As of Tuesday, March 7, 2017
Legal action from the state’s highest court puts the Eagle Creek homicide case one step closer to a trial.
The Oregon Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a Hood River Circuit Court ruling that statements made by murder suspect Steven Nichols during a police interrogation should be excluded from evidence because Nichols’ rights concerning self-incrimination had been violated.
Nichols, 42, formerly from Bend and Portland, faces a murder charge in the 2009 death of his girlfriend, Rhonda Casto, who was 23. (The spelling of Nichols’ first name varies between Stephen and Steven in court documents).
Prosecutors allege Nichols pushed Casto, the mother of his child, off a high cliff to her death at Eagle Creek Trail, near Cascade Locks. They also maintain Nichols tried to collect Casto’s $1 million life insurance policy after she died.
Following Nichols’ arrest and arraignment in early 2015, his attorney, Mike Arnold, filed a volley of pre-trial motions, including one to suppress statements made by Nichols during an initial interview by law enforcement officials at San Francisco Airport.
Nichols had flown in from China, en route to Oregon, when he was detained, the ruling states. Two detectives with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office took over the investigation, handcuffed Nichols, and interviewed him.
Arnold argued Nichols’ rights against compelled self-incrimination had been violated when lead detective Wesley Matsuura kept questioning the defendant after Nichols said, “It’s not something I want to talk about.”
According to the Supreme Court ruling, Nichols then told the detective that the victim had died about six years earlier after falling from a cliff. The interview continued for roughly three hours, “touching on many subjects.” Nichols was booked in the local county jail and later transported to Oregon and arraigned.
Judge John A. Olson, Oregon Seventh Judicial District presiding judge, issued a written decision in March 2016 granting Arnold’s motion to suppress Nichols’ statements made under interrogation.
State prosecutors then appealed Olson’s decision, bringing the issue to the Oregon Supreme Court in Salem. On March 2, 2017, the higher court sided with the decision earlier rendered in Hood River.
Chief Justice Thomas A. Balmer wrote, “We conclude that defendant unequivocally invoked his right against compelled self-incrimination and, therefore, the interrogation should have ended when defendant made that invocation.”
However, the court came to that conclusion on different grounds. The Supreme Court maintained that Nichols “unequivocally” called for an end to the interview, whereas the circuit court had ruled that Nichols had “equivocally,” or ambiguously, used that right.
Following the ruling, the court sent the decision back to Hood River County last week.
Angela Hill, judicial assistant for Olson, anticipates a trial will eventually be scheduled in Hood River, though the date remains unclear.
“A new trial will be set, but at this point there is not (a) date set,” Hill said.
Records show Nichols is scheduled to appear in court in Hood River for a status check on March 30.
Nichols has faced other criminal charges since his 2015 arrest. He pled guilty in Washington County Circuit Court during October 2016 to two counts of sex abuse in the third degree, a Class A misdemeanor. A judge sentenced Nichols to one year in county jail, court records show.