The segment of the Jerry Springer Show was no more bizarre or tawdry than usual. Taped in May and aired on July 24, the program, titled “Secret Mistresses Confronted,” featured a man named Ralf Panitz, 40, and his girlfriend and now freshly minted bride, Eleanor, 45, taunting his ex-wife Nancy Campbell-Panitz, 52. Within hours of the broadcast, however, the merely tasteless had taken a sickening, tragic turn when Nancy was found beaten to death in her home in Sarasota, Fla.
With the arrest of Ralf Panitz a few days later on a charge of murder, tabloid television was once again being scrutinized under an unwelcome spotlight. There were immediate comparisons to the case five years ago when a guest on The Jenny Jones Show killed another man who appeared on the program professing to have a crush on him. But it is still far from clear that blame for the murder of Nancy Campbell-Panitz can be attributed to her appearance on the Springer program. Indeed, police downplay any possible link. “I don’t believe it plays a part,” said Chuck Lesaltato, spokesman for the Sarasota County sheriff’s department. “The only thing the show does is show there was a problem between the three.”
In fact, perhaps the most shocking aspect of the case is that the full story of the relationship between Ralf, Nancy and Eleanor was even stranger than it appeared to be on television. Born and raised in rural Plainwell, Mich., Nancy, a factory worker, had been married before and had two sons—Gary, now 30, and Jeff Campbell, 28. “She really watched out for us,” recalls Jeff. “She was real protective.” Ralf, meanwhile, was a native of Germany with two teenage children. The couple met through an online chatroom in 1996. Roughly a year later he arrived in this country, married Nancy and began to work as a painter and carpenter. In 1998 they moved to Florida, renting a small two-bedroom apartment near Sarasota. From the start, say neighbors, it was clear the Panitzes had a stormy relationship, one that required numerous visits from the police to quell noisy domestic disputes. “It was exhausting,” says the couple’s apartment manager Jay Cole. “The cops were here all the time.”
By the beginning of 1999 Nancy had moved out. Her divorce from Ralf became final in February. Sometime that winter Ralf took up with Eleanor Marie Isaac, a married newspaper carrier in Sarasota whom he had also met online. On her Web site, Eleanor describes herself as a Micmac Indian, a Canadian tribe, as well as a follower of Wicca, a faith based on witchcraft. In March, less than a week after she secured a divorce from her husband, Eleanor and Ralf were secretly married.
In retrospect, the Springer show offered only a grainy snapshot of three lives in turmoil. For her part, Nancy was yearning for a reconciliation with Ralf. On numerous occasions over the previous months she had e-mailed him, proclaiming her desire to get back together. “I want you. I will never stop loving you,” she wrote to him last August. But during the show everything went sour. A smug Ralf and Eleanor hurled insults at her and announced they had married. “He doesn’t want you, Nancy,” Eleanor gloated. “You’re old. You’re fat.” Humiliated, Nancy walked off the set.
But not out of Ralf and Eleanor’s life. In June, after the taping of the show but prior to its airdate, Ralf and Eleanor suddenly separated. The next day, Eleanor asked for a court injunction against her husband, alleging domestic violence. But the following day they reconciled. Things took a stranger turn on June 18, when Ralf and Nancy bought a house together on Grand Cayman Street in Sarasota for nearly $116,000. Nancy put up the down payment. A few days later Ralf filed for divorce from Eleanor, possibly, according to one source, because Eleanor would not sign papers he needed to stay in the United States.
It is uncertain exactly what happened next, but it appears that Eleanor moved in and Nancy moved out. Staying with an aunt and uncle on the east coast of Florida, Nancy then got a job as a legal assistant. She also contacted attorney Lisa Kleinberg and asked for help in filing suit to get Ralf and Eleanor out of her home. Everything came to a head on July 24. That morning, with Ralf and Eleanor present, Nancy testified in court that on July 10 Ralf had threatened to kill her. “He had chased me with a knife and made threats about taking my life,” she said, “[and] the way he was going to torture me.” She also discussed her motives for going on the Springer show. She said Ralf had contacted her in March and said he had been deported and that the show would pay for his ticket back to the U.S. He also talked about remarrying her. “And so I went on the show to show him how much I loved him,” she testified. But now, she said, she wanted to be rid of him. “I want to be able to have a fresh start and go forward with my life.”
When the judge agreed to give Nancy temporary ownership of the house, Eleanor, especially, reacted angrily, screaming that she would not leave the Grand Cayman address. According to Kleinberg, bailiffs had to remove Ralf and Eleanor from the courtroom. “They were concerned about Nancy’s safety,” says Kleinberg. By sheer coincidence the Springer segment aired that afternoon, but Nancy did not watch it. At 5:30 that evening, after all the necessary legal papers had been served, Nancy headed for the house, accompanied by a sheriff’s deputy. According to a police affidavit, she encountered Eleanor and a nephew of Ralf’s, who then left the premises. At 6 p.m. a neighbor heard a man and woman shouting inside the house. A half hour later a witness reported seeing Eleanor standing outside shouting, “Ralf, please don’t do this.” At 7:30 Nancy’s bloody body was found inside by the nephew, who had returned.
Four days later Ralf and Eleanor turned themselves in to authorities in Sarasota. Ralf is currently being held without bail, charged with first-degree murder, while Eleanor is out on $25,000 bond as a material witness. In the aftermath of the crime, Springer’s supporters tried to wash their hands of the whole mess. The show’s creator and former executive producer Burt Dubrow acknowledges that the program thrives on presenting intense situations. “You need emotion, you need passion,” he says, because without them “nobody would watch.” But, he insists, “nobody is looking for a guest who is psychologically unstable.”
As for Springer himself, the normally swaggering ringmaster who seems to take such on-air delight in goading his guests meekly told a Sarasota television reporter, “It’s my name on the show, but what do I know about it? It sounds awful, but I don’t know the people. I show up and I do the show. I have no idea who they are.”
Jeanne DeQuine, Michaele Ballard and Gail Wescott in Sarasota, Kristin Harmel in Miami, Barbara Sandler and Amy Mindell in Michigan and Fannie Weinstein in New York City