Murder-for-hire preoccupied me at week’s end. It’s not that I was in the market for a killer, mind you. But I’ve defended people accused of the crime from time-to-time, and every once in awhile I get a heads up from law enforcement that someone has put a price on my head. No, at week’s end, the issue was front and center because a defendant stood in open court and boasted that he had put a contract out on a former client of mine.
It is easy to dismiss the talk of a person who boasts to the world that he wants someone dead. Talk is, after all, cheap, and exceedingly rare is the killer who announces to the world his intentions. But I take Richard Shenkman’s outburst in a Hartford courtroom seriously. He told a Superior Court judge that he would not rest until his ex-wife’s body lay on a medical examiner’s table, with two bullet holes in her head.
Shenkman was speaking at his sentencing after a conviction for kidnapping and assaulting his wife. Several years ago, he abducted her, handcuffed her to a wall in their former home, and told her she would die. The day ended with a tense police standoff. His ex-wife escaped from the home before it burned to the ground. Shenkman was taken into police custody, and has remained behind bars since.
His defense at trial was insanity. I am not buying it. I represented his ex-wife at the couple’s divorce trial. I was brought in as co-counsel by a matrimonial lawyer and assigned one task: Richard Shenkman. He terrified everyone, and he was expected to attempt to disrupt the trial by any means possible. He didn’t want the divorce; to say he has control issues is an understatement. All I had to do was stay atop his particular brand of chaos.
As trial was set to begin, his lawyer appeared with news that Shenkman had been admitted to the psychiatric ward of a local hospital on an emergency basis. But the paper the lawyer presented to the court relayed the admission was voluntary. I argued this was just another stunt, a bit of malingering by a man who had already announced the trial would not take place. I predicted that if the trial were to begin, Shenkman would soon appear. He was not being held against his will. Trial began, and Shenkman showed up as predicted.
The trial ended without incident, and on terms favorable to my client. I regarded Shenkman as a bully with bluster but no more at the time. I was wrong. He is capable of killing. I suspect he planned to kill his ex-wife the day he abducted her. She was wily enough to unscrew from a wall an anchor that secured her shackles.
Shenkman still wants his ex-wife dead.
Sadly, the cost of a life on the open market is cheap. I’ve been involved in a handful of murder-for-hire cases. It takes a couple of thousand dollars to get the right person to kill. People are that desperate. In one celebrated case, a man was paid with a used snowmobile to kill.
Shenkman was sentenced to 70 years the other day. He will never see the light of day as a free man again. Although I am criminal defense lawyer and spend my time trying to keep people free, I think this is the right outcome. But while inside, he keeps trying to arrange my client’s death. On several occasions since he has been taken into custody, Department of Corrections officials have become aware of attempts by Shenkman to arrange her death. I suspect he will never stop; I fear he might meet another desperate soul willing to do the job for a pittance.
There is great wealth in the Shenkman family. His defense lawyer is rumored to have been paid $500,000 or more to raise the insanity defense at trial. One hopes the family realizes that this man is not insane, but approaches the world with the sensibilities of an enraged two-year old in a tantrum. Giving him access to money will simply buy more trouble.
Life is cheap on the dark markets of despair. I worry about what is to come. Richard Shenkman says he won’t rest until his ex-wife is dead. When he first said it, I thought it was the boast of a playground bully. Now I am not so sure.