Eleven years after Nancy Kissel bludgeoned her banker husband to death in their luxury Hong Kong apartment, the American expatriate says from a maximum security prison she has no regrets about her life.
“I can’t spend my time explaining the unexplainable. I’d rather try to seek a peaceful heart,” Kissel, 50, said when asked if she would have done anything differently. “I don’t know how to undo something I never understood.”
Speaking through an intercom from behind metal bars, the mother-of-three broke into tears, and at one point into song, as she sat for her first media interviews just 20 miles from her former $20,000-a-month, ocean-view apartment. Convicted by two Hong Kong juries for the murder of her husband, she was told by the city’s top court in April that she had exhausted all appeal avenues. Her voice was at times steady and deliberate, at times quivering and incomprehensible.
The murder of her husband Robert Kissel revealed a dysfunctional side to the lives of Hong Kong’s wealthy foreign bankers and their families. Nancy’s decade-long legal battle against the murder charge, with its tales of decadence and abuse and the concoction of two homemade milkshakes on a Sunday afternoon, spawned two books and multiple television documentaries and movies.
The Kissels moved in 1998 from New York to Hong Kong, where Robert worked on distressed-asset deals for Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and then Merrill Lynch & Co. His body, wrapped in a sleeping bag and rolled up in a carpet, was found in a family storeroom by police after a colleague filed a missing persons report on Nov. 6, 2003.
Nancy Kissel argued in her first trial that she was defending herself in a fight and in her second trial, won after errors were found in the first, that she was provoked and that depression and battered woman syndrome impaired her judgment. She was convicted unanimously both times and sentenced to life in prison. To this day, it’s hard for her to say what happened that night.
“I don’t know! I’m still trying to figure it out, don’t you understand?” she said in June as she dissolved into convulsive sobs. A female Chinese prison guard reflexively stepped forward with a tissue.
Prosecutors told jurors at both trials that Nancy killed Robert by drugging him with sedatives crushed into a milkshake and then bashing his head in with an eight-pound metal statuette. She earlier conducted online searches for sleeping pills and had begun an affair with an electrician who outfitted the family vacation home in Vermont, they said.
When asked why she didn’t take the divorce Robert had discussed with a lawyer and told his colleague he intended to ask her for on the Nov. 2 night of his death, Kissel began to tremble. She said she learned that “pretending to be brave” doesn’t always work.
Nancy maintained at trial that the Web searches were a reflection of her own mental illness and suicidal thoughts, and that her judgment was impaired when she tussled with Robert on the night he died. She argued that she had been physically and sexually abused for years and witnesses attested to seeing her with bruises and in a body brace.
“You need to find your identity, I’m still trying,” she told Bloomberg. “Hiding behind luxury is easy, that way no one has to ask if everything is all right. And no one ever did.”
Nancy Keeshin was born in 1964 in Michigan and spent part of her childhood in northern California. She studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York City before dropping out to take a job managing a restaurant. She met Robert Kissel on a Club Med vacation in the Caribbean and they married in 1989.
In Hong Kong, Nancy spent her days dabbling in photography, taking tennis lessons and volunteering at the Hong Kong International School and the local United Jewish Congregation. The family lived at the luxury Parkview estate with two domestic helpers.
“All that wealth and luxury, how could anyone see who I was? I never existed,” she said. “What are all these places with servants and chandeliers? It’s another world we were thrown into.”
Tapping thin, white fingertips against the plexiglass, Kissel sang a song she wrote for God and spoke about sharing her songs with fellow inmates. She asked the guard behind her in fluent Cantonese for another tissue to wipe her nose.
“This is my home,” she said when asked if she thinks of ever leaving the prison. “The smile on their faces is a reflection of Jesus working for me. This is my life.”
According to Nancy Kissel’s former defense attorney Colin Cohen, a Hong Kong board that reviews life sentences opted last year not to grant release before she dies. The panel is scheduled to revisit the decision every two years and could shorten her sentence to 20 to 25 years, Cohen said.
Kissel had applied to serve out her term in the U.S. before being advised that the Hong Kong life sentence rules out the chance of parole in her home country, according to Cohen. When asked whether she would seek a transfer again if Hong Kong does shorten her sentence, Kissel paused.
“I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t belong there. My children are there and they need to heal from something they won’t ever understand,” she said. Kissel isn’t in touch with her son and two daughters who live with Robert’s sister, Jane Clayton, near Seattle, Washington.
Clayton and her father Bill declined to comment on Nancy’s comments through their Hong Kong-based lawyer, Andrew Powner. After Nancy’s 2011 conviction they released a statement saying that Robert dearly loved his children and did his best to provide for them and his wife.
“We all miss him so much,” they had said in their statement.
Nancy Kissel’s three interviews with Bloomberg are her first. Documentary maker Mark Erder, who is working on a film about her family and visits her regularly, was present during the first of the three interviews. No photos or video were allowed to be taken inside the prison.
Asked if she had any regrets, including meeting Robert, she said her children wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t met.
“Why on earth would you ask that question? They are such beautiful human beings, now the glory is shining on through them. They were such gifts that I had. But I never understood so much of what was in my life.”
Kissel said she asks for forgiveness and repents in her search for peace. “That’s very different from regret.”