Published October 06. 2011 4:00AM
Hartford - On July 7, 2009, Richard Shenkman was supposed to attend a court hearing concerning the terms of his bitter divorce from his ex-wife, Nancy Tyler. He either had to come up with a $180,000 check for her or leave the South Windsor house where they had lived so it could be sold.
Shenkman's attorney, Hugh Keefe, characterized it as "do or die" day for his client.
On Wednesday in Hartford Superior Court, a composed Nancy Tyler spent more than four hours on the witness stand describing how she thought it would be the day she would die.
Her ex-husband is accused of kidnapping her from a Hartford parking garage and holding her hostage in their South Windsor home for 13 hours while pointing a gun to her head and threatening to kill her. On several occasions he began a countdown, screaming at police that he would kill her if they failed to meet his demands.
"Did you think you were going to die?" prosecutor Vicki Melchiorre asked Tyler at one point during her testimony.
"I did because he was very angry," Tyler said. "He kept saying, 'You're going to die. The police will kill you. They are leaving me no choice'."
Tyler testified on the third day of Shenkman's trial in which he faces an array of charges including first-degree kidnapping and arson in connection with the incident. Both Tyler and Shenkman are well known in southeastern Connecticut as they once operated Prime Media, a New London public relations firm, and they'd had a cottage in Niantic.
Under questioning by Melchiorre, Tyler calmly described the events of that day. She rarely glanced in her ex-husband's direction and identified him to the court without looking at him.
Tyler, who is an attorney, said that at about 8 a.m. on July 7, 2009, as she was picking up some dry cleaning near her office in downtown Hartford, she spotted her ex-husband's van parked along the side of the street. She then called a friend to say she had seen the van. Tyler had a protective order against Shenkman at the time.
As she walked to her car in her office parking garage, Tyler said Shenkman came up from behind her with a gun and forced her into her car. She managed to tell her friend to call police before Shenkman grabbed the phone.
He sat behind her and told her to drive to their South Windsor home. If she tried to signal anyone, he said he would shoot her in the head. When they got intside the house, Tyler said Shenkman secured one of the doors with a metal bar that had been installed.
He then handcuffed himself to Tyler and said he had things to tell her and show her. At one point, she said, he put her hand down his pants in an effort to prove he had testicular cancer. But she felt no evidence of cancer.
But Shenkman seemed to be most concerned about the terms of their divorce. "He said things were not done right and he was going to fix them," Tyler said.
"He said, 'It's all up to the police how this ends. You can walk out of here at the end of the day if the police handle this right,'" she quoted him as saying, adding that Shenkman said he would be leaving in a body bag.
Tyler said Shenkman then began looking at television monitors that he had set up to cameras outside the house. "He said, 'The police will be here soon.' "
Shenkman then saw two people on the monitors and looked out at the front lawn. Tyler said he assumed they were police and he called the department to demand that they leave. It would be the first of many profanity-laden conversations he would have with police that day.
"He was yelling at the dispatcher. He said, 'You people better take me seriously. You don't know what you're dealing with here,' " Tyler quoted him as saying. He then fired a shot from his handgun that went in front of Tyler and struck the kitchen wall.
Tyler said he then made her sit with a rope in her lap and told her he was not sure if he would hang her or shoot her. He told her that he had researched ways to place her on a pedestal that, when removed - triggered by the police entering - would cause her to hang.
Shenkman, on the phone with police, then began making demands - he wanted a hostage negotiation manual, a marriage license for him and Tyler, a priest to give her last rites and the judge who issued their divorce to remarry them.
Shenkman was also monitoring newspaper and television websites during the standoff and demanded they not post any stories about the incident.
"If they start putting up stories about this, you're dead," he told Tyler.
When The Hartford Courant refused to take down a story from their site, an enraged Shenkman held a gun to Tyler's head as police told him they could not force the paper to remove the story.
"I was screaming and crying, 'Please take the story down.' I could see it up there (on the computer) and nothing was being done," Tyler said.
At one point when Shenkman tried to fire another shot, Tyler said, she tried to push the gun away because he was aiming it at her. The gun jammed and did not fire. He then "backhanded" her and she fell to the ground.
That's when the couple's dog, who was in the house, came over to Tyler.
"That's right, comfort her," Tyler said Shenkman told the dog. "She's going to need it."
Tyler said that at one point police sent a robot up to the front door of the house. Shenkman saw it on the extensive security system he had installed around the house.
"Get it out of here or she will f------ die," Shenkman screamed over the phone to police, according to Tyler. "He said, 'This it. I'm done with you. It's all over. We're going down into the bunker,' " she said, adding that Shenkman began dragging her to the stairs leading down to the basement. "I said, 'Richard, I don't want to die down there.'
"He said, 'I'm going to blow up the house from down there. We'll be in the bunker and survive,'" said Tyler, who added that Shenkman had told her he had booby-trapped the entire house with 65 pounds of explosives.
Once he had dragged her to the basement, she said, Shenkman handcuffed her to an eyebolt in the wall of a room she had once used to store Christmas ornaments.
"I was screaming, 'Please don't chain me up down here.' He was worse than ever. He was screaming (on the phone) at the police, 'Get the f------ robot out of here or she will die.'"
She said he then made her talk to police, who asked her if he had a gun.
"He then said, 'Yeah, I have a gun,' and fired a shot into the wall," one of several she said he fired next to her that day.
Tyler said an enraged Shenkman left her there and ran upstairs. Meanwhile, she said, she had begun to loosen the eyebolt and was able to yank it out of the wall.
"I thought, 'This is it. I have a chance. I have to go,'" she testified. When she ran to a basement door to leave, she worried that it might set off an explosion if she opened it, she said. "I thought, 'Either I die with a gun to my head or I die at the door,'" she added.
Tyler said she then ran out the door, crossed the yard and began trying to climb a fence when a SWAT officer grabbed her. He told her to stay low and they ran to safety in a neighbor's garage.
Police say Shenkman then lit the house on fire before coming out and surrendering.
During his cross-examination of Tyler on Wednesday, Keefe began laying the groundwork for his defense that Shenkman, due to mental illness, did not understand the wrongfulness of his conduct or could not control himself.
Tyler agreed that Shenkman was "acting crazy" when police refused some of his demands and "snapped" when he saw the robot coming up the sidewalk. She said he was also "frantic" during the incident and twice changed his shirt because it was soaked with sweat.
Tyler also testified that the 2009 incident, which ended with the burning of the South Windsor house, wasn't the first time she saw Shenkman become violent. In 2000, she said, he backed her up against the wall and screamed at her during a dispute. In 2003, she added, he threw her across a room and tried to choke her when she suggested he sell his Mercedes to help pay for their daughter's college tuition.
Keefe also introduced a 2006 court document in which Tyler described Shenkman as "mentally unstable." She said in the document that he heard voices in the South Windsor house and threatened to kill himself.
When Keefe questioned her about why she had said she did not want Shenkman to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, she said it is because he was not insane that day. "He was just an angry man who wanted revenge and to hurt me," she said.
The trial is scheduled to resume today at 2 p.m.