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PORTLAND, Ore. — While pondering the best methods for spousal murder, the romance novelist Nancy Brophy wrote that her career as an author — with steamy stories of romance and betrayal — left her thinking often about killings and how the police investigate them.
A spouse who commits mariticide will almost certainly become a prime suspect, she said in a 2011 blog post titled “How to Murder Your Husband.” The wife, she said, must “be organized, ruthless and very clever.”
“After all, if the murder is supposed to set me free, I certainly don’t want to spend any time in jail,” Ms. Brophy wrote. “And let me say clearly for the record, I don’t like jumpsuits and orange isn’t my color.”
Seven years later, Ms. Brophy’s husband, Daniel, was brutally murdered, shot twice inside the kitchen of a Portland, Ore., culinary institute where he was arriving for work on a sunny June morning. Now, prosecutors are trying to build a follow-the-string criminal case to prove that Ms. Brophy, 71, killed her husband with the same type of brutal cunning she once speculated would be necessary to evade conviction and reap the rewards — compiling gun components to avoid leaving a trace, attacking when no cameras or witnesses were present and moving to collect on a series of life insurance policies within days of her husband’s death.
This week, Ms. Brophy took the stand in her own defense in Multnomah County Circuit Court, at times sobbing as she described the horror of losing her husband and laughing as she told stories of a happy quarter-century relationship with plans to retire soon and travel the world. Ms. Brophy praised her husband as smart, funny, kind and humble, saying the two never had serious conflict or doubted their commitment to each other — a tragic love story, without the betrayal.
“His weaknesses were my strengths. My strengths tended to be his weaknesses,” she told the jury. “Together, it just fit immediately and never stopped.”
The Brophys had met in the early 1990s after Ms. Brophy, then Nancy Crampton, moved to Portland and took classes at a culinary school where Mr. Brophy was her instructor.
The two eventually started dating and got married, building a quiet life in the Portland suburbs, where Mr. Brophy tended to chickens and grew spices on a back lot of land and Ms. Brophy dabbled in jobs ranging from life insurance sales to romance writing.
Ms. Brophy never had much financial success in her writing, mostly pursuing self-published novels with covers featuring shirtless men and titles such as “The Wrong Husband” and “The Wrong Cop.” She would spend her mornings writing in bed, her husband often bringing her coffee from Starbucks.
“My stories are about pretty men and strong women, about families that don’t always work and about the joy of finding love and the difficulty of making it stay,” Ms. Brophy wrote in an author bio, where she lavished praise on her husband and the life they had built together.
The couple had no children together, but defense lawyers called some relatives and friends who praised the Brophys’ marriage. Ms. Brophy’s niece Susan Estrada had come to live with the couple for a year about a decade ago, learning to sell insurance alongside Ms. Brophy. She said the couple had a collaborative relationship, with Ms. Brophy stopping her writing to help her husband around the house and him making meals and packing lunches when she was on the road for insurance sales.
“It was a kind of relationship that made me personally think marriage may not be a bad idea,” Ms. Estrada testified.
On the morning of June 2, 2018, students arriving at the Oregon Culinary Institute discovered Mr. Brophy’s body on the floor of a back kitchen, where he had been at a sink filling buckets of water and ice not long after arriving and unlocking the building.
Later that morning, after being told there was police activity at the institute, Ms. Brophy arrived on scene. Detectives shared the news that her husband had been killed.
Ms. Brophy told them that her husband had arisen around 4 a.m. to feed the chickens and walk the dogs, and that she awoke when he came upstairs to have a shower. They discussed a leak in the sink, Ms. Brophy said, and she estimated that he left for work a little after 7 a.m.
“At that point, what we considered Ms. Crampton Brophy was a grieving spouse that just learned her husband had been brutally murdered by a handgun,” Detective Anthony Merrill of the Portland Police Bureau testified. “We felt sad for her.”
Officers took Ms. Brophy home, where she directed them to a gun in a closet; she said she had bought the weapon after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., left her feeling unsafe.
Other detectives were scouring the scene of the shooting for surveillance video. There were no cameras there, but a nearby pizza restaurant had footage showing a small snapshot of the street outside.
Investigators skimmed through the video, looking for anything noteworthy from earlier in the day. They soon came to a jarring image, one that caused them to rewind the recording to take another look: Early that morning, an old Toyota minivan that looked like Ms. Brophy’s had driven by the culinary institute.
That minivan, detectives soon found, appeared in other videos from around the neighborhood. Prosecutors say it was clearly Ms. Brophy driving the van; it arrived in the area at 6:39 a.m., at a time when Ms. Brophy had said she was still in bed. At one point, footage showed, the van was parked on a hillside with a view of the culinary institute. Other cameras showed the van next to the culinary institute at about 7:08 a.m., then again about 20 minutes later, the window of time in which investigators believe that Mr. Brophy was killed.
Ms. Brophy testified this week that she had no recollection of being there during the early morning nor of much that happened later, as she was processing the shock of learning that her husband was dead. She testified that she might have been making a usual run to Starbucks while jotting notes about her latest story on a notepad when her van showed up on the surveillance footage, but that she could not be sure.
Investigators found more: In their conversation about the gun in her closet, Ms. Brophy had not disclosed that she had also bought a “ghost gun” kit — a collection of pieces to make an unregistered firearm. And on eBay, they learned, she had bought a slide and barrel assembly that could be used to modify the gun she had turned over to investigators. That assembly was never recovered.
Prosecutors contend that Ms. Brophy could have attached the slide and barrel to her gun to commit the murder before swapping it out so investigators would be unable to link the unique markings on the bullets to the gun in her possession.
Ms. Brophy testified that she bought the ghost gun kit and slide and barrel assembly for the research of a new book: the tale of a woman in an abusive relationship who turned the tables on her lover by gradually acquiring gun parts each month to slowly build a complete weapon. Bank records show that the payments for the parts came from the couple’s joint account, and Ms. Brophy said her husband was well aware of the purchases, opening the gun kit with her after it arrived in the mail.
But in a dramatic scene during testimony on Tuesday, Ms. Brophy conceded that she had at one point removed the slide and barrel of the gun she had bought after Parkland, a weapon she testified was meant for protection, not research. A deputy district attorney, Shawn Overstreet, pounced, bringing the gun toward the witness stand. Why, he asked, would she need to buy another slide and barrel for research when she already had one in her home to examine?
Ms. Brophy said she was fascinated with gun parts and how her book character might acquire them. “It was for writing,” she said. “It was not to, as you would have it, murder my husband.”
The defense claims that the surveillance footage provides hints about other potential suspects. The videos show homeless people walking around the neighborhood, the defense lawyers noted, including footage of one man who hid behind a wall and looked in a bag when police officers arrived on the morning of the killing. Investigators said they had not been able to identify the man. They noted that Mr. Brophy’s wallet, cellphone and car keys were untouched.
Prosecutors argue that Ms. Brophy had a financial incentive to kill her husband. The couple had been going through a period of financial instability, taking a loan from Mr. Brophy’s 401(k) account, yet they were spending hundreds of dollars each month on life insurance premiums. Ms. Brophy’s lawyers countered that she had bought policies because of her work as an insurance agent and that she was not the beneficiary on all of them. In the wake of her husband’s death, prosecutors said, Ms. Brophy moved to collect on policies worth $1.4 million.
Four days after the killing, Ms. Brophy spoke to one of the investigators, asking whether he would provide a letter saying she was not a suspect, according to audio of the conversation. The detective, who appeared taken aback, asked why, and Ms. Brophy disclosed that her insurance company was making her provide verification for a $40,000 life insurance claim.
“They don’t want to pay if it turns out that I secretly went down to the school and shot my husband because I thought, ‘Hey, going into old age without Dan after 25 years is really what I’m looking for,’” Ms. Brophy said in the recording.
She was charged with his murder three months later.
Audio produced by Parin Behrooz.