Springer guest murdered hours after studio row

Woman is found battered to death following broadcast of her confrontation with her ex-husband and his new wife

Ralf and Eleanor were ideal guests for the
Jerry Springer Show. They had recently married but his jealous former wife, Nancy, was harassing them. All three agreed to appear on the show to swap their grievances. Taped in May, it aired on Monday. One of them is now dead, apparently the victim of murder.

Ralf and Eleanor were ideal guests for the Jerry Springer Show. They had recently married but his jealous former wife, Nancy, was harassing them. All three agreed to appear on the show to swap their grievances. Taped in May, it aired on Monday. One of them is now dead, apparently the victim of murder.

It may become the tragedy that the makers of trash TV in America have dreaded - and that critics said was bound to happen. Some would consider it a marvel that shows like Springer, which routinely allows fist fights to break out on set, have not seen a murder committed in the studio.

The victim in this case is the former wife, Nancy Campbell-Panitz. Her body was found in a house on a cul-de-sac in Sarasota, Florida, just hours after the segment on Jerry Springer had been broadcast. Police confirmed yesterday that they are hunting for her former husband, Ralf, and his new wife, Eleanor, and consider them suspects. Their whereabouts, however, remained unknown.

During the episode, called "Secret Mistress Confronted", Mr Panitz accused his former wife of stalking him and his new bride and refusing to get out of his life. The segment ended abruptly with Nancy stalking out, declaring, "That's fine, bye", and the audience whooping its approval furiously.

Viewers were surely not disappointed by the trio's unhappy performance. They learned that Nancy, 52, had not been aware, until coming on to the set, that the man she had only divorced in February 1999 had remarried. Ralf, meanwhile, happily admitted that all three had stayed together in a Chicago hotel on the eve of the show's taping and that he had had sex with Nancy.

Police in Florida are still trying to piece together Monday's events. While they gave no details, they said they are confident that Ms Campbell-Panitz had been murdered. Her body had also been badly beaten. Witnesses confirmed that the victim had entered the house late on Monday afternoon and that Ralf Panitz and Eleanor had been seen there some time later.

The three had reportedly been fighting over which of them had the right to reside in the small home and had been cohabiting in it together for several weeks. Violent fights were common and police were called to end a disturbance earlier on Monday. Just before the broadcast, Nancy went to a Sarasota court to get a restraining order against her former husband, saying he had threatened her with violence.

The implications of the murder for the Jerry Springer Show are far from clear. With its emphasis on guest-humiliation, chair-hurling and hair-pulling, it remains immensely popular in the US and is sold to markets worldwide, including Britain.

"This is a terrible tragedy," said Linda Shafra, a spokeswoman for the show. "The Sarasota County sheriff's department contacted us and we are co-operating with its investigation". But Scott Yanover, a lawyer for Studios USA, the programme's distributor, seemed less concerned. He told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that he couldn't even remember Ralf Panitz or any of the trio. If the guy was 300lbs or something maybe I'd remember him, or if he liked to be thrown up on," he said.

The case closely resembles the murder of a guest who appeared in 1995 on the Jenny Jones Show, which similarly used to draw huge audiences with a formula of on-screen human debasement. Scott Amedure appeared with a male friend and revealed before the audience that he had a gay crush on him. Amedure was subsequently murdered by the other guest.

The Jenny Jones Show and its makers and distributors were found to have been negligent by the courts last year and ordered to pay $25m (£16.5m) to the family of Amedure. Ms Jones was forced to testify in the trial that was itself broadcast nationally on Court TV. Springer, who has a second home in Sarasota, has not commented on the Panitz murder.

Asked by Springer why he had invited his former wife to appear on the show with Eleanor, Ralph Panitz replied on air: "I thought she might be humiliated enough to recognise it's over". "You can't humiliate this woman," Eleanor quipped. Springer turned to Nancy and said: "He's telling you, he doesn't want to be with you". It was at that point that Nancy stalked from the set.

By all accounts, tragedy might have been avoided if Nancy had meant it when she said, "Bye". Instead, it seems that she became more entangled with the newly weds than she had been before. "He's frequently violent," Nancy said of Ralf asking the court for the restraining order. He had "chased me with a knife and made threats about taking my life, ending my life, the way he was going to torture me," she said.

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