said a Hartford patrol officer who was manning a barricade at one end of Tumblebrook Drive around midday.


Standing nearby was Connor Houlihan, 22, who runs a local franchise of CollegePro Painters and who said he gave Shenkman an estimate to repaint the house a few weeks ago. Shenkman showed some roofing repairs in progress, and agreed to hire CollegePro, Houlihan said, but ultimately seemed reluctant to hand over a check.


"He didn't know his future," said Houlihan, standing outside near the barricade at the corner of Tumblebrook and Fairview Road. "You could see that he was hesitant about what his next move was going to be."


Meanwhile, Reed and other police were beseeching news outlets to pull coverage of the events from their Web sites, as an increasingly "irritated" Shenkman threatened to detonate explosives if the stories were not pulled down.


Negotiators, Reed told reporters in mid-afternoon, "need to build his trust and let him know that when he asks us for something, we're going to do everything we can to make it happen."


But several news organizations insisted on running accounts of the standoff, and Shenkman, despite setting several deadlines by which the stories were to be removed, did not detonate any explosive charges.


Arson case was pending


Earlier this month, the state Appellate Court upheld the couple's divorce, which has been the subject of criminal and civil court proceedings in several Connecticut jurisdictions.


Shenkman is accused of burning down the three-story Victorian at 29 South Washington Ave. in the Crescent Beach section of Niantic on March 5, 2007. At the time, he and his wife were splitting up. Shenkman has pleaded not guilty.


Shenkman's arson case is pending in New London Superior Court, where his next appearance was scheduled for Aug. 12.


In one of the phone calls to The Day, Tyler said that she had corrected with the police a falsehood concerning her getting exclusive possession of the Niantic beach house. She said she told the police that she and Shenkman had an agreement.


"I was to have possession after that but he was allowed to come back," she said.


The Appellate Court ruled that family court Judge Jorge Simon, who had presided over the couple's divorce trial and granted a divorce decree last summer, had not deprived Shenkman of his constitutional rights nor abused the court's discretion.


Because of the pending criminal case, Shenkman had invoked his right to remain silent at the divorce trial. He did not testify or present witnesses, though he cross-examined Tyler at length. In the appeal, he claimed the judge's refusal to continue the divorce trial until his arson case was resolved prevented him from presenting a defense. He also claimed his property rights were taken away without the opportunity for him to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner.


Shenkman said he would appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court. In the meantime, he said he would be paying Tyler $100,000 to cover legal fees rather than signing over and selling the house in South Windsor.


Simon granted Tyler the Niantic property, which has been cleared but not rebuilt in the aftermath of the fire because Tyler and Shenkman are involved in yet another legal dispute - this one involving insurance proceeds.


"Everything is $20,000 for this, $20,000 for that," he told Florin. "I spent over a million dollars. I'm not trying to make Nancy the evil person. She was so misguided or whatever. From the day she served me (divorce papers), I said, 'Let's make this a normal divorce.' She wouldn't budge on anything."


Tyler and Shenkman became well known in southeastern Connecticut for public relations work for the Eastern Pequot tribe and as co-owners of Prime Media, the company that helped organize the New London celebration of OpSail 2000 and subsequently ran the city's Boats, Books and Brushes festival.


But only months after the completion of that successful 2003 festival, city officials and Prime Media were openly feuding, with city councilors singling out Shenkman for what they called an "autocratic" approach to managing the festival. The firm was replaced and the planned annual event has since ceased to exist.


t.mann@theday.com

 

 

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