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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ex-deputy Brett Seacat bound over for trial in Kingman murder, arson case

Judge rules there’s enough evidence for ex-deputy to be tried in his wife’s murder

By TIM POTTER
The Wichita Eagle

After two days of exhaustive, sometimes emotional testimony, it was time Wednesday for the prosecutor and defense attorney to sum up their arguments to Judge Larry Solomon.

He had to decide whether Brett Seacat, a former lawman from a family of lawmen, should be tried on charges that he murdered his wife and set a fire in their home that endangered their two young sons.

Assistant Attorney General Travis Harrod used words like “ludicrous” and “bizarre” to describe Seacat’s assertion to witnesses that his wife, Vashti, who had filed for divorce, would suddenly shoot herself in the head with a .44-caliber pistol after setting fire to their home while her 2- and 4-year-old sons slept down the hall.

Defense attorney Roger Falk said the prosecution’s case was a “house of cards” that fell apart because a coroner couldn’t determine whether Vashti Seacat died by homicide or suicide.

After a 15-minute break, Solomon ruled there was enough evidence for Seacat to go to trial as charged: first-degree murder, aggravated arson and two counts of aggravated child endangerment. Seacat, a 35-year-old former Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputy who was working as a trainer for police recruits at the time of his wife’s death on April 30, would face a potential life sentence. A trial date will be set in January.

Solomon also denied a new request from Falk to lower Seacat’s bond from $1 million to $100,000. Solomon said that Seacat, who remains in jail, represents a flight risk and that the bond is justified out of consideration for public safety.

Outside the courthouse, Vashti Seacat’s brother, Rich Forrest, said her family was “very encouraged” by the judge’s decision. Forrest said it was clear from the hearing that part of the defense strategy was to attack his sister’s character, adding, “Is there anything that they’ve brought up that can justify cold-blooded murder?”

In his closing argument, Harrod said he had presented ample evidence showing the Seacats’ marriage was failing, that she told others that Seacat told her he dreamed about killing her, that he threatened to kill her if he found out she cheated on him. There had been testimony that she had become intimate with a friend a few weeks before she died. There had been testimony that he told her he would take their sons, and she would never see them again.

Harrod hammered at the defense contention that Vashti Seacat, a 34-year-old who had a good job with Cox Communications, would suddenly become suicidal and ignite a trail of gas on the second floor early in the morning, destroying her home and endangering the sons she doted on.

Brett Seacat made it out of the burning house with his two sons. According to testimony, he said he had been asleep on a couch downstairs when he woke up to a cellphone call from his wife telling him to come get their sons in their bedroom upstairs, and that he heard a pop and a loud bang. Investigators found his wife’s body, with an instantly fatal gunshot wound and severe heat damage, by a melted gas container on the remains of her bed.

The account and timeline of that morning, as Brett Seacat described it, doesn’t add up, doesn’t make sense, Harrod said.

The fire was a way to conceal and destroy evidence, he said, and a faked suicide note had been planted so authorities would find it in the front seat of her car.

In his defense argument, Falk mostly focused on a coroner’s finding that the manner of death – suicide or homicide – couldn’t be determined.

“The state’s entire case is a house of cards,” Falk said.

“Where is the evidence that he is the person that set fire to this house?”

Even though the burden of proof is lower at a preliminary hearing, the state failed, Falk said.

In testimony earlier Wednesday, federal fire investigator Doug Monty said he was surprised that Brett Seacat was not more seriously injured, based on testimony about him entering the second floor while it was on fire. Seacat had blisters on his toes and singed hair.

In other testimony, Jaime Oeberst, coroner at the regional forensic science center in Wichita, said her determination as to whether the fatal shooting was a homicide or suicide was difficult because of severe heat damage to Vashti Seacat’s body.

Because of the condition of the body, it was impossible to tell how close the gun was to Vashti Seacat when it fired, and Oeberst said she couldn’t determine who fired it. Her examination found that Vashti Seacat’s airways showed no evidence of soot or injury from inhaling smoke.

There was more testimony Wednesday about the disintegrating marriage.

Connie Suderman, a therapist who was providing marriage counseling for the couple, testified that although Vashti Seacat had dealt with depression and anxiety, “she was improving in her outlook, in her hope for the future.”

Contact Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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