Twenty-three-year-old Lisa Techel was a newlywed and 17 weeks pregnant with her first child when she was shot to death while asleep in bed on May 26, 2012 in her rural Iowa home. Her 21-year-old husband of only seven months, Seth Techel, accused a mentally ill neighbor of breaking into their home and shooting her as revenge for an ongoing property dispute. What followed was an investigation full of twists, turns and three trials before Lisa’s killer was brought to justice.
Lisa Caldwell and Seth Techel had been a couple for seven years when they married in October 2011. They’d settled into a trailer on a piece of land outside Agency, Iowa in Wapello County, and were expecting their first child, a daughter they named Zoey Maria.
The two had burgeoning law enforcement careers. Lisa was a jailer in neighboring Washington County, while Seth, a volunteer firefighter, was set to begin working as a jailer in Wapello County, the same department where Lisa’s father, Todd Caldwell, already worked as a sheriff’s deputy and Lisa was a volunteer reserve deputy.
[Stream episodes of American Justice in the A&E App.]
In the A&E American Justice episode “Internal Affairs,” Todd said of the couple, “You have the all-American boy and all-American girl and they get married and they’re having a baby, and you just think nothing bad could ever happen.”
Lisa Techel’s Murder
The day of Lisa’s death, Seth told Iowa Division of Criminal Investigations (DCI) special agents he awoke at 5 a.m., got in the shower and heard what he thought was a gunshot around 5:05 a.m. When he got back out of the shower, he saw the outside door open and found Lisa in the bedroom unresponsive with a gunshot wound to her upper left side. He called 911 at 5:23 a.m., but when paramedics arrived, they were unable to save Lisa and pronounced her dead.
DCI and sheriff’s deputies at the scene found no signs of forced entry or a struggle.
Seth provided DCI agents with a list of five guns he kept in the house—two handguns and three rifles—and all were accounted for. Seth also claimed he and Lisa were happily married with no significant issues. When asked who he thought might’ve killed Lisa, Techel immediately said, “Tate, my crazy ass neighbor…because of the things he’s been saying and doing to us. I honestly think the guy’s…off-his-rocker crazy.”
A Neighbor Is Accused
Brian Tate was a 57-year-old Vietnam veteran and avid gun owner with a history of PTSD and schizophrenia who lived with his mother and brother on the property next door to the Techels’.
Weeks before Lisa’s death, Tate and Seth Techel had gotten into a dispute over some garbage and a deer hide thrown onto Tate’s property, among other incidents. Tate had complained to responding local law enforcement about it several times, including to Lisa’s father.
Wapello County Sheriff Don Phillips interviewed Tate the day of the shooting and described him to A&E True Crime as “cooperative” and providing a “solid alibi.” Tate claimed to be home asleep in bed at the time of the shooting, which was corroborated by both Tate’s mother, who was awake at 5 a.m., and Tate’s brother. When asked if he had anything to do with Lisa’s murder, Tate said no. “After we interviewed [Tate], we were 100 percent confident it wasn’t him,” Phillips says.
‘Just Give Me Two Weeks’
Less than 12 hours after Lisa’s death, investigators spoke with a friend of Seth’s, who revealed Seth had been having an affair with a coworker named Rachel McFarland. When confronted about McFarland, Seth’s story started to change and unravel until he finally admitted he’d been involved with McFarland and told her he was leaving Lisa, but claimed it was lie. He then abruptly ended the interview.
At the same time, a secret cell phone was discovered in Seth’s vehicle with sexually explicit text messages and photos between Seth and McFarland. At one point in their communications, McFarland gave Seth an ultimatum to end his marriage, to which he responded, “Just give me two weeks.” Phillips describes the messages as “like a countdown to Lisa’s death.”
Another friend and former roommate of Seth’s told investigators he’d left behind a Mossberg 500 shotgun in the couple’s trailer when he moved out months earlier, but the gun wasn’t on the list Seth provided to law enforcement and couldn’t be accounted for.
The following day, investigators returned to the crime scene and searched more of the property around the trailer, where they quickly discovered a Mossberg 500 in the tall grass north of the trailer, and notably in the opposite direction of Tate’s house.
When Lisa’s autopsy results returned, it revealed she’d been killed with a shotgun, and the bullet fragments were consistent with a Mossberg, while none of Tate’s firearms were a match.
Seth Techel was arrested outside his wife’s wake and charged with first-degree murder and nonconsensual termination of a human pregnancy.
Seth Techel’s Three Trials
Iowa Special Assistant Attorney General Scott Brown was part of the prosecution team and spoke with A&E True Crime about the unusual case. Seth’s first trial was held February 2013 in Wapello County. The prosecution’s case was largely circumstantial, while the defense continually mentioned Brian Tate as another possible suspect.
Tate was unable to defend himself. In September 2012, he died unexpectedly in his sleep of probable heart failure. That trial ended with a hung jury of 11 to convict, 1 to acquit.
With the publicity surrounding the case, the second trial was moved to Henry County in October 2013. The defense doubled down on Tate as suspect, and that trial ended with a 9-3 hung jury. But Brown tells A&E True Crime, “There was no question we would retry it.”
Seth’s third and final trial was moved to Scott County in July 2014, and he was forced to change attorneys after running out of money. His new legal team worked a different strategy, one that focused more on shoddy police work and less on Tate. Brown says the prosecution also put on a more focused, streamlined case, stressing “the story on Tate just didn’t make sense.”
This time, the jury returned a guilty verdict. On September 10, 2014, Seth Techel received a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He’s currently serving his time at the Anamosa State Penitentiary in Iowa.
Despite the conviction, Sheriff Phillips says, “multiple families were destroyed.”
Brian Tate’s sister told local TV channel WHO 13 Des Moines that her brother’s reputation was ruined by accusations and believes he ultimately died of a broken heart. “Brian was a very loving person,” Lyons said. “Yes, he was mentally ill, but like he told his doctors, ‘just because I’m mentally ill doesn’t mean I’m a murderer.'”
Lisa Techel’s mother, Tracy Caldwell, tells A&E True Crime that while her initial feelings about the verdict was sadness for Seth’s family, for her family it meant they could at last truly grieve.
“I felt like Lisa could finally find peace knowing that the justice system she worked for had done its job,” she says. “But I do wonder what she would have been like as a mom. Whether her daughter would have been stubborn like her. All of those things. If only.”