Man Who Kidnapped Olympic Athlete Called “Murderer By Accountability”
BY PAT HILL
A warrant was recently issued for the arrest of Dan Nichols, who, together with his father, gained national notoriety in the 1980s after a bizarre series of events involving kidnapping, murder, and a manhunt in the mountains of southwest Montana that lasted months.
Now in his mid-40s, Nichols was arrested last August at the Rockin’ the Rivers concert, held annually near the Lewis and Clark Caverns in Jefferson County, and charged with criminal possession of dangerous drugs with intent to distribute (allegedly both marijuana and opiates), drug and drug paraphernalia possession, tampering with evidence and resisting arrest. Jefferson County deputy sheriffs arrested Nichols after allegedly smelling marijuana and then witnessing a drug deal in progress at one of the concert campsites. Nichols attemp-ted to flee the scene after deputies told him to stay put, but he tripped over a camp chair during the chase and was subdued with the help of another camper. Nichols entered an initial plea of not guilty on the charges. The Belgrade resident was released after an initial bond of $25,000 was reduced to $10,000, but according to Jefferson County Attorney Mathew Johnson, the arrest warrant was issued after Nichols failed to appear at a Mar. 7 pre-trial conference. As of press time, there has been no resolution in the arrest warrant action.
The then-18-year-old Dan Nichols probably had no idea how well-known he would eventually become on that July day in 1984 when he and his father Don Nichols kidnapped Olympic biathlete Kari Swenson near the Big Sky ski resort in southwest Montana. The two had essentially been living off the land (which also required the rustling of an occasional cow) when they kidnapped Swenson, a Bozemanite who was considered a top Olympic contender in the biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and target shooting (Swenson had recently won the first medal the United States awarded in global biathlon competition). Don Nichols’ later court testimony revealed that he’d been wanting to start his own “tribe” in the mountains, and had been searching for a suitable “mountain bride” for several years. He’d even purchased a chain for the purpose, for the senior Nichols also revealed he was certain no woman would come along willingly. At any rate, Dan Nichols, who encountered Swenson first, liked what he saw, and father and son kidnapped Swenson to be Dan’s eventual wife. The two felt she would come to love the free mountain life, but Swenson spent that first night far from free, tethered to a tree with the chain Don Nichols had bought for that purpose.
After Swenson failed to return to work at the Lone Mountain Guest Ranch at Big Sky that night, the athlete’s family organized a search. By dawn the next day, 40 people were ready to search the mountains on horseback, foot, and motorcycle for Swenson. By 8:00 a.m., one of those searchers, Alan Goldstein, found the Nichols’ camp where Swenson was being held. In the ensuing minutes, Swenson was shot in the chest by Dan Nichols, and then the gun-toting Goldstein was shot in the face by Don Nichols. Goldstein’s injury was fatal, and the pair left the wounded Swenson at the scene with her would-be rescuer. Dan Nichols later claimed that he mistakenly shot Swenson, but Don Nichols defended the killing of Goldstein¡ as an act of self-defense.
The manhunt for the pair would last until December. During those months the father and son would garner headlines and gain fame as “mountain men.”
“Some people were delighted at the ease with which the fugitives eluded capture and regarded ‘old Don and Dan’ as harmless throwbacks to an earlier, less trammeled era in the West,” read a Sports Illustrated story on the incident. But a source close to the investigation and manhunt who spoke on the condition of anonymity told the Pioneer that the analogy of Don and Dan Nichols as “mountain men” is as much a myth as the tall tales of the West told by the old trappers back in the early days of exploration. That source also claimed that the glorification of the pair in the newspapers and on television had a naturally negative effect on Swenson, causing her to distrust the media to this day.
Montana’s Deer Lodge State Prison is still home to Don Nichols, who was convicted on murder, kidnapping, and aggravated assault charges and sentenced to 85 years behind bars. He was denied parole in 2007, but has another parole hearing this month. Dan Nichols was sentenced to 20 years for his part in the crimes, and served six years before being released on parole. And though the story of Dan Nichols has seemingly begun a new chapter, the saga is being characterized differently this time around.
“Young Nichols is really a piece of crap,” said the source close to the ’84 manhunt. “He isn’t a mountain man…he is a common thief, kidnapper, burglar, and a murderer by accountability. I really hope he gets in enough trouble this time that he gets sent back to the big house for a long time.”