Author To Fight Defense Attorney’s Subpoenas
Holy Smokes! I’m suddenly a hot commodity with 48 Hours for two separate books I’m working on. And in the meantime, another book project about serial killer Roy Melanson will be the featured topic on the Investigation Discovery channel’s new show Epic Mysteries in April.
Working on a book in Oregon about a man accused of murdering his girlfriend and the mother of his child by pushing her off a cliff in 2009, I suddenly became a focal point of a motion to dismiss the case this past week based on the (nonsensical) theory that the only reason the prosecutor took the case to the grand jury, got an indictment for murder, the defendant was arrested and now faces murder charges is because the “nationally famous New York Time bestselling author Steve Jackson” worked the case in 2012 as an investigative journalist/author.
The defendant, Steven P. Wagner Nichols, stands accused of pushing his girlfriend, Rhonda Casto, off a cliff along a hiking trail in the Columbia River Gorge near Hood River in March 2009. They’d had a baby girl a few months earlier though Nichols had little to do with the child at her birth or after; he got custody, however, following Casto’s death. The couple had also taken out a large life insurance policy shortly before Casto’s death, which Nichols had increased over the telephone to the agent to more than a million dollars (even though Casto had very little income and the policy was apparently issued in violation of the company’s normal practices). I began looking into the case in 2012, which included the usual practice of contacting law enforcement agencies to find out what was going on with a case that had apparently stalled. Nichols was indicted in April 2014, at which time he was working in China teaching English as a second language; he was arrested in February 2015 at the San Francisco airport when he was tricked into returning to the United States regarding questions about his daughter’s visa. His trial is set for May-June 2016.
Attending a “motion to dismiss” hearing this past week, I was surprised that among a few other issues, the defense attorney, Michael Arnold, tried to argue that the sheriff’s office and Hood River District Attorneys Office only went forward with the case in order to look good in a book I was not even certain would be published. For legal reasons, I don’t write books until a case is adjudicated, and even then almost exclusively if the defendant is found guilty. If not adjudicated and without a conviction, I simply move on to the next case. I certainly don’t appear before a grand jury to persuade them to return an indictment, nor do I appear at trials where through the force of my testimony (and good looks) defendants are found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. (Yes, I’m being facetious. Defendants are found guilty by a jury based on legally admissible evidence entered into the record, mostly from the witness stand, as well as factual guilt, or they are found not guilty because the state–not me–hasn’t proven its case). If my mere involvement in researching crime cases resulted in indictments and convictions, there’d be dozens more defendants and people in prison. Although I like to think I’m a pretty decent investigator and writer, I am certainly not the all-knowing, all-powerful Oz.
Unfortunately, law enforcement doesn’t just hand over material I request, nor do they fall all over themselves to indict and convict innocent men so that they can be in one of my books. I ask, and most often they refuse, or simply want to know what I know without revealing much about their own investigations unless it’s public record. I don’t have an issue with Arnold trying this stunt–the old throw the spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks theory of defense–his duty is to vigorously represent his client and put the State’s case to the test. It’s a pretty silly argument but that hasn’t prevented Arnold from serving me with subpoenas to appear at future hearings and the trial. So now I’m working with noted Oregon media lawyer Duane Bosworth to quash the subpoenas under the Oregon Shield Law, which protects journalists and authors from being compelled to testify, produce evidence–such as their notes, correspondence or work product–or submit to searches. Without these protections, there would be a chilling effect on the media’s responsibility to investigate and write about crimes and the justice system.
In the meantime, 48 Hours correspondent Peter Van Sant, a respected television journalist, who has been following the court pre-trial hearings decided to interview me in the hallway regarding Arnold’s contentions. We had a nice conversation about the role of investigative journalists (we’ll see how it’s edited). While he tried to pin me down on whether I believe Nichols is guilty that’s for a jury to decide. My only contention is that I do believe that from what I’d seen during the course of my investigation with my friend, private investigator Tom McCallum, who was looking into the case for other reasons before he began working with me, that there was sufficient reason to bring the case to trial. Van Sant told me the piece with my interview will run in February. I’ll let you know the date when I do.
But wait there’s more. I’d hardly returned home before I was told that Erin Moriarty, another correspondent with 48 Hours, wants to interview me regarding another book I’m working on regarding the Skylar Nemetz murder case in Pierce County, Washington. Nemetz, 20, has been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of his wife, Danielle, 19. Nemetz shot his wife in the back of the head as she sat at her computer on the night of Thursday Oct. 13, 2014; he contends the shooting was accidental, the prosecution contends otherwise. The case is about to go to trial.
I’ve agreed to write a book on the case with Danette Heller, the mother of Nemetz. I’ve told her, and she agrees, that I’ll reserve judgment on whether I believe her son is guilty or not guilty until after the trial, and that
in any event, all sides will be presented fairly and accurately. The story to me is more about her struggle to fight for her son’s right to a fair trial against the system’s overwhelming resources and what she believes was a rush to judgment. Guilty or not guilty, and while I’m in the early stages of researching this story, I think it will be an extremely interesting take on what it’s like for a mother to suddenly find herself, her son, and her family caught up in what she describes as “a nightmare,” as well as how the system works in a case like this. The book will be published by WildBlue Press in April or May.
Following pre-trial motions, the main trial is expected to start in a couple of weeks and last five weeks. I’ll be parachuting in and out of the proceedings while also interviewing the main characters involved, including Danette and her son, as well as attorneys, witnesses, and hopefully Danielle’s family.
Apparently, Moriarty would like to interview me for the 48 Hours program regarding the case. I’ll let you know when that is scheduled as well. Believe me, I haven’t sought this publicity, but it’s been an interesting week in part because of it.
Nor does that end my involvement in television documentaries this spring. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be interviewed by the crew of Epic Mysteries, a new television program on the Investigation Discovery channel. The brain child of agent and producer extraordinaire Sharlene Levin Martin in conjunction with Nancy Glass Productions, Epic Mysteries showcases new true crime books and their authors with the cases involved.
My book details the depredations in California, Colorado, Texas and Louisiana of serial killer Roy Melanson. The book will be released in April in conjunction with the Epic Mysteries broadcast. I’ve written about Melanson in the past in my book NO STONE UNTURNED. But this book will go into some of his other cases as well as more detail and insight regarding the case profiled in NO STONE UNTURNED. This or the Skylar Nemetz case will be my first original true crime book for WildBlue Press since BOGEYMAN in August 2014.
An interesting week with a lot going on, but I better get back to writing or I’ll never get it all done.