OLYMPIA — A jury found a Thurston County man guilty of first-degree murder Wednesday in the killing a 34-year-old woman and her 4-year-old daughter.
Sheriff’s deputies arrested Nicholas Denham, 31, on March 12, 2020, two days after Charlene Van Auken and her daughter, Zoey Peetz, were found dead near Tolmie State Park in northeast Thurston County.
On Wednesday, a nearly two-month-long trial ended with the jury finding Denham guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, five counts of unlawful possession of a firearm, first-degree burglary, three counts of theft of a firearm and discharging a firearm or weapon in a public space.
The Thurston County Coroner’s Office previously determined Van Auken died of a contact gunshot wound to the head. Her daughter also had a gunshot wound to the head, according to court documents.
In a statement, Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim thanked the jury for their service. He said the Thurston County Sherriff’s Office worked diligently to prove this case “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“As the community continues to grieve the loss of Charlene and Zoey, we hope this verdict provides some closure and justice for their families and everyone impacted,” Tunheim said.
Separately, the Thurston County Sherriff’s Office released a statement, saying detectives worked closely with the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to thoroughly investigate the homicide.
“This senseless act forever impacted the family and friends of these victims, our community and our first responders,” the statement says. “We are grateful for the efforts of Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim and his staff, and the selfless service of the men and women of this jury.”
Denham is scheduled to be sentenced on May 2, according to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
Court documents describe the investigation into Denham from the perspective of law enforcement.
A couple walking their dogs found the bodies of Van Auken and Peetz at about 6:30 p.m. March 10 on a trail in the 5700 block of Puget Beach Road Northeast. The couple called 911.
Detectives determined the bodies were dumped at the scene and began working to identify the bodies based on tattoos and nearby evidence, according to a memorandum from the state.
Eventually, detectives contacted Peetz’s father and learned Van Auken had recently restarted a dating relationship with Denham.
Denham had been convicted of felonies in the past, according to court documents, including second-degree burglary and intimidating a witness. He also was the respondent in a protection order.
Detectives learned Denham previously lived directly across the street from where the bodies were found. But the management company of the apartment complex said Denham moved out in December 2019.
Denham’s parents told detectives their son showed up at their home on March 9. During that visit, he asked his father if he had installed cameras and whether he had any bleach or gas, according to court documents.
His father reportedly replied they did not have any and asked why, to which Denham replied he needed some.
In another interview, a friend told detectives Denham had been to her apartment the next day and took off his shoes, put them in a trash bag, and walked them to the dumpster. He then took a shower and threw all his clothes in her washing machine.
On March 11, the memorandum says the friend drove Denham to Interlake Grocery store, on Mullen Road near Woodland Elementary School, on her way to work. She last saw him at about 8:50 a.m. walking down Mullen Road Southeast.
Detectives found Van Auken’s car parked near Lacey Elementary School, which was within walking distance to the friend’s apartment, according to court documents.
Inside the car, detectives reportedly found heavy blood stains, Peetz’s car seat and a bullet hole in the back rest of the car seat. They also found a .40-caliber bullet casing.
Investigators determined Peetz was shot while buckled into her car seat behind the driver’s seat.
Video surveillance from the area showed the car arriving at the location in the early morning hours of March 10. In videos, a person could be seen walking away from the vehicle toward the friend’s apartment.
On March 12, a warrant was issued for Denham’s arrest and deputies located him. After initially running away from police, court records says Denham put his hands in the air and was “arrested without further incident.”
Denham’s ex-girlfriend told police he had trespassed in her home and stolen three firearms and cash from her on Feb. 5, 2020. She subsequently obtained a protection order against him.
A forensic analysis linked one of the stolen firearms to the murders and a reported shooting from March 1, 2020. Lacey police responded to that shooting and found a bullet hit the Cedar Inn Tavern on Martin Way, where Denham’s ex-girlfriend worked.
On March 6, 2021, Denham’s ex-wife and his father located two handguns in a bag near the scene where the bodies were found nearly a year earlier. They went looking for them because Denham had alluded to them in letters he sent while he was in custody, according to court records.
In April 2020, detectives learned Denham had orchestrated a failed scheme to have a bailed-out inmate send fake letters to detectives, his initial defense attorney and himself.
The letters reportedly indicated someone else named J killed Van Auken and Peetz and demanded Denham be released. The court records say J threatened to kill more people if he didn’t get his way.
Denham also reportedly wrote coded letters he shared with another inmate. When deciphered, detectives learned the letters were written from the point of view of someone confessing to the murders.
The inmate reportedly passed information to his girlfriend indicating where some pieces of clothing, an empty backpack and checkbook belonging to Van Auken were later located.
In a March 21 interview with detectives, Denham reportedly confessed to writing the letters. He did so, records indicate, in an attempt to create “reasonable doubt” he murdered Van Auken and Peetz.