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Nanette Krentel

Family members of Nanette Krentel expressed relief Wednesday that the 49-year-old woman’s death has finally been ruled a homicide by the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office, but they said they are confused by apparent dissent between the coroner and the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office over the case.

Krentel, the wife of District 12 Fire Chief Steve Krentel, died July 14. Her badly burned body was found in the couple’s house in Lacombe, which had collapsed during an intense fire.

Several weeks after her death, the Coroner’s Office said she had been shot and died before the fire. But it wasn’t until Wednesday that Coroner Dr. Charles Preston ruled the death a homicide caused by a single gunshot wound to the head.

That ruling came after two autopsies conducted by pathologists at the Coroner’s Office, a reconstruction of the woman’s skull by the FACES Lab at LSU and a private autopsy conducted by a pathologist hired by Krentel’s father and sister.

Preston said no soot was found in the victim's airway in either of the exams conducted by his pathologists, even at a microscopic level, leading to the "strong argument" that Krentel was dead before the fire started.

But shortly after the coroner’s announcement Wednesday morning, St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith said in an email that his office would provide its own update at a news conference Thursday that also would include the state Fire Marshal’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office doesn't "necessarily support" the coroner's conclusion, the email said.

The lack of an official ruling has been a source of some controversy in the two months since Nanette Krentel's death, with her family at one point preparing to go to court to seek an order that her remains be preserved for a private autopsy.

That autopsy was conducted Tuesday. Preston said the private pathologist has agreed to share the report with the Coroner’s Office but has not done so yet.

Kim Watson, sister of the dead woman, said it is a relief that someone agrees with her family that Krentel did not take her own life.

“I’ll be interested to see what the sheriff thinks,” she said, adding that the family has met with all three agencies looking into the death. She said they understand that because the investigation is still going on, they have not been told everything.

“I have faith that they will do what needs to be done and figure this out,” she said.

Nanette Krentel’s father, Dan Watson, praised the coroner’s thoroughness but expressed concern about the differences of opinion among the agencies.

“They all three are going in different directions, so ... I was shocked again, but not in a good way, to hear that there may be a differing opinion from the sheriff and possibly the fire marshal,” he said.

He said he understands investigators can’t reveal everything, “but to dispute the coroner’s findings, that’s disheartening.”

Steve Krentel said he had believed his wife died trying to rescue their dog from the burning house and that he did not learn she had been shot until the day of her funeral.

He has been waiting for a decision from some official agency since his wife’s death, he said.

“The Coroner’s Office decision is at least a decision and moving in the right direction to some sort of answer, and that is all I care about at this time. To get an answer, an accurate, true answer,” he said. 

Krentel said he has cooperated with requests for interviews and polygraph tests. “I look forward to the Sheriff’s Office finally releasing something speaking of the cooperation I've given them because there’s a lot of speculation that I have not cooperated,” he said.

When asked if he had anything to do with his wife’s death, the fire chief replied, “I did not. I did not.”

He said he feels the investigation has taken too long, noting that it will be nine weeks Friday since her death. “I believe in time that they will figure out who did this, because I don’t believe people can be quiet forever,” he said.

Preston said Wednesday that Coroner's Office investigators have treated the case as a homicide from the beginning.

He would not comment on the Sheriff's Office's position. "I'm not really in a position to speak on behalf of the Sheriff's Office," he said.

The coroner's news release said his staff met with state Fire Marshal's Office investigators to review their findings from the scene.

This story was altered on Sept. 14 to correct the date of the fire.

Preston asked a second pathologist in his office to conduct an autopsy last week, and she reached the same conclusions.

"Even before the second and third autopsies and the FACES Lab's report, there was adequate evidence to rule the death a homicide," Preston said in a prepared statement. He described the case as sensitive and complex and said his office wanted to give it the utmost attention and thoroughness.

"The victim's remains have now undergone three autopsies and a forensic reconstruction," he said. "Based on information I have received from FACES anthropologists, the state fire marshal and our two pathologists, I am entirely comfortable in declaring this death a homicide."

Preston said he will not release additional details of the autopsies or FACES Lab findings.

"We have worked closely with law enforcement from the start of this investigation and will continue to do so," he said. "The criminal investigation remains ongoing, and I will not release further details until that element of the case is resolved or reaches a conclusion."

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.