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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

Nicolas once raced the Brookses' Doberman to see who could finish a plate of spaghetti first. "Richard lost," says Charles "Sonny" Shaw, "but it was close."

Getting more serious

As Nicolas entered his mid-20s, he grew more serious about work. He learned to fix copiers and completed his EMT training, and in recent years he has worked days on copiers at Aberdeen Proving Ground and nights at American Ambulance.

The ambulance job was stressful, and he and other medics suffered from a terrible rash on their arms and hands. But he enjoyed flirting with the emergency room clerks and befriending patients.

"I'm very heavy, and I used to apologize to him for how hard it was to pick me up," says Joyce Smith, a dialysis patient who received a card from Nicolas on her 48th birthday.

"He would say, 'It's no trouble,' and make me feel good about it."

Nicolas' passion for the job could create problems. He and a partner were suspended once for chasing after a criminal. On Valentine's Day this year, he jumped out of the ambulance to wrestle with a man who was hitting his girlfriend.

"He went above and beyond," says Griffin. "He was really good at talking to patients, even psychiatric patients."

He had a harder time with his new wife. He had married Deborah Nicolas in a small ceremony in Parkville in 1990. But she did not get along with his Govans friends, and the marriage suffered.

There were other troubles. Deborah Nicolas says her husband was diagnosed in 1992 with clinical depression. And she alleged in their 1993 divorce case that her husband threatened her and struck her repeatedly with his fist.

She was frightened, too, by his hobby: gun collecting. One time during the marriage, one of his guns went off in their apartment, blowing a hole in the wall. Some friends say he was cleaning the gun; others say he was playing with it.

"That was a lesson," says Brooks. "He was more careful with his guns."

After the marriage broke up, Richard Nicolas moved back to Govans. A few months ago, he rented the third floor of 526 Orkney from the Brooks family and turned it into a bachelor pad, only neater. Nicolas scrubbed the smell of his cigarettes out of the carpets, and in his closet he hung clothes of similar colors together, creating a rainbow effect.

Above the dresser were family keepsakes. The program from his mother's funeral. A picture of his dad in a Haitian military uniform. A photograph of a baby girl wearing pink and posed on a white rug.

Aja.

In and out of baby's life

She was 10 pounds, 13 ounces at birth, at a quarter past 11 on a Tuesday morning in January 1994. Esbrand came up with the name Aja (AY-juh) herself, a variation on a Jewish name a patient at Hopkins had suggested.

The next day Nicolas, who had been out of touch during the pregnancy, visited the hospital and held his child.

But after that he didn't see the girl for months. He missed Aja's first word ("Wa Wa," for her uncle Walter), vacations to Trinidad and Canada, and play sessions with her cousin, Danielle.

When Esbrand switched churches for Aja's christening at Nicolas' request, so that an unmarried father could participate in the ceremony, she says he didn't show up.

Aja was a big 2-year-old, and her size gave her confidence to overpower other children with kisses, approach strangers in malls, even boss her mother.

"Whenever we were driving and she saw a McDonald's," says Esbrand, "she would say, very loud, 'Pull in there.' "

Financial difficulties

Esbrand, who worked nights at Hopkins, quickly found it difficult to provide day care for her daughter. She says Nicolas refused to pay child support, so she filed a paternity suit in July 1994. And in October 1995, a judge ordered that $160 be deducted from his paycheck each week for child support.

With the extra money, Esbrand saved enough to buy a home on Frankford Avenue in Northeast Baltimore this spring and fix it up herself.

Since her daughter's death, Esbrand spends hours watching a videotape of Danielle's second birthday party in which Aja dances to West Indian music and helps blow out the candles on the cake.

Danielle's parents have told Esbrand that Aja is with the angels. But she says she sees Aja beside her, kissing her, when she goes to sleep.

Nicolas told friends that the child-support payments had his checking account balance hovering near zero. He had never been good with money -- court records show two federal tax liens, since paid off -- and the IRS was sending him letters again.

But in March, Nicolas saw a television ad and decided he could afford a $15,000 life insurance policy for his daughter, police and friends say.

The Gerber Life Insurance Co. policy, one of the most popular sold by the New York-based insurer, would make him the beneficiary if Aja died.

Police have pointed to the policy as a possible motive for the crime.

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