Brett Seacat: Man Burns Down House in Daring Murder

Last week, I featured the case of Alan Berg, a popular but abrasive radio host murdered in his driveway. This week, we metaphorically journey to the heartland, In 2011, Brett Seacat, a police academy instructor and former deputy murdered his wife and staged the scene to look like suicide. To hide the crime, he set fire to the house.

Vashti and Brett Seacat

Brett Seacat formerly worked as a deputy with the Sedgewick County sheriff’s office (Sedgewick County includes Wichita). In 2011, though, he no longer patrolled the streets. His new job was teaching police recruits at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center. His wife, Vashti, worked in human resources at Cox Communications in Wichita. Brett complained she devoted too much time and attention to her job.

Vashti Seacat (Oxygen)
Vashti Seacat (Oxygen)

Brett first met Vashti Forrest when both were still in high school. They split up and got back together several times before marrying in 2004 on a beach in Belize. The good times didn’t last; neither the beach wedding nor their two sons were enough to keep their relationship going. In the spring of 2011, their marriage sputtered out.

Vashti and Brett Seacat at their beach wedding in Belize (Dateline NBC)
Vashti and Brett Seacat at their beach wedding in Belize (Dateline NBC)

In April 2011, Vashti filed for divorce. Brett did not react well. He threatened to “go to the mat” with her. Brett also promised to do everything possible to prevent her from keeping their sons. But on April 29, he begged Vashti to let him stay in the house overnight to “say goodbye” to the boys. On April 30, he was supposed to be out.

A Fire—And a Death

The 911 call came in at 3:57 a.m. on April 30, 2011. Brett Seacat called to report a fire. When first responders arrived, flames completely engulfed the Seacat house. Brett managed, he said, to escape and remove his two sons to safety, but his attempts to rescue Vashti failed.

A firefighter works to extinguish the blaze at what was once the Seacat home in Kingman, Kansas (Unsplash/Daniel Tausis)
A firefighter works to extinguish the blaze at what was once the Seacat home in Kingman, Kansas (Unsplash/Daniel Tausis)

Later, at the police station, Brett told officers the fire was no accident. He said Vashti had started the fire before killing herself. He said she did it because Vashti had severe issues with depression. During the interview, he kept telling detectives his wife suffered from depression.

The aftermath of the fire (Wichita Eagle)
The aftermath of the fire (Wichita Eagle)

At the scene, investigators found a Ruger .44 magnum revolver underneath Vashti’s left hip. They found the melted remains of a plastic gasoline can nearby. In the driver’s seat of her car, they found a journal. The last page of the journal sounded like a suicide note. Perhaps Vashti did shoot herself. But why would she set fire to the house with her boys inside?

Brett Seacat Under Suspicion

Police soon decided something was fishy with Brett’s version of the fire and Vashti’s “suicide.” They found a neighbor who remembered hearing a gunshot at 3:15 a.m. on April 30, more than 40 minutes before Brett’s 911 call. If true, there was no way Vashti could have set the fire before shooting herself. The medical examiner did not detect any soot in Vashti’s lungs or carbon monoxide in her blood. The conclusion: Vashti died before the fire started.

Arson investigators determined the fire had at least two points of origin. It was doubtful she torched the house and shot herself without breathing in some combustion products.

The gunshot wound itself argued against suicide. The shot appeared to come from above, as though someone shot Vashti while she slept. It would be almost impossible for her to inflict such a wound herself. Furthermore, had Vashti shot herself, it is doubtful the gun would end up underneath her body.

Brett Seacat on Trial

Police arrested Brett Seacat on May 14, 2011, and charged him with murder, arson, and child endangerment.

Brett Seacat mugshot (CBS News)
Brett Seacat mugshot (CBS News)

At his 2013 trial, lead prosecutor Amy Hanley painted a picture of a controlling and manipulative husband. Hanley introduced evidence contradicting Brett Seacat’s version of events on April 30, 2011. In addition to the crime scene anomalies, Vashti’s family testified she was not overly depressed. Instead, they said, she was planning her future. Moreover, Vashti told them Brett had threatened her. At one point, the family learned Brett vowed to kill Vashti, burn the house down, and make it look like suicide.

Vashti’s journal was one of the critical pieces of evidence supporting the suicide theory. But a prosecution handwriting expert testified the relevant journal page was a forgery. Prosecutor Hanley introduced evidence showing Brett sought out an overhead projector—obsolete technology—at work. She implied he used the projector to trace Vashti’s handwriting.

Image of the journal shown in court (Wichita Eagle)
Image of the journal shown in court (Wichita Eagle)

The defense mainly consisted of trying to trash Vashti’s reputation. They continued to push the severe depression scenario. And they also claimed she had an affair with an executive at Cox Communications. However, they provided no evidence to support the claim.

Brett Seacat confers with one of his attorneys,  John Val Wachtel, in court (AP Photo/The Hutchinson News, Travis Morisse, Pool)
Brett Seacat confers with one of his attorneys,  John Val Wachtel, in court (AP Photo/The Hutchinson News, Travis Morisse, Pool)

Seacat’s attorneys also claimed police botched the investigation. Ironic since Seacat might have trained some of those same investigators.

Brett Seacat Convicted

The jury got the case on June 11, 2013. They deliberated for six hours before returning with their verdict: guilty on all counts.

At his sentencing hearing, Brett Seacat went on a bizarre tirade accusing Judge Larry Solomon of “ensuring” his (Seacat’s) conviction. He would up the rant by saying, “You are going to hell for what you have done in this case.”

Judge Larry Solomon sentences Brett Seacat (Wichita Eagle)
Judge Larry Solomon sentences Brett Seacat (Wichita Eagle)

Unimpressed, Judge Solomon sentenced Seacat to 25 years without parole for murder. He also added five years for aggravated arson and seven months each for two counts of child endangerment. He will serve the sentences consecutively.

Epilogue

In November 2013, the State of Kansas relocated Brett Seacat to an out-of-state correctional facility. Kansas does not house former law enforcement officials with criminals they might have sent to prison.

NBC’s Dateline aired Burning Suspicion, an episode about the Vashti Seacat murder in March 2016.

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Dan Brophy: Wife of Popular Chef Exposed as Killer

In my last blog, I profiled the case of Eric Witte. When Witte was a teenager, his mother goaded him into killing his father. This week, we look at the case of Chef Dan Brophy. Culinary students found Brophy shot to death in a kitchen at the school where he taught. The person tried for the murder surprised many.

Dan Brophy

Daniel C. Brophy was a chef. But more than that, he was a chef instructor. For a dozen years, he taught at the Oregon Culinary Institute (OCI) in Portland, Oregon. He’d been on the faculty there since the school opened in 2006. In 2018, he was the lead instructor at the school. Chef Brophy was popular with his students, sometimes injecting humor into his lectures. For instance, he warned his students against grinning in the kitchen, saying that “smiling could sully the food.” He took classes foraging for mushrooms in the words and digging for clams on the coast.

Chef Dan Brophy

Chef Brophy’s wife was 68-year-old Nancy Crompton-Brophy. Nancy was a native Texan who met Dan when she moved to Oregon in the 1990s. She took some classes at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts where Dan taught at the time.

Nancy Crompton-Brophy
Nancy Crompton-Brophy

The Chef’s Wife

Nancy Crompton was the daughter of two lawyers from Wichita Falls, Texas. After moving to Oregon and marrying Dan Brophy, she wrote a series of steamy romance novels, which often included crime themes. She published the books herself. According to an article in Portland Monthly, the books are replete with typos and overwritten pages. But they also had a brisk pace and many fans on Goodreads.

Nancy and Dan in happier times
Nancy and Dan in happier times

Nancy wrote about other things besides romances. In an online biography, she described the challenges of being married to a chef. “As a result there are chickens and turkeys in my backyard, a fabulous vegetable garden which also grows tobacco for an insecticide and a hot meal on the table every night.”

Chef Dan Brophy Found Murdered

June 2, 2018 was a Saturday. Chef Brophy arrived at OCI to prepare for a morning class. He disabled the alarm system at 7:21 a.m. At 7:30 a.m., another instructor arrived at the school. She opened the doors for students at 8:00. That’s when they found Dan Brophy lying on the floor in the rear kitchen, bleeding from two gunshot wounds. He’d been shot once in the chest and once in the back. He was still alive—barely—when students found him but died before paramedics could reach him.

Oregon Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon where the murder occurred
Oregon Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon where the murder occurred

Evidence Against Nancy

In murder cases, the spouse is always a person of interest, at least at first. In Nancy’s case, there were additional reasons for suspicion. Perhaps the first red flag was the special request she had for Portland detective Darren Posey. Three days after Dan’s murder, Nancy asked Posey for a letter confirming that she wasn’t a suspect in her husband’s death. This was, she said, to help her collect her on husband’s $40,000 life insurance policy. But that wasn’t all. Police later learned that Nancy stood to collect more than $1.4 million in life insurance.

Nancy claimed she was at home during the time Dan Brophy was killed. But surveillance cameras from businesses hear OCI contradicted her story. Video shows her vehicle near the school at about the time of the murder. Furthermore, she admitted to purchasing parts for a “ghost gun,” a Glock 9mm, similar to the murder weapon. Prosecutors alleged that she replaced the slide and barrel on a Glock she owned with parts she bought on eBay.

Nancy Crompton-Brophy in court
Nancy Crompton-Brophy in court

There was more evidence that was less tangible but definitely interesting. A search of Dan’s phone turned up a bookmarked article in an iTunes account the couple shared. Its title was “10 Ways to Cover Up a Murder.” She had also recently written an online essay entitled, “How to Murder Your Husband.”

Epilogue

On May 25, 2022, a jury found Nancy Crompton-Brophy guilty of second-degree murder. She is now serving a life sentence at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon.

In June 2022, NBC’s Dateline broadcast an episode about the case, Murder in Kitchen One.

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Eric Witte: Mother Manipulates Boy to Commit Startling Murder

Last week’s case was the sad story of three Girl Scouts murdered on the first day of camp in Oklahoma. That case remains officially unsolved after 45 years. This week, our case comes from Indiana. There, in September 1981, 15-year-old Eric Witte killed his father. He said it was an accident, but that turned out to be untrue. The story took an even more bizarre turn from there.

Eric Witte Manipulated into Murder

Eric Witte was 15 years old in the late summer of 1981. His relationship with his father, Paul Witte, a volunteer firefighter, was complex. Although he had many good memories of his father, Paul would physically abuse the boy if he made the slightest mistake. It wasn’t difficult to convince the conflicted boy that his father had to die.

Paul Witte, killed by his son, Eric Witte
Paul Witte, killed by his son, Eric Witte

On September 1, 1981, Paul Witte was taking a nap in the family home in Beverly Shores, Indiana, just outside Michigan City. While he slept on a sofa, Eric shot his father in the head. He told police the gun accidentally went off when he tripped on a rug. Investigators at the time believed the story and ruled Paul’s death an accident.

Paul and Eric Witte
Paul and Eric Witte

Unknown to Eric, his mother, Hilma Marie Witte (she went by Marie) had been trying to kill Paul for some time. She’d been lacing his food with rat poison and Valium but had not been successful. Marie’s own mother, Margaret O’Donnell, had been helping her.

Eric Witte is Caught in a Web of Murder

One murder was apparently not enough for Marie. She soon began poisoning her mother-in-law, Elaine Witte. Eric, now eager to get away from his mother’s penchant for killing joined the Navy.

Eric Witte's U.S. Navy photo
Eric Witte’s U.S. Navy photo

Poisoning Elaine didn’t work, or at least didn’t work fast enough for Marie. She then convinced her younger son, John “Butch” Witte to do the job for her. John later told investigators, “My mom said I could strangle her or use my crossbow. It was up to me.” He then fatally shot Elaine with a medieval-style crossbow in her Michigan City home. John was 14 at the time.

Marie and John didn’t report Elaine’s death to police, Instead, they dismembered her body and disposed it in various places around Indiana. They even hid parts of the body in Eric’s car before he drove back to San Diego. When he discovered the remains, he panicked and put them in a storage locker in California.

Life Unravels for Eric Witte

People with friends can’t just disappear without those friends becoming curious. Such was the case with Elaine. When her friends started demanding to know where she was, Marie panicked. She and John drove to California to enlist Eric’s help. Eric went AWOL from the Navy to help his family figure out what to do.

Hilma Marie Witte at the time of her arrest
Hilma Marie Witte at the time of her arrest

It all started to unravel when Marie forged a signature on one of Elaine’s Social Security checks. The forgery led to her arrest. It was during the forgery investigation that Eric and John spilled the story of how their mother had manipulated them into committing two murders.

Epilogue

Hilma Marie Witt was convicted of murder and received a 90-year sentence. She currently resides (2022) at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis. She is due for release in 2027.

Marie’s mother, Margaret “Marcie” O’Donnell, served six years for her role in the murders. She died after serving her time.

Eric Witte
Eric Witte

John and Eric received 20- and 5-year sentences, respectively. Both were released in 1996. Eric is now married and has a family. John died from complications of diabetes.

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Pegye Bechler: Killer Husband Turns Love into Murder

Last week’s case was the bizarre plot Chris Pritchard hatched to kill his mother and stepfather. This week, our case is the 1997 murder of Pegye Bechler at the hands of her husband, Eric.

Pegye Bechler

Pegye Bechler grew up in the small town of Dexter, near Roswell in southeastern New Mexico. She was the fourth child of Glenn and June Marshall. As a young girl, Pegye suffered from scoliosis and had to wear a back brace day and night. The only time she didn’t have to wear the brace was when she went swimming. Consequently, she became an accomplished swimmer. She excelled in other athletic activities as well.

Pegye Bechler (Dateline NBC)
Pegye Bechler (Dateline NBC)

Pegye’s scoliosis meant she underwent physical therapy. It was those sessions that helped her decide to become a physical therapist. After completing her schooling, she moved to Newport Beach in southern California and opened a physical therapy business. Before long her business was booming.

In 1991, Pegye went with a friend to watch the friend’s husband play beach volleyball. There she met another volleyball player, Erich Bechler. Handsome and fit, Eric was still a student—and eight years younger than Pegye. The two were quickly “an item,” and about a year after meeting, they married.

Eric Bechler was a beach volleyball enthusiast
Eric Bechler was a beach volleyball enthusiast

After their marriage, Eric joined Pegye’s physical therapy business to handle the business and technology side of things. They had three children together and seemed to have an idyllic life.

Pegye Bechler Goes Overboard

In July 1997, Eric and Pegye threw a large party to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary and Pegye’s 38th birthday. Two days after the party, on July 6, they rented a speedboat. Then they departed for what was supposed to be a romantic cruise in the Pacific. Instead, tragedy struck.

Eric and Pegye Bechler in happier times (Dateline NBC)
Eric and Pegye Bechler in happier times (Dateline NBC)

Another boat, the Greene Machine, found the rented speedboat circling in the water with no one aboard. Eric was nearby, clinging to a body board. Passengers and crew on the Green Machine did not see Pegye anywhere.

Eric told the Coast Guard that Pegye was driving the boat, towing him behind on a boogie board. He said a rogue wave hit the boat and he wiped out. When he came up out of the water, he couldn’t see Pegye.

The Coast Guard searched for two days but never found Pegye or her body.

Accident of Something Else?

Using Eric’s description of the accident, the Coast Guard tried to recreate Pegye’s fall overboard. They determined she couldn’t have fallen out of the boat the way Eric said she did. So, the Coast Guard contacted the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

Sheriff’s detectives interviewed Eric. He claimed that his marriage to Pegye was solid, a claim backed up by his friend, Kobi Laker. Since it was more than a week after Pegye disappeared, recovering physical evidence from the speedboat was virtually impossible. But detectives were now suspicious of Eric Bechler.

Detectives got a break when Kobi Laker contacted them and asked to be reinterviewed. He explained that he lied to investigators the first time. Now he said that Eric had told him he was sick and tired of his wife. Eric also asked Kobi what he thought of him (Eric) killing his wife.

Investigators were eager to follow up on this latest information. Kobi agreed to wear a wire and met Eric at El Matador, a restaurant in Orange County. Unfortunately for the detectives, Eric didn’t say anything incriminating enough to use as evidence.

Tina New Replaces Pegye Bechler

Three months to the day after Pegye disappeared, Eric met Tina New at a trade show. Tina was a model and hopeful actress whose career had peaked with a small role on Baywatch Nights. By the time she met Eric, she was at rock bottom. She’d had problems with drugs, was broke, and had lost custody of her two children. Eric asked her out that very night. The following day, she moved in with him. This ticked off Pegye’s family. And it caught the attention of Orange County detectives.

Tina New appearing on Dateline's Troubled Waters episode (Dateline NBC)
Tina New appearing on Dateline‘s Troubled Waters episode (Dateline NBC)

Eric’s and Tina’s relationship progressed rapidly. Before long she’d agreed to marry him. But one night she put a tape in the VCR, and it brought up a recording of a news report about Pegye’s disappearance. The details presented in the report differed from what Eric had told Tina. And Tina saw the color drain from Eric’s face when the recording showed on the television.

Tina demanded an explanation. Now Eric came up with a modified story. This time he told her he thought Pegye hit a wake and fell overboard. He said that he couldn’t get to her, then changed that and said he could have helped Pegye but didn’t.

Eric Bechler, Murder Suspect

One night, Eric and Tina came home from an evening of partying. Lying in bed together, Tina had a sudden thought. “You hit her over the head!” she exclaimed. Eric’s response was, “How did you know that?” She hadn’t known before, but now she did.

Eric in custody
Eric Bechler in custody

Eric came up with yet another story, a horrific one. He said he and Pegye had that big party to show their friends how happy their marriage was. Two days later, he took Pegye out on the rented boat. Unbeknownst to her, he also took along a couple of dumbbells. Coming up behind Pegye, he struck her a vicious blow with one of the weights, killing her instantly. Next, he bent her body double and tied her wrists and ankles together. Then he stuffed the body into two plastic bags, weighted it down, and threw Pegye overboard. It was a confession, but Tina was the only one who heard it.

Two weeks later, Eric and Tina had a fight violent enough for a neighbor to call 911. In the aftermath of that fight, Tina decided to contact detectives. They asked her if she would wear a wire and she agreed. She invited Eric to dinner at El Torito (he must have had a thing for Mexican food). During dinner and the drive home, Eric didn’t exactly repeat his earlier confession, but he made enough incriminating statements for deputies to arrest him for Pegye’s murder.

Finally, Justice for Pegye Bechler

Just before Eric Bechler went on trial for his wife’s murder, Tina made a statement to a newspaper saying she doubted his guilt. Today she says she really didn’t believe he was innocent. But she said she herself felt guilty about putting his children’s father away after they’d lost their mother, too. But the newspaper story made her a problematic witness.

Nevertheless, Eric went on trial in late 2000. Eric’s attorney noted that there was no blood found in the boat. If Eric had clubbed Pegye with a weight, he argued, there would have been a lot of blood. He pushed the theory that stress and a couple of margaritas caused Pegye to accidentally fall off the boat. And he attacked Tina New’s credibility.

Pegye Bechler
Pegye Bechler

But there was evidence of blood. Even though it was more than a week after Pegye disappeared, luminol tests indicated someone had cleaned up considerable blood. Eric also had a weight tree in his home that was missing two weights. And he stood to gain over $3 million from Pegye’s death.

It took the jury seven days of deliberations, but they returned a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder. Incongruously, they found him not guilty of murder for financial gain.

Epilogue

Eric Bechler continues to maintain his innocence. His mother, Linda, believes the verdict was wrong and speculates that Pegye faked her own death. Nonetheless, Eric remains in California’s Avenal State Prison, serving life without the possibility of parole.

In 2015, NBC’s Dateline aired an episode about Pegye Bechler’s murder titled Troubled Waters.

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