The case of Stephen Nichols, who in 2009 allegedly pushed his then-girlfriend off a cliff to her death in Hood River County, has moved closer to trial.
Last week, Judge John A. Olson dismissed two motions filed by Nichols’ attorney, Michael Arnold, which strived to dismiss the murder charge on the grounds of destroyed evidence and the roughly five-year delay between the incident and Nichols’ indictment.
The trial is tentatively scheduled for May 16.
Nichols, 41, who last lived in Bend, pled not guilty last May to the 2009 killing of then-23-year-old Rhonda Casto. The state asserts that Nichols pushed Casto off a high cliff at Eagle Creek, a popular hiking trail, killing her.
Additionally, prosecutors have alleged Nichols took out a $1 million life insurance policy prior to Casto’s death without her knowledge.
The criminal case has captured national attention.
CBS 48 Hours, a “true crime” series, told the News last week they will air a TV special chronicling the investigation and court proceedings of the Eagle Creek murder case titled "Trail of Tears" on Saturday, March 5 at 10 p.m.
Members of the CBS crew could be seen bustling at many of Nichols’ court appearances in Hood River Circuit Court. Inside the courtroom, lenses zoomed in on the proceedings while producers manned the gear from a makeshift studio in the lobby just outside.
Last summer, Nichols made strides in court when Arnold successfully fought to the lift the accused murder’s “no-bail hold.” Instead, Olson set in place a $200,000 cash bail.
However, Nichols remains in Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility as of Tuesday, according to the jail’s online roster.
As the trial nears, Arnold has pursued a volley of motions to dismiss the murder charge; however, two of those key arguments are off the table for now — Olson issued a written opinion last Monday that denied the claims of prejudice due to “bad faith” in law enforcement’s record keeping and the “pre-indictment delay,” which took issue with the state not indicting Nichols until about five years after Casto’s death.
‘Bad faith’ and records
In Olson’s Feb. 22 memorandum opinion, the judge first tackles the destruction of records claim, and lays out a timeline of the investigation:
• Nichols was the only witness to Casto’s death in March 2009, Olson wrote. Detective Gerry Tiffany was the lead detective and he spearheaded what quickly became a homicide investigation. However, no arrests were made, and Tiffany retired in 2012.
• In April 2014, Nichols was charged by secret indictment with the murder, and a warrant for his arrest was issued. He wasn’t actually arrested until February 2015, when law enforcement detained him at a San Francisco airport after he flew in from China, where prosecutors said Nichols once lived.
• At some point after obtaining the indictment, the state discovered that “much of Tiffany’s investigative work was missing.” Measurements taken, as well as death-scene and autopsy photos were not in the case file.
Tiffany’s computer had been wiped clean, Olson wrote. To date, the evidence remains missing.
Given that point, Arnold filed a motion last year to dismiss the murder charge. He argued Nichols’ right to due process had been violated.
Olson acknowledged that “it is entirely possible that Detective Tiffany acted in bad faith and intentionally … failed to preserve (Nichols’) investigative materials,” but Olson said he couldn’t conclude given the evidence that Tiffany “actually did so” or that there was any “animus” on the state’s part toward Nichols.
Another of Arnold’s motions to dismiss the murder charge hinged on the delay between the 2009 Eagle Creek fall and Nichols’ 2014 indictment.
Arnold argued the state is “culpable” for the delay, and that Nichols suffered “substantial, actual prejudice.”
However, Olson responded in his memorandum, “There is simply no evidence that the state intentionally delayed presentment of the case to a grand jury in order to gain a tactical advantage.”
The judge did say, however, the state was “slightly culpable” for the time gap, even if that didn’t necessarily lead to a procedural advantage.
“Reviewing the record as a whole, I find that some of that delay is due to negligence,” Olson wrote, but he considered that the District Attorney’s Office’s large case load may have contributed to the lag, given “the case is serious, complex, and discovery is voluminous — in the thousands of pages.”