Nancy Brophy penned essay titled How To Murder Your Husband. Now she is in the dock accused of it
For novelist Nancy Brophy, her method for churning out romantic fiction was one she was more than willing to share.
Granted, she never set the literary world alight, but she had plenty of loyal fans, whom she knew how to hook with prose that made even the most far-fetched plot sound plausible.
Take the tricky business of killing off a cumbersome suitor.
‘As a romantic suspense writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about murder and, consequently, about police procedure,’ she wrote in a forum for female novelists in 2011.
‘After all, if the murder is supposed to set me free, I don’t want to spend time in jail.’
She advised against bumping off characters with knives because there would be ‘blood everywhere’.
Poison, she added, would take ‘too long’ and a hitman could ‘blackmail’.
As for guns, she wrote, they were, ‘loud, messy, require some skill. If it takes ten shots for the sucker to die, either you have terrible aim or he’s on drugs’.
How shockingly prescient those words seem now. Because seven years after her essay, wryly entitled How To Murder Your Husband, was posted online, Nancy’s husband of 21 years was murdered — shot twice, with both bullets piercing his heart.
And last week, the author went on trial accused of killing 63-year-old Daniel Brophy.
Nancy Brophy (pictured) went on trial last week accused of killing 63-year-old Daniel Brophy
Daniel Brophy, Nancy’s husband of 21 years was murdered — shot twice, with both bullets piercing his heart
In a case that has captivated the world, Nancy — whose self-published titles include The Wrong Husband and Hell On The Heart — is described by prosecutors as having tired of her pedestrian life in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.
Said to have dreamed of travel and a comfortable retirement, she is alleged to have murdered Daniel to claim more than £1 million from his life insurance policies.
Her defence lawyer insists Nancy, 71, incarcerated since her arrest in September 2018, had no reason to kill her husband and ‘has always been thoroughly, madly, crazily in love with Dan Brophy, and she remains so to this day,’ and will be taking to the stand at Oregon’s Multnomah County Circuit Court to maintain her innocence.
The judge, meanwhile, has ruled that her incendiary essay cannot be admitted as evidence, explaining that any value it may provide to the trial is outweighed by the prejudice it may spark.
Whatever the outcome of this extraordinary trial, this much is true: here is a story every bit as tantalising as the protagonist’s romantic fiction.
So who is Nancy Brophy? And what is the truth behind her ill-fated marriage? To outsiders, she and Daniel seemed to enjoy a charmed existence.
The couple — both divorcees who had married in 1997 — raised 40 chickens and tended to their ‘fabulous vegetable garden’ in the American Northwest.
Daniel, a keen gardener and marine biology enthusiast, was a respected chef at a Portland culinary school who jokingly referred to his wife as ‘The Management’.
Despite Nancy’s flair for creating adrenaline-fuelled plots, their relationship appeared, if anything, notable only for its utter normality.
‘Like all marriages, we’ve had our ups and downs — more good times than bad,’ wrote Nancy, who met Daniel in the 1990s when she enrolled as a student at one of his classes.
She recalls the moment she wanted him to be her future husband. ‘I was in the bath. It was a big tub. I expected him to join me and when he was delayed, I called out: “Are you coming?”
‘His answer convinced me he was Mr Right: “Yes, but I’m making hors d’oeuvres.” Can you imagine spending the rest of your life without a man like that?’
Despite their nondescript, middle America image, she suggested they shared a chemistry to rival the chiselled ‘arousal-laden’ lovers in her books.
‘Marriage provides you with the best sex of your life,’ Nancy once wrote, adding: ‘My husband can look at me from across the room and we recognise the other’s thoughts.’
Daniel had been alone in a kitchen area, standing at the sink, prepping for his upcoming Saturday morning classes, when he was shot in the chest and back
If there were problems, they were invisible to the outside world. ‘There were no signs of strife in the marriage that I could see,’ says retired chef Randall Cronwell, who worked with Daniel for nearly three decades.
‘When you saw them together, you would think they were the perfect couple. They were so loving and so funny — they laughed more than any two people I’ve ever known,’ adds Tony Hall, an instructor in restaurant management at the culinary school, who knew the couple well.
‘Nancy was friendly, bubbly, witty. I never saw any dissatisfaction in their marriage. They didn’t ever even seem frustrated with each other — like you see with most people in a long marriage.’
Any arguments, Nancy quipped in another astonishingly ironic post written in 2011, were resolved: ‘We vowed, prior to saying “I do”, that we would not end in divorce.
‘We did not, I should note, rule out a tragic drive-by shooting or a suspicious accident.’
Growing up in Texas, writing had always been Nancy’s passion. Her first published work was a pamphlet entitled Between Your Navel And Your Knees while an economics student at the University of Houston.
‘I’ll leave you to figure out the subject matter,’ she wrote.
A bespectacled woman who admitted she struggled with her weight, Nancy loved homely comforts such as the BBC’s Great British Bake Off.
She confessed that the ‘imaginary friends’ of her novels had ‘less self-doubts’ than she did.
Berating herself for being ‘selfish’ and continually seeking ‘instant gratification’, Nancy kept a quote in her office that read ‘The middle of anything looks like failure’, to remind herself that success takes time.
Unable to earn a living from writing alone, Nancy worked as a sales rep for government health insurance company Medicare.
Her husband, meanwhile, who joined the Oregon Culinary Institute in 2006 and was known as ‘Chef Brody’. was described by students as tough, yet compassionate, with a quirky sense of humour.
He kept a sombrero in his kitchen for anyone who forgot their chef’s hat, and created a tradition whereby every year one of his students would wear a cow costume — sewn by Nancy — for the others to attach Velcro labels representing the different cuts of meat.
In a case that has captivated the world, Nancy — whose self-published titles include The Wrong Husband and Hell On The Heart — is described by prosecutors as having tired of her pedestrian life in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon
It was his shocked colleagues and students who discovered Daniel’s body when they arrived at the institute early on June 2, 2018.
He had been alone in a kitchen area, standing at the sink, prepping for his upcoming Saturday morning classes, when he was shot in the chest and back.
Either shot could have been fatal, County Senior Deputy District Attorney Shawn Overstreet would later tell the court.
There were no signs of a robbery or struggle. Daniel’s Toyota Tacoma was still parked outside. The authorities have never publicly disclosed any suspect for the killing other than Nancy.
Nancy quickly appeared at the murder scene, saying she’d been called about an incident. Brian Wilke, president of the institute, recounted her arrival.
‘I walked up and I lifted the tape for her and she said: “This doesn’t sound good, Brian.” And I said, “It’s not good,”’ Wilke told the court last week.
The following day, Nancy announced her husband’s death on her Facebook page.
‘My husband and best friend, Chef Dan Brophy was killed yesterday morning,’ she wrote, adding she was ‘overwhelmed’ and ‘struggling to make sense of everything right now.’
A day after that she dressed in black to address hundreds of mourners at a candlelight vigil held at the institute, telling them how Daniel had loved teaching and his family.
Searching Daniel’s phone, detectives discovered a bookmarked article on an iTunes account he had shared with Nancy called ‘10 Ways to Cover Up a Murder.’
They found that Nancy had researched ‘ghost guns’ — guns assembled by the purchaser from parts, which make them untraceable — online.
Prosecutor Shawn Overstreet told the court that Nancy had bought a slide and barrel pistol on eBay that would match the handgun she and Daniel had bought at a gun show but never used.
He said she swapped its slide and barrel for the eBay parts before shooting her husband, and then replaced the eBay parts with the original — ‘thus being able to present a fully intact firearm to police that would not be a match to the shell casings she left at the crime scene,’ prosecutors wrote in an April 2020 memorandum.
They say she deleted her eBay account days after the murder.
Lisa Maxfield, one of two defence lawyers, said that Nancy had bought the gun for research purposes for a novel.
Nancy also reportedly told police she had been at home after her husband had left for work.
But lead homicide detective Anthony Merrill, of the Portland Police Bureau, told the court that camera footage had shown her minivan driving in two directions in the area on the morning of the murder: at 6.39am it travelled towards the shooting; at 7.28 am it was captured moving away from the scene.
In September 2018, Nancy was arrested. ‘You must think I murdered my husband,’ she said, as she was escorted from her home and taken into custody.
Daniel’s elderly mother, Karen, described his family as being ‘in absolute shock’.
‘When Dan was found dead, no one suspected Nancy. We were all shocked when she was arrested. I remember thinking: “There’s no way this can be true . . . it’s just because a spouse is always the first person under suspicion,’ says Daniel’s friend, Tony Hall.
Prosecutors claim that three days after Daniel died, Nancy called a local police detective asking for a letter claiming she wasn’t a suspect, as she was the beneficiary of a £30,000 life insurance policy and wanted to assure the insurance company she hadn’t killed her husband.
They allege that Nancy tried to claim ten different policies totalling more than £1 million, and that she would receive a bigger pay out if her husband had died at work.
Lisa Maxfield said Nancy had worked as a salesperson for a variety of insurance companies and had an incentive to buy multiple policies when she changed jobs, to demonstrate her belief in the product and also because she received commission.
Certainly, Nancy was aware of the financial motives for murdering a spouse, having written a blog about that very subject in the context of her fiction in 2011.
‘Divorce is expensive, and do you really want to split your possessions?’ she asked.
‘Or if you married for money, aren’t you entitled to all of it? The draw back (sic) is the police aren’t stupid. They are looking at you first. So you have to be organised, ruthless and very clever.’
Despite the façade of the Brophys’ middle-class life, this was money she is said by the prosecution to have needed as the couple had fallen behind on their mortgage payments.
Prosecutors allege that as Nancy ‘became more financially desperate and her writing career was floundering — she was left with few options’.
Pointing out that Nancy had meticulously paid the life insurance premiums in the run-up to the murder, despite her ‘dire financial situation’, they said she had ‘planned and carried out what she believed was the perfect murder’ that ‘would free her from the grips of financial despair and enter a life of financial security and adventure’.
Detectives present the case of a woman with loftier ambitions for her retirement than her quieter, more conservative husband.
They say she wanted to sell the marital home and travel the world, but didn’t think she could ‘convince’ her husband to do it.
‘Dan Brophy was content in his simplistic lifestyle,’ Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill wrote in a memorandum in 2020, ‘but Nancy Brophy wanted something more.’
As the trial — expected to last six weeks — started on Monday, Nancy’s lead defence attorney Lisa Maxfield insisted that, far from profiting from her husband’s death, her client’s finances deteriorated afterwards.
She said the couple had about £7,700 available at the time Daniel died, that Daniel was well aware of the couple’s retirement plans and insurance policies, and had even signed for the package containing the gun assembly kit while Nancy was travelling for work.
Besides, she stressed, Nancy was committed to the marriage and had lost ‘a great listener, a wonderful lover, a consummate chef and true life partner’.
Maxfield adds that the ‘circumstantial case’ against Nancy Brophy ‘begs you to cast a blind eye to the most powerful evidence of all: love’.
Tony Hall, one of the couple’s closest friends, is following the trial closely and is shocked by some of the evidence so far.
‘Whatever happens, this is a waste of two people’s lives. It’s tragic for Dan, who lost his life, and tragic for Nancy that she’s in jail accused of this,’ he says.
Of course, writing about murder is one thing — committing the crime is a different matter entirely.
As Nancy wrote in relation to her fictional characters in 2011: ‘It is easier to wish people dead than actually to kill them. And really, I’m not good at remembering lies.’
But, she added, in a statement that will be tested to the limits in the coming weeks: ‘The thing I know about murder is that every one of us has it in him/her when pushed far enough.’