Shortly before 10 p.m. on January 7, 1990, flames and smoke erupted from a second floor window of the home of Carl and Elizabeth Veltmann on Longboat Key, northwest of Sarasota, Florida.
Firefighters broke into the house through a locked front door and extinguished the blaze in minutes. In the master bedroom on the third floor, they found 57-year-old Elizabeth Veltmann dead of smoke inhalation.
Elizabeth’s 62-year-old husband, Carl, was not at home. He had left that evening to go to Montana for a hunting trip and to see a man to request a loan for his failing construction business. He told authorities that he and his wife had just returned that day from a week-long honeymoon cruise with Elizabeth’s son, Christopher Veltmann (he had taken his stepfather’s last name) and Christopher’s new bride.
Fire investigators found three separate fires. One in the first floor foyer was started with newspapers and what appeared to be an accelerant that ignited flocked wallpaper and spread up the stairs. A second fire was ignited in the attached garage and a third in a dumbwaiter in the second floor kitchen, although investigators said these two fires “went nowhere.” The oven in the kitchen was turned on to the “clean” position and the stovetop burners were glowing. They estimated the fires were lit between 8:50 p.m. and 9:20 p.m.
The house was insured for nearly $640,000 and Elizabeth had $485,000 in life insurance. Authorities believed the fires were set to kill Elizabeth and collect the insurance money to prop up Carl’s construction business.
In October 1991, a federal grand jury indicted Carl and Christopher on charges of arson and mail and wire fraud. Both were arrested and held in jail pending trial.
Also in October, about the same time the men were indicted, Carl said he had just discovered an undated suicide note written by Elizabeth tucked behind a photograph in the home.
Carl and his stepson went on trial in U.S. District Court in 1992.
Fire investigators said that the 10 smoke detectors in the house appeared to have been disarmed–none were sounding when firefighters broke in. Although the Veltmanns believed the home was protected by a combined burglar/fire alarm system, prosecution witnesses said the system did not monitor for fires at all.
The prosecution contended that Elizabeth was locked inside the house with no way to escape—at least two doors required a key to unlock them from the inside—although evidence showed that not all doors were locked. Elizabeth’s purse containing her house keys was found after the fire in the trunk of a car in the garage.
David Meehan, who was Christopher’s cellmate prior to trial, testified that Christopher told him the fire was started in two places. According to Meehan, Christopher said he started the kitchen fire and turned on the stove, while Carl started the fire in the foyer, and both men left through the garage.
Carl’s acquaintance in Montana testified that he had not heard from Carl since 1971, that he no longer owned the property on which Carl intended to hunt and that he would not have loaned Carl any money.
Terry Price, who was Carl’s cellmate, testified that Carl told him the fire was set with lighter fluid, but that he was in Montana when the fire began. Price said Carl told him the smoke detectors were not working. Price also testified that he heard Carl talking on the phone to someone about Christopher, saying, “I told him to keep his mouth shut.”
Price said that Carl told him although the suicide note was undated, he wrote the date of January 7, 1990—the day of the fire—because he believed the insurance companies would not pay off unless the note was dated. Carl never disputed that he had in fact put a date on the undated note.
The prosecution also presented evidence of other fires on property owned by the Veltmanns, including a vacant house owned by Carl and Elizabeth that burned in the 1970’s, and a cottage adjacent to their home which burned in 1985 and whose occupant said the Veltmanns were to blame. No charges were filed against anyone for those fires.
The prosecution played an audio-taped statement Christopher made to investigators during which he said he stopped by the home around 6:30 or 7 p.m. to check on his mother. That morning, before they got off the cruise ship, Elizabeth, who was suffering from dysentery, had a migraine and received a shot of a painkiller from the ship’s doctor. Christopher said he left around 8 or 8:30 p.m. and went home. He said his father came to the house not long after, stayed for an hour and then drove to the airport in Tampa to fly to Montana for a hunting trip and to speak to someone about borrowing some money.
The defense argued that Elizabeth was addicted to painkillers, was in ill health and set the fires to commit suicide.
The defense presented evidence showing that Elizabeth’s blood-alcohol level was .149—over the legal limit for driving—and that there was a high level of a prescription sedative in her system.
Although Carl had put a date on the suicide note, the prosecution did not contest the defense claim that the note was written by Elizabeth. The defense contended the note was written near the time of death because it referred to Christopher’s new wife as “family” and they were only married two weeks prior to the fire.
In 1987—three years before the fire--- Elizabeth had suffered respiratory arrest from a self-induced drug overdose. A medical expert testified that Elizabeth, who was in remission for ovarian cancer and feared it would return, had become addicted to prescription drugs and began stockpiling pills. She forged a prescription, obtained drugs in her father’s name and tried to manipulate a nurse and a friend to provide her with drugs illegally. The expert said that the drugs in her system had been consumed just prior to death and that considering her tolerance level, she would have been able to set the fires and still get up the stairs before passing out.
The defense was barred from presenting a video-taped deposition of a Chicago man who said that he and Elizabeth had had an extra-marital affair more than 25 years earlier and that since that time, she had been blackmailing him. The man said in the deposition that he had paid Elizabeth about $500,000 during that period. He said that for several months before she died, she talked to him about the possibility of her death and mentioned suicide several times.
The man said in the deposition that in December 1989, while Elizabeth was waiting to board the cruise ship, she called and demanded more money and he refused to pay any more. On January 7, the man said, Elizabeth called him one hour after returning home from the cruise and again demanded money. The man said he again refused to send her any more money and she replied, “Well, I’m all washed up then.”
Although the deposition was barred from evidence, the defense was allowed to call an addiction expert who testified that Elizabeth’s earlier suicide threats were evidence of suicidal thinking and that the refusal of money to fund her drug habit was the “major precipitating event” in her suicide.
On March 12, 1992, a jury found the Veltmanns guilty of arson, mail fraud and wire fraud. Both were sentenced to life in prison and each was fined $175,000.
In November 1993, the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the convictions, ruling that the judge had erred by barring the testimony of the Chicago man who said Elizabeth had mentioned suicide months prior to her death. The court said the judge also had erred by allowing Meehan to testify about Christopher’s statements about what Carl had done.
The Veltmanns went on trial a second time in 1996 armed with new evidence. A new defense team found the photographs of Elizabeth’s body at the morgue and presented them for the first time at this trial. The photographs showed Elizabeth, who was known for her fastidious care for herself, had very dirty feet and her fingernails were broken. In addition, the defense disclosed to the jury that there was an elevator in the house and it was stopped on the top floor. The defense argued that Elizabeth, distraught over losing her source of income for her drug addition, had taken an overdose, then set the fires and took the elevator back up to her bedroom when the fire roared up the stairwell.
On September 12, 1996, the jury acquitted the Veltmanns and they were released.
– Maurice Possley