Murder or suicide? Dueling theories heard

05/23/2013 6:49 AM

08/06/2014 1:57 AM

“Fire destroys evidence, and no one knows that better than a law enforcement officer,” Amy Hanley, assistant Kansas attorney general, told jurors Wednesday during opening statements in the trial of Brett Seacat, a former Kansas police instructor charged with killing his wife.

After a jury of five women and 10 men, including three alternates, was selected, attorneys’ opening statements in the third day of the trial clearly depicted the opposing points in the case.

Prosecutors allege that Seacat, angry that his wife, Vashti, had filed for divorce, shot her in the head and tried to cover it up by setting their Kingman home on fire. The defense, meanwhile, counters that she was depressed and set the fire herself before committing suicide.

“Those are the only two options in this case,” Seacat’s attorney, Roger Falk, told the jury, referring to whether Vashti’s death was a suicide or a murder “in cold blood,” in which the state alleges Brett Seacat shot his wife in her sleep.

Falk acknowledged there was no dispute that an accelerant was used to set the fire early on April 30, 2011, at the Seacats’ home at 255 E. B Ave. There’s also no dispute that Vashti Seacat was found dead following the fire with a fatal gunshot wound to her neck just below her ear, he said.

“The issue in this case is who pulled the trigger and who struck the match,” Falk told the jury.

Seacat is charged with first-degree murder, aggravated arson and two counts of aggravated endangering a child; he escaped the blaze with the couple’s two sons, then ages 2 and 4.

In opening statements, Hanley told jurors that Brett Seacat was served with divorce papers on April 27, 2011, just days before his wife’s death. Vashti Seacat had filed for divorce on April 13 but agreed to let Brett stay in the house “to keep the peace,” Hanley said.

“He was angry,” Hanley said. “He didn’t want the divorce. He wanted Vashti to give him more time.”

When she refused, “the defendant had his own plan,” Hanley told jurors.

Before her death, Vashti Seacat was moving on with her life, making plans to go to Cancun with her sister and to see a Tim McGraw concert in May 2011 in Wichita. Hanley said Vashti’s co-workers at Cox Communications in Wichita will testify she was upbeat and happy before her death – and they’ll also testify to Vashti telling them her husband previously had threatened to kill her, burn the house down and make it look like a suicide. Vashti Seacat also told others that her husband, an instructor at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center, said if she ever left him, he’d take their two sons and run away, according to Hanley.

“She moved forward with the divorce ... so the defendant had no choice but to move forward with his plan,” Hanley said.

Brett Seacat got a .44-magnum Ruger Redhawk handgun and shot his wife in the head while she was sleeping before setting fires in two places in their home “to cover up his actions,” Hanley told the jury. The state also alleges he planted a forged suicide note in her journal that an expert will testify “was not naturally prepared” and shows “all the classic signs of forgery,” she said.

The day before his wife’s death, Brett Seacat went to work at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center in Reno County. He asked a co-worker to retrieve an overhead projector for him, and the co-worker thought that was odd since no one used them anymore, Hanley said. Brett said he was going to use the projector to research fraud, even though he didn’t teach anything on fraud, she said, and he spent the morning with the door to the office locked, lights out, with legal paperwork and cards from Vashti strewn across his desk.

On the afternoon of April 29, 2011, Brett Seacat went to a shop at the KLETC and asked for a torch, which he then used to burn hard drives, discarding them in a trash bin, Hanley said. He also allegedly broke apart cellphones, discarding them in a different trash bin.

After his wife’s death, Brett Seacat told investigators he walked through the fire to get to Vashti, who was on a bed in the second-story bedroom, and that there was blood everywhere, Hanley said. He said he tried to pick her up, but her head was limp and he dropped her. Her body was found on its side, and “the covers are still on her, pulled up to her waist,” with the gun found tucked underneath her left side, Hanley said. Brett was wearing only pants, but police saw no blood or soot on him after the fire and only a minor burn to his foot, she said.

Falk reminded jurors that statements from attorneys aren’t evidence and asked them to remember three things: “the autopsy, suicide note and depression.”

“That’s the trilogy this case is about,” he said.

A coroner spent six months examining Vashti’s body but couldn’t determine whether her death was a homicide or suicide, he noted. The defense will bring in its own expert who will testify the suicide note does match Vashti’s handwriting, according to Falk, and the note was in a journal that had a binding – “not something you can crack open and lay on an overhead projector to make a tracing.”

Falk argued that Brett had confronted Vashti the night before she died and told her he’d publicly reveal her affair with a Cox Communications executive if the divorce got nasty.

“That’s what my client, Brett Seacat, did wrong that night,” Falk said. “He shouldn’t have threatened his wife.”

Brett was asleep on the couch at about 3:51 a.m. on April 30, 2011, when he got a call from Vashti, who was upstairs; Hanley told jurors Brett “planted” that phone call himself.

According to Falk, Vashti said Brett needed to come get the boys, who were also upstairs, or they could get hurt. Brett started up the stairs and heard “two loud bangs,” ran the rest of the way upstairs and spotted flames flickering around the door of the bedroom. He tried to pick up his wife, but she was limp. He called 911 and kept the dispatcher on the phone, explaining he was trying to get Vashti out, Falk said.

Kingman police Sgt. Travis Sowers was the first to testify Wednesday, and his testimony continues today. Sowers, the first officer on the scene, testified he knew Brett from high school in Kingman and from the KLETC, where he trained as an officer.

Sowers said he saw fire in the southwest corner of the home, across and above the home’s south side and then in the southeast corner of the home, where the master bedroom was. Within seconds, he said, the entire south wall “lit up” and he heard an audible “woof” sound. Jurors watched a video from Sowers’ patrol car, in which Sowers can be heard announcing police are on the scene before calling out to Brett Seacat. After finding him by the driveway on the south side of the home, Sowers asks Brett if anyone is inside, and Brett says his wife is.

“She’s dead,” Brett can be heard saying. “She shot herself. Her ... head is gone.”

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