It’s a real-life case of The Cask of Amontillado, the grisly Edgar Allan Poe tale about a man entombed behind a wall. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, as the saying goes, and the discovery of a human skeleton found behind a fake wall in a Poughkeepsie, New York hoarder’s home this week has re-opened a 30-year-old cold case that’s going to be a doozy for police.
Anyone who grew up in the upstate New York area remembers the case of popular teacher JoAnn Nichols, a 55-year old woman who went missing in December of 1985. The press followed the mystery closely. Joann had vanished, leaving no trace of her whereabouts, and police were unable to find any evidence of foul play.
Her husband, James Nichols, died last year at the age of 82. He’d been questioned extensively by police and reporters back in the 80s, sometimes giving out different versions of the story depending on who he was talking to. In one version, Joann had called him from a pay phone after she disappeared, telling him to say hello to their dogs and saying she was fine. In another, she had left a suicide note. In yet another, she called and told him not to look for her because she didn’t want to be found.
He said he thought she was depressed, and may have committed suicide after she left because she was unable to recover from the earlier drowning death of their 25 year old son who had died three years prior to her disappearance.
Although there were many contradictions in his various stories, Nichols was never arrested or even detained. He would invite reporters and detectives over to his home for tea and cookies, and he’d say that missing her was painful. Still, some of the couple’s neighbors were suspicious. Describing him as a “hoarder,” some said they always knew Joann would be found on or near the premises and described her husband as “odd.”
She was found, tragically, in a large sealed container, tucked away behind a fake wall in the basement of the home she shared with her husband by a contractor who’d been hired to clean out the house. She’d been bound with rope and was curled into a fetal position. There, she was left to become nothing but bones, silently wasting away for almost 30 years. Detectives have ruled her death a homicide caused by blunt force trauma to the head. She was indentified through dental records.
She’d been a popular and much beloved teacher at Gayhead Elementary School in East Fishkill who used to put a red carpet at the door to her classroom because she felt that her students deserved to be treated like stars.
The Poughkeepsie Journal reported that some community members had immediately been suspicious of James Nichols. “JoAnn had that Southern class, she had a sense of refinement to her, so Jim must have been the dominant one,” said James Emigh, a manager at a restaurant the couple frequented. “Once she went missing, our restaurant staff… definitely suspected that he had something to do with it,” Emigh said.
Detectives are calling James Nichols a suspect in the case, and will have to grapple with how to investigate now that he is deceased. An epic tragedy calls for epic justice, but with the prime suspect now dead, the only justice to be found resides in knowing this case may finally be solved.
By: Rebecca Savastio
Source: Poughkeepsie Journal
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald