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Nickel acquitted on all counts

Nickel acquitted on all counts

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COLUMBUS — A Stillwater County jury on Friday found pyrotechnic pioneer Russell Nickel not guilty of all felony counts of manufacturing and distributing illegal drugs and one felony count of criminal endangerment.

Friends of the owner of Precision Theatrical Effects cheered and rushed to hug him when the last not guilty verdict was read after the nine-day trial. Embracing his attorneys, Penelope Strong and Paul Matt, Nickel angrily gestured at Stillwater County Attorney Bob Eddleman.

“I hope you never forget what you did to me. I hope you remember for the rest of your life,” he said.

The jury took less than three hours to reach its decision on the charges brought against Nickel more than a year ago. The charges came four months after a raid of Nickel’s business and home by local, state and federal law enforcement agents.

Nickel was accused of making methamphetamine and distributing MDMA, a drug commonly called ecstasy, as well as several prescription drugs.

“This was the case that never should have been,” defense attorney Strong said after the verdict, repeating what she had said to the jury in her closing statements.

“There should be an autopsy of how the war on drugs” went awry, she said, when sound police work and prosecution were absent. “It’s wonderful to win, but what went on here needs further examination.”

Attorney Paul Matt said Nickel was understandably bitter.

“Russ suffered incredible penalties, incredible persecution,” he said. “He was not treated as an innocent man until today.”

Asked what he would do now, Nickel joked, “Well, I sure ain’t going to Disney World.”

Nickel said he is working for a new pyrotechnic company in Missouri where he designed and engineered two shows for a Six Flags amusement park and those projects need his attention.

Eventually PTE would be involved with pyrotechnic production again, he said, perhaps in an alliance with the Missouri company.

“We almost certainly will use PTE (in Columbus) because one thing we have a problem with in Missouri is the humidity. That’s a problem with pyrotechnics,” he said.

Several jurors, on the condition that their names not be published, agreed to talk about their deliberations.

“When it finally came to the table the credibility of the state witnesses, there was a sigh of relief,” said one juror. “We all felt the same way. They just weren’t believable.”

Another juror said “flawed evidence and police work” played an important role.

“When you have informants and cops sneaking around, and the cops don’t question the reliability of the informants, something wasn’t right,” the second juror said.

A third juror said the trial was emotional and exhausting, but “educational.”

“This is a small county, and you know a lot of these people,” the juror said. “But you put that aside and look at the facts. It was tiring, but we had the information we needed.”

Among the four jurors who agreed to discuss the case, there was agreement about crucial evidence. They found that undercover tape recordings were inaudible and suspect. The vials of illegal drugs that the state claimed were given by Nickel to informant Renae Parkins were also suspect, as was corroborative testimony by Dawn Sheen of a trip she and Renae Parkins took with Nickel to Billings where Parkins and Nickel allegedly bought sudaphedrine, a key ingredient for making methamphetamine.

“We just didn’t believe her (Parkins),” a juror said. “The prosecution said that, bottom line, we needed to believe her, but, bottom line, we didn’t. And her friend wasn’t credible either. That whole deal was sour.”

Eddleman, who was assisted in the prosecution by state attorney Melissa Broch, could not be reached for comment.

Renae Parkins, who, according to the state, figured in the trial as a mother who had no motive to lie, sat with Columbus Police Chief Mori Woods and state Division of Criminal Investigation agent Jeffrey Faycosh in the courtroom. Paul Parkins, who, according to the defense had an affair with the defendant’s wife, Cheryl Nickel, was also seated in the courtroom.

In closing arguments, both Eddleman and Broch acknowledged that Nickel might be a genius and a successful businessman, but that did not preclude his capability to commit illegal actions.

For nine days, Eddleman told the jury, they had heard a tragedy. In tragedies, a single character has a fatal flaw, he said, and with Nickel, the fatal flaw was that he believed “rules don’t apply to him.”

Broch said the case was not about “whether Mr. Nickel is a good guy or a bad guy. It’s about assessing accountability for his conduct.”

But Strong said the case was about unbelievable informant testimony, poor police work and “scraping around” to make a case “that was like Swiss cheese.”

Strong said there was a “convenient alignment” of witnesses who wanted her client out of the picture. There was Paul Parkins, in debt, needing money that Nickel was going to cut off from their joint partnership. There was Chris Ringer, who coaxed others into believing Nickel was making drugs because Ringer was greedy for more money and jealous of Nickel’s talent. There was Renae Parkins, a woman with a drug problem who didn’t want her husband to know and had to blame someone when her husband did find out. There was Cheryl Nickel, corrupted by tainted information from Ringer and Parkins, who was convinced that to save the business she needed to sever her connection to her husband.

Jurors who were interviewed agreed that they had little trouble having reasonable doubt about the charges.

“There were inconsistencies all over the case,” one said. “Nickel was simply not guilty.”

Rumors have circulated for weeks that Nickel plans some kind of litigation against those who tried to convict him.

“He’s going back to work,” Matt said. “He’s just going to go back to doing what he loves.”

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