Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Nancy Kissel: The Hong Kong Milkshake Murder

The Tai Tai

Nancy Kissel
Nancy Kissel

Nancy and Robert Kissel started dating in 1987 and were married in 1989 after living together for two years. While Robert attended New York University full-time pursuing his master's degree in finance, Nancy, who was born in Michigan and raised in Minnesota, worked three jobs in the catering industry in Manhattan to support them. According to her own testimony, Nancy, who holds a bachelor's degree in business and a master's in design, sidetracked her own career goals to help her husband further his ambitions.

After graduating from NYU in 1991, Robert took a job with Lazard Frères in New York where he worked for five years. He moved on to the Goldman, Sachs Group and was assigned to the Hong Kong office in 1997. In 2000 he was hired by Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong where he was made managing director of global investments. In this position he earned roughly $3 million a year in bonuses.

The Kissels lived in the rarefied world of the Hong Kong expatriate community where highly-paid husbands are on-call to their companies 24/7 and their wives, alone in a foreign culture, bond with one another and strive to maintain luxury lifestyles in the American mode. Hong Kong's ethnic Chinese refer to these women of leisure as tai tai. When Robert Kissel died, his estate was worth $18 million, but despite their wealth, the Kissels were not living in bliss. Nancy Kissel stated at her trial that their marital problems took a turn for the worse when they moved to Hong Kong in 1997.

Robert Kissel
Robert Kissel

According to Nancy, her husband had started using cocaine while attending graduate school in New York, but it wasn't until they settled in Hong Kong that his alleged habit became a problem. To get some relief from the grueling pressures of his job, Robert Kissel supposedly turned to cocaine and his alcoholic drink of choice, single-malt scotch. When he drank and got high, he became abusive, Nancy Kissel testified. With the birth of their first child, her breasts began to sag, and she gained weight. Her husband didn't find her as attractive as he once had, and according to Nancy, he developed a preference for anal sex. Whenever she resisted his demands, he would beat her and force himself on her. His forced entry frequently caused bleeding, she said. But "if she cooperated," The Sun reported on her testimony, "the act would finish sooner."

Nancy Kissel testified that her husband had become more and more controlling, keeping tabs on her spending habits and taking back four of her five credit cards. To the outside world, she was a model mother of three young children who volunteered a great deal of her time at the Hong Kong International School and at their synagogue while maintaining her own photography business. But behind closed doors, she lived in dread of her husband and his volatile moods.

She recalled on the stand a time in 1998 when she was pregnant with her son. When her husband learned that her due date would interfere with a planned business trip to Korea, he flew into a rage, demanding that she see her doctor about having the pregnancy induced. She refused, and during their quarrel he threw a punch at her. She ducked just in time, causing him to put his fist through the wall, cracking a bone in his hand. Months later they fought over the same issue, and this time he didn't miss, according to Nancy.

She claimed that she was able to maintain the appearances of a perfect corporate wife while living in her own private hell. She was willing to endure it, figuring that this was the lot of the tai tai. But in March 2003, an improbable force of nature sent her to the other side of the globe and into the arms of someone who said he understood exactly what she was going through.

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