HOOD RIVER, Ore. – An Oregon man accused of killing his girlfriend while they hiked in the Columbia River Gorge six years ago tried but failed to collect on her $1 million life insurance policy, court documents show.
Stephen Wagner Nichols, 40, of Bend, was arrested this month at San Francisco International Airport after Oregon authorities alerted California officers that he would be arriving on a flight from China.
He had been secretly indicted in April on a murder charge in the death of 23-year-old Rhonda Casto, who fell 100 feet on a steep, narrow path in March 2009. Investigators have not revealed if they believe Nichols pushed her or how she may have fallen about a mile from a trailhead, which is 45 miles east of Portland.
Court documents show Nichols and Casto became romantically involved in 2005 and had a daughter, who is now 6, The Oregonian reported (http://goo.gl/d5S8hn ). It was not clear who has custody of the girl.
The couple each bought a $1 million life insurance policy in late 2008 from MetLife and named each other as beneficiaries, records show. Their daughter was named as contingent beneficiary.
Nichols sued MetLife after it denied his $1 million claim. The company said the insurance policy was void because of omissions on the application.
MetLife asserted in a counterclaim that "it is unclear whether plaintiff/counterclaim defendant Steven Wagner Nichols was involved in the murder of Rhonda Casto," according to a June 2011 opinion written by U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty. If he was, the company said, he may not be entitled to the money under Oregon law.
In October, Haggerty ruled that the $1 million be put in an interest-bearing account under the court's control. MetLife's attorneys agreed that if Nichols was not entitled to the money, it would be given to the couple's daughter.
Casto's mother, Julia Anne Simmons, filed a wrongful-death suit against Nichols that Haggerty dismissed. It was later moved to Multnomah County Circuit Court and put on hold in December because the case is "under review by the Hood River County prosecutor's office," according to court documents.
Nichols is being held without bail in an Oregon jail, and he is scheduled to appear in court March 3. Attempts Thursday by The Associated Press to reach an attorney for Nichols were not immediately successful.
The case has similarities to one in Colorado, where a man was charged with pushing his wife 140 feet from a cliff in Rocky Mountain National Park, where they were hiking in 2012 to celebrate their anniversary.
Harold Henthorn, 58, stood to benefit from three life insurance policies totaling $4.5 million, court documents said.
Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com