An Oregon man accused of killing his girlfriend on a hiking trip in Columbia River Gorge six years ago has pleaded not guilty on Monday.
The incident occurred on March 16, 2009. Stephen Nichols, 40, and Rhonda Casto, 23, were hiking through a steep, narrow path along the Eagle Creek Trail when Casto fell 100 feet to her death, Oregon Live reported.
According to court documents, Nichols later tried to collect on a $1 million life insurance policy that he and Casto each bought in late 2008 from MetLife, but failed. He then sued the company after it claimed the policy was void because of omissions on the application.
Although Nichols was reportedly not initially considered a suspect in Casto's death, he was secretly indicted by a grand jury on April 18, 2014, according to court documents. He was arrested in February at the San Francisco International Airport after returning from China and is currently being held at the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility without bail.
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Nichols and Casto became romantically involved in 2005, court records show. They had a daughter, who is now 6 years old. The daughter was named as the contingent beneficiary of the $1 million life insurance policy the couple bought.
It is not clear who has custody of the girl, The Oregonian reports.
In a June 2011 opinion written by U.S. District Court Judge Ancer Haggerty, MetLife stated that “it is unclear whether plaintiff/counterclaim defendant Steven Wagner Nichols was involved in the murder of Rhonda Casto. If he was, he may not be entitled to the $1,000,000 in proceeds due under the Policy pursuant to Oregon's slayer statute, ORS 112.455-112.555."
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Haggerty ruled in October that the $1 million claim be “deposited in an interest-bearing account with the court." The claim would become payable to Casto’s daughter if Nichols is proven ineligible to receive it.
According to authorities, the trail Casto and Nichols were hiking features wire cables and pipe handrails so hikers can safely navigate through it.
“The trail is very steep and narrow there, and it’s been pretty wet and slippery,” Hood River County Sheriff’s Deputy Matt English said at the time. “There was still snow on the ground down near the parking lot.”
“I think about her last moments, and what she was thinking when she fell,” Casto’s mother, Julia Anne Simmons, told FOX 12 at the time of her daughter’s death. “How she's not going to get to see her daughter take her first steps. And how I'm never going to get to see my daughter again.”
Nichols is expected to appear in court again in May or June 2016.
Photo Credit: Via Oregon Live