The nearly eight-year-old Eagle Creek murder case has been adjudicated.
Steven Wagner Nichols, 42, pled guilty Monday in Hood River County Circuit Court to two felonies: criminally negligent homicide and coercion — but a murder charge stacked against him was dismissed.
Judge John Wolf sentenced Nichols to a year and seven months in county jail. But Nichols will not serve time behind bars for those felonies, his attorney said.
Via the May 8 sentencing agreement, Nichols will get credit for 19 months served in custody, which essentially cancels out his sentence. He will, however, serve three years under post-custody supervision.
Nichols most recently lived in Portland on house arrest, leading up to the case’s resolution. Before his arrest in February 2015, he had lived in China and Bend.
Prosecutors alleged Nichols was hiking with his girlfriend, Rhonda Casto, 23, of Portland, in March 2009 at Eagle Creek Trail west of Cascade Locks when he pushed her off a 100-foot cliff to her death. Casto was the mother of Nichols’ then-infant daughter.
Months before her death, Nichols had increased Casto’s life insurance policy to $1 million, prosecutors said.
The protracted case was tentatively scheduled to go to trial in spring 2018; however, it wrapped up this week following a settlement agreement between Nichols’ attorney, Mike Arnold, and Carrie Rasmussen, Hood River County deputy district attorney.
A pre-trial memorandum opinion issued February 2016 by Judge John Olson — in response to several of Arnold’s motions — shed light on details of the case:
Casto fell to her death on March 16, 2009. First responders and law enforcement officers interviewed Nichols, the only witness.
Gerry Tiffany, lead detective with the Hood River County Sheriff’s Office at the time, testified in 2015 that the case became a homicide investigation following Casto’s autopsy. But by the time Tiffany retired in 2012, nobody had been charged in connection with her death.
In the meantime, Hood River County District Attorney John Sewell viewed it as a “cold case,” Olson wrote. In 2012, the case was transferred over to Rasmussen, who recharged the investigation.
“No ‘smoking gun’ was uncovered. Two years after assuming primary responsibility for the case, Ms. Rasmussen took the case to grand jury and obtained an indictment on April 21, 2014,” Olson wrote.
Nichols was secretly indicted for Casto’s murder, and a warrant led to his arrest at a San Francisco airport when he flew in from China.
Arnold argued in a 2015 motion the state was “culpable” for the pre-indictment delay, and that Nichols suffered “substantial, actual prejudice.”
However, Olson ruled last February, “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.
Missing evidence also took prominence during pre-trial court disputes.
Arnold alleged in a motion that Tiffany deleted important photos and other evidence in the case, violating Nichols’ right to due process. Tiffany intentionally wiped his computer hard drive clean, Olson acknowledged.
Olson said, “it is entirely possible that Detective Tiffany acted in bad faith and intentionally … failed to preserve (Nichols’) investigative materials,” but Olson couldn’t conclude Tiffany “actually did so” or that there was any “animus” on the state’s part toward Nichols.
A key stride for Nichols came two months ago when the Oregon Supreme Court upheld Olson’s ruling granting suppression of certain testimony Nichols had given under interrogation at San Francisco International Airport.
When questioned, Nichols told a detective, “It’s not something I want to talk about.” The court ruled that was an “unequivocal invocation” of his right to remain silent, which was violated — therefore his testimony made after that statement was inadmissible.
On Monday, Wolf sentenced Nichols to 19 months for the homicide and coercion charges, with credit for time served. Nichols spent much of that time in Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility in The Dalles.
Arnold said the sentencing agreement was pre-determined at a prior settlement conference, and the sentence had been calculated factoring in how much time Nichols had already served in jail awaiting trial.
He argued that the felony charges were a political move by the county, and a way to resolve the case in a “politically expedient way.”
“This is just a way they can say they got him for a felony,” Arnold said.
Nichols has recently faced other criminal charges. Last November, Nichols pled guilty to two counts of sex abuse in the third degree in Washington County Circuit Court.