Obsession of the first degree

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2007, 12:00am

On September 1, 2005, the world was transfixed by the horrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the biggest natural disaster to strike the US.

In Hong Kong, a tragedy of a different sort was unravelling. Although by no means comparable to Katrina in magnitude, the shock and damage to those affected was of no lesser degree.

At about 8pm that night, a seven-member jury delivered its verdict in Court No 33 of the High Court. They found Nancy Kissel, 41, guilty of murdering her millionaire banker husband, Robert Kissel, 40, in the master bedroom of their luxury Parkview flat on November 2, 2003. Judge Michael Lunn concluded a three-month trial by imposing life imprisonment on the defendant as required by law.

Michigan-born Kissel drugged her husband with a sedative-laced milkshake before bludgeoning him to death with a heavy lead ornament. She then arranged for workmen to move the body of the victim to her storeroom.

Kissel came to Hong Kong with her husband, then an investment banker with Goldman Sachs, in 1997 as a happily married couple.

The prosecution case was that she wanted to run away with Michael Del Priore, her TV repairman lover who was living in a trailer in New Hampshire. With her husband's estate estimated to be worth US$18 million, Kissel was a gold mine in Mr Del Priore's eyes, the prosecution said.

Despite the unanimous verdict, many questions remained unanswered. Central among them: why would a wealthy expat, who proved herself sane throughout the trial, murder her husband in such a brutal manner? Surely any married woman, no matter how greedy and how passionate she felt towards her lover, would weigh up the consequences of giving up her children, her liberty and her life.

And where do we place Mr Del Priore in all this?

The police were unable to secure enough evidence to charge him and extradite him here for cross-examination.

Prosecutor Peter Chapman pointed out during the trial that as many as 158 phone calls were made between Kissel and her lover in September and October 2003. Many more calls were made to Mr Del Priore when Kissel embarked on a series of cover-up activities after the murder, the prosecutor said. Phone bills showed that some of these conversations lasted as long as four hours. What did they talk about?

Two years on, as the families of the convicted and the murdered are still struggling to understand what had gone wrong, American true crime author Joe McGinniss offers his perspective in his latest book, Never Enough. The book will be published on November 1, one day before the fourth anniversary of the death of Robert Kissel, Merrill Lynch's Asia-Pacific managing director of global principal products at the time he died.

McGinniss, who spoke to relatives and friends of Nancy and Robert Kissel, sheds light on the couple's upbringing in what he believes to be two dysfunctional American families. There was no face-to-face interview with Kissel at Tai Lam prison. But with the consent of Mr Del Priore, the author read the hundreds of love letters Kissel sent before, during and after the trial.

The letters published in the book reveal a woman consumed entirely by the thoughts of and desire for one man. It includes the one she wrote only about two hours after she was told that she would spend the rest of her life within the walls of Tai Lam prison. In the letter, she apologised to Mr Del Priore and told of her shock at hearing her verdict and sentence.

'I don't know quite what to say ... sorry doesn't really work ... does it ... I'm in shock,' Kissel wrote. 'I certainly didn't see this coming ... How can you forgive me ... your precious heart has been shattered into a million tiny pieces ... and every night I pray that one day I can put them back together to make you whole again.'

On his first visit to Tai Lam after the conviction, solicitor Simon Clarke had expected a tirade from Kissel, not because of the verdict, but because he had failed to reach her lover in the 16 hours since the conviction, McGinniss writes.

Mr Del Priore, who was a divorcee, still lives in the trailer but has remarried.

The book also says that at night, Kissel would perform with her guitar the new love songs she wrote about her lover for the 12 other lifers in her maximum-security ward.

Her affection for the man was contrasted with her shutting out her three children during and after the trial, another detail which emerges in the book. The children are now in the custody of the victim's sister, Jane Clayton.

'Nancy didn't write to her children ... she continued to refuse letters from them, photos of them, or news about them, explaining to her mother that the emotional toll of such communications would interfere with her ability to work on her appeal,' McGinniss writes.

Her fragility in her words to her lover was a stark contrast to the ferocity she deployed in running her defence case.

McGinniss writes that Kissel would often determine the strategy and tactics of her case, ignoring the advice of Mr Clarke and senior counsel Alexander King. She refused their advice to argue for manslaughter due to provocation, holding the belief that the manslaughter option would give the jury 'an easy way out', the book says.

Her defence was that she had for years suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband. On the fateful night, she was acting only in self-defence as the deceased was beating her, she told the jury. As to what happened after the killing, she had virtually no memory of it. Mr King argued she had dissociative amnesia.

The book also describes Kissel installing herself at the solicitor's office, arriving every morning, terrorising paralegals and clerks. 'More than once, when irked by his disagreement with a position she took, she threw a coffee mug or paperweight at his head. Clarke found himself facing the double-edged sword familiar to criminal defence attorneys on all continents: money from heaven, client from hell.'

McGinniss also reveals that a large part of her legal bill was covered by a partner at Goldman Sachs and former colleague of the deceased on condition of anonymity.

The author traces back to Kissel's younger years in the US, describing her as sharp, funny, pretty and artistic. But like her mother, Jean McGothlin, she lacked discipline and had little patience with her children. If she felt a friend or a relative had slighted her, she could cut them out of her life, permanently, he writes. He cites her mother's visit to Hong Kong in 1998, when she told her daughter to take better care of her three children. Kissel threw her mother out of the flat and said she would never see her again. The next time they met was in 2005, after Kissel had been arrested.

What makes this family tragedy more unimaginable is that in April 2006 - some six months after the trial - Andrew Kissel, 46, the elder brother of Robert, was found stabbed to death at his Connecticut home with his hands and feet tied.

The wealthy property developer had been due to plead guilty that day to having swindled banks, companies and others out of tens of millions of dollars. No one was ever tried for the murder, nor has a motive ever been revealed.

The unexpected death of a second Kissel gave McGinniss, who was then halfway into his research, another dimension to his book.

Even before its publication, the book has attracted controversy. And that is not only because of its release before Kissel's appeal against the verdict and sentence, set for eight days starting next April 14.

A key character in the book is Bill Kissel, 79, the father of two dead sons. The author portrays him as playing a critical role in driving his sons to their eventual fates. He writes that Bill, who ran a successful liquid-toner business in New Jersey, could be 'charming and gracious' in social settings, but 'was not an easy man to grow close to'.

'The moment he sensed a lack of acquiescence in a subordinate - and Bill considered almost everyone a subordinate - his eyes turned steely and his voice grew harsh. He had a reputation for vindictiveness. He had come to believe that a man did things for money, not for love.'

McGinniss writes that Bill's late wife, Elaine, tried to shield the children from his anger. But it was the elder son who bore the brunt. Andrew grew into a 'sullen, angry' teenager and became estranged from the family, while Robert became an aspiring banker who defined his worth by the money he earned. Bill had given up on Andrew and placed all his hopes in Robert.

At one point, McGinniss contends that Bill shares a similarity with Nancy Kissel - whom he has referred to only by her maiden name of Keeshin since the murder - in their unforgiving nature. 'Nancy did not relent. In this, she was similar to Bill. No Amish church practised shunning with more rigour than Nancy,' he writes.

Mr Kissel, who received a copy of the book from McGinniss this week, described the work as 'a very calumnious book designed to hurt the living'.

He said there were many inaccuracies in the book and much hearsay and conversations that never took place. He said the author deployed poetic licence and accused him of casting the father of two murdered sons as the 'family villain'.

'Where and what evidence does he have that 'my voice turned steely'? Was I vindictive? What people said that? It may be Joe McGinniss looking for words,' Mr Kissel told the Sunday Morning Post.

'How can Mr McGinniss compare me to Nancy? Where did that come from? Did I ever look back at Andrew? He totally rejected me and blamed his problems on everyone else,' he said.

The author has indicated to the Post that he would respond to Mr Kissel's comments later this month. He is unable to comment now because of a contractual agreement with the publisher.