Man pleads not guilty to murder in 2009 Eagle Creek fall

Stephen Wagner Nichols

Stephen Wagner Nichols

A Bend man accused of killing his girlfriend six years ago while hiking Eagle Creek Trail pleaded not guilty to murder Monday.

Stephen Wagner Nichols, 40, appeared with his lawyer, Michael Arnold, of Eugene, at the Hood River County Courthouse on May 11 to plead not guilty to one count of murder for the death of his girlfriend, 23-year-old Rhonda Casto, of Portland, according to court records.

Nichols is scheduled to stand trial in late May or June of next year. His next pre-trial hearing before Circuit Court Judge John Olson is scheduled for Aug. 3 at the courthouse.

Officials were alerted to Casto’s death at Eagle Creek Trail near Cascade Locks in March 2009. According to a story in the March 18, 2009, edition of the News, Hood River 911 received a call on March 16, 2009, from a man who reported he had accompanied Casto on a hike. He claimed Casto had died after falling off a cliff on the trail. Rescuers arrived shortly after and found the body of Casto down an embankment approximately 100 feet off the trail.

Nichols was charged with murder via a secret indictment filed in April 2014, according to court records—10 months before he was ultimately arrested in February. Officers arrested Nichols at San Francisco International Airport on Feb. 2 on a nationwide felony warrant after arriving from China, according to the San Mateo County, California, Sheriff’s Office. His destination was Medford.

Nichols has been in custody at the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility in The Dalles since February.

In court Monday, Olson ruled that “the defendant is to be in street clothes with no visible restraints” in future court appearances — a response to a March 17 motion by Arnold asking that Nichols appear free of “restraints by any means, including shackles and a stun belt,” on the grounds that appearing with visible restraints would violate Nichols’ right to a fair trial.

Arnold indicated other motions he had filed in court over the last few months.

In March, Arnold moved that the state give notice of any evidence of “alleged prior crimes, wrongs, or acts” it intends to offer at trial, and moved to suppress all statements made by Nichols during his interrogation by detectives at the San Francisco airport in February.

Arnold also motioned for authorities to return some of Nichols’ personal items seized at the arrest, including his luggage and “personal documents” which he claimed had “no evidentiary value in the cases currently pending against him.”

No action was taken on the motions, but Olson set Nichols’ next pre-trial hearing tentatively for August 3.

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