"He is capable of anything," said an associate, who spoke often to Shenkman during three years of legal proceedings in the divorce filed by Shenkman's wife, Hartford lawyer Nancy Tyler.
The hearing in Superior Court was to have been one of the last in a case characterized by bizarre twists and contained in three battered and bulging legal binders. The divorce was finalized a year ago, but some unresolved issues remained - including the occupancy of the South Windsor home.
Halfway through the divorce, Shenkman was arrested on charges that he burned down the couple's Niantic summer home in March 2007. His wife had just been awarded the house, and he had been denied further use of it.
Responding to Shenkman's frantic 911 call reporting the fire, police found him, with his dogs, trapped by flames on the roof over the house's front porch. A police affidavit said he twice resisted rescue efforts and had to be dragged down.
Elsewhere in the record, there is a letter from Shenkman to Tyler's divorce lawyer, in which Shenkman refers to the case as "The War of the Tylers" and "your divorce lynching."
"How dare you put my character on trial at your 'kangaroo court,' attempting to fight me for money, houses and trinkets that I've already lost," Shenkman wrote.
The legal record shows that Shenkman was arrested for threatening his wife and was accused of violating civil and criminal orders to stay away from her. Shenkman told the IRS his wife wasn't paying income taxes. She complained to the state police that he threatened to "destroy" her and warned her that their marriage would end only with their deaths.
Shenkman and Tyler were married in Cheshire; court records conflict over whether it was in 1993 or '94. They had one child, a son, in 1989. In 1998, Shenkman adopted Tyler's two children from a previous marriage, a son and a daughter. The couple bought the beach house in 1995, with Tyler providing most of the deposit from her savings. She held exclusive title to the property. Shenkman, who owned a Bloomfield advertising company called Prime Media Inc., bought the South Windsor home and lived there prior to the marriage.
The marriage was falling apart by early 2006. Tyler and the children left the South Windsor home. The couple tried, without success, to reconcile. Tyler filed for divorce on July 19, 2006, and moved with the children to the home in Niantic. She obtained a restraining order to keep Shenkman away from the property.
"The ensuing litigation," the state Appellate Court wrote in an opinion released Tuesday, ruling on an issue related to both the divorce and arson, "was protracted and contentious."
One thing that is not clear from the file is what Shenkman calls himself. Early in the case, he is referred to as "Shenkman-Tyler." Later, the case title or caption is changed to reflect his apparent desire to be called, simply, "Tyler." When he was arrested after the fire on charges of first-degree arson and reckless endangerment, the state police called him "Shenkman." The Connecticut Law Tribune, reporting on the divorce a year ago, said the couple picked their family name - Tyler - out of a phone directory about the time they were married.
Just weeks after Tyler filed for divorce, Shenkman's first lawyer quit, citing an unspecified "breakdown in the attorney/client relationship."
A transcribed hearing shortly afterward signaled that the divorce would not be easily resolved. The hearing was expected to touch on relatively inconsequential issues, but the transcript suggests Shenkman was trying to delay matters. He said he was heavily medicated by a prescription drug, the name of which he couldn't recall. He said he was partially paralyzed by an undiagnosed neurological condition. And he said he was afflicted by an unspecified form of cancer.
Superior Court Judge Herbert Barall was patient - at least initially
Barall's mood changed after he recessed briefly to read e-mail messages collected by Tyler's lawyer and allegedly written by Shenkman. The e-mails were not contained in the court file Tuesday, but from the context of the transcript they appeared to involve an alleged effort by Shenkman to dispose of assets in violation of court orders.
After a brief colloquy following the recess, Barall barked at Shenkman: "What are you, stupid?" Later, the judge told Shenkman, "Sir ... you apparently have a problem."
"If I were your lawyer," the judge continued, "and I got these e-mails, I would have quit also, because in these e-mails, you're saying that you would create problems, leave everything in debt."
Shenkman fired back that he and Tyler failed to pay taxes on $600,000 in advertising income and that police lied when he was arrested after an alleged domestic dispute in Niantic.
When Barall asked where Shenkman attended college, Shenkman replied that he couldn't recall.
"When I went to college, it was just to stay out of the draft," Shenkman said. "It wasn't to get an education."
He said he studied at Post College, the University of Hartford and a school in Boston, the name of which he said he forgot. He said the Boston school had since gone out of business. Asked how long he studied, Shenkman said, "I don't know. A lot."
Reached by phone in Florida, Shenkman's mother, Florence Shenkman, said she did not know anything about the hostage situation. Shenkman said her son had recently told her that he had prostate cancer, "and I think, mentally, he has all kinds of trouble."
Organizers of a summertime waterfront festival in New London, who formerly contracted with Shenkman's Prime Media for public relations work, said he could be difficult to work with.
"I only know Richard as kind of being a hothead," said Jane Glover, a former New London city council member and president of Sail New London.
Staff writer Jesse Leavenworth contributed to this story.