`Talk radio is a little bit smaller today without Helga' Nicholls

Westminster woman, a regular caller, is slain

August 16, 2002|By Sheridan Lyons and Athima Chansanchai | Sheridan Lyons and Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Her name was Helga Nicholls. But to listeners of Baltimore talk radio, she was simply "Helga from Westminster."

Just before 10 a.m. Wednesday, she was on the air again, this time calling WCBM's Tom Marr to vent her distrust of the Saudi government. They covered that ground for about three minutes before giving way to the network news.

Less than an hour later Nicholls was dead, stabbed in her kitchen with a butcher knife as she cared for two grandchildren. Her son-in-law was charged in the slaying.

And talk radio mourned a death in its family.

"I'm having a hard time dealing with the fact that she talked to me with just a half-hour or so before she died," Marr said yesterday. "To know that she was on the air and within her home, oh, it's terrible."

Helga from Westminster was without question the best-known caller to Baltimore talk shows, said Allan Prell, the former WBAL-AM morning host who for years played her foil.

"No one even comes close to having the impact that Helga did," Prell said yesterday from Denver, where he is a radio host. "Talk radio is a little bit smaller today without Helga."

For more than a decade she called, called and called again, demanding to be counted in a forum she likened to an "electronic town meeting." Sometimes with a flourish, sometimes with weariness, hosts would introduce the combative but well-informed caller from Carroll County. Often, she'd rail about the liberals, especially the ones named Clinton.

Yesterday Chip Franklin, morning host at WBAL, recalled Nicholls' spirited response to reports that U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was being pressured to stay out of the governor's race because it might ruin his career.

"She was just furious that people would put principle aside for pragmatism, especially when she felt so strongly about getting a Republican into the governor's seat," Franklin said.

A dream caller

Les Kinsolving, of WCBM, called her "a talk-show host's dream. It was always stimulating and fun."

Helga Nicholls, 53, raised two children, loved five grandchildren. She also was a news junkie with strong opinions.

"For somebody who has stuff bottled up, it's a way of venting anger," she said of her talk radio habit in a 1996 interview with The Sun. Fearful that her strong stands might bring a threat to her safety, she agreed to the interview on the condition that her last name not be used.

Her violent death sparked a call-in wake on Baltimore's AM dial yesterday.

Marr's 9 a.m.-to-noon show included a prayer by Kinsolving. The control board lit up with callers offering remembrances.

Up the dial on WBAL, Ron Smith noted her death and Franklin also comforted the shocked and grieving. Among them was David Allen, a Cockeysville salesman who often bantered with Nicholls on the airwaves.

"Helga came on the scene and at first she irritated me, then she captivated me, and then she challenged me and then she won," Allen said yesterday. "Talking with her was like a mental sword fight. She would parry everything you said. We thought along similar lines, but we were like railroad tracks that warped."

Allen read about Nicholls' killing in the morning paper, but he did not tie it to the Helga he knew from the radio until he heard Franklin talking about it.

"I thought, `Oh, my God, not Helga, it can't possibly be," Allen said. He stood in his kitchen and wept.

"There aren't many people I've never met I would cry over if they were killed," he said. "It's a god-awful shame."

Allen called Helga's daughter, Kristine Costley, to offer his condolences yesterday.

"It made me realize how she touched so many people's lives," Costley said.

As family and friends gathered at Costley's Westminster home, the talk turned to her mother's legacy - a family steeped in deeply held spiritual beliefs and versed in political discourse.

She championed racial tolerance; two of her grandchildren are biracial.

"She fought for other people's rights and never held back," said Robert Nicholls, the widowed grandfather who yesterday consoled his daughter and her two children.

Her 12-year-old granddaughter, Brittany Costley, said, "I'll miss never seeing her again. She said so many things that meant so much."

Child witnesses

Brittany, along with her 5-year-old brother, Tyler, was in the Nicholls family home on Old Manchester Road when her grandmother was killed. She ran next door, where a neighbor called police. Kristine Costley's ex-husband, Leon A. Costley Jr., has been charged with first-degree murder.

Police said Leon Costley had been trying to change the court-ordered terms governing visitation with his son. He had at times been under court order to stay away from his then-wife - and from the Nicholls home.

Del. Carmen Amedori, a Carroll County Republican, came to know Helga Nicholls' outspoken, principled ways during the 1998 campaign: "I know she would never back down, or else she would probably be alive today."

Nicholls had a creative side, whether tending her lush garden or painting Christmas ornaments for radio personalities and friends.

She made a plaque for Amedori's Annapolis office. Meant to reflect their shared bent toward fiscal conservatism, it reads "Use it up, wear it out, make it last and do without."

"People often ask me about it," Amedori said. "I say. `That is from Helga.' They always ask, `Helga of Westminster?'"

Sun staff writer Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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