12 Hours of Terror: Conn. Woman Held Hostage by Arsonist Ex

Nancy Tyler's ex-husband kidnapped her, burned their home to the ground.

Jan. 27, 2012 — -- Nancy Tyler thought she had met the man of her dreams in Richard Shenkman, a prominent advertising executive. She met him on a blind date in 1992.

"I had had a heart attack actually three months before at the age of 40 so things were pretty chaotic," said Tyler. "Both my children were under 5 and life was a little crazy."

Tyler said she felt vulnerable after her health scare and the charismatic Shenkman seemed to come in to her life at just the right time.

"I wasn't really looking for someone," said Tyler. "We got along well and it was actually a help to have him make decisions. It was the first time in a while that I had leaned on somebody else."

They grew closer and eventually married in 1993. Shenkman adopted Tyler's two children from a previous marriage, a daughter, Victoria and a son, Peter.

Shenkman was a successful professional whose advertising firm, Primedia, produced the "The Gayle King Show," starring Oprah Winfrey's best friend. The couple lived in South Windsor, a comfortable suburb of Hartford, Conn., and owned a Victorian home on the shore. Tyler said life was good for the first couple of years.

"In the beginning of our relationship he was very charming, and loving, and affectionate," she said.

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It wasn't long, though, before Tyler detected a darker side of her husband's personality.

"To have someone come along who had some controlling tendencies was okay with me because so much of my life was very heavy responsibility," said Tyler, a trial lawyer. "As the relationship went on he became much more controlling and I saw the rages that I had not seen when we were just dating or newly married."

Tyler said Shenkman's temper was downright frightening.

"When he was angry, everybody knew it," Tyler said. "He yelled, threw things, and would slam his fist against the wall. He would say things that you just don't say to people you're supposed to care about."

Tyler was most concerned about his impact on the children. While Victoria tried to appease Shenkman and say only what he wanted to hear, Peter always found himself on the wrong side of his adoptive father.

"If he gave some command and that command was not obeyed to the letter, it became a firestorm," said Peter Tyler. "We used the term walking on eggshells because any misstep, even if we didn't know that it was a misstep, could set off the minefield."

To protect her children, Tyler often deflected Shenkman's anger at them onto her.

"It was difficult for me because I had to be the buffer," she said.

Tyler said she made excuses all the time thinking Shenkman's abusive rants were not something to be shared with others. Even her family and friends were kept in the dark about his raging temper.

"We were not aware that he was trying to put a wedge between her and the rest of her family," said Marilyn Comey, Tyler's sister.

Tyler said they did not visit family often and she lived a rather isolated existence. She worked all the time and Shenkman, she said, controlled her social life.

"We didn't really have friends," Tyler said. "If there were people I brought around invariably there was something wrong with them, and we had very little to do with people outside of the family, the four of us."

Still, Tyler said she thought she could handle it.

Divorce Leads to Frightening Threats

"I thought, I can accommodate his behavior and protect the kids and nobody needs to know," Tyler said. "I think a lot of women react that way because they think if I rock the boat, it may get worse."

It definitely got worse in the Tyler household. The simmering tension behind closed doors was escalating. With her daughter now away at college, Tyler's teenage son was bearing the brunt of Shenkman's verbal abuse. Tyler stayed in the relationship for the children, but ultimately it would be a fight between Shenkman and her son that would give her the strength to leave.

"He was worse than I'd ever seen him with my son," Tyler said. "He was so abusive and said such horrible things that I was not going to allow that to happen again."

Tyler says it was then that she saw Shenkman was destroying her son and that was the last straw for her.

"You don't hurt someone's children and think things are going to stay status quo," Tyler said.

Tyler moved out of the house she had shared for 12 years with Shenkman. Along with her son, Peter, she stayed with relatives and then filed for divorce.

Tyler said Shenkman was determined to win back his family at all costs.

"The month between when we left the house and I filed were up and down craziness," said Tyler. "There was a period of time where he was very threatening, and we stayed away and then there was a period of time when he came back and announced that he had cancer."

Shenkman persuaded Tyler to drop the divorce filing and let him move in with her again because he did not want to go through his supposed cancer battle alone.

"I don't know to this day if he had cancer but I fell for it," Tyler said.

One thing was for sure: Shenkman's abusive attitude had not changed.

"He became very abusive again and threatening. He followed me around. He called me multiple times during the day. I wasn't really allowed to be away from him," Tyler said.

Tyler eventually obtained a restraining order against Shenkman and again, in 2006, filed for divorce.

"He spent that day telephoning family and friends and talking about the fact that he was going to kill himself and he was going to take me and the children with him," Tyler said. "He told my friends that they should prepare to go to funerals."

The divorce proceedings seemed to drive Shenkman over the edge as he continued to harass Tyler and her family. He called their split, The War of the Tylers, a nod to the dark comedy "War of the Roses," in which a vengeful couple has a bitter divorce battle over their property. Shenkman, obsessed with the movie, did not want Tyler to get their homes in the divorce settlement and waged a campaign of destruction.

"He would say this is going to end up the way the movie ended and, of course, they both died at the end of the movie," Tyler said. "There were things that he did that came right out of the movie."

Halfway through their divorce proceedings in 2007, Shenkman was on a weekend visit to their 120-year-old Victorian beach home and allegedly burned it down. Tyler had most of her belongings in that house and lost everything. Shenkman was charged with arson.

"Just seeing the house go up in flames was devastating. It was a part of me," said Tyler. "But the bright side of that is that neither my children nor I were in the house, so we still had each other."

Held at Gunpoint

Shenkman's taunting of Tyler went on for the next couple of years. Tyler said she received at least 300 abusive e-mails from Shenkman during that period of time. There were also threatening voicemails, in which Shenkman warned that their marriage would only end if one of them died.

"It just got uglier and uglier," Tyler said. "All attempts to reach a pleasant, or at least a pain-free divorce were a waste of time because he was very angry and very determined that this was going to end on his terms."

Shenkman's terms nearly cost Tyler her life. On the morning of July 7, 2009 Shenkman abducted Tyler from the parking lot of her law firm's office right before they were due in court for a divorce-related hearing. He forced her at gunpoint to drive to their South Windsor home and held her hostage for more than 12 hours. Tyler escaped her harrowing ordeal after being handcuffed to an eyebolt in the basement wall but Shenkman continued his standoff with the police, insisting that the house was rigged with explosives and that he was going to blow it up.

In an attempt to flush him out, the police shot tear gas canisters into the house and it erupted into flames. Police never were able to determine what caused the fire.

"The fire department moves in but then they hear gunshots. So they say, 'We're not fighting a fire if somebody is going to be shooting at us,'" said Chief Matthew Reed of the South Windsor Police Department.

As the house burned down around him, it appeared Shenkman had followed through on his final threat, to destroy what was left of his life with Nancy Tyler.

"The house is burning. People are calling to him. We get no answer. About that time we figure he must be dead," said SWAT Team Sgt. Peter Alix, who was among more than 100 police officers surrounding the house and watching the blaze. "We kind of figured when it gets hot enough, he'll come out. I'd have to say 99 percent of the house had burned and he ended up crawling out."

Shockingly, Shenkman had survived and was immediately taken into custody. After a five-week trial Shenkman was convicted of all charges including kidnapping and was recently sentenced to 70 years in jail, which for the 63-year-old results in a life sentence. (He still has to stand trial for the beach house fire.)

In a move that surprised even his defense lawyer, Shenkman threatened Tyler's life in open court, claiming he has hired an assassin to kill her. Although Tyler is used to such antics from Shenkman, she is determined to live her life to the fullest.

These days, Tyler works with domestic violence survivor networks in Connecticut, hoping that her nightmare can be used as a teachable moment.

She urges others to "be smarter than I was."

"Controlling people have the potential to cause a lot of harm," she said. "I really thought I could handle it, I could pacify him, but what I was really doing was delaying the inevitable and maybe making it riskier for everybody."

Tyler also says that people should learn to recognize when a relationship has the potential to be explosive.

"It can become explosive at any time and it won't take much so you need to be ready," she said. "You need to have a safety net, you need to have an escape route, and be ready to use it."

Looking back, Tyler says she wishes she had reached out to family and friends and even the police.

"One of the mistakes I made was trying to handle it all myself and trying to keep it quiet and dignified and you just can't," she said. "You're dealing with raw emotions at that point and there's an incredible potential for danger there."

Learn more about resources for victims of domestic violence.

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