KINGMAN, Kansas (AP) — Jurors have a tough decision to make when they begin deliberations Monday in the case of a former Kansas lawman accused of killing his wife and setting the family’s house on fire to destroy evidence, all while their young children slept down the hall.
Prosecutors have portrayed Brett Seacat as a cunning killer who used his law enforcement training to forge a suicide note before shooting his 34-year-old wife, Vashti Seacat, in their home during the early morning hours of April 30, 2011, just 16 days after she filed for divorce. But defense attorneys have presented compelling evidence of suicide that may raise enough reasonable doubt for an acquittal.
Closing arguments are planned for Monday afternoon in the polarizing case that has drawn national media attention.
The 37-year-old Kingman man faces life imprisonment with no possibility of parole for 50 years if convicted of first-degree murder. He is also charged with aggravated arson and two counts of child endangerment.
Investigators found Vashti Seacat’s body among the charred remains of the Kingman house where the couple lived with their two sons, ages 2 and 4. Brett Seacat, his bare feet burned by the rapidly spreading fire, escaped safely with the two boys.
He was a police instructor at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center at the time, and worked as a Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputy before that.
With even the coroner unable to rule the wife’s death a homicide due to severe heat damage to her body, prosecutors have built their murder case on circumstantial evidence that has been systematically called into question by defense attorneys throughout the trial.
Among the key pieces of evidence is a poignant suicide note found in Vashti Seacat’s car in which she purportedly pleads with her husband to “take care of our boys” and promises the two young sons that she will be “watching over you from heaven.” Jurors will have to weigh whether to accept the findings of the prosecution’s handwriting expert who testified the note was traced, or the defense’s expert who concluded it matched the writing in the woman’s journal.
The jury also must decide how much credence to give to prosecution evidence that seemingly indicates the pants Brett Seacat wore that night had traces of gasoline. A defense expert testified the compounds found were not gasoline in testimony critical of the collection of arson evidence, which had been put in a paper bag and later in a plastic bag where it sat for 22 months before being analyzed.
Jurors will also have to make up their minds about whether to believe Brett Seacat’s testimony about the bitter argument the couple had that night — one in which he threatened to get his wife fired by exposing her affairs with managers at the company where she worked if she went through with a contested divorce. He admitted he also threatened to go public with private photos of her and told her he would take their children so she could never see them again.
Over the next three to six months, they talked about giving their marriage another chance at reconciliation.
Addressing a phone call he made to their marriage counselor the morning of the fire, Seacat testified he was seeking advice on what to tell their children and acknowledged telling the counselor that it was his fault his wife is dead — but said he didn’t kill her.
“For 19 years, I was the one who protected Vashti,” he said. “Finally I pushed her into what I was protecting her from.”
Seacat recounted how he had slept on the couch that night, until his wife woke him up at 3:51 a.m. with a call to his cellphone from their upstairs bedroom.
“She said you need to come get the boys or they are going to get hurt,” he testified.
He told jurors about his initial confusion before hearing loud crackling noise upstairs followed by a popping sound. The couple’s bedroom already was on fire, and as he lifted his wife from their bed, he realized she was dead and the house was on fire with their two children inside.
He testified he dropped the body and ran to the boys’ bedroom where he scooped them up, putting them in their mother’s car along with a couple of dogs that had run up to him. He called 911 before running back inside to get his wife’s body.
He said the smoke upstairs was so thick he couldn’t breathe, even after getting a wet towel from the kitchen to wrap around his face. He then crawled back down the stairs on his hands and feet. He testified that he didn’t want to die retrieving the body.
Jurors were shown photos of the burns and blisters on his feet, including the melted plastic stuck to the skin and the singed hair on his calves from running barefoot through the burning house.