April 5, 2005 2:22 PM
Produced By Nancy Kramer, Lourdes Aguiar and Taigi SmithThis story originally aired on April 9, 2005. Just four years ago, a camera captured one of Nancy Seaman's proudest moments, as she accepted an award for doing what she loved: teaching.
But now, many news cameras are fixed on Seaman, an award-winning teacher known for her patience and kindness. She's accused of a horrific crime - the hatchet murder of her husband, Bob Seaman.
"I loved him. If I had to redo May 10, I wish I would have let him just kill me," says Seaman. "I'm not guilty of murder."
What made her do it? "This is a very complex case," says Seaman. "It wasn't as simple as wife kills husband with a hatchet."
The answer, according to Seaman, has been kept well hidden for so long. Seaman says that behind private gates, inside her sprawling home, she lived the life of a battered woman.
Her case will turn on the Seamans' two sons, on their two sons, Jeff and Greg. And, as Correspondent Maureen Maher reports, what they say about their parents' marriage, and the life they all shared, will either condemn or free their mother.
Nancy and Bob Seaman met in 1972. It was love at first sight.
"He was really charming. He was very confident," recalls Seaman. "He was a very strong personality. And I felt very secure. He was my knight in shining armor."
The two made a brilliant couple, literally. Nancy was valedictorian of her high school class. And Bob was an engineer on his way up - first at Ford Motor Company, and later at automotive manufacturer Borg Warner.
But from the beginning, there were cracks in the marriage. Seaman says the first incident of abuse occurred when they were newlyweds.
"We were in the car coming home from his brother's wedding reception and Bob was drunk. He had too much to drink. And he reached over, and he tried to push me out of a moving car. And he's pounding me with his fists," recalls Seaman. "I was in a state of shock. I had never experienced anything like this before, had never witnessed anything like it."
Why did she decide to stay in the relationship? "I was na´ve, only 21 years old. And I just loved him," says Seaman. "And I said, 'This has to be a fluke. This is a one-time thing.'" Soon, there were two reasons to stay: Seaman's sons, Jeff and Greg. And from the outside, looking in, Seaman says they were the perfect family.
But Bob's controlling and explosive nature became more and more evident. "It was always very abusive. It was very aggressive," says Seaman's son, Greg, who remembers his father calling his mother names.
Why didn't Seaman stand up for herself against the alleged verbal abuse? "I know that if I talked to Bob that way, it would escalate the abuse," says Seaman. "It would escalate his anger and his rage, and I knew not to do that, because if I did, it made the situation worse."
For the first 20 years of the marriage, Seaman says the physical abuse was sporadic - one or two incidents a year. But in 1995, there was a new strain on the marriage when Bob lost his high paying job just as Seaman was about to launch her own career as an award-winning elementary school teacher.
"And my dad started to lose some of his identity, and my mom started to feel some resentment because now she was the major breadwinner and he wasn't," says Seaman's son, Jeff.
Meanwhile, Bob decided he would pour his heart into something that had always made him happy -- baseball. He opened a batting cage for kids called The Upper Deck, and Jeff says his mother viewed it "as another wedge between them."
Seaman, however, says the real wedge between them was a happier family he met through his business: the Dumbletons. Her sons agree. "It was almost like my dad assumed a father role with their family," says Greg. His brother, Jeff, adds, "The Dumbletons really became like the substitute relatives for my dad."
Bob coached the Dumbleton kids, and their mother, Julie, volunteered to be his bookkeeper. But Seaman suspected there might have been more to the relationship.
When asked if Bob was having an affair with Julie Dumbleton, Greg shared this observation: "We would say that we hoped he was. Because the behavior was so eerie that it was the only thing that could possibly explain it."
Jeff, however, strongly disagrees: "That's the most ludicrous thing I've ever heard. I mean, they were friends, but my dad was better friends with her husband, Dick, who he initially met."
Whatever the relationship was with Julie, Nancy says that at home, Bob's behavior toward her was becoming increasingly violent. On June 29, 2001, Seaman says Bob threw a chair at her, sending her to the emergency room.
"That was the day I was going to tell because I had been there before," says Seaman. "I walked in and sat down in that triage room in tears and I was crying. And I looked over and I saw a parent from my school and I knew I just couldn't let her overhear what was going on. If I told, she was within earshot of what I was saying. If she found out, the grapevine at school, I just couldn't do that. My career was everything to me."
When Jeff married his college sweetheart, Becka, in August 2001, Nancy and Bob's relationship was more fractured than ever. Yet, Seaman still hoped that things would work out. The marriage would end, but not in divorce.
The Seamans were a family who had more cars than people - including an expensive Ferrari, and a classic Shelby. But it was a fight over a broken down 1989 Mustang that would be the point of no return - not only for Bob and Nancy, but also for Bob and his son, Greg.
Restoring the old Mustang was supposed to be a bonding project between Greg and his father. But Seaman says it turned into a fight: "He was verbally abusing Greg, telling him what an asshole he was, that he didn't know what he was doing. And he told Greg to pack his things, he threw him out on the street on his birthday, and told him to never come home again."
It was just a car, but it was also a symbol of a disintegrating family, which crumbled even more when Bob eventually gave the Mustang to the Dumbletons. "I couldn't stand to see him hurt my son," says Seaman, of the fallout between Bob and Greg. But she still wasn't willing to give up on the marriage. So she planned her mornings to get out of the house before her husband was awake.
By February 2004, Seaman had enough. She devised an escape plan and pulled the boys in on it. She secretly purchased a brand new condo, and slowly began to box up her things. She told Bob that the condo was for Greg.
Meanwhile, Bob was making his own plans to leave the marriage, and went to Arizona to consult with his brother, Dennis, about his options. "It was almost like you could tell he was done," says Dennis. "Done with her."
On Mother's Day weekend, in 2004, Bob flew back to Michigan. He was excited about the prospect of starting over. "That was kind of the epiphany for Bob, because he really realized that he had a good long life ahead of him, that he could do something with it," says Dennis.
Seaman was spending Mother's Day at Jeff's house. On Sunday evening, everyone returned to the Seaman's house, and immediately, another blowup ensued. Seaman wanted to borrow Bob's Ford Explorer to pick up Greg from college. Bob said no. A fight started, and Jeff and his wife left at about 7 p.m.
At 7:37, surveillance video from a nearby Home Depot showed Nancy buying a hatchet. She claims she was going to use the hatchet to chop up a stump in the backyard.
"You don't decide in 20 minutes, 'Oh I think I'll kill my husband. Oh, let me go buy a hatchet,'" says Seaman, who says she never planned to murder Bob. "The hatchet was bought for yard work because I did all the yard work."
Seaman says she then came home from the store and went to bed. On May 10, the day after Mother's Day, she says she got up around 5:30 a.m., got dressed and went to the kitchen to make her lunch. She saw Bob sitting at the kitchen counter. They didn't say a word, but they were about to have the last argument of their marriage.
"He said, 'I think we need to talk about going our separate ways.' And he was very calm about it. And I responded in a way that was probably antagonistic, because I said, 'I am so ready to do this. Let's just do it,'" recalls Seaman.
"That's when it started, because he said, 'Who the hell do you think you are? You think I don't know about that condo?' Because I had said, 'Fine, let's do this. I said I've already made plans. I want to move on.' He said, 'You think I don't know that you have a condo, and that it's not for Greg, it's for you? I know all about the condo,'" adds Seaman. "He said, 'You weren't home this weekend.' He said, 'I went through the house looking for you. I found those boxes. That's not Greg's stuff. That's your stuff.'"
In the past, Seaman says Bob never used a weapon against her. But this time, he grabbed a kitchen knife. "I'm sure he didn't mean to kill me with it at that point," recalls Seaman. "But he just took, and he said, 'You bitch,' and he just glanced [sliced] across my hand as I'm reaching."
Seaman says she knew she had to get out of the house. She grabbed her keys, her bag, and she ran to the front door. But when she got there, she noticed something strange. The key that used to open the door from the inside, which was usually kept in the lock, was missing. She says at that point she knew the only other way out of the house was to run down the hall and out through the garage. "He kicks me; he grabs me. Then he came for the last time towards me. He's telling me … 'Never let you have half of my assets. I will see you dead first,'" says Seaman. "And when he bent over, and he's telling me he'll see me dead, I'm hoisting myself up. I feel the handle of the hatchet. I picked it up, and I swung it."
For the first time, after 30 years of arguing and alleged abuse, Seaman says she fought back: "I couldn't stop. I couldn't stop hitting him. I was terrified out of my mind. I didn't know if it was one time, two times, three times."
She hit him 16 times with the hatchet. Then, with a knife, she stabbed him 21 more times in the back.
"It was not rage. I was terrified," says Seaman. "There is a difference between -- rage indicates anger. It was not anger. I was terrified at this point, for me."
But after the killing, Seaman didn't call the police, and she didn't call her sons. Instead, she took a shower, and managed to get herself to school just like she did every morning.
How did she compose herself well enough to teach a bunch of elementary kids? "It was a blur. The only thing I can tell you is that, for me, going to school was always a safe place," says Seaman. "I went there so many times after he abused me. And it was the only place I ever felt good about myself. That morning, I was in shock for sure."
After school, Nancy began a frantic cleanup: buying bleach, plastic gloves, a tarp and duct tape. She bleached the floor, painted the walls and cleaned up the blood.
Why didn't she call the cops? Why didn't she tell them that she killed her husband because he was trying to kill her?
"The horror of it is something you can't even imagine. You can't, you cannot possibly think that there was any rational thought there," says Seaman. "The only thing that happened at that point was I was on auto-pilot doing what I had done for 30 years. I was fixing the ugliness. Fixing it because when the ugliness was gone. It was like it never happened."
On Tuesday night, the Farmington Hills police knocked on Seaman's door. According to the authorities, Nancy came to the door, acted surprised, and told the officer that her husband was having a midlife crisis, and that he was just trying to find himself. But Bob was actually hidden away in Seaman's car, which was parked on the driveway.
Days went by, and calls to report Bob Seaman missing were pouring in. Strangely, none of the calls were from his wife, Nancy.
The police were baffled, and they returned to the house to investigate. "They looked everywhere. They even made a point of stopping in the garage, and commenting on how clean the garage was," says Lisa Ortleib, the prosecutor on the case. "They noticed it had an odor of bleach and paint. It smelled nice."
Why did Seaman lie to the police about the whereabouts of her husband? "I just think it was probably shock," says Seaman. "I could never accept what happened. When I left that morning, I could not accept what happened." But Ortleib doesn't think that Seaman would have ever turned herself in: "She was going to dump the body. She had already taken painstaking efforts to hide her role."
On Wednesday afternoon, Seaman went to the store again, purchased more gloves, and a bottle of air freshener. Shortly after she returned home, the police came back again to press Seaman about where they might find her missing husband.
Ortleib says police asked to look inside Seaman's SUV: "She opened it, and as the hatch opened, it was immediately apparent that's where Bob was. And she immediately pushed her hands down on what she had put on his body to conceal it. And she said, 'That's just my condo stuff. That's my moving stuff.'"
In the SUV, near a bottle of air freshener, wrapped in a blue tarp, was Bob's body.
Soon, both sons received the most disturbing phone calls of their lives. "I actually, at that time, thought that my dad had killed my mom, and then probably killed himself," recalls Greg. "So at that time, I was thinking I'd probably lost both parents."
Why would Greg think that his father killed his mother? "Because she was getting out," says Greg. "And to picture her ever doing something like this, you couldn't."
From the moment of her arrest, Seaman began to launch her controversial defense. She had the police photograph her body -- evidence shots show that showed numerous bruises on her arms and legs.
"There were other instances where I'd get thrown into walls -- he didn't like the look on my face, the tone of my voice, I didn't do what I was told," says Seaman.
"I believe that she was abused," says defense attorney Larry Kaluzny, a low-key lawyer known for taking high profile cases. "It wasn't just physical abuse. The emotional abuse was probably greater."
Kaluzny says he believes that Seaman killed her husband, but that it was an act of self-defense: "I believe she thought she was going to die that day."
Kaluzny will try Seaman's case along with his son, Todd. To bolster their theory, this father/son team hires Dr. Lenore Walker, the country's leading expert on abused women.
"I have no question that Nancy Seaman was an abused woman," says Walker, who coined the phrase "battered woman's syndrome." She says it's not uncommon for a woman to keep her abuse a secret, even for 30 years.
"People in general don't want to believe that somebody as smart as Nancy Seaman, and as competent and strong, that somebody like her would really have been battered for that length of time," says Walker.
But Ortleib, who also runs Oakland County's domestic violence unit, disagrees: "I think the only domestic violence in this case was when she killed him."
Ortleib says Seaman's claims of abuse are nothing more than a strategy for her jury trial: "She couldn't claim she was insane. She couldn't claim she didn't do it. So what's she gonna claim? She's gonna claim self-defense, 'I had to do it.'"
For six months, Seaman waited in a tiny cell in the Oakland county jail. Finally, on Nov. 29, 2004, she went on trial for first-degree murder. Ortleib firmly believes that it was rage, not fear, that drove Seaman to kill: "She was going to be losing the beautiful home, the beautiful picture of the family, the life that she lead everyone to believe was occurring in her life."
Ortleib also believes that although Seaman secretly made plans to leave Bob, she was furious when her husband announced that he was leaving her first.
Nancy was stinging over Bob's relationship with the Dumbletons, especially Julie Dumbleton.
"She called my house and threatened my son, and threatened me," says Julie Dumbleton. Julie testifies she and Bob never had an affair, but Seaman's jealousy led to a pushing and shoving incident at the Upper Deck. "She was very angry. She called me a name. She was yelling."
There was one more clue to what the prosecution says took place in the garage -- the substantial marital assets. Remember Bob's conversation with his brother, Dennis? Dennis had advised Bob that he would be entitled to half of whatever Nancy had, including her brand new condo.
"It's probably the most regrettable thing I have, is it ever-- telling him something that he -- I know darn well he went back and probably said right to her," says Dennis. "I think that sent her right over the edge."
"And I think that lead her to leave, to go straight to Home Depot, where she went straight to the hatchets," says Ortleib.
The prosecution contends that the murder happened on Sunday night and not on Monday morning like Seaman says. The proof? Bob was found wearing the same clothes that he was wearing on that Mother's Day Sunday.
And that first Home Depot was not the most damning. On May 11, store cameras record Seaman on tape again. This time, the cameras caught her stealing a hatchet identical to the one used to kill her husband.
The most crucial evidence in the case is about to unfold. And the blood feud boiling between Seaman's two sons is about to take center stage in their mother's murder trial.
Jeff Seaman will testify for the prosecution. And his brother, Greg Seaman, will testify for the defense. But the two brothers clash over every point in their mother's story, beginning with what happened after their father lost his job.
"He was a lot more irritable," says Greg. "You could tell he was getting stressed out at the fact that he had been fired." Jeff, however, says "there was no mental decline," and that his father had actually "mellowed as he got older."
"Right before this happened, Jeff was just like everybody else, saying, 'I can't believe how nuts he's going,'" says Greg. "And then, all of a sudden this happens and now he elevates our dad to this untouchable pedestal. I don't know if he's lying to himself or he's actually convinced himself of that."
The brothers also have conflicting explanations for what brought their mother to Home Depot that Mother's Day night. Greg says his mother always maintained the yard and the house, so there is an explanation for her purchase that was no surprise. Greg says his mother always maintained the yard and the house, so her purchase was no surprise. But Jeff disagrees: "When I hear things like, 'Your mom was buying an axe in a driving rainstorm to chop up a tree stump, that's ridiculous. Tell me another one. I didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday."
But nowhere is the divide between the brothers deeper than over their mother's explosive allegation that she was a battered wife. Jeff denies that his mother was an abused wife, but Greg says he often saw injuries.
"I … we saw bruises all the time," recalls Greg, who says his mother would come up with excuses for her injuries. "But I think you can only fall so many times."
"If my sons knew, they'd hate their father and I couldn't let them hate him," says Seaman. "I wanted them to love him."
Jeff admits to seeing bruises on his mother, but he says his mother only mentioned abuse once she'd decided to leave - a move Jeff believes she devised to gain advantage in the upcoming divorce.
"She showed us a bruise on her arm. And claimed that a wrist that she'd had problems with was broken by my dad in a fight," says Jeff. "The wrist was something that she'd injured a long time ago, tripping on a sidewalk."
Because Seaman's sons couldn't agree on what they saw, Nancy's colleagues were called to the stand. They said they remembered seeing Seaman with a black eye, and injuries to her arm and leg.
"The very last time I saw her, her hands shook during her lunch with me," recalls Paulette Schleuter, one of Seaman's oldest friends. Schleuter recalls a disturbing conversation that she had with Seaman, just two months before Bob's death: "She said, 'There's something the matter with him. He's going crazy.' But she did not tell me that he was beating her or hitting her, but she was visibly shaken. She was afraid of him."
Schleuter says the last thing Seaman said to her was, "Pray for me."
Now, it is Seaman's turn to take the stand - and it is up to her to convince the jury that she was a battered wife, and not a murderer.
Seaman told the jury she suffered 94 attacks at the hands of her husband: "It was hard to think about them because I didn't realize there were so many of them."
In the most dramatic moment of the trial, Seaman demonstrates how she defended her life that day. "I'm covered up. I'm curled up and covered up. … And he's coming toward me and he's mad," says Seaman. "As I'm getting up, there's a black railing around the generator, and I'm using it for leverage. And as I get up, I feel the handle of a hatchet. I pick it up and I swing it at him."
She then tries to explain what turned the attack into an overkill: "I don't physically remember stabbing him. But obviously I did. But I was screaming at him to get off of me. Get off of me. Just get off of me. I ran up the stairs and closed the door."
"Even after she knows he's dead, she doesn't accept that," adds Larry Kaluzny. "She still thinks, 'He's gonna come up the stairs and get me. He's not dead.' And I think that's hard for anybody to understand."
But what about the bleaching, the painting, scrubbing the crime scene clean - even her attempt to put the hatchet back in the store? "She's always been the fixer, and that's the big theme of the case," says Todd Kaluzny. "That was Nancy doing what she had always done. … And as irrational as that may sound, she thought at this point in time, 'I can fix this.'" After two days, Seaman says she realized there was no fixing what had happened. "I sat down and cried, next to his body. But when I was laying on his body in that garage, I was also so angry at him," recalls Seaman. "I kept saying, 'Bob, why did you do this to me? Why did you do this to me?'"
Now Seaman, an alleged battered woman, had to come face to face with a domestic violence prosecutor. Ortleib asks Seaman why she never went for help or called the police. Seaman says she didn't call a shelter or file a protective order against her husband.
So was Seaman abused or not? The defense called expert Dr. Lenore Walker to the stand. She should have been the star witness, but Michigan law will only allow her to speak about battered women in general terms.
"The most dangerous time is at the point at which the woman is preparing to leave the relationship," says Walker.
But had Walker been able to testify about Seaman, she would have told the jury, "It wasn't just him coming after her this time with a knife, but all the fragments of all the incidents that have happened to her over the years that terrified her."
But will the jury see Seaman as the assaulted or the assailant?
Which picture of Seaman will the jury believe? The warm-hearted teacher, or the cold-blooded killer? And which picture of the marriage will the jury believe?
"She wasn't trying to punish him," says Kaluzny. "She wasn't trying to kill him or hurt him. She was afraid."
"The problem with her case, it's based on a string of lies," says Ortleib. "The defendant's lies. Lie after lie after lie."
As proof, Ortleib points to the very bruises Seaman said were evidence she'd been battered. "Those bruises could be consistent with killing, with cleaning, with painting, with scrubbing, with wrapping, with tarping, with taping and loading," says Ortleib. "Those bruises weren't from Bob."
Seven months after Seaman was murdered, her case is in the hands of the jury. It took Seaman 30 years to end her marriage. But it takes the jury less than five hours to decide on the rest of her life. Their verdict: guilty of murder in the first degree.
Despite her emotions on the stand, Seaman shows no reaction to the verdict.
One month later, Seaman goes to court for one last time. Only Greg comes to stand by her mother as she is sentenced. "I lost a father who I loved," he says. "Robert Seaman accomplished a lot in his life, but everything that he accomplished will forever be overshadowed by the fact that he was a wife beater."
In a stunning move from the bench, the judge calls Seaman's other son, Jeff, a liar. But Jeff says the judge's opinion matters very little to him: "What matters to me are what my family, and what my friends think. And my family and my friends and people that know me and know my dad know what the truth is."
The judge goes on to sympathize with Seaman: "I can't believe for one instance that you went out to Home Depot to buy a hatchet to kill your husband. It just doesn't make any sense. I don't take any pleasure in sentencing you to life in prison, but I have no discretion in imposing the sentence I have to impose by law. I only feel pity for you and I feel pity for your family."
In the end, Nancy Seaman traded a life of privilege behind private gates for a life behind prison bars. And saddest of all, the family she says she desperately tried to keep together would turn out more broken than ever.
"All I can say to my sons is I'm very sorry. And I want them to know that I loved their father," says Seaman. "They know that I did. I want the boys to know that I love them with all my heart. And I wish that I could undo what happened May 10, but I hope they find their way back together."
Nancy Seaman appealed her conviction to the Michigan Supreme Court. Her appeal was denied.
Jeff and Greg Seaman do not speak to each other.
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