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March 1, 2024

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Prosecutor: Sentencing agreement in 1988 double homicide was ‘hardest decision’

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YAKIMA — Jim Nickoloff said one of his childhood memories were the smells in his grandmother Dorothy’s kitchen when he would ride his bike over for lunch on summer days.

He also remembers his grandfather, Mike, teaching him how to roast lamb, and calling him “a real character” when he was joking.

But he and other Nickoloff relatives want Mike and Dorothy Nickoloff, and their family, to no longer be known only as crime victims.

“They lived the American Dream and were an inspiration, strong and loving and generous,” said Marlene Gill, the Nickoloff’s youngest daughter. “Mike and Dorothy Nickoloff should be remembered for the life they built in this Yakima Valley. Our family’s legacy should not be defined by their death, but their life.”

Mike and Dorothy Nickoloff were brutally killed in a home-invasion robbery in 1988 at their Parker residence by two 17-year-olds, a crime that shook Yakima County at the time. It was the last time a local prosecutor asked a jury to send a man to death row.

For the Nickoloffs, it was a chance to seek closure. For the killers — Herbert “Chief” Rice Jr. and Russell Duane McNeil — it means they will not die in prison.

Originally sentenced to two consecutive life-without-parole sentences each, Rice and McNeil were given two concurrent minimum-mandatory sentences of 40 years in prison. It puts their earliest release date five years from now, but they will live for the rest of their lives with the threat of returning to prison should they commit another serious crime.

The sentencing agreement and the back-to-back hearings were the result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that found sending teenagers to prison for life without any possibility of parole violated their constitutional rights.

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A hard decision

Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic, who represented the state in Tuesday’s hearing, said the sentencing agreement he brokered with Rice and McNeil’s attorneys was the result of long, difficult discussions with all parties, including the Nickoloff family.

“I can unequivocally state before this court and the Nickoloff family that this is the hardest decision I have had to make,” Brusic said, referring to the agreement. “Murder cases, personnel decisions pale in comparison to the decision I had to make.”

Rice and McNeil both said they are not the same people they were when they killed the Nickoloffs, and apologized for the harm they caused the family and the community. Others testified of Rice’s work mentoring Native American inmates and embracing the culture of the Colville Reservation.

“I have been in prison for 35 years. My way of giving back to the universe what I have taken is helping people,” Rice said. “I apologize to all of you in this room today.”

Rice and McNeil went to the Nickoloff’s home on Jan. 7, 1988, where they asked to use the phone and the bathroom, according to court documents. After Dorothy Nickoloff let the men in, Rice made a phone call and then stabbed 84-year-old Mike Nickoloff multiple times in the living room.

McNeil, who had asked 74-year-old Dorothy Nickoloff for a glass of water, stabbed her repeatedly. They took two televisions and a pack of cigarettes, using one of the TVs to settle a debt and selling the other for $50.

The men were arrested less than three weeks later and were charged with two counts each of aggravated first-degree murder.

Prosecutors sought the death penalty in the case, and McNeil pleaded guilty as charged to both counts and was sentenced to consecutive life-without-parole sentences.

Rice was convicted in a jury trial. Jurors fell one vote short of a unanimous decision to execute Rice, which meant he also received back-to-back life-without-parole sentences. It would be the last time Yakima County prosecutors sought a death penalty conviction.

Change in law

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such sentences for teenagers were unconstitutional because they violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The high court found that teenagers’ lack of maturity and underdeveloped senses of responsibility should be considered during sentencing for serious crimes.

While the state Supreme Court rejected their appeals, the men had the opportunity to resentenced under a state law that allowed a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for minors convicted of aggravated first-degree murder.

Brusic said he and defense attorneys Rick Smith and Kenneth Therrien worked out the agreement to a 40-year minimum to avoid lengthy court proceedings and highlighting the details of the case again.

“If we could have made this process less impactful, less stressful, we would,” said Smith, who was representing Rice in the proceedings.

Therrien said McNeil, his client, didn’t want to have the Nickoloffs go through the ordeal of a full sentencing hearing again.

Brusic also met multiple times with the Nickoloffs to discuss the agreement, answering any questions and getting their support.

He also conferred with the original prosecutor on the case, former Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Jeff Sullivan. Sullivan, who also served as U.S. Attorney for western Washington, concurred with Brusic, noting the changes in the law.

Jim and Michael Nickoloff, who addressed the court in letters Brusic read during the hearing, called for Yakima County Superior Court Judge Kevin Naught to uphold the agreement and help bring peace to the family.

“Do not interpret our not being here as we are giving up. We are limited by society’s ideals, and maybe rightfully so,” Michael Nickoloff wrote. “We don’t always get what we want, but we usually get what we need. We hope we get what we need.”

Nick Nickoloff, one of Nickoloff’s sons, said he saw one of his objectives as a high-school and college teacher as helping students move from where they are now to where they want to be, achieving their own views of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“I support wholeheartedly, because of what I experience I believe, the agreement we have achieved between the family and the defendants. I hope with all my being that they will see the opportunity and be able to move from where we are now to where the family and the defendants can achieve with the rest of our lives,” Nick Nickoloff said.

Gill, Mike and Dorothy’s daughter, said the agreement would allow the family to avoid further upheaval while honoring her parents’ memory and allowing them to rest.

Earned trust

Rice’s supporters also urged Naught to approve the agreement, saying that he is not the same person he was at 17. Today, Rice is an advocate for Native Americans in the state’s prison system as well as a mentor for others behind bars.

Gabriel Galanda, an attorney and chairman of the Indigenous prisoners’ rights group Huy — a Lushootseed word meaning “See you again” and pronounced “Hoyt” — worked with Rice to ensure Native American ceremonies such as sweat lodges, drumming and powwows could continue in prison, and that children would be allowed to participate in ceremonies with their incarcerated relatives.

Such ceremonies, Galanda said, are vital to rehabilitating prisoners, as evidenced by how Rice had turned his life around and has the hard-earned trust of prison officials.

“I have come to known hundreds of prisoners, and certainly hundreds of indigenous prisoners,” Galanda said. “There is no more of an honorable man than Chief Rice. There’s nobody I trust more in my line of work than Chief Rice.”

He said Rice has also worked with other Indigenous prisoners, helping them connect to their culture and learn not to make the same mistakes he did that brought him to prison.

Shelly Boyd, a citizen of the Colville Reservation, said she first became acquainted with Rice when her nephew was sent to the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla on an armed-robbery charge. Rice, she said, kept her nephew out of trouble during his three-year sentence, and her nephew has stayed out of trouble since.

Rice has fully embraced his Colville culture, learning the complex Interior Salish language and sending beadwork and other crafts he does to be used for the giveaways at salmon ceremonies.

She said Rice told her he credited his rehabilitation to a Native elder he met when he was first imprisoned. That elder, she said, taught Rice that he could still choose who he was going to be, even with the prospect of being in prison for the rest of his life.

Brenda Hovis Fisher, Rice’s childhood friend who testified on his behalf at his first trial, said Rice never had a mentor in his youth and was neglected by his family as a child. She said her family regretted not adopting Rice and possibly heading off the tragedy of the Nickoloffs’ killings.

But she said when she reconnected with Rice years later, she was impressed with how he had turned his life around in prison.

“He has accomplished more than people do on the outside,” Fisher said.

Therrien said McNeil had no one left from his family to speak on his behalf at the hearing, but said that reports from prison and an evaluation show McNeil likewise turned himself around. He was twice elected as an inmate representative at the Airway Heights Corrections Facility, which Therrien said is a rare occurrence.

He said McNeil also wanted to be transported back to the Airway Heights prison as soon as possible after the hearing so he would not lose his prison job.

As a child, McNeil experienced “an environment of violence, degradation and poverty,” Therrien said. But he has, like Rice, become a mentor for others in prison.

“Words are words, but actions are actions,” Therrien said. “By (McNeil’s) actions, by his change of behavior and his understanding of what happened to him that led to that horrible moment with the Nickoloffs, he is not going to relapse into that.”

Rice, turning at times to face the Nickoloff family and others in the courtroom gallery, said he carries tremendous guilt and remorse for what he did to both the Nickoloffs and the community.

McNeil said that the Nickoloffs did not deserve to die the way they did, and he could not ask forgiveness for doing something as unforgivable as killing them.

“There are no words I can speak that will restore the harm I did,” McNeil said.

Therrien said McNeil no longer celebrates Christmas because of the holiday’s proximity to the anniversary of the killings, and it reminds him how the Nickoloffs no longer have Mike and Dorothy with them to celebrate.

Second chance

Naught, who had read the entire transcript of Rice’s trial, agreed with the sentencing recommendation, but struggled with the question of whether the two were impulsive teenagers at the time of the killings.

“(Rice) and Mr. McNeil made these plans, decided who would kill whom, set up the ruse,” Naught said. “That is not being impetuous. That is being calculated.”

They also knew that the Nickoloffs were older and vulnerable when they went over, deliberately armed with knives, Naught said.

As far as peer pressure, Naught said sentencing reports on each man accused the other of pressuring them into the crime.

But Naught did commend the men for the efforts they have made to change their lives, despite knowing at that time they would spend the rest of their lives in prison. He also said the fact that they came back to Yakima County to admit they were wrong was something he took note of as well.

While the men cannot change what happened in the past, they were getting a second chance to help others, an opportunity Naught said they denied the Nickoloffs.

Even though the men could be released in five years under the terms of the sentence, they will still be under the jurisdiction of the state Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board for the rest of their lives.

The agreement leaves it to the board’s discretion how long each man will be under direct supervision, but Brusic said it means that if they commit another serious crime, they will go back to prison on the murder charges as well.

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