When former lawman Brett Seacat went to prison in August, convicted of murdering his 34-year-old wife, Vashti, and setting their Kingman house on fire, one might assume it ended the story.
But a lesser-known side of the saga, which has drawn national attention, continues to play out in Kingman County District Court. It is a guardianship case to determine who will care for the couple’s sons, Bronson, now 5, and Brendan, 7. The guardianship issue, quietly simmering for more than two years while the criminal case churned, has reached the boiling point.
What began as a face-off between maternal and paternal families has evolved into a struggle between Vashti Seacat’s mother and sister. In legal documents, the mother claims her daughter is unfit, and the daughter accuses her mother of being abusive. Although the mother has been the guardian for more than two years, her daughter says she also has spent a lot of time caring for the boys.
Judge Larry Solomon, who presided over Brett Seacat’s trial, has set a two-day trial beginning March 27 to decide who will be the guardian.
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The decision is supposed to come down to this: What is in the best interest of the two children? Should they remain with their maternal grandmother and step-grandfather in the Harper area? Or should guardianship shift to their maternal aunt and her husband, whose plan is to raise the boys in Wichita? Or should it be someone else? The judge, through an assistant, said he couldn’t comment on the pending case.
“There should have been a sense of relief when the (murder) verdict was handed down,” said Vashti Seacat’s older brother, Rich Forrest. Instead, he said, his sister and mother are dueling in court, and he and his sister have lost access to their nephews.
Sisters were close
During the two years before the murder case went to trial, Forrest was the vocal member of Vashti Seacat’s family.
In April 2011, his younger sister had been found in her charred bedroom with a fatal gunshot wound. Her death came just days after she filed for divorce from her husband, a former Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputy who at the time of the fire worked for the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center, teaching police recruits from around the state.
Prosecutors contended that Brett Seacat plotted the killing after his wife filed for divorce. The defense argued that a depressed and suicidal Vashti Seacat set the fire before she shot herself. Her husband escaped the early-morning fire with the couple’s two sons, then 2 and 4, who were sleeping on the second floor down the hallway from their mother’s bedroom.
Rich Forrest said it was his other sister, Kathleen Forrest – the one now trying to get guardianship – who loaned Vashti Seacat the money to file for divorce. The two sisters were especially close, he said.
Now, Rich Forrest has become a vocal supporter of Kathleen in her fight with their mother, Julie Hostetler. His relationship with his mother has become so bitter, he refers to her as “Julie,” not “my mother.”
His mother, he said, has commented that after losing one daughter to murder, she has lost her two other children over the guardianship battle.
Hostetler could not be reached, and her lawyer would not comment. The attorney representing the children, as the guardian ad litem, also would not comment. But in a November court document, Hostetler and her husband, Delmar, said that her surviving daughter is “not a stable influence” and that any contact between her and the boys should begin with supervision by the boys’ therapist. “The therapist for the minor children does not recommend a move at this time for the wards,” the grandparents said in the document.
The court is relying on the therapist’s recommendations on what is best for the boys, a February 2012 court document said. The therapist is to “work with everybody and listen to everybody in order to make an intelligent decision on what is in the best interests of the minor children,” the court entry said.
Janett Seacat, the paternal grandmother, who has attended the guardianship hearings, said the therapist has recommended that for stability the boys should stay with the maternal grandmother.
In June, after the guilty verdict against Brett Seacat, the Hostetlers “inexplicably cut off contact between the boys and their maternal aunt and uncle,” Kathleen Forrest’s attorney said in a December memo to the court requesting visitation.
The Hostetlers’ attorney argued, in another court document, that the maternal aunt and uncle “are not fit and proper persons, at this time, to be guardians and conservators of the wards.”
Rich Forrest says: “What I do know, my sister (Vashti Seacat) did not want Julie (Hostetler) to raise the kids. She wanted Kathleen to raise them.”
In an August court filing, Kathleen Forrest and her husband, Jeffrey Kamnikar, asked to be named the new guardians. They contended that on May 20, 2012, Hostetler “inappropriately shoved the younger boy to the ground, and has a history of physically abusing her own children by hitting, slapping and scratching.” The filing also accused the grandmother of using “emotional blackmail as a primary parenting tool both with the wards and with her own children and grandchildren.”
In an interview with The Eagle, Kathleen Forrest said: “I don’t have a lot to comment on other than I stand 100 percent behind my court filings regarding abuse.” She described her sister as a “dedicated, well-thought-out person who wanted the best for her children certainly their protection.”
“Both my husband and I and my brother are trying to honor our dead sister’s wishes.”
The Hostetlers’ attorney, Jim Forsyth, said Friday that he wouldn’t respond to Kathleen Forrest’s comments.
In their request for change of guardians, Kathleen Forrest and her husband said that her mother “has on numerous occasions placed her financial interest above the best interests of both the wards and her own children during their upbringing.”
Rich Forrest said his mother has been motivated by greed, specifically the $3,046 a month she receives from the Social Security Administration for her grandsons.
In a court filing, Kathleen Forrest has said that in 2011, she cared for her nephews 102 out of 245 days they were without their parents. In 2012, her attorney said in a court document, she had the children almost a third of the time. She said that the boys called her “Momma Kat” and her husband “Daddy Jeff.”
Kathleen Forrest “began shutting down a lucrative real estate business in Edmond, Oklahoma, in order to move to Wichita and provide a home for the wards,” the document said. Forrest and her husband sold their home in Oklahoma and remodeled the Wichita home to provide separate quarters for the maternal grandparents, to ease the transition to living with their aunt and uncle.
In a will that Vashti Seacat signed in November 2006, more than four years before her death, she named Robert and Julie Seacat as guardians. The Seacat couple are the boys’ paternal uncle and aunt.
But by April 2011, Vashti Seacat wanted her sister to be the guardian if anything happened to her, Rich Forrest said. And after her death, the family had agreed that Kathleen Forrest should be the guardian, he said.
Robert Seacat, the older half-brother of Brett Seacat, told The Eagle he wouldn’t comment on the guardianship battle within the maternal family. He added: “But my family and my wife and I are here and always have been, and are willing to provide whatever support Brendan and Bronson need to have the best possible life they can ever have.”
The paternal grandmother, Janett Seacat, said she and her husband, Lot Seacat, still have regular visits with the boys and are “totally enjoying it. There’s nothing like seeing your grandkids sleeping at night, and sleeping in your place.”
Earlier in the guardianship case, in a February 2012 hearing, Judge Solomon explained his role on the guardianship matter as having to “look at the big picture,” according to a transcript.
And at the time, the judge sounded as if the case could be worked out without a lot of conflict. “I don’t think anyone here has cast stones,” he said, according to the transcript. “I don’t see, personally, animosity in this case or selfishness.”
Now, as the case has become combative, there is one thing that both sides apparently agree on as the case awaits trial in late March: The boys’ school placement won’t be changed during the school year.
Meanwhile, Rich Forrest said his mother is keeping him and his sister from seeing their nephews.
The boys are “a living piece of our sister,” he said. “Since we can’t have her, they are a living extension of her.”