Man is handed life sentence in fatal stabbing

Former mother-in-law was killed in August 2002

`This is going to bring closure'

Victim was a fixture on local talk radio

Westminster

May 13, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

A Carroll County man was sentenced yesterday to life in prison without the possibility of parole in the stabbing death of his former mother-in-law, who was a fixture on local talk radio known as "Helga from Westminster."

Leon A. Costley Jr., 39, showed little emotion as Carroll County Circuit Judge Michael M. Galloway imposed the sentence. On the other side of the courtroom, the victim's husband, Robert V. Nicholls Sr., and their daughter, Kristina Costley, wrapped their arms around each other and cried.

"This is going to bring closure a lot quicker now," Nicholls said after the two-hour hearing. "After today I can stop locking my doors when I'm in the house."

On the hot morning of Aug. 14, 2002, state troopers responded to a hostage situation in the 1600 block of Old Manchester Road, just outside Westminster. Inside, Helga Nicholls, 53, was dead, the victim of more than a dozen stab wounds and severe head wounds, according to trial testimony.

Within an hour, a tactical team had entered the two-story house and arrested Costley as he walked down a flight of stairs near the front door. The officers found 5-year-old Tyler Costley unharmed upstairs. The boy later testified that he saw his father stab his grandmother.

Costley's daughter Brittany, then 12, called police from a neighbor's house, where she had fled after witnessing the attack.

A jury convicted Costley of first-degree murder and weapons offenses in October.

During the four-day trial, prosecutors showed jurors evidence that the unemployed Costley test drove a truck and bought a butcher knife at Target before going to the Nicholls home, where his children were staying during the day.

According to testimony, Costley was trying to visit his children, from whom he was estranged after a divorce from their mother. Prosecutors said he blamed his in-laws for the breakup of his marriage.

When the verdict was read last year, Robert Nicholls held his daughter and his son, Robert V. Nicholls Jr., as they wept. The family said they wanted to move on, but a month later, the family was in mourning again when 32-year-old Robert V. Nicholls Jr. was killed in a motorcycle accident.

Helga Nicholls made her last talk radio call to WCBM's Tom Marr on the morning of her death. Former WBAL radio host Allan Prell said then, "Talk radio is a little bit smaller today without Helga."

Yesterday, her husband and daughter made emotional statements to Galloway, asking for a life sentence for Costley.

"Since Aug. 14, 2002, the day my wife was murdered, nothing has been the same," said Nicholls, who struggled to finish his statement.

He said he had gone through all the emotions of losing his wife of 33 years. "First comes anger. Then revenge. Then the loss of what was a part of you. Then the long road of trying to make sense out of all of this," he said.

His daughter sobbed as her father read his statement, then took her turn in front of the judge.

"I want Brittany to stop having nightmares. I want Tyler to stop having anger tantrums and flashbacks to seeing his father hurt his grandmother. I want my father to not hurt so much. My heart breaks for my father," Kristina Costley said.

Kristina Costley married Costley in June 1995. They separated in September 2000, when she accused him of assault. She obtained a court order requiring him to leave their home and to stay away from her parents' house, according to records.

Leon Costley apologized to the Nicholls family yesterday.

"I know you don't believe me, but I am truly sorry," he said. "I wish I could take back what I did to Helga Nicholls. It's something I have to live with for the rest of my life. I know it's going to be hard to forgive me for what I did. ... I'm not a bad person. I'm a good person. I'm a good father to my kids. I love them with all of my heart."

Costley's father, Leon A. Costley Sr., also made a brief statement in court.

"I know what my son did was wrong. I feel sorry for their family, and I feel sorry for my family, especially my two grandchildren, who I'll probably never see again," the senior Costley said. "My son is not a monster. He was a good son. She was a good daughter-in-law until all this happened. ... Punish him for what he did, but don't put him away in a dungeon. Give him another chance."

Prosecutors argued that the only option for Costley was life in prison, but defense attorney George Psoras Jr. asked the judge to consider life in prison with all but 40 years suspended.

In explaining his sentence, Galloway said, "I believe there are times that the nature of an act is so horrific, so monstrous that even as a person who commits such an act is not a monster, the act itself cries out for punishment and for retribution."

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