HELENA, Mont. – Dan Nichols couldn't outrun police for long as a fugitive wanted on felony drug charges, and now his attorney is concerned the former "mountain man" won't be able to escape his past when it comes to the new accusations.
Nichols, better known as the younger half of the father-son duo who kidnapped a biathlete in the 1980s to be his mountain bride, pleaded not guilty Thursday to nine federal drug, conspiracy and weapons charges in an initial court appearance in Missoula.
The charges stem from Nichols' employment with Montana Cannabis, a statewide medical marijuana operation that was shut down last year after it was raided in a federal crackdown on large medical pot providers in Montana.
Four of Montana Cannabis' co-founders are facing or have pleaded guilty to similar drug charges. But Nichols' attorney, Chad Wright, said Nichols was a regular employee who was not a decision maker in the company.
Wright said he hoped Nichols' notoriety did not influence the severity of the charges, some of which include maximum penalties of life in prison if convicted.
"The only reason he's getting more attention, it seems, is because of his past crime, and he has fully discharged that last sentence," Wright said. "The system is designed to try to remove individual characteristics and base charges, convictions and sentences solely on the law, not on the individual. I hope the system kicks in that way. That would be my biggest concern."
Nichols, 47, had been considered a fugitive after failing to appear on drug charges in a separate case in Jefferson County in March. Federal prosecutors issued their own warrant in April, and U.S. marshals aided by the Butte-Silver Bow sheriff's office arrested Nichols on Tuesday after tracking his movements for a week in southwestern Montana.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah Lynch ordered Nichols to remain in the custody of the Marshals Service without bail, pending further proceedings.
Wright said he planned to explore all options for Nichols, including a plea deal with federal prosecutors.
Nichols was released from prison in 1991 following the 1984 kidnapping of Kari Swenson, a world-class biathlete whom Nichols and his father, Don, kept chained to a tree during the ordeal.
Swenson was shot by Dan Nichols during an attempted rescue and left for dead, but she survived. Her would-be rescuer was shot and killed by Don Nichols, who is serving an 85-year sentence in the Montana State Prison.
Police apprehended the pair five months after the failed rescue attempt.