This report aired on Dateline Sunday, Jan. 22, 7 p.m.
The SUV was still running but the female driver with the ghastly head injury was clearly dead. It looked as though she’d skidded off an icy New Jersey back road and plunged down the slight embankment to the creek below.
Wedged behind the driver’s seat was a suitcase filled with women’s clothing, but arriving police officers immediately noted something odd on the passenger’s side: footprints in the snow leading up to the road 150-feet away.
Detective Dan McKeown got to the scene on a cold January morning in 2004, and says the second he saw the woman in the car crash, he knew who she was.
The deceased in the front seat was 34-year-old Michelle Nyce, the Filipina-born wife of a local pharmaceutical executive and entrepreneur, Dr. Jonathan Nyce.
Dan McKeown, Hopewell Township detective: The first thing that did go through my mind was hasn’t this family been through enough?
The detective had met the couple the previous summer when the husband, Dr. Nyce, made a police complaint about someone stalking his wife Michelle.
And now this: the pretty young wife was dead, slumped in her Toyota showing injuries far more grievous than expected in a one-car accident. This looked like a homicide.
The detective immediately called on Dr. Nyce at the million-dollar home in a gated community where he lived with Michelle and their three children.
Det. McKeown: We wanted to talk to Jonathan to find out as much information as we could to try and reconstruct Michelle’s mindset. Who she was with and where she was going prior to this incident.
Dr. Nyce told the detective that he’d last seen Michelle about 4 o’clock the afternoon before the accident, when she was getting ready for work. Michelle sold Chanel products at the local Macy’s.
Det. McKeown: He’s under the impression that she’s going to work and that after work she’s going to go out with a friend. And that’s allegedly the last time that he talks to her.Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: At that point, did you see any reason to doubt that story? A man was with his family, went to sleep, his wife tragically had a car accident on the way home from wherever she’d been. That was the story?Det. McKeown: No. That was the story.
Police, of course, had to know more about the relationship of Jonathan and Michelle Nyce. He recounted for them a history of their becoming a couple much as he did when he sat down to talk with “Dateline”.
Dr. Jonathan Nyce: I thought my life was perfect. I had three perfect children. I had a beautiful wife who I adored. And I believed during that time she adored me, too.
Nyce was a 39-year-old professor at a North Carolina college. He was a little geeky and unlucky in love when an acquaintance steered him toward a friend, a teenager living in the Philippines who’d been advertising in a newspaper for a pen pal. The lonely heart biologist and the teenager from an ocean far away began corresponding in the late ‘80s. Nyce flew to the Philippines to meet her.
Nyce: And when I saw her in person she was everything and more that I had come to expect from the writing.
Just weeks after that first meeting, Jonathan and Michelle signed the Filipino paperwork that made them husband and wife. He fudged his age by 9 years, though she didn’t find out until years later how big the gap between them was.
Murphy: You were 40. She was 20. You’re looking at each other through the fog of very difficult cultures.Nyce: Yes.Murphy: Did it worry you?Nyce: She asked me that. And I said, “I’m not marrying you for your wealth. If I marry you it’ll be because I love you.” And I did love her.
And big changes awaited the newlyweds back in the States. Dr. Nyce’s lab research on promising asthma treatments had paid off like winning the lottery. Big pharmaceutical companies wanted to be in business with him in a major way.
Nyce: I raised about $65 million to advance my drugs into clinical trials.
The assistant professor became a wealthy business-owning entrepreneur and a new father. By the time he relocated from North Carolina to central New Jersey, they were a family of five. Michelle found a 20-room, 5000 sq. foot neo-colonial on Keithwood Court.
Her friend Larissa Soos remembered how pleased Michelle was with their sudden good fortune.
Larissa Soos, Michelle Nyce's best friend: They built their dream house. Jonathan was doing well with his company—they would travel. She was the best dressed. Her kids got the best of everything. And she helps her family back in the Philippines. She was living an ideal life.
Three kids, a successful husband, and a handsome house to decorate and make a home.
Nyce: I bought 50,000 worth of trees or something that Michelle had selected and they were planted in our yard and it looked beautiful.
But like another famous couple before them, things came undone in the seeming paradise of the garden. The landscaping required a gardener and soon the mistress of the house required him too. Michelle and Enyo the gardener had a torrid fling. The husband says he was clueless.
Nyce: I thought our family life was continuing. You know for me it was wonderful, and I thought for her too.
But there was tension and worries aplenty on Keithwood Court. Jonathan Nyce’s business had fizzled. The clinical trials of his medicine were a bust. He got fired from his company.
Nyce became a stay-at-home dad, writing a book of poems for children he tried unsuccessfully to get published.
Nyce: Michelle seemed very angry about me being home during the day acted sometimes very strangely different.Murphy: Some women joke about "For better or for worse, but not for lunch." But this was a little bit more than that?Nyce: I remember her coming into my office one day when I was working and just cleaning my desk everything on the floor and saying, “This is my house during the day.”
In the summer of 2003, with Dr. Nyce oblivious, he says, to his wife’s regular hook-ups with the gardener at hot sheets motels, he claimed he received a threatening phone call.
Nyce: It was horrific. It was a man basically saying, “I have something you need to listen to.” And then he played the tape of Michelle having sex with someone else.Murphy: How did you know it was Michelle?Nyce: Her voice is very distinctive and the man called her by her name in the tape, so it was very clear that it was Michelle.
The mystery caller, Nyce says, hung up and immediately rang again now demanding $500,000.
Murphy: Half million dollars or else what?Nyce: He would distribute not only the audio tapes, but he said he had videotapes as well.
And that’s when Hopewell Township Detective Dan McKeown had his first encounter with Dr. Nyce. McKeown was assigned to run down the alleged extortion attempt.
In the course of interviewing both the husband and the wife, Michelle reluctantly admitted her affair.
Murphy: Are you starting to hear details about a man in her life?Det. McKeown: Yes. It turns out he is a gardener, and the year prior was hired by Jonathan Nyce to plant trees in the yard.
Michelle said she’d broken it off with Enyo the gardener after he began demanding money from her and started stalking her. The detective confronted the gardener and a court-ordered restraining order against him seemed to put the complaint to rest.
Det. McKeown: We didn’t hear from Jonathan again until January of 2004.
That was the day his wife had been found in the vehicle in the icy creek. In his statement to the investigators, Dr. Nyce had been quite clear about the last time he’d seen and spoken to his wife. It was 4 p.m., before her shift at Macy’s.
But later, as the detective drove Dr. Nyce back to his house, in a casual conversation, Nyce said something that didn’t add up.
Det. McKeown: Out of the blue Jonathan says, “You know, I really thought things were going to work out.” He goes on to say that they had been getting along so much better, that the only time they argued was when Michelle talked about moving out or leaving him. And I said, “Well, when’s the last time you had that conversation?” Jonathan replied, “Last night.”
And "last night" did not mean "4 p.m." And now Det. McKeown’s ears were ringing. He whipped the car around.
Jonathan Nyce was brought back to the Hopewell police department for another interrogation. Two hours into the interview he broke.
Det. McKeown: And he paused for a moment and he said, “I need to know one thing. Was she with Enyo that night?” I said, “Jonathan, I’ve never lied to you before. She was with him.” And it was at that point that he broke down and he gave us his new version of what happened.
In the new version of his story, taped by police, Dr. Nyce claimed that Michelle had tried to kill him in the garage when she came home in a rage at about midnight.
Nyce (police tape/interrogation): "For some reason she called me a f*ng freak. I don't know why. I was just asking her questions about where she was. She took something out of her Chanel bag and lunged at me right at my face, right at my neck."
Nyce said Michelle attacked him, slashing with what he took to be a stiletto or knife. He said she tumbled from the driver’s seat and went down on the concrete floor hard.
Nyce: She just flew out and hit with a sickening "thunk" of her head on the pavement.
Even then, Dr. Nyce said, his wife was lashing out. He says he pounded her head into the floor to get control of her and suddenly realized she was dead.
What happened next would challenge even veteran cops who’ve heard a lot when it comes to disposing of the corpse. He made it look like his wife’s body was driving the car.
Det. McKeown: He put her in the driver’s seat of the SUV. He allegedly gets into the passenger seat and uses an ice scraper to control the gas and the brake pedals.
Husband and dead wife threading their way through the icy streets of their gated community until he finds the creek, veers off the road, plunges into the water, leaves the engine running and then scuttles up the snowy embankment to the road and walks home.
Murphy: This is a quite a story you’re hearing.Det. McKeown: Yes, it was.Murphy: And basically, there were two people in the garage who knew what happened. And one of them was dead.Det. McKeown: That’s correct.
Dr. Jonathan Nyce would be charged with murder and he would plead not guilty: not guilty on the grounds that it was an accident.
Could he convince a jury of that?
Jonathan Nyce was charged with murdering his beautiful, much younger wife Michelle, bashing her head in on the concrete floor of the garage at their gated community home.
At his bail hearing, Nyce argued that he has no history of physical violence against any person. "I never ever had ill intent toward my wife at any point," said Nyce. "And what happened was a pure accident."
In trial, Nyce’s attorney Robin Lord was fierce in her opening argument:
Robin Lord, defense attorney (in court): Jonathan Nyce did not murder his wife nor can the state beyond a reasonable doubt convince you otherwise.
The defense attorney portrayed Michelle Nyce as a run-around tramp who spent her idle hours not at home with her kids, but having trysts at cheap motels. What’s more, the defense lawyer asserted that Michelle had been planning to do in her husband since at least the summer before her death, saying she and her lover, Enyo the gardener, had hatched together that alleged extortion scheme involving the sex tapes.
Lord, defense attorney (in court): My theory of the case is that both Michelle and Enyo arranged for the phone calls to be made.
Nyce’s lawyer claims that Michelle wanted out of the marriage and she was scheming to take some of the value of the house with her.
Lord, defense attorney (in court): Half a million dollars was the equity in the home and she would have half a million dollars, and she would leave with the gardener.
So, after yet another motel night with the gardener, Michelle, the defense attorney argued, arrived back home fully prepared to kill her husband in the garage.
Lord: She lunges at him. He reacts to get away from the object. And simply, in one move, throws her down out of the way. And she unfortunately falls and receives serious injuries.Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: Serious injuries? Awful looking wounds to her head.Lord: Yes, terrible.Murphy: How do you get injuries like that if it’s an accident falling, what, three feet from the driver’s street down to a concrete floor in the garage?Lord: She had what’s called “contracoup” injuries— classic fall injuries. They are injuries to the brain, direct opposite to the point of impact.
The defense attempted to explain the head injuries as an accident, but there were still questions: If that were true, why didn’t Nyce call 911 right away? Why in the world would he stage a car crash and cover-up the so-called accident in the ghoulish manner he did? A lesser charge against him was tampering with evidence: his wife’s corpse.
Defense opening (in court): He panicked. That’s all he did. And I’m not gonna stand here and tell you that he didn’t attempt to stage an accident.Lord: We always took the position we were guilty of tampering with evidence. And that’s what we did. He is not proud of the decision. He can’t believe that he actually picked up this woman, that he loved to death, put her in the car… and drove her away, and left her.
The attorney argued that Dr. Nyce the medical researcher was much too smart to murder his wife by bashing her head into the concrete.
Lord: He is a genius when it comes to drugs, he could have created a drug that would have went undetected. There were so many different manners in which he could have killed her, and gotten away with it… which I think supported the fact that he did not intend to harm his wife. That this was a pure accident.
But was it?
Not according to the prosecution. In her opening statement, prosecutor Doris Galuchi cut right to the quick of the case. The prosecution saw a much darker side of Jonathan Nyce:
Doris Galuchi (prosecution opening statements): When you’re Mrs. Jonathan Nyce, your husband brutally beats you to death by smashing your skull into a concrete floor… When you’re Mrs. Jonathan Nyce, you pay for your extra-marital indiscretions with your life.
Galuchi: We had to start with what this case wasn’t about. And we felt that our mission was really to explain to the jury that this case was not about Michelle Nyce having an affair. The case was her husband who brutally beat and killed her.
The prosecution said there never was a plot against Nyce by Michelle and the gardener. That was all the invention of an aging husband losing his favorite possession, his pretty, once compliant wife.
Galuchi: We found that he was a very controlling person, very jealous person. He had to have Michelle, his wife’s, life very much under his thumb in his control.
Michelle’s best friend Larissa Soos recalls Jonathan wanting to know Michelle’s whereabouts at every moment, making sure she didn’t come in contact with other men.
Larissa Soos, Michelle Nyce’s best friend: She always wanted to be a model, but she knew in her heart that she’ll never ever be because obviously you would be exposed to a lot of people. She said she couldn’t even join a gym because there were other men working out.Galuchi: He didn’t want her to see everything else that was out there. And part of her did want to see that.Murphy: She was getting out a little more?Galuchi: And I don’t think he adapted well to that change. Everything then reversed. She was out, she was meeting people. And I think that really got to him.
So, the state argued, Michelle Nyce paid with her life for her curiosity about life beyond the confines of Keithwood Court.
Galuchi: What we believe happened was that they had an argument about her seeing someone else and that she, again, told him that she wanted to move out. She had the suitcase packed, and was ready to go. And he would not let her leave. I think she got as far as the garage with that suitcase. And that’s when he killed her— threw her to the floor of the garage, and banged her head on the floor of the garage. The forensic evidence does establish that.
There was other forensic evidence that the prosecutors presented to nail down the secondary charge, tampering with the body. Remember the boot tracks leading away from the car in Jacob’s Creek? Crime scene investigators found cut up, size 14 boot soles hidden in nooks and crannies all over Jonathan Nyce’s garage. When they put the soles back together, like a jigsaw puzzle, they matched the tracks in the snow.
In closing arguments it came down to one last argument from each side. Robin Lord for the defense:
Defense closing arguments: The issue is that she in fact lunged and he reacted, and she fell. That’s what the issue is.
The prosecution hammered home to the jury that Nyce had known of his wife’s infidelities for months: This, the state argued, was a not crime of passion—a man suddenly losing it—but a calculated killing. A murder.
State closing arguments: The defendant chose to kill her. Remember, she’s a human being.Galuchi: Our position was there was no surprise in this case. He knew she was out with her boyfriend. It’s not as if he came home and found her in bed with the gardener.
After a five-week trial, the jury was out for three days. The verdict it returned evoked gasps from both sides.
Dr. Jonathan Nyce was guilty of passion provocated manslaughter: manslaughter, not murder.The jury decided that on January 16th 2004 Jonathan Nyce had acted in the heat of passion when he confronted his wife in the garage. The difference between a verdict of manslaughter and murder was decades in prison.
Murphy: Was it a difficulty in court that this very tall man, Dr. Nyce, with a resume of wonderful science that he’s brought the world—was that a problem? Galuchi: Whether he’s got a Ph.D. or a sixth-grade education, it didn’t matter in that garage.
Nyce was sentenced to 5 to 10 years for killing his wife and tampering with evidence.
Murphy: Look, is there a queasy message here that in New Jersey, you can kill your wife and only have to do five to ten years?Galuchi: I think some people could certainly derive that message from this verdict. I hope they don’t.
Dr. Nyce is planning his appeal. He’s currently serving time at a New Jersey State prison. He’ll be eligible for parole in five years.
Nyce: I do not expect to be in jail for that period of time. I expect to win my appeal. And actually I expect to put other people in jail who lied to put me here. You can mark my words on that.