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Florida v. Panitz: Talk show murder trial

By Rochelle Steinhaus
Court TV

(Court TV) -- A complicated love triangle may have been the subject of a segment on the controversial "Jerry Springer Show," but the show hardly compared to the drama that followed.

Less than three months after Ralf Panitz appeared with his wife, Eleanor, and ex-wife, Nancy Campbell, on the Chicago-based program, Nancy was found brutally murdered.

Ralf and Eleanor Panitz went on the run but turned themselves in four days later. Now, although Panitz claims he is innocent, he will face first-degree murder before a Sarasota, Florida, jury, accused of beating and strangling his ex-wife.

The show

The "Secret Mistresses Confronted" episode of the "Jerry Springer Show" was taped May 7, 2000, just two months after Ralf and Eleanor Panitz were married.

During the show, Ralf admitted that he'd been secretly sleeping with his ex-wife, but said that he really wanted Nancy to leave them alone so he could live a peaceful life with Eleanor.

Jerry Springer"I had sex with my ex-wife yesterday, but I did that to keep her illusioned," he said.

"Why? Why is it important to keep an illusion that you love her if you don't?" Springer asked.

"I wanted Nancy to go on the show ... A month ago I married Elli. I do love Eleanor," he said, giving Eleanor a hug and a kiss. To Nancy he said, "I care for you and don't wish you any harm. I just wanted you to know. Please let me go on with my life."

To the audience Ralf lamented, "Nancy is very nice sometimes, but then she changes into Mrs. Jekyll. I cannot deal with it anymore."

Nancy responded by accusing Ralf of playing "all the games with all his women. He takes all the money he can from each woman, and he moves on to the next woman."

Ralf told Jerry Springer that he hoped Nancy "might be humiliated enough to recognize it's over."

Nancy later responded, "That's fine," before walking off the stage.

The love triangle

Ralf Panitz, a German citizen living in the United States, married Nancy Campbell in 1997. Two years later, the couple separated and divorced.

Shortly after, he met Eleanor Isaac in an AOL chat room. The two, both residents of Bradenton, Fla., arranged to meet, and five months later, on St. Patrick's Day 2000, they were married. It was Eleanor's third marriage, and according to conflicting reports, it was Ralf's third or fourth.

A month after the show's taping, and three months after their marriage, Ralf and Eleanor split up and Ralf reconciled with Nancy. Although still married, he moved with Nancy into a Sarasota house, entering into a lease option for the purchase of the home.

It's not clear who owned the home, but according to court transcripts, Nancy wrote the checks and Ralf contributed by paying some utility bills and doing some work on the house.

Ralf's nephew, Markus Panitz, also moved in. On July 10, 2000, the house had a fourth roommate Eleanor after Ralf reconciled with his wife and invited her to live in the house.

From the stage to the courtroom

When Eleanor moved in, Nancy moved out, and Eleanor filed stalking charges against her. Campbell filed charges against Ralf and Eleanor. And Ralf's nephew, Markus, also filed charges against Nancy.

During a July 24, 2000, court appearance, Nancy said she was "so scared" the day Eleanor moved in that she left immediately.

"He's frequently violent. That morning he had chased me with a knife and made threats about taking my life, ending my life, the way he was going to torture me," Nancy told the court. "He spent a couple of hours Sunday the day before telling me how he would kill me and my whole family, and he was trying to think of a way to do it."

But Ralf argued that his ex-wife was stalking him and his wife to the point that the couple had to "go into hiding." He claimed that his ex-wife was using his telephone line to "advertise sex for strange people."

But the judge ruled in Nancy's favor, granting her a final judgment of injunction and exclusive use of the Sarasota home. A sheriff's deputy escorted Ralf, Eleanor and Markus to the home to gather their belongings.

The three then went to Keegan's Clubhouse Lounge to watch the Jerry Springer Show episode, "Secret Mistresses Confronted," airing that day.

The crime scene

The couple returned to the home later that day to retrieve more of their belongings. After they arrived, Nancy showed up with a sheriff's deputy, and investigators say Ralf disappeared for a time.

Eleanor and Markus split up to try to find Ralf. Markus says he tried to check the house, but the front door was barricaded. He went to a neighbor's house and called 911, saying he feared his uncle had possibly killed himself or his ex-wife.

When Sarasota County police arrived, they found Campbell's body in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor. Her face was so disfigured it was difficult to identify her. Her nose and facial bones were broken and she had been strangled.

Ralf and Eleanor Panitz left Florida and drove to Eleanor's home state of Maine. Eleanor says they fled because she knew Ralf had violated the restraining order, not because she believed Ralf killed Nancy.

Authorities believed at the time that Ralf was heading for Canada to seek refuge in the German embassy, while Eleanor, who is a Native American, was heading to an Indian Reservation.

Eventually both drove back to Boston where they hired an attorney and turned themselves in to detectives in Sarasota four days later on July 28, 2000.

The prosecution's case

The state's case, led by prosecutor Charles Roberts, appears to be two-fold motive and physical evidence.

The love triangle, the restraining order issued on the day of the murder, and the order granting Nancy sole possession of the home all provide motive, prosecutors contend.

As for physical evidence, prosecutors will present DNA evidence showing that Nancy's blood was found on Ralf Panitz's sneaker. Prosecutors also say that footwear impressions left on and around the victim's face were similar in size and tread design to the defendant's navy Lower Eastside sneakers.

In addition, neighbors say they saw Ralf and Nancy together the night of the murder.

The defense's case

According to defense lawyer Geoffrey Fieger, the case is simple. "He didn't do it," Fieger says.

In a pretrial hearing, Fieger argued that the victim died from heart failure and not from a beating. The defense may point the finger at Markus Panitz, who had sought a restraining order against Nancy. Markus described by Eleanor's best friend as being "one fry short of a Happy Meal" was the person who called 911 and said he was afraid his uncle killed himself or his ex-wife.

If convicted of first-degree murder, Ralf Panitz faces life in prison. He is also charged with two counts of violating the restraining order.




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