In March 2009, pretty, vivacious Rhonda Casto plunged to her death from a 300-foot cliff in the Oregon woods. The only witness, Stephen Nichols, the father of her nine-month-old baby, Annie, told police investigators she slipped and fell.
Yet, Nichols’ story didn’t mesh with the facts. And some of his other actions raised suspicions as well, including just days after her death trying to collect on a million-dollar life insurance policy he’d taken out on his unemployed, 23-year-old girlfriend. What had begun with a 911 call to report an accident, quickly turned into a homicide investigation.
However, due to lackluster police work, the case grew cold. Then in 2011, Dardie Robinson, a tenacious investigator with a Portland law firm began digging into the circumstances surrounding Rhonda’s death. The law firm represented Rhonda’s mother, who believed that Nichols, 34, had murdered her daughter. She wanted to prevent him from gaining custody of Annie and the life insurance money.
What Robinson discovered, including an attempt by Nichols to throw his first wife off a high-rise balcony in China, as well as sexual assault charges, convinced her that Rhonda’s death was no accident. So began her six-year battle to ‘save Annie’ from her own father and find justice for Rhonda.
In the meantime, a parallel investigation into the case by co-authors Steve Jackson, an award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author, and private investigator Tom McCallum, posed the same questions. What really happened to Rhonda Casto on that cold, rainy afternoon on the Eagle Creek trail? And what would become of her child?
From The Book:
March 16, 2009
Hood River County, Oregon
When the 911 call came into the Hood River Sheriff’s Office, it wasn’t so much what the caller said, but how he said it.
His voice neither rose nor fell as he phlegmatically relayed the information. Normally people calling 911 to report a traumatic event are in an agitated state with an emotional element in their delivery ranging from weeping to a rapid-fire data dump to shouting or screaming. There was none of that, he could have been reading from an automotive manual for all the feeling he put into it.
Nor did he offer much in the way of details and that alone would have been unusual. Callers in emergency situations tend to gush with information and get to the point right away. But not this time.
911 OPERATOR: “911, where is your emergency?
CALLER: “Hello. I need help. I’m at, uh, Eagle Creek.”
911 OPERATOR: “Okay, and what’s going on there?”
CALLER: “My girlfriend fell off the cliff. I hiked back. And I’m in my car.”
911 OPERATOR: “Okay. You’re at the Eagle Creek Trailhead right now?”
911 OPERATOR: “Okay, and where on the trail did she fall?”
CALLER: “I don’t know. I think about a mile up.”
911 OPERATOR: “Okay.”
CALLER: “I hiked down and got her, uh, and I’m in my car now, and I don’t know if I … (unintelligible)”
911 OPERATOR: “Okay.”
CALLER: “… suffering from hypothermia. I don’t think it’s that cold but …”
911 OPERATOR: “Okay, so she fell off the trail down a cliff, and then you went down the cliff and pulled her, brought her back up onto the trail?”
CALLER: “No she’s dead.”
There was a pause as the operator took in his last statement. The caller had just delivered the news of his girlfriend’s fatal fall in the same matter-of-fact monotone that he’d used since the beginning of the conversation.
Other than noting that his girlfriend had fallen from a cliff, the caller mostly seemed worried that he might be suffering hypothermia. The operator had to pull details out of him. Oh yeah, my girlfriend’s dead.
And every time the operator tried to get more details about the fate of his girlfriend, the caller turned the conversation back to his needs.
CALLER: “I went down to get her. I went to the bottom. Then in the river (unintelligible) took me about an hour to get to her. I finally go over to her, then I was startin’ to shake. I got too cold, so I’m, uh, now, I just got to my car, and I need someone to come and help me … Please send someone I’m at, uh …”
911 OPERATOR: “Okay, hang on just a minute …”
CALLER: “… Eagle Creek.”
911 OPERATOR: “… one second.”
911 OPERATOR: “And what’s, what’s your name, sir?”
911 OPERATOR: “Okay Steve, what is, um …”
CALLER: “I’m freezing. Will you please send someone?”
911 OPERATOR: “Um, hang on just one second for me, okay?”
CALLER: “All right.”
911 OPERATOR: “Steve, what is your last name?”
911 OPERATOR: “And what’s her name, Steve?”
911 OPERATOR: “Rhonda’s last name?”
About The Authors:
New York Times bestselling author and award-winning journalist Steve Jackson has written ten non-fiction books in true crime, history and biography genres; he has also written fourteen crime fiction thrillers for the long-running and NYTimes bestselling “Butch Karp Series” in collaboration with former New York assistant district attorney Robert K. Tanenbaum.
Tom McCallum has been a private investigator for 30 years specializing in high profile murder cases. Before that he owned a 57′ commercial fishing boat, fishing the NW Pacific for salmon, halibut, and albacore. He is a Marine, played football and studied architecture at the University of Oregon.