The Nancy Kissel Case - Part 6

(Khaleej Times)  “White Mischief” tale of US banker’s murder captivates Hong Kong,  June 13, 2005.

“It’s better than a Hollywood movie,” enthused Polly Hui, one of the reporters covering the sensational Hong Kong murder trial involving a millionaire US banker, his unfaithful wife and a laced strawberry milkshake.

Another Chinese reporter said: “For us, this case is a throwback to the colonial era. It has all the ingredients our readers are most interested in - sex, murder, gweilos (Cantonese slang for white foreigners) and lots and lots of money.”

The case captivating Hong Kong is the trial of a American investment banker’s wife facing a life jail term if found guilty of murdering her husband after drugging him with a laced strawberry milkshake when he tried to divorce her for adultery.

In a trial revealing the decadent lifestyles of some of Hong Kong’s wealthiest expatriates, Nancy Kissel, 40, is accused of murdering husband Robert after he hired private detectives to expose her affair with a lowly TV repair man.

Dressed in black and with her blonde hair dyed black, the petite mother-of-three - a prominent member of Hong Kong’s Jewish community - has sat expressionless in the dock since her trial began on June 7.

Prosecutors say as divorce from her husband, who has a personal fortune of 18 million US dollars, drew close she gave him a milkshake laced with sleeping pills as he watched an American football game in their luxury Repulse Bay apartment.

Robert Kissel, 40 - a senior executive with Merrill Lynch investment bank - was then bludgeoned repeatedly with a metal statuette in an attack so frenzied that the base of the statuette snapped off, Hong Kong’s High Court heard.

His wife wrapped his body in a sleeping bag and plastic film and rolled it up in a carpet. Three days later she hired four Chinese workmen to carry the carpet to a storeroom, coolly ignoring them when they complained it “smelled of fish”.

The murder trial has fascinated Hong Kong readers who are enthralled by the saga of “White Mischief” in the luxury expatriate compounds where wealthy foreigners live a pampered existence waited on by Filipino maids and Chinese staff.

Prosecutors say the wife - sole beneficiary of 6.7 million dollars in insurance policies - plotted to poison then kill her husband as the reality of her divorce and the revelation of her low-life affair hit home.

A private investigator hired by the banker’s family after the murder said: “Robert’s family was an extremely wealthy New York Jewish family with extensive property interests and they never entirely approved of the marriage.

“Even though she herself was an investment banker when she met Robert, as far as the family was concerned, she was simply not in their league.”

On the day of the murder in November 2003, Robert - who earned 180,000 US dollars a year but amassed nearly 6 million US dollars in bonuses since being poached from Goldman Sachs by Merrill Lynch was about to promoted to a top job in Tokyo. The couple’s 14-year marriage crumbled during the SARS crisis in Hong Kong in 2003 when Nancy returned to the family’s multi-million dollar home in Vermont with her children and allegedly struck up an affair with TV repair man Michael del Priore.

Her husband hired private detectives who video-recorded del Priore parking his blue van outside the Vermont home on midnight visits, prosecutors say.

A handwritten love note from del Priore was found in Nancy’s drawer after the murder saying: “I love you when you call my name. It makes me melt.”

As he prepared for a costly divorce battle, Robert installed spyware on his wife’s laptop which showed how she did Internet searches for sleeping pills and “overdose medicine causing heart attack”, the court heard.

Two months before his death, the banker told a private detective he suspected his wife might have been drugging him but changed his mind about telling police because he felt “guilty about his suspicion”, according to government prosecutor Peter Chapman.

Kissel denies murder and is expected to claim that her husband was drunk, not drugged, on the day of the killing. She told police she killed him when he tried to force her to have sex with him and threatened her with a baseball bat.

A team of lawyers arguing her case in a hearing estimato last eight weeks are expected to paint a picture of a womanising, hard-drinking and sometimes violent husband whose behaviour drove Kissel to seek comfort in the arms of a “commoner” who loved her.

Wealthy women friends have rallied round Kissel after her arrest, providing an address for her to stay in Hong Kong and helping raise legal fees and the 1.3 million US dollars needed to secure bail for her throughout the court proceedings.

A friend of Kissel, 41-year-old children’s entertainer Scott Ligertwood, described her as organised and efficient in her volunteer work at the Hong Kong International School where her children received a 18,000 US dollars a year education.

Ligertwood was due to meet with Kissel on November 4 but received an email from her “My husband is not well”. In fact, the prosecution allege, she murdered him the day before.

As reporters queued up for the second week of the hearing, Hui said: “For Chinese reporters this is a very rare glimpse at what goes on in these very wealthy expatriate communities. That’s why everyone is so fascinated by it.”

The trial in Hong Kong’s High Court is expected to last for eight weeks.

(The Standard)  Scotch twist in Kissel case.  By Albert Wong, June 14, 2005.

Months before he was drugged and beaten to death, Merrill Lynch banker Robert Kissel told a private investigator he feared for his life and suspected his wife of poisoning his Scotch whisky, the High Court has been told in a new twist to the high-profile milkshake murder trial.  When Kissel called in late August 2003, "he was quite upset,'' private investigator Frank Shea told the court Monday, referring to a phone call with the deceased executive. "He expressed concern that his wife was trying to kill him.''

Nancy Kissel, 40, who has pleaded not guilty and is out on bail, is accused of serving her husband a cocktail of drugs in a pink milkshake, leaving him unconscious as she bludgeoned him to death with a heavy metal figurine on the night of November 2, 2003.  Robert Kissel's decomposing body was found around midnight November 6, packed in plastic film and wrapped in an old carpet in a storeroom of the luxury Parkview apartment building.  Nancy Kissel told police at the time that on November 2, her husband had beaten her after she refused to have sex.

Shea, the owner of Alpha Group Investigations, the firm hired to spy on Nancy Kissel in Vermont, United States, while she was allegedly having an affair, told the High Court that Robert Kissel had concerns about his life months before he was drugged and murdered.  Shea told the court that while he was not officially employed by Kissel after the July 2003 surveillance, he maintained contact with Kissel because he was concerned about his well-being.

Shea said that Kissel told him that when he returned home and sipped Scotch, the drink tasted unusual and "the effects of the Scotch were quite remarkable.''  Kissel would feel "whoozy and disoriented,'' said Shea.  

Shea said he was worried and advised Kissel to contact the police and his lawyers and to gather samples of hair, blood, urine and a vial of the Scotch.  But Kissel never went through with the advice because "he felt guilty about his suspicions,'' said Shea.

Gary Plowman, senior counsel for Nancy Kissel, asked Shea whether he had been advised that the samples would reveal the presence of dangerous drugs. "By dangerous drugs, I mean drugs such as cocaine?''  Plowman also pointed out that a "second opinion'' was sought after further discussion about what might show up if hair samples were provided for a drugs test.  Shea said that cocaine was never mentioned in their discussions and that a "`second opinion'' had been sought only because Kissel was bald and could not provide enough hair for the samples.  Referring to an e-mail sent September 17, Plowman suggested that Shea was telling Kissel "that the hair will test for illegal drugs and arsenic.''

Shea also said Michael del Priore, Nancy Kissel's alleged lover, was a television repairman living in a trailer park and in his late-twenties to mid-thirties.  He said the place where del Priore lived was "extremely close'' to the Kissels' multimillion dollar home on Stratton Mountain, Vermont, and that he was physically fit and well-built.  But Shea's employee conducting the surveillance never himself saw del Priore.

Plowman said a lot of information had been provided by Kissel and that Shea's company was often forewarned of possible activities in Vermont.  "Did he tell you where he was getting that information from?'' asked Plowman. "No,'' replied Shea.

Plowman also pointed out that Shea was later aware of the e-mails gathered by "E-Blaster'' spyware installed on Nancy Kissel's computer to track her activities and that he and Robert Kissel seemed to be discussing issues of admissibility of evidence in a court trial.  Shea said they discussed possible legal proceedings.  Shea said he was only aware of the spyware after the surveillance had been conducted in Vermont.

Robert Kissel paid a little under US$25,000 (HK$195,000) for two sessions of surveillance on his wife in Vermont in June and July 2003.  Shea said he met Kissel in September in the latter's office with two other "general counsels'' of Merrill Lynch on the possibility of selling his services to the bank.  Shea said it was not the sole purpose of his visit to Hong Kong.

Moris Chan, Kissel's secretary at Merrill Lynch, said she was instructed by Kissel's colleague and friend, David Noh, to ask CSL for Nancy Kissel's telephone records with a billing address of the Hong Kong International School where she worked as a volunteer.  The prosecution alleges that she used this phone to keep in touch with del Priore without Kissel's knowledge.

Under cross-examination by Plowman, Chan confirmed she was instructed to do the phone inquiries, and then fax the results to the police, by Noh, another top banker at Merrill Lynch.  "Did [Noh] tell you where he got that number from?'' asked Plowman. Chan replied, "No.''  Chan also confirmed that the banker's office was left unlocked for six months and that she was not present when the police conducted their search.

Plowman informed her that Kissel had kept a pre-packed travel bag for emergency visits and a suitcase in his office, and also carried a Palm Pilot.  "Did you find [those items] when you tidied his office [six months later]?'' he asked.  "No,'' replied Chan.

The trial continues today.

(SCMP)  Banker suspected wife was drugging him, court told.  By Polly Hui.  June 14, 2005.

American banker Robert Kissel suspected his wife was poisoning his scotch about two months before she allegedly served him a sedative-laced milkshake and bludgeoned him to death, the Court of First Instance heard yesterday.  Frank Shea, owner of the Alpha Group, a New York private detective agency, said his client expressed concerns that his wife, Nancy Ann Kissel, 40, was trying to kill him shortly after he returned to Hong Kong from a New York trip for back surgery on August 23, 2003.

"He was quite upset ... He believed his wife was trying to poison him," Mr Shea, a prosecution witness, told the court yesterday.  Recalling a telephone conversation with Kissel in late August, he said: "Mr Kissel said when he returned from work in the evening he would find a decanter of Scotch in the living room. [He said] the scotch didn't taste normal to him and that the effects of the scotch were quite remarkable. It made him woozy and disoriented."  Worried that his client's life was in danger, Mr Shea advised him to collect a sample of the scotch and to have his blood or urine tested. He also told him to contact the police and a lawyer. But his client did not follow his advice.  "From the first day he indicated to me his wife was going to kill him - he just couldn't believe that it was going to happen," he said.

When the detective visited Hong Kong and met Kissel at the China Club on September 1, 2003, his client told him he "felt guilty about his suspicions". He said Kissel sometimes thought his marriage was getting better and then he would find evidence that his wife was still communicating with her alleged lover, Michael del Priore.

Nancy Kissel has pleaded not guilty to murdering her husband, who was Asia-Pacific managing director of global principal products for Merrill Lynch, on or around November 2, 2003. His body was found rolled up in a carpet in a storeroom near their home in Parkview, Tai Tam.

At the request of Robert Kissel, Mr Shea sent private detective Rocco Gatta to spy on the defendant in Stratton, Vermont, in June and July 2003, where she was staying with her three children to escape the Sars outbreak. Kissel told him to watch out for Mr del Priore, who he described as a white Caucasian, who was very fit, in his late-20s to mid-30s. The deceased paid about US$24,000 for the 11-day service.  The detective said his background search revealed that Mr del Priore, a TV repair man, lived in a trailer or some form of "pre-fabricated residence" very close to the Kissels' Vermont residence.

In cross-examination, Gary Plowman SC, for the defence, asked Mr Shea if he had ever mentioned to the deceased whether the blood or urine test would detect the presence of cocaine. But the detective said he had not used the words "cocaine" or "illegal drugs".  "Did Robert Kissel ever tell you he used cocaine?" asked Mr Plowman. "Absolutely not," Mr Shea replied.

Bill statements issued by mobile phone companies indicated that no outgoing calls had been made from a phone number registered under the name of Robert Kissel since 5.58pm on November 2, 2003.  The bill summaries issued to the defendant revealed that a US overseas number had been dialled numerous times around October.

Robert Kissel's secretary at Merrill Lynch, Moris Chan, who testified yesterday, said she had helped arrange for the defendant to fly to San Francisco on November 16 to stay there for about a week.  But Ms Chan said she had received an e-mail from Robert Kissel on October 31, 2003, saying: "Please do not pay until I agree."  She said the defendant had gone to her husband's office to decorate his room with family pictures and pot plants in September while he was away.

Government prosecutor Peter Chapman had earlier alleged that the defendant served her husband a large glass of pink milkshake laced with "a cocktail of sedatives" on November 2, 2003, before bludgeoning him to death.

The case continues today before Mr Justice Michael Lunn.

Additional details from the Chinese-language media coverage:

Frank Shea (Photo: Sing Tao)