A tragic case of contradictions Slaying: A father and daughter's first outing alone would be their last. Police say Richard Nicolas killed 2-year-old Aja, but friends say they're certain he didn't.

August 25, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Richard Nicolas' daughter was 2 years old, but they had never spent even a minute alone together. A Friday night outing at Golden Ring Mall would be the first time. He would take Aja to an 8 o'clock movie, "The Adventures of Pinocchio," and return her to her mother. At the last minute, when her mother wavered about letting her go, Aja was insistent.

"Want to see Pinocchio!" the toddler said. "Want to see Pinocchio!"

They saw the movie, but that night, July 26, would be father and daughter's last together. City police say that about 10 p.m., Nicolas took his trusting daughter to an East Baltimore industrial park and shot her through the head.

By Sunday they had booked Nicolas on murder charges.

Even police officers were shaken by the crime. Nicolas' alibi -- that a long-haired male motorist had tapped his bumper and shot into the car from the passenger side -- contradicted physical evidence showing that Aja was struck from the driver's side at close range, police said.

"It would be hard for me to think," a police spokesman inveighed, "of a crime as evil as this."

But in the middle-class North Baltimore neighborhood of Govans, Nicolas' old roommates, longtime buddies and neighbors heard the news and had a different thought.

They called each other, talked over beers at the Irish Sea, and the thought became a certainty.

No way. Not Richard.

In his 31 years, Richard Allen Nicolas had provided few hints that he could be capable of such a crime, according to a search of public documents and interviews with dozens of friends, family members and co-workers.

Nicolas, accused of homicide, made his living saving lives as an emergency medical technician for American Ambulance & Oxygen Service.

He had no criminal record.

Neighbors trusted him with their children, co-workers with the keys to their homes.

He came from an educated background, built a career, and overcame a bad stutter to become talkative and articulate.

A black man, he made whites his closest friends.

And he seemed to revel in life, a fun-loving 6-foot-2, 250-pounder who rode a skateboard up and down Orkney Road.

Friends rally around

A month after his daughter's slaying, Nicolas sits in jail. He is not talking to police and, with a hearing in the case scheduled for tomorrow, has declined a request for an interview.

Friends are raising money for his legal defense, and the acknowledged holes in the police case -- including detectives' inability to recover a weapon or to articulate a clear motive -- give them comfort.

"I'd bet my life that he's innocent," says Michael Griffin, an emergency medical technician who has worked with Nicolas for years.

But even Nicolas' friends acknowledge that his was not a seamless life.

Issues that could have been dismissed earlier -- a possibly abusive marriage before he met Aja's mother, money troubles and an accidental gunshot -- are being considered now, law enforcement sources say.

Nicolas made no threats that Friday night, but Aja's mother, Lisa Esbrand, says she noted strange looks and unreliable behavior.

His manner so unnerved her that -- as he carried her only daughter out the door -- she says she grabbed a pencil and scribbled Nicolas' license plate number on a living room wall.

Despite that, she, too, is mystified how anyone could have shot her 2-year-old.

"Aja was the kindest, most loving child," says Esbrand, 29. "I do not understand what could have happened."

A life by mistake

Aja Amber Alexus Nicolas was conceived on April 10, 1993. It was her parents' first, and only, date. Richard Nicolas had met Esbrand, who was separated from her husband at the time, in the Hopkins emergency room, where she works in the admitting office.

The couple spent the evening party-hopping in Fells Point. Both drank heavily, and Esbrand's memory of what happened at Nicolas' apartment was hazy. The pregnancy came as a surprise, but there was no doubt she would keep the baby.

"I took it as a blessing," she says.

If the two had married, it would have united two families from the Caribbean. Esbrand immigrated to the United States from Trinidad at age 18. Richard was the older of two children from the second marriage of Daniel Nicolas, a Haitian-born architect who taught at the Community College of Baltimore.

He divorced Richard's mother, a teacher named Mary Clegg, when Richard was in grade school.

But both were active in raising the children. The house on Cold Spring Lane was dominated by walls of books, though Nicolas had a soundproof room in the basement that allowed him to play the band Rush as loud as he wanted.

A successful student, Nicolas shocked his parents by dropping out of high school at 17, although he would eventually earn a degree. He tried working as a 911 dispatcher (disastrous because of his stutter), but preferred to hang out with about 20 friends from Govans.

The group, close enough that they still spend Christmas Eve together, would gather at the home of David Brooks' family to play volleyball or smoke pot.

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