Westminster man is accused of killing ex-mother-in-law, holding son hostage

August 15, 2002|By Athima Chansanchai and Sheridan Lyons | Athima Chansanchai and Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

A 37-year-old Westminster man is accused of fatally stabbing his ex-mother-in-law and holding his 5-year-old son hostage for about an hour yesterday before police arrested him and rescued the child, authorities said.

Leon A. Costley Jr., was being held last night at the Carroll County Detention Center in the death of 53-year-old Helga Nicholls, also of Westminster. He is charged with first- and second-degree murder.

Costley, who was divorced in June from Nicholls' daughter, had at one time been under court order to stay away from his then-mother-in-law's house, according to court records.

This year, he was ordered to stay away from his estranged wife, Kristine Costley. He failed to appear in court yesterday in a case stemming from an incident in which her tires were punctured, court records show.

Leon Costley had been trying to change the court-ordered terms governing visitation of his son, police said.

About 10:45 a.m. yesterday, a neighbor of Helga Nicholls called police and alerted them of an apparent hostage situation at Nicholls' house in the 1600 block of Old Manchester Road. The neighbor, Barbara S. Reed, said that a 12-year-girl - Nicholls' granddaughter and Kristine Costley's daughter - ran to her house and said that her younger brother was being held hostage next door.

"She came to the door and said, `My grandmother's been stabbed,'" Reed said. "She said she came to the living room and heard her grandmother screaming like she'd never heard before."

After posting a roadblock at Routes 27 and 482, about a mile from the house, officers called Leon Costley on the phone, said Lt. Bud Frank, a police spokesman. "He wanted everyone to go away," Frank said.

Within an hour, a tactical team entered the two-story house and arrested Costley as he walked down a flight of stairs near the front door, Frank said.

Costley's son was found upstairs and unharmed. "Boy, am I glad to see you," the boy told members of the tactical team, according to state police.

Troopers searched the house and found Nicholls in the kitchen, dead from apparent stab wounds, police said. Police said they recovered a knife believed to have been used in the attack, but they would not describe it or say whether it came from the house.

Reed said Helga Nicholls, and her husband, Robert Nicholls, a plant maintenance supervisor for Carroll County schools, had lived in the neighborhood for 13 years.

"She was a very talented lady. I'll miss her," Reed said of her neighbor. She said Nicholls was an amateur painter who spent hours at a time on crafts. In Reed's yard is a depiction of Uncle Sam that Nicholls painted on a wooden stick with the words "God Bless America."

Reed said that Nicholls also loved gardening. The Nicholls' screened front porch overlooked a garden with flowers and plants of all varieties.

Nicholls stayed home during the day and cared for her daughter's two children, the Reeds said. At night, Kristine Costley would pick the children up and return them to the family's home in the western Westminster neighborhood of The Greens, the neighbors said.

Court records describe a stormy relationship between Leon and Kristine Costley.

The two were married in June 1995 and separated in September 2000, when Kristine Costley accused her then-husband of assault and obtained an order that required him to leave their home and stay away from there and from her parents' house, according to court files.

In March 2001, Kristine Costley accused Leon Costley of violating the protective order by threatening her over the phone, saying, "What would happen to the kids if something were to happen to you?" according to court records. She said he later said to her "Remember what happened in Ellicott City?" - referring to an incident in which a husband fatally shot his estranged wife in a courthouse parking lot.

In November, she accused him of violating the protective order by puncturing her tires in the parking lot at a youth football game where her daughter was a cheerleader.

In February, he was found not guilty of violating the order, but was convicted of vandalism and given a suspended 60-day sentence.

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