Murder Trial Rivets Hong Kong’s Expat Community

By Seamus Mcgraw

Published August 19, 2005, issue of August 19, 2005.
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For years, Nancy Kissel, a 41-year-old socialite and expatriate American, had been living the high life as a leading light in Hong Kong’s small but thriving Jewish community.

Then she killed her investment banker husband, Robert Kissel.

She bludgeoned him to death in their fashionable apartment in the ritzy Tai Tam neighborhood with a heavy metal statue.

About that, there is no dispute.

In fact, last week, Kissel shocked a Hong Kong courtroom when she admitted as much.

But what does remain an open question as Kissel’s trial enters its eighth week is whether the slaying was, as prosecutors allege, a brutal and calculated murder, plotted in advance by an unfaithful woman who knocked out her husband with a drug-laced strawberry milkshake before killing him. Or was it, as Kissel told the court during her testimony last week, a desperate act by a woman who was brutalized by a domineering and abusive husband, an ambitious man who she claimed abused her and forcibly sodomized her as a demonstration of his power over her?

The case, which has riveted the attention of Hong Kong’s affluent expatriate community, began in early November 2003. That’s when Robert Kissel’s battered body was found, wrapped in a carpet and stuffed in a storage room not far from the couple’s apartment. He had been hit at least five times in the head with a blunt object. He left an estate estimated at $18 million, all of it to his wife.

Prosecutors quickly concluded that the slaying was the final act in a stormy marriage. They charged that four days before Robert Kissel’s body was discovered, his wife, reportedly distraught over their failing marriage and her husband’s decision to seek a divorce, laced a strawberry milkshake with a cocktail of six powerful drugs — including the potent “date rape” drug, Rohypnol — and then used her 6-year-old daughter, the youngest of the couple’s three children, to serve the drink to her husband. A neighbor, who also sampled the pink concoction, told the court that he too had become woozy after drinking it. Once Robert Kissel was incapacitated, prosecutors allege, his wife beat him to death.

To bolster their case, prosecutors produced testimony from several witnesses, including a close friend of the couple. In statements provided to the court and confirmed to the Forward, friend and confidante Bryna O’Shea wrote that as early as April 2003, it was becoming evident that what had appeared at first to be a perfect marriage was on the verge of collapse.

O’Shea declined to elaborate on her testimony. However, she confirmed published reports that months before he was found dead, Robert Kissel had indicated to O’Shea that he knew that his wife was having an affair — a romance with a Vermont man she had met after leaving Hong Kong for a time to escape the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic. Before his death, Robert Kissel had become suspicious enough about his wife’s behavior to wonder aloud to O’Shea whether Nancy Kissel might be plotting to kill him.

By August 2003, Robert Kissel’s suspicions had become full-blown fears, prosecutors allege. According to testimony in the case, months earlier Robert Kissel hired a Long Island investigator, Frank Shea of Alpha Group Investigations, who confirmed that his wife was having an affair with a well-built and much younger television repairman whom she had met in Vermont. Shea declined to be interviewed for this story.

But according to published reports, he told the court that he maintained contact with Robert Kissel after completing his assignment, and that as early as August — three months before his death — Robert Kissel had confided to Shea that he feared his wife was trying to poison him.

But on the stand last week, Nancy Kissel, who has pleaded not guilty to murder charges, told a rapt courtroom a very different story. According to her testimony, her marriage had been deteriorating, but she claimed that it was the result of a dramatic change in her husband’s personality — a change, she said, borne out of ambition and fueled by what she said was a growing dependency on cocaine and good scotch. As he became more successful in business, Kissel maintained, he became more physically and emotionally abusive.

Kissel testified that the abuse came to a head November 2, 2003, when Robert Kissel told her that he had filed for divorce. When she questioned her husband, Kissel testified, he became enraged and threatened her with a baseball bat. The two struggled furiously, and it was then, she told the court, that she struck the man on the head with the metal statue.

Kissel was not injured in the struggle. And in the days after the death, she allegedly told friends only that she and her husband had a fight and that she had stormed out of the apartment.

She later reported him missing to police.

Though an autopsy found traces of all six drugs in Robert Kissel’s stomach, Kissel insists that she did not drug her husband on the day of his death. She did admit, however, that on two previous occasions she had laced her husband’s scotch with a sedative, but also insisted that she did it only after he became abusive, in attempts to calm him down.

Kissel also insisted to the court that she has no memory of the events that followed the slaying, though a surveillance camera at her apartment building captured an image of her carrying out of the building a large object wrapped in a carpet after her husband’s death.

Prosecutors contend that Kissel is feigning memory loss.

The trial is expected to continue until the end of the month. If convicted, Kissel faces life in prison.

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