Family in Carroll left reeling after second tragedy

Son's death follows murder of mother


November 19, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

As the jury inside deliberated the fate of his mother's accused killer, Bob Nicholls stood in the October sunshine with his family and friends. He flicked his cigarettes constantly, and then he hopped on his motorcycle for a spin around the block to release some of the tension.

When a guilty verdict was returned, he hugged his father and sister tight, and they cried. They seemed to be a step closer to rebuilding their lives.

But on Sunday, two weeks shy of his 33rd birthday, Robert Vernon Nicholls Jr. died in a motorcycle accident.

"We'd just started healing," his only sister, Kristina Costley, said yesterday. "But to go through another horrible thing, another senseless death within a year and a half, I'm at a loss for words as to what my emotions are."

Costley and her younger brother were the only children of Robert Nicholls Sr. and his wife, Helga, a Westminster woman known for her frequent calls to Baltimore talk radio programs. Helga Nicholls was stabbed to death at her Westminster home in August last year by her former son-in-law, Leon A. Costley Jr., who awaits sentencing. Prosecutors said that Leon Costley blamed Nicholls for the breakup of his marriage and the estrangement of his two children, who witnessed their grandmother's death.

Robert Nicholls Jr. was a computer technician whose hobbies included working on his motorcycle and playing drums, said his wife, Tammy.

His mother's death hit him hard, she said, adding, "She was the one in the family that kept everyone communicating."

About a year after the killing, members of the Nicholls family and their friends endured a four-day trial and four hours of deliberations before a Carroll County jury found Leon Costley guilty of first- and second-degree murder.

"He was relieved that the family was going to have closure," Tammy Nicholls said of her husband yesterday as she choked back tears. "His dad was making a good effort to be closer to him, and it was making [Robert Nicholls Jr.] very happy his children were getting to see his dad."

The last step, the family said it had believed, was the sentencing scheduled for Jan. 7. They were not prepared for another sudden loss so soon.

"It's a senseless death because it wasn't like he was sick," Kristina Costley said. "It's almost on the same level as my mother."

Nicholls was killed Sunday afternoon, police said, after his 1999 Suzuki motorcycle crashed into the driver's side door of a 2002 Honda Accord. Nicholls was one of three motorcyclists - including his brother-in-law and a friend from high school - riding westbound on Route 31 when the driver of the Accord attempted to make a U-turn. The car's driver told state police that he did not see Nicholls behind him when he pulled over to the shoulder to attempt the turn.

The accident occurred in the Englars Mill subdivision near the intersection of Route 31 and Sams Creek Road.

Nicholls was treated at the scene by New Windsor medical personnel before being taken to Carroll Hospital Center, where he died of internal injuries less than an hour after the collision.

Kristina Costley said that the family went to the hospital to say goodbye to her brother. Tammy Nicholls, 31, traveled from the couple's Frederick home with their three daughters - 4-year-old twins and a 2-year-old. Robert Nicholls Sr. also joined his family at his son's hospital bed.

Although family members said they feel a sense of anger about the latest loss, Kristina Costley said that their religious beliefs would buoy them, as they did in the aftermath of her mother's death.

"Because we have a very strong faith in God, we'll get through this," she said. "It's not going to be easy. In fact, it's going to be very hard, but we have a lot of friends and family."

The family had tried to discourage Nicholls from riding his motorcycle, said Kristina Costley, especially after a serious accident in 2001 that caused one of his lungs to collapse and required him to receive skin grafts.

"He almost died. He was given a second chance," Costley said. "He stayed off the motorcycle for a while, but he was able to get back on it. We hated that motorcycle, but it was his passion."

Tammy Nicholls said that after the 2001 accident, her husband became more safety-conscious and always wore protective gear. She said he was a devoted family man who had many friends.

She said that the couple's life had begun to take a positive turn. Nicholls had found his career niche as a computer technician at Bechtel doing what he loved: fixing things and helping people. They were getting ready to move to a new house in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where their girls would attend private school. They still will, she said.

A memorial service is expected to be scheduled for this week.

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