LACOMBE, La. — Even two years after she was found with a gunshot wound to the head, burned in her Lacombe home, Nanette Krentel’s emails and text messages to her family members paint the picture of a woman frustrated by fear.
“It just seems like, what she was telling us, she wasn't being heard,” said her sister, Kim Watson, a prosecutor in Sioux City, Iowa.
The never-before-seen messages reveal a woman who felt danger was imminent and real the month before she died of a homicide.
Her husband, then-Acting Chief of St Tammany Fire District 12, Steve Krentel, installed surveillance cameras around their wooded 100-acre property to make his wife feel safe, nine of them in all.
On the day she died, none of those cameras provided any clues to figure out who killed Nanette.
But cameras Steve helped install at the fire district did help provide an alibi for him. He was seen on those cameras throughout the day on the day of the fire.
“His cell phone was plotted by the FBI. He goes to the fire station, he's around the fire station. Several people at the fire station accounted for him throughout the day, went and met some people at Outback and was plotted back to the fire station before he got the call that his house was on fire,” a St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s detective told Nanette’s family in August 2018, during a meeting to update them on the progress of the investigation.
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St. Tammany Sheriff Randy Smith took the unusual step of formally clearing Steve as a person of interest two months after Nanette’s death.
“At this time our initial primary person of interest in this investigation, the victim's husband, has been cleared. Stephen Krentel has been cooperative with this investigation from the beginning,” Smith said in September 2017.
That news came at the same press conference when Smith said his detectives had fully investigated Nanette’s death as a homicide from the beginning, despite saying the day before he didn’t “fully agree” with the Coroner’s homicide determination.
Nanette’s family members have expressed concerns that the STPSO was hinting they thought she committed suicide in the early days of the investigation, potentially hampering efforts to find her killer.
And even with the Sheriff clearing Steve, the family members said they still have lingering questions about him from, among other things, the cameras.
“Why is it all of a sudden the cameras weren't working that day,” asked Randy Groetken, Kim’s boyfriend, who also is a long-time volunteer firefighter.
In the Ashes
The Krentels’ property was surrounded by nine surveillance cameras installed as two separate systems. Again, the gate cameras were not working, but what about the ones on the house?
The surveillance cameras on the Krentels’ house fed into a digital video recorder or DVR in the living room of the house. The video was stored locally, not on the internet.
That DVR was one of the two places doused with accelerant before someone set fire to the house, sources with knowledge of the investigation say. The other was in the master bedroom near the window. The sources also said the carcass of one of the Krentels’ two cats had accelerant on it near that window.
The recorder was so badly damaged by the fire, detectives told the family even the FBI could not recover any video from it.
The DVR and the cat carcasses were all left behind in the ash and rubble after the STPSO and the La. State Fire Marshal conducted their initial search of the Krentel fire scene the day after the fire.
A private fire investigator, hired by Steve Krentel, found the cats and a shotgun two days later, according to the sources.
The two agencies re-secured the scene five days after the fire after firearms testing revealed the two guns secured during the initial search did not match the bullet found in Nanette’s head.
As for the other set of cameras on the Krentels’ front gate, Steve Krentel said they were controlled by a wireless device called a MiFi that fed video to the internet, and they frequently stopped working.
The day before the fire, the MiFi had gone out and needed a reset, something that he said happens regularly in their secluded part of St. Tammany Parish.
Steve had attended a contentious St. Tammany Parish Council meeting the night before, and said he was tired and wanted to get something to eat, so he didn’t stop to reset the MiFi on his way back to the house.
So, the gate cameras didn’t capture any clues for investigators about what happened to Nanette the day she died.
Nanette’s own words
Nanette’s family members said she had started emailing them her concerns about the danger she felt her brother-in-law posed back in 2011, six years before her life came to a violent end.
Nanette began emailing her father, Dan Watson, in Iowa about the danger she thought her brother-in-law Bryan Krentel posed when Bryan was preparing to get out of prison.
“When he says I will start your house on fire and kill you when you come out, that is a serious threat to me!" she wrote.
Bryan is a repeat offender, with at least 15 convictions for crimes ranging from DWI to battery on a police officer.
He has never been publicly named a person of interest or a suspect in Nanette’s homicide by the STPSO.
“As afraid as she was, she wanted to be able to say 'OK, well, who's at my gate?' because no one should be back here,” Kim said about why the Krentels had two different camera systems.
But the emails and text messages make it clear Nanette was armed and afraid. She and Steve had 30 guns, many of them in the house, at the time of her death.
The couple liked to target shoot on their 100-acre property, but the sport of it turned to protection as Nanette’s concerns grew.
“He put cameras showing all areas of the house and on a monitor up 24/7. It records as well. I have pepper spray at both doors and of course the guns," she wrote in 2011.
“This is the statement she always made. So long as I have my guns and the cameras and I'm at home, I'm safe,” Dan said.
Steve had not only installed the cameras at the Krentel home, he said he installed a number of surveillance systems at fire districts around St. Tammany.
Another camera inside Steve’s fire unit showed the moments he pulled up to the burning house with one of his co-workers. His was the first fire unit at the scene.
It was a life-changing day for Steve, losing his wife, placing him under a community microscope. When he returned to work four months after Nanette’s death, the fire district board voted to launch a civil service investigation into Steve for allegations that he misused fire district property and had an affair with a subordinate.
Steve has said the woman was not a subordinate at the time of their relationship, two years prior to Nanette’s death.
Steve ultimately retired from the fire district after being demoted from his position as interim chief and disciplined by the board.
According to Steve, Nanette had known about the affair. Her best friend Lori Rando tells a similar story.
“The last time I was able to see her was actually on her birthday two years before she was killed. And it was at that lunch that she had told me that... she knew Steve was having an affair,” Rando said.
But Nanette’s emails indicate that wasn’t the only thing that caused friction in their marriage. In the weeks before her death, Nanette said her concerns about Bryan and Steve’s perceived lack of action were “coming to a head” in a text message.
“If he doesn't start protecting me, what she told me, if he doesn't try protecting me from Bryan and his family, that I'm kicking him out,” Kim recalled Nanette saying.
Nanette frequently talked about the tension about Bryan with her Iowa family, especially after Bryan was released from prison in October 2018.
“Nan was scared to death of him,” Dan said.
According to the family members and friends, Bryan blamed Nanette and Steve for not helping him evade arrest when he got into an accident while under the influence. Court records indicate he already had several prior convictions.
“Bryan's truck had gotten stuck in a ditch and he needed help getting it out because he was either drinking and driving or on drugs, drugs and driving, and he couldn't afford to get arrested. And so he was hoping that Steve would be able to pull his car out of the ditch,” Rando said.
Police arrived at the scene and arrested Bryan.
“He did blame Nanette and Steve for his getting arrested and held a grudge towards them,” Rando said.
Two months before her death Kim said she and Nanette were talking via text about it and that Nanette texted her, “He threatened to set the house on fire, rape me and kill us."
In October, Nanette’s sister Lisa Watson found some never-before-seen emails in an account of Dan’s he forgot he had.
"Bryan is capable of anything and someone that has nothing to lose, is full of hate, uses drugs, makes threats is a loose cannon," Nanette wrote in May 2017.
We tried multiple times to reach Bryan by phone and in person for comment, but to no avail.
He was interviewed by phone for Internet TV Show “Crime Watch Daily” last year. When asked how he felt about detectives focusing on him as part of the investigation into Nanette’s homicide, Bryan replied, “It didn't really bother me because I didn't have anything to worry about, you know? I loved her. She was like a sister I didn't have. Let's put it that way."
But that thought is in stark contrast to what Nanette’s emails say about their relationship.
“It's infuriating,” Dan continued. “Anybody that knew Nanette and knew Bryan knew that was not true. But that's not very many people.”
The Watson family turned over emails to investigators that say Nanette counted on the cameras, her guns and a geo-fence that was supposed to signal Bryan’s probation officer if he came within 1,000 feet of the Krentels’ home.
Bryan was fitted with an alcohol-sensing ankle bracelet upon his release from prison.
Steve recorded a conversation with Bryan’s probation officer in the months after Nanette’s murder in which the officer admits the GPS-tracking function was never turned on.
But again, investigators have said Bryan was captured on the surveillance cameras inside his mother’s Mandeville home throughout the day Nanette died.
Steve was the one who installed those cameras.
“Steve put in cameras at his parents’ house because he believed their safety was in jeopardy with Bryan living there,” Dan said.
But Nanette’s family members questioned detectives about whether they authenticated the video of Bryan when they seized the DVR.
“The time displayed on the DVR corresponds with the current time,” a STPSO detective told the family during their meeting in August 2018.
Groetken drilled down on how it was verified during the meeting asking whether the DVR was forensically examined to see if the date was changed, for example, or the video had been edited.
At the time of that meeting, detectives said the FBI had not examined it like they tried to examine the one burned in Steve and Nanette’s home.
Whether or not the STPSO has submitted it for further testing is unknown because Sheriff Smith declined to answer our questions.
He initially agreed to an interview with WWL-TV and the Times Picayune | New Orleans Advocate, but later declined saying, “We have spoken with our investigative partners in this case and have decided that we refrain from any further comment on this open/active investigation."
Both Steve and Bryan have said they have taken lie detector tests related to the investigation.
Bryan did not have a car the day Nanette died. Even with their sometimes-strained relationship, Bryan showed up at the fire scene.
“We're still very interested in Bryan for sure. If not him, someone affiliated with him,” Smith said during last year’s meeting with the family.
Again, the STPSO has not called him a person of interest or a suspect in the case.
The fire happened on the six-month anniversary of their father’s death.
Steve has hired two private investigators to look into Nanette’s death—one for the fire, another for the homicide—he declined to share the information they gathered, saying he has shared the homicide investigator’s report with the STPSO.
With few answers and so many questions, the past two years have been tormented for Nanette’s family. Kim said one group text has nearly a million messages exchanged between them: messages of hope, sorrow, frustration and information as they continue to look for answers out of the ashes.
Crimestoppers still has a $10,000 reward for information that leads to a conviction in the case. The number to call is (504) 822-1111.
Sara Pagones of The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate has contributed to these reports.