POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. (AP) – When JoAnn Nichols disappeared in 1985, a detective immediately zeroed in on one man: her husband.
James Nichols was a loner, detached and anti-social. Neighbors saw him as odd, someone who would stare into space or sit in his car to read the newspaper. One remembers seeing him driving around with a mannequin in the passenger seat.
Retired Poughkeepsie Detective Capt. Charles Mittelstaedt, who ran the investigation nearly three decades ago, saw more.
“There was no doubt in my mind that he knew where his wife was,” Mittelstaedt said Wednesday. “The man was cold. I mean, seriously cold.”
Nichols, an IBM retiree, reported his wife missing on Dec. 21, 1985. In December, he died of natural causes at the age of 82. When a contractor was hired to clean out the debris-choked house at 720 Vassar Road last week, workers found JoAnn Nichols’ skeletal remains in a container behind a false wall. Officials said she died from a blow to the head.
Mittelstaedt said investigators had never searched the house because they didn’t have legal grounds to get a warrant.
Nichols told detectives their marriage was fine, Mittelstaedt said. Police characterized a note left on her computer as depressed, but not suicidal. Their only child, a son, drowned a couple years earlier at age of 25.
“He sat across from me in my office, looked me straight in the face, and told us that he thought she was depressed, he hinted at maybe suicidal,” Mittelstaedt said.
“We had suspicions right from the start because of the way he acted,” he said.
Nichols was put under surveillance, and investigators learned within weeks that he was visiting another woman.
When confronted with that, Nichols replied, according to Mittelstaedt: “If you don’t have a warrant for my arrest, you can talk to my lawyer.”
Mittelstaedt said that was the last time investigators talked to him.
There were other strange twists, he remembered.
When police visited the home after JoAnn Nichols disappeared, her car was missing. When they returned, it was in the driveway. James Nichols said he found it at a mall and had it driven home. The car had been washed and vacuumed, Mittelstaedt said.
Meanwhile, neighbors remembered a strange loner who had a sweet wife.
“Everybody kind of thought he was the one that was responsible, just based on his emotionless character and the condition of the house,” said Walter Wyskida, a neighbor of 16 years.
Wyskida said Nichols had seven sheds with debris from floor to ceiling. Another friend said Nichols kept a dead cat in a basement freezer.
The modest house on a tree-lined street has a small backyard enclosed by a stockade fence. On Wednesday, a large trash receptacle sat in the driveway.
“He was very strange,” said Wyskida. “I never really saw him that much. And when we did, he would just be out staring without saying hello or anything.”
Wyskida called Nichols unemotional.
“Sometimes you would see him in the backyard just staring at the open space with no one there. Just very weird,” Wyskida said. “He would just sit in the car and read the newspaper and just hang out in the car.”
Wyskida said he once saw Nichols driving down the road with a mannequin in the passenger seat.
“A dummy with a hat on,” he said.
Barbara Wiest, a neighbor, called JoAnn Nichols, “a lovely, gentle woman.
“We thought she joined a convent,” she said. “She was extremely religious.”
The discovery of JoAnn Nichols’ remains has reinvigorated the investigation, made more difficult by a trail long grown cold.
“Obviously, the evidence is very, very old,” Detectives Capt. Paul Lecomte told The Associated Press. “Where we might have gotten a better opportunity … to pull fingerprints or something from it. Where here, we might not be able to. It’s so old.”
He would not discuss details of the investigation or what evidence had been sent to the police lab, but Lecomte said detectives want to do a fresh round of interviews. Lecomte noted most of the officers who worked on the case in 1985 have since retired or died.
Mittelstaedt, the retired detective, never let the case go.
“I remember the case like it happened yesterday because every time I drove past her house, I wondered if she was in there,” he said.
“It’s just a sin that he got away with it all these years,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t say this because it’s not politically correct, but I hope he rots in hell.”
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