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Protection for potential victims often a slippery slope, legal experts say

By Ted Mann

Publication: The Day

Published July 09. 2009 4:00AM
sean d. elliot/the day
Attorney Hugh Keefe, left, speaks with reporters during an impromptu news conference outside Hartford Hospital on Wednesday after his client, Richard Shenkman, was arraigned in his hospital bed on charges of kidnapping and arson, among others. Bail for Shenkman was set at $12.5 million, a figure Keefe called "ridiculous."

New London - In a sea of court records, the warning appears again and again: the constant threat by Richard J. Shenkman, insinuated or explicit, to hurt the woman he claims to love.

Shenkman "stated that he was going to make his wife miserable and she'll wish she never tried to divorce him," reads a 2006 warrant for his arrest for threatening his then-wife, Nancy P. Tyler, who was seeking a divorce. "Shenkman further stated ... he is dying of cancer and he'll be taking her with him."

"He has told me I have only one choice: stay with him or accept the consequences," says Tyler's application for a protective order, granted that same week.

Shenkman "intended to destroy Nancy," he told a caretaker at their Niantic beach house, a 2007 warrant says. That was the warrant charging Shenkman with his first arson after he allegedly burned the beach house to the ground rather than turn it over to his ex-wife.

So, on the day after Shenk man was charged with kidnapping Tyler and holding her hostage for nearly 12 hours, issuing terroristic threats to harm her and kill her would-be rescuers, a sense of frustrated resignation reigned among some of those who have long seen and warned of his propensity for violence.

But if Shenkman's court file suggests a compelling question - how could a man so seemingly obsessed have been let free to do his target harm? - even Tyler's own attorneys see no easy legal solution to the problem the accused man represents.

There is no simple way to pre-emptively prevent the sort of compulsive pursuit and attack that Shenkman stands accused of, prosecutors, attorneys and advocates for victims of domestic violence said Wednesday.

"We would hope it isn't all we could do," said State's Attorney Michael L. Regan, the prosecutor who has repeatedly asked courts to set higher and higher bonds for Shenkman after his arrests for harassing and threatening Tyler. "But we're bound by the Constitution, the Practice Book and the rule of law."

Except in rare capital cases, defendants in Connecticut courts are entitled to a reasonable bond set by the court, prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed. So in Shenkman's case, with the assistance of affluent family members who have apparently assisted him with his court costs and bond payments, he has always been able to get free.

Frustration with Shenkman's ability to easily post bond has occasionally burst into public, as when a judge arraigning him for allegedly violating the protective order last fall - he was accused of photographing Tyler at her gym in South Windsor - remarked that it would be "academic" to raise his bond in light of the family's ability to pay.

And while Tyler has maintained a protective order restricting Shenkman's ability to contact her, such orders are "only as good as somebody's ability to abide by the law," said Linda Blozie, the director of public affairs for the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "A protective order is not a shield. It cannot defend you against a bullet, for example."

Blozie said, however, that the vast majority of the roughly 30,000 protective orders issued by Connecticut courts each year are obeyed.

"I think the most frustrating thing about this is that we want to do something," Blozie said. "Everyone wants to do something, and everyone says, 'Why was this guy not in prison?' including myself. But yet we can't go around arresting people because we think they might commit domestic violence. The problem is we don't have that medium stopgap.

"What ends up happening is the onus gets placed on the victim to keep themselves safe. And that's where it really demands a public outcry to say that we're not going to tolerate domestic violence. Not just the courts, because the courts, the media, only has so much power to control it."

"I think the answer is really simple, and it's that the rule of law depends on a minimum level of decency between people," said Norman A. Pattis, a prominent Connecticut defense attorney who has represented Tyler in her legal wrangling with her ex-husband, including the recently concluded appeal of their divorce. "And a person who lacks that is always able to take advantage of the system."

Defendants, even those who have displayed warning signs like Shenkman's, deserve the right to post reasonable bond payments in court, Pattis said. It will now fall to Shenk man's family, including his brother, Mark, a University of Connecticut benefactor and founder of the $8.5 billion investment firm Shenkman Capital Management, to decide whether to continue to enable their relative's release from jail as he awaits another trial.

Shenkman is "a severely entitled man who thinks the world owes him whatever his heart desires, whatever form that desire takes," Pattis said. "Nancy said no. The court said no. And in the time-honored tradition of a classic 2-year-old, he decided he would show the world who's boss.

"I think the family will have to decide at what point do you say to a loved one, 'You can't control yourself.' "

Calls to Mark Shenkman's homes in Greenwich and Old Saybrook were not returned. A woman who answered at a number in Boca Raton, Fla., listed to both Mark Shenkman and his father, George, identified herself as a next-door neighbor and said she did not know the family's whereabouts.

Pattis said his client will have some peace knowing that Shenkman will likely remain behind bars in the short term.

In all of Pattis' long legal career, he said, Shenkman is "as frightening a man as I've met."

"My hope is that he will spend the rest of his days behind bars, and that's the only way Nancy will have any peace. Even then, it'll be only a tentative sort of peace. I'm sure his mission to torment her is not over, and it won't be over until he breathes his last."

t.mann@theday.com

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