Trial to begin in killing of radio caller

`Helga from Westminster' was stabbed in Aug. 2002

Former son-in-law charged

Defendant has entered not guilty, insanity pleas

Carroll County

October 06, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

It has been 14 months since Baltimore talk-radio listeners heard the last politically charged comments offered by "Helga from Westminster." Today, the man accused of killing her is to go on trial.

Helga Nicholls' former son-in-law is to stand trial on first-degree murder and weapons charges in Carroll County Circuit Court. Leon A. Costley Jr., accused of stabbing to death the woman who was described as the best-known caller to Baltimore talk-radio programs, has filed pleas of not guilty and not criminally responsible by reason of insanity.

Nicholls, who usually took the conservative side on issues, was known in Baltimore radio circles for her spirited - and frequent - calls to talk shows.

"The shows do go on, but she's certainly not forgotten," WCBM's Tom Marr said last week.

On the first anniversary of her death, Aug. 14, he received a message from a listener that brought back good, and bad, memories.

"She was legendary," Marr said, adding: "There's the e-mail that reminds you it's been a year, the occasional callers who still mention her name, and it all brings to light the horror of her ending."

Nicholls, 53, had called Marr's show on a Wednesday morning to air her misgivings about the Saudi government. Within an hour, she was dead.

She had been baby-sitting her granddaughter, Brittany Costley, 12, and the girl's brother, Tyler, 5, in her home on Old Manchester Road, just outside Westminster city limits. When Leon Costley walked into the house, the children were upstairs, according to charging documents.

When the children heard sounds of struggle, the girl ran down the stairs and saw her grandmother being strangled, then stabbed, the charging documents state. The girl ran next door to call police.

State police handled the call as a hostage situation. But within an hour, a tactical team entered the house and arrested Costley as he walked down a flight of stairs near the front door. He had blood on his clothes, charging documents state.

Costley's son was found unharmed upstairs. Troopers found Nicholls in the kitchen, dead from apparent stab wounds, police said. Court records show that police recovered a small, folding buck knife believed to have been used in the attack.

Leon Costley had been trying to change the court-ordered terms governing visitation of his son, police said. Costley, who was divorced in June last year from Nicholls' daughter Kristina Costley, had been ordered to stay away from his estranged wife, court records show. The day of the killing, he had failed to appear in court in a case stemming from an incident in which his wife's tires were punctured, court records show.

News of Nicholls' death touched off a call-in wake on Baltimore's AM dial. Talk-show hosts, and callers with whom she had sparred, paid tribute.

Former WBAL radio host Allan Prell said then: "Talk radio is a little bit smaller today without Helga."

Costley has been held without bail at the Carroll County Detention Center since his arrest.

After Costley filed his insanity plea, Carroll Circuit Judge Michael M. Galloway ordered a psychiatric evaluation. An initial examination by Robert Katz, a psychologist with the state health department, stated that Costley understood the crime he was charged with, but he "may have had a mental disorder that affected his criminal responsibility and therefore requires more extensive evaluation."

The results of that evaluation are sealed, court officials said last week.

If Costley is convicted of first-degree murder, prosecutors will seek a sentence of life in prison with no chance for parole, said Jerry F. Barnes, state's attorney for Carroll County.

Kristina Costley said, "That's the justice we want, but nothing is going to be enough to bring her back."

Costley said it has been a difficult year since her mother died.

The worst month for her family, she said, was March, when relatives usually celebrated her and her mother's birthday, and her parents' anniversary. She said her mother's Americana-style woodwork decorations are a constant reminder of her absence.

Costley's children, now 13 and 7, were scarred by the trauma of seeing their grandmother attacked, she said.

"The kids have a lot of fear. They hear noises and are constantly checking on me and each other," she said.

But they are prepared to testify, she said, adding, "It may be a healing process, they can tell on him and not face retaliation."

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