On April 14, 2011, Vashti filed for divorce. She was depressed, says her husband, when she apparently set the house on fire 16 days later before killing herself.
Investigators allege something else: Murder.
Now, jurors in a historic courthouse in small-town Kingman, Kan. (pop 2,900) are weighing which version to believe: Did Vashti Seacat, 34, a devoted mom who had just planned a vacation to Mexico with her sister, leave her two children behind in a suicide?
Or did Brett Seacat, 37, a former sheriff's deputy, respond to the threatened loss of his marriage and children with brutal finality, shooting his estranged wife in the head and neck and setting a fire to cover his tracks?
"If I wanted to kill my wife," Brett said during a taped interview with investigators that was played in court, "I could've come up with something better than that."
The case went to the jury Monday.
During opening statements in the trial that goes to the jury today, Assistant Attorney General Amy Hanley countered: "Fire destroys evidence; nobody knows that better than a law enforcement officer."
The Husband TestifiesTaking the stand for just over a full day last week, Brett Seacat never faltered, his voice at times wavering and at other times stern. He portrayed himself as a loving husband and father to two boys, then ages 2 and 4, who was burdened by his wife's desire to break up. He continued to share their home after Vashti filed for divorce, and said he urged additional counseling to smooth the rupture.
"I would never burn our house," he said under questioning from the prosecutor. "I would never expose my children to any situation like that."
But he also said he felt guilt because, in the hours before she died, he had threatened to shame his estranged wife if she left him. That played into the defense argument that Vashti was unstable, possibly due to her use of a prescribed diet drug known as HCG, whose side effects include depression.
Yet Vashti feared Brett before and after filing for divorce, telling her sister that Brett once said he'd dreamt about killing her. And her friends said she worried he'd torch the house with the kids around once she did so.
According to testimony from her sister Kathleen Forest, just before filing for divorce Vashti had become intimate with a friend, and further worried that her husband would find out. But her friends and the couple's marriage therapist testified Vashti was hopeful with plans to move forward.
Vashti worked in human resources for Cox Communications in Wichita, 45 miles from Kingman. She coveted evenings and weekends with her boys, Brendan and Bronson, and was busy redecorating the home before her death.
An Unexpected Kiss?Brett, who most recently worked as a law enforcement trainer, described an unexpected kiss from his estranged wife on the morning of the night she died. But that evening, the couple argued over custody of their kids, he told a co-worker who testified, and Brett went to sleep on a downstairs couch.
He told the co-worker that Vashti rang his cell phone at 3 a.m. – he did not know from where – to say that if he wanted the boys, he should come get them. He said he heard a pop upstairs, followed by a loud boom, and raced to find the master bedroom in flames and his wife lifeless on the bed.
Brett told the co-worker he ran for the boys and took them outside, then returned to the bedroom but was beaten back by the fire.
The medical examiner could not determine if the death was a homicide. But testimony focused on whether a suicide note matched the handwriting in Vashti's journal, and why Brett Seacat retrieved an overhead projector from his work, which he said he needed to examine a document he had forged for training. Jurors also heard from the marriage counselor, Connie Suderman, who said she received a call from Brett Seacat hours after his wife's death.
"He said, 'I killed her, Vashti is dead and it's my fault,'" said the therapist.
Brett Seacat countered that while he felt responsible, he did not pull the trigger. He explained that during their argument, he told Vashti that if she insisted on divorce, he would expose her alleged affairs with co-workers, knowing it could jeopardize both her job and her parental custody rights.
"Why did you tell her that it was your fault?" defense attorney Roger Falk asked him about the conversation with the therapist.
"Because it was," replied Brett Seacat, bowing his head and appearing to choke up. "For 19 years I was the one who protected Vashti, and I finally pushed her into what I was protecting her from. So it was my fault."