DEER LODGE — Montana officials on Friday rejected parole for a notorious "mountain man" who abducted a world-class athlete in 1984 to keep as a wife for his son, who shot her during a rescue attempt and then left her to die.
The state Board of Pardons and Parole held its third parole hearing for Don Nichols as federal authorities search for his son Dan, accused earlier this month of new drug and gun crimes. During his 20-minute hearing, the 81-year-old Nichols expressed contempt for the board.
"I don't think you have the courage to stand up to the media no matter what I say," Nichols said in his only statement before he abruptly walked out with his prison escort.
The hearing included emotional testimony from kidnapping victim Kari Swenson, her husband and her father, plus testimony from former and current law enforcement officials. Board members then huddled for a few seconds before denying Nichols' parole.
"I think there is little chance that Mr. Nichols, with his attitude, is ever going to be suitable for parole," board member Sam Lemaich said.
The father-son duo made international headlines three decades ago when they abducted Swenson, a world-class biathlete, while she was on a training run in the mountains above the resort town of Big Sky.
They forced her into the woods and kept her chained to a tree most of the time. When would-be rescuers stumbled upon the camp, Dan Nichols accidentally shot Swenson. An armed standoff ensued, and the elder Nichols gunned down a would-be rescuer. The two then eluded police for five months.
The pair, who had lived for long stretches in the mountains by poaching game and eating from makeshift gardens, evaded a prolonged manhunt by living in the remote wilderness northwest of Yellowstone National Park. Their habits prompted authorities to label them with a "mountain man" moniker they embraced.
Swenson, despite diminished lung capacity from the gunshot wound, went on to compete at a high level. The Bozeman veterinarian opposed parole for Nichols, writing in a recent letter to a Montana newspaper that he could again pair up with his son and harm others.
Swenson testified that she was upset she had to see Nichols, saying, "Now I'm going to have nightmares all over again." She said she believed releasing Nichols would be a huge risk and expressed anger that reporters were allowed in the hearing.
"I am mad I have to go through this every five years," she said.
Board Chairman Michael McKee also expressed regret that they had to meet regularly to discuss the possibility of parole for Nichols.
"There are some crimes for some people who should never get out. Unfortunately, that's not the way the system works," McKee said.
Even though Nichols was denied parole, a day is taken off his 85-year sentence for each day he exhibits good behavior. At that rate, unless he is paroled, Nichols will be released on April 16, 2030, when he is 99.
The elder Nichols has blamed others — including Swenson — for the crime by arguing they were in the wrong place. In an apparent effort to minimize the crime in lengthy journals and manuscripts written shortly afterward, he said they only bound Swenson with a "lightweight" chain.
John Onstad, a former sheriff involved in the hunt for Nichols in the 1980s, testified that Nichols is a "cold, calculating, anti-social individual."
No one spoke in favor of releasing Nichols, while many in the Bozeman community wrote to the board demanding parole be denied.
"There is no evidence in the record that this man should go back into civilization," said Swenson's father, Bob Swenson. "In his mind, he hates civilization."
The Montana attorney general's chief prosecutor, Brant Light, told the parole board the state opposes release for Nichols.
"Obviously, again, he is not remorseful," Light said. "He has taken no responsibility for his actions."
Nichols' son was indicted on federal charges last week, accused in a statewide marijuana distribution ring that netted nearly $1.8 million.
The younger Nichols was convicted of kidnapping and assault in the Swenson case and was released in the early 1990s. He has been on the run since he skipped out on relatively minor drug charges received at a rock concert last summer.
The U.S. Marshals have said the younger Nichols is considered very dangerous while on the run.