Mountainman gets 85 years in murder-kidnap case

Sept. 28, 1985
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VIRGINIA CITY, Mont. -- Mountainman Don Nichols drew an 85-year prison term for killing a man who tried to rescue a pretty Olympic athlete whom Nichols and his son kidnapped to be the young man's wilderness mate.

Nichols, 54, captured with his 20-year-old son at their snowbound camp by an intrepid sheriff months after the slaying and the rescue of the woman, was sentenced Friday by District Judge Frank Davis, who also ruled that he could not be considered for parole for 42 years.

The one-time Navy seaman, who was discharged for mental instability, was convicted in July of fatally shooting Alan Goldstein, 36, on July 26, 1984, the day after he and his son, Dan, abducted Kari Swenson while she was jogging on a mountain trail near Big Sky, Mont.

Swenson was a member of the U.S. Olympic biathlon team, which combines sharpshooting with skiing.

The elder Nichols testified he hoped to make Swenson, 23, a sexual mate for his son, explaining, 'It was a calculated risk I was willing to pay for. On hindsight, I would say it was a mistake.'

Dan Nichols was convicted in a separate jury trial of kidnap and aggravated assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He contended he was brainwashed by his father.

The senior Nichols, who had left his wife in the 1960s because 'I wanted to go to the mountains and my wife didn't,' said he shot Goldstein in self-defense. Goldstein and another man were members of a search party looking for Swenson, fearing she had been attacked by a bear.

They heard her screaming and found her chained to a tree. In the 90-second showdown that followed, Dan Nichols shot Swenson in the shoulder.

Don Nichols testified Goldstein pointed a gun at him. 'He wouldn't listen to reason. He threatened us,' he said.

Nichols admitted he shot Goldstein in the head. 'I had the right of self-defense,' he said, adding, 'I'm sorry it happened.'

But prosecutor Marc Raciot told the jury, 'Self-defense is no defense. Otherwise every cutthroat crook could kill his pursuers and get off.'

The two men fled the camp, abandoning the wounded woman. 'I wasn't being callous,' Nichols said. 'Why should we stay? There'd be a bunch of guys coming in, shooting first and asking questions later.'

Swenson recovered and became the chief witness against the two men.

Madison County Sheriff Johnny France tracked the pair in the wilds for months, spending off-duty weekends on the manhunt. In December, he found them at their camp in the snow, camouflaged himself in white clothes and captured them, an exploit that led to an invitation to the White House.

Judge Davis sentenced Nichols to 75 years for murdering Goldstein, a Flint, Mich., businessman who had become a Big Sky dude rancher. The judge added 10 years to the term, as mandated by state law for any crime with a firearm, and he gave sentences totaling 30 years for aggravated assault and kidnapping to be served concurrently with the term for murder.

In designating Nichols a dangerous offender, the judge precluded parole for half the term of the sentence.

The judge also prohibited Nichols from profiting in any retelling of his involvement in the case.

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