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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Brett Seacat pleads not guilty to murder, arson charges

Brett Seacat is charged with murdering his wife, setting fire to their home

By RICK PLUMLEE
The Wichita Eagle

The first-degree murder and arson trial of former Sedgwick County sheriff’s Deputy Brett Seacat has been set for late April, but his defense attorney said he doesn’t expect the trial to start until midsummer.

“At the earliest,” Roger Falk said Friday, after his client entered not-guilty pleas to murdering his wife, setting fire to their Kingman home and endangering their two young sons.

Falk also requested that District Court Judge Larry Solomon delay the city of Kingman’s plan to demolish the Seacats’ badly burned, three-story home until after he’s had a chance to hire an arson specialist and have that expert go through the house. Solomon agreed to the request.

Seacat, 35, is charged with murdering his wife, Vashti, who had filed for divorce, and setting fire to their home while their 2- and 4-year-old sons slept down the hall. He was working as a trainer for police recruits at the time of her death on April 30, 2011.

Investigators found Vashti Seacat’s body with an instantly fatal gunshot wound and severe heat damage by a melted gas container on the remains of her bed. A .44-caliber pistol lay under her body.

Brett Seacat’s defense has claimed she committed suicide.

Wearing a gray suit and tie, Seacat stood as Solomon asked for his pleas to the four charges. Seacat leaned over and consulted Falk before answering, “I plead not guilty.”

Solomon set the trial to begin on April 23, but Falk said, “I don’t see this case going to trial before midsummer, probably at the earliest.”

The trial is expected to last two weeks.

The other issue raised Friday was the proposed demolition of the Seacats’ house, which is a few blocks from the Courthouse. Neighbors have complained about debris falling from the house, Kingman County Attorney Matthew Ricke said after the hearing.

Ricke is assisting Kansas Assistant Attorney General Travis Harrod in prosecuting Seacat’s case. But Ricke is also acting as Kingman’s city attorney on the demolition proceedings because Curtis Watkins, the regular city attorney, has a conflict of interest. Watkins has served as attorney for Seacat’s father for a number of years, Falk said.

Although Solomon didn’t issue an order to hold off on the demolition, he said it was “absolutely appropriate” that nothing should be done to the house until the defense has had a chance to examine it.

“The house is kind of a nuisance now,” Ricke said, “but the city is willing to work around” the case.

Falk, a court-appointed attorney, said he has been delayed in getting the house examined because he hasn’t been able to find a qualified arson expert who will work at the rate paid by the state. He estimated the cost would be $4,000 to $7,000. The three experts recommended by the state declined because they had a conflict of interest.

Falk said he’ll ask the state for other recommendations.

If he can’t find an arson expert who will work at the state’s rates, he said, “Then we have to look at whether that’s depriving my client of his right to effective assistance to counsel.”

Falk said he would be asking the arson expert to determine the origin of the fire.

“That’s what we’re all looking for,” he said. “This case boils down to who shot Vashti. Did Vashti shoot Vashti? Did Vashti start the fire? Or did my client shoot Vashti and then start the fire? That’s what this case comes down to.”

Seacat is being held in Kingman County Jail on a $1 million bond.

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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