LACOMBE, La. — Just two weeks shy of her 50th birthday in 2017, Nanette Krentel was living a distant life of family, friendship and fear in the Lacombe home she shared with her fire chief husband, Stephen Krentel.
“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,” said her father, Dan Watson in his Iowa dining room as he recalled the details of Nanette’s life and death.
Even with the barrier of a wooden bar hinged over the door that entered the garage, nine surveillance cameras keeping eyes around their 100-acre property and 30 guns Nanette knew how to handle, she ended up shot to death, her body burned in the fortress the Krentels called home July 14, 2017.
Almost before the ashes of the house had time to cool, members of Nanette’s family began to question what happened and how her death was being investigated.
Something wasn't right
“As we got the phone call, we knew something wasn't right. You're in Louisiana. You don't have basements. You don't die in a fire in the middle of the day when you sleep normal hours. There's just no reason for you not to get out,” said Randy Groetken, long-time boyfriend of Nanette’s sister, Kim Watson.
The intense heat and flames left little of Nanette behind as they chewed their way through the single-story home.
“We're in the preliminary stages where we determine the location of origin and then there are a number of things we have to do to determine the cause of the fire,” La. State Fire Marshal Butch Browning said the day of the fire. “By the looks of this scene it's gonna take us several days to do that.”
The fire marshal has yet to formally release a cause of, or origin of the fire, saying only it was intentionally set. Sources close to the investigation said someone used accelerant to set the fire inside the house in at least two places.
Family says it was kept in the dark
Like many families, Nanette’s isn’t nuclear. Her father and some of her siblings are in Iowa and others are in Louisiana and scattered about the country, but each and every member of her family, in their own way, has pushed for two years to keep the investigation into her death alive.
While the St Tammany Parish Coroner, Dr. Charles Preston, discovered the gunshot wound to Nanette’s head at 9 a.m. the morning after the fire, the family was not told about the bullet for a week.
“We were getting ready for the funeral and we only found out because my cousin Gina had found an article that someone was leaked something that she died of a gunshot wound,” Kim Watson said.
The blog Louisiana Voice published an article the Friday morning after the fire that revealed the gunshot wound.
Dan Watson reached out to the Coroner’s Office as soon as he read it, but said he got few answers. He had met with Preston and his staff several days prior to submit a DNA swab for the official identification of Nanette’s remains and the coroner did not reveal the gunshot wound to him then. Preston declined to comment for this story.
“That’s the part that really bothered me was the way that came out. I was completely numb. I stayed numb for well over a month where I didn’t really know what was going on,” said Stephen Krentel in an off-camera interview.
Once word spread about how Nanette died, St Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith issued a news release confirming it. That release went public in the middle of the memorial service for Nanette.
“I apologize for not giving them the heads up before they got the information from the media,” Smith said in an interview days later.
At dinner the night of the memorial service more news spread through their family circle that shocked them.
“The night of my sister's memorial, Steve calls my brother and tells my brother that you are leaning towards suicide. I call you and I tell you that there is no way. That I would bet my only child that my sister never, never shoot herself. And you tell me that women shoot themselves all the time. They shoot their children. And they can possibly shoot their pets. And that's when I told you I did not trust you,” said Nanette’s sister Wendy Watson on a call with Smith and his detectives in August 2018.
Dan also said the week after the fire, he was told by multiple law enforcement officials investigators were leaning toward declaring Nanette’s death a suicide.
“We could get no information from the sheriff. I wasn't really sure what we were going to do at that point until we had heard that the sheriff was going to call it suicide. That's when we got an attorney,” he said.
The family hired an attorney to get a court order to preserve Nanette’s remains so they could get an independent autopsy done, a move St Tammany’s coroner later said was unnecessary as her husband, the legal next of kin, had agreed to the additional exam.
But the Watsons had grown distrustful of investigators and of the Krentels as they say the questions about Nanette’s death outpaced any answers they were getting.
Because Kim is a criminal prosecutor in Iowa, she has strong law enforcement connections, and enlisted the help of long-time homicide investigator Doug Johnson.
“Everything is a homicide until proven otherwise. When you lose it, you can't get it back,” Johnson said about the preservation of evidence in death investigations, something he teaches classes on at a local college in Sioux City.
Johnson traveled to Louisiana with forensic pathologist Dr. Thomas Bennett to perform a third autopsy on Nanette’s remains in September 2017, two months after the fire. Bennett has conducted more than 12,000 forensic autopsies in his career, many of them on accident victims who were burned, including those in plane crashes.
“We're able to conclude very easily that this was a homicide, not a suicide,” Bennett said about Nanette’s autopsy.
The two were not allowed to perform any physical tests on Nanette’s remains, but they looked at them, reviewed X-rays, tests conducted by Preston and crime scene photos. Bennett concluded Nanette’s death was a homicide for three main reasons: no soot in her airways, no blistering on the fire-exposed side of her torso and a lack of blood around the body.
“Even with that gunshot wound to the head, the difference is death is not instantaneous. Death is a process. If you have complete cessation of breathing, you still have circulation for a period of five or six minutes,” Bennett said.
Typically if a person takes two to three breaths around a fire, Bennett said, there would at least be microscopic particles of soot in the airways. In Nanette’s, Preston found none.
“She stopped breathing before the fire ever got to her, any part of the fire,” Bennett said.
Additionally, there was no evidence of blistering on the front, fire-facing side of Nanette’s body, an indication the fire did not reach her body until she was completely dead.
With a gunshot wound to the head, Bennett said there should have been evidence of a substantial amount of blood on the floor where her body was recovered.
“A gunshot wound to the head would bleed copiously. You would find a large area around this on the floor with debris falling around, fires tend to burn up. So, any of that blood would be down there on the floor around her would be still present,” Bennett said.
The Wyoming doctor was the third to conclude Nanette died as the result of a homicide. Preston sent the remains to the LSU Faces lab to try and reconstruct skull in the weeks after her death and they agreed.
But Preston did not make it official until the day Bennett concurred.
Sheriff's, coroner's offices at odds
What happened next is one of several unusual moves made by investigators in the Krentel case. The day Preston declared her death a homicide, Sheriff Smith called a press conference for the following day, saying in the news release, “At this time, the sheriff's office investigation does not necessarily support the coroner's conclusion in this case."
But at that press conference, 24 hours later, Smith pivoted his position, saying, “We have worked this case and we will continue to work this case tirelessly and aggressively as a homicide and we have since day one.”
That was the same day, two months after Nanette’s death, Smith took another unusual step, publicly clearing Steve Krentel as a suspect in the murder.
But the questions about how the investigation was being conducted began in the critical, first 48 hours after Nanette’s death.
Both Kim and her boyfriend Groetken, a longtime volunteer firefighter in Iowa, said they were stunned to see piles of ash and debris left behind at the fire site when they arrived three days after Nanette died.
Who Was Nanette Krentel?
“She's always loved kids, animals. And wasn't able to have kids and her pets, much like me, those are my kids,” said Kim about Nanette.
She retired young, in her 40’s, from teaching at an elementary school. But her pets kept her happy.
“Harley was her baby, little long haired chihuahua,” Kim said.
Harley went everywhere with Nanette and he died with her too. So did the Krentels' two cats, Baby Kitty and Smokey.
Family members and friends describe Nanette as the best friend you didn’t know you had with an unforgettable laugh.
“She had a laugh that was just so funny. She would catch herself starting to laugh and it would get louder. It was awesome,” Kim said.
Her best friend from their high school years at Chappelle High School in Metairie, Lori Rando, agrees.
“She had the best laugh on the planet. It was just wonderful. She was really down to earth and could be really serious at times as well, though,” Rando said.
The two had drifted apart over the years, until they reconnected nearly a decade ago on Facebook, and Rando said their conversations felt like no time had passed at all.
“If you knew her, you loved her. She was extremely friendly and outgoing and she made you feel like you were, you know, a good close friend. And no matter how long it was that you knew or for whether it was for five minutes or five years,” Rando said.
The two had chatted on Lori’s Facebook wall the night before the fire.
“We were just kind of reminiscing about times that we'd shared,” she continued, “It was just it was very light. It was very fun. You know, it was just like a normal a normal day.”
Their chat stopped without their usual "I love you" sign off. Odd, Rando said, but not alarming.
Although, in the days, weeks, even years leading up to her death, Nanette had grown fearful of one of the Krentel family members, something she spoke frequently about to her Iowa relatives.
“This would have been the Friday before the fire. She said she was going to have a long talk with Steve over the weekend and see if they could make amends, come to some resolution on the matter. And we were kind of hopeful that he would listen to her,” Dan said.
Her warnings, her fears, left Dan with lingering regrets after she turned up dead.
“I should have called, or I should have gone down. Should have made her come up here and it was all too late,” Dan said.
Nanette had asked Steve to install extra security cameras around their home in recent years and their love of target shooting had turned to a desire for protection as the couple acquired as many as 30 guns.
The Krentels’ marriage was tested in the months prior, with Steve admitting he had an affair with a co-worker 9 months before Nanette died and tension building as her own emails show she had been begging for Steve to protect her.
Sara Pagones of The Times Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate has contributed to these reports.
Part 2 of "Mystery in Ashes: The Nanette Krentel Story" airs on WWL-TV Wednesday, Nov. 20, at 10 p.m.