Fatal Reaction

updated 02/09/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/09/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

Friends and family couldn't help notice how possessive Jonathan Nyce Jr. seemed when it came to his attractive—and much younger—wife, Michelle. Her sister Melodia Ragenil recalls that if another man even glanced at Michelle, 34, it would set off Jonathan, 53, a highly regarded medical researcher. "He didn't have any trust in my sister," says Ragenil. "He was always fighting with her."

Described by those who knew her as sweet and naive, Michelle appeared to have all the trappings of happiness—a sprawling home in the New Jersey suburbs, fancy cars and three energetic young kids. Everything except a truly satisfying marriage. Just how bad things were became clear in the early morning hours of Jan. 16 when, according to police, Jonathan bashed his wife's head repeatedly on the floor of their garage in Hopewell Township, N. J., then clumsily attempted to make her death look like a car accident. When questioned by authorities, Nyce confessed to the killing but claimed his wife had come at him with a knife after he confronted her over an affair she was having.

But the story leading up to Jonathan and Michelle's final confrontation turns out to be more lurid than anyone previously suspected. Michelle indeed had been involved in another relationship; on the night she was killed she had just returned from a tryst with her lover, a landscaper named Miguel De-Jesus, 30. Making the situation more perplexing, a few months earlier Jonathan had implicated DeJesus in a plot to extort $500,000 from him—though prosecutors say they have found no evidence of such a plot. "A week ago I wanted to go to a memorial service for Michelle," says one of her shaken friends. "But with all these details coming out, I realize I didn't know this woman."

Almost everything about the Nyces has come under intense scrutiny, including how they met. For years Jonathan had told friends a charming tale about how he had spotted Michelle on a beach in Hawaii. But according to Ragenil, Jonathan had responded to an advertisement for a "pen pal" placed by Michelle, who was living in the Philippines. They corresponded for about a year. In 1990 Jonathan, who was then working as a researcher at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., traveled to the Philippines to meet her. A month later they married.

The couple settled in Greenville, where the ebullient Michelle seemed to fit in well. "She was always quick to smile," says Jonathan's former ECU colleague Brian McMillen. Jonathan, who'd earned a doctorate in molecular biology from Temple University, began working on a promising new medicine to treat asthma. He formed a company to market the product and moved his family to New Jersey. The family—including kids Alex, 12, Trevor, 10, and Samantha, 5—bought an $800,000 home in an upscale neighborhood. In recent years, though, friends had sensed that Michelle was beginning to chafe at what she believed were her husband's efforts to control her life. According to casting agent Roz Clancy, Michelle complained that Jonathan recently forbade her to take on a modeling assignment that Clancy had offered her. "She was tired of being dictated to," says Clancy. "She was beginning to find herself."

She also stumbled upon DeJesus, who was working for a plant nursery and told her his name was Alexander Castaneda. The two began an affair in October 2002, at times meeting in cheap motels. Last July things took a bizarre turn. Jonathan told police he got a call from someone claiming to have a tape of Michelle having sex with another man. The caller allegedly demanded $500,000 or he would sell the recording. Jonathan confronted Michelle, who admitted to the affair with DeJesus. Later she claimed she'd ended the relationship. After subsequent calls, Jonathan went to the police, who investigated; ultimately DeJesus was charged only with petty harassment. In August, though, a judge dismissed the charge and ordered DeJesus and the Nyces to have no contact with each other.

But within two months Michelle and DeJesus were once again involved. She was returning home at about 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 16 from a rendezvous at Mount's Motel in nearby Lawrenceville when Jonathan confronted her. Prosecutors dismiss his claim that his wife came at him with a knife. Jonathan admitted to investigators that after the attack he propped Michelle in the driver's seat of her Toyota Land Cruiser. Sitting in the passenger seat, he used an ice scraper to push down the accelerator and drove to a creek about a mile away, where he steered the car partially into the water. When police reached the scene the next morning, they noticed footprints coming from the passenger side.

Aside from jealousy, some friends wonder if business pressure played a role. While Nyce's asthma drug had been tested and found to be effective with a limited number of patients, it didn't seem to be a blockbuster, and funding appeared to be drying up. In any case, Mercer County prosecutor Joseph Bocchini Jr. cautions against having any sympathy for Jonathan, regardless of his wife's misdeeds. "Obviously [Michelle's] past history may have played a role in the doctor's ultimate act," says Bocchini. "But that's apples and oranges, because the guy killed his wife."

Bill Hewitt. Tom Duffy in Hopewell Township and Michaele Ballard in Greenville

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