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June 20, 2024 51 mins

When Michelle gets a knock on her door one day in 2017, her life—and the lives of her loved ones—will be forever changed. What she learns that day will send her and her beloved sister down a harrowing and unforeseen path.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Family Secrets is a production of iHeartRadio.

Speaker 2 (00:04):
This episode contains descriptions of sexual assault. Listener discretion is advised.

Speaker 1 (00:13):
There were things that were spoken about and things that weren't.
There were ways we acted in public in ways that
we didn't. The house had to be cleaned before we
could have anyone over. My mom had a phone voice
and a regular voice. We were encouraged to make up
white lies to get out of uncomfortable social situations and
always present our best selves to teachers, friends, and especially boys,

only allowing the uglier parts of our personality to come
out in private. I was ready to break that pattern.
No more lies, no more pretending.

Speaker 2 (00:47):
That's Michelle Horton, writer and advocate, author of Dear Sister,
a memoir of secrets, survival, and unbreakable bonds. Perhaps all
secrets are dangers, but Michelle's story is about the most
dangerous kind of secret, the kind where life itself is

on the line. It's also a story about tremendous courage, tenacity,
and sisterly love. And it has a happy ending. I promise.

I'm Danny Shapiro, and this is Family Secrets. The secrets
that are kept from us, the secrets we keep from
others and the secrets we keep from ourselves.

Speaker 1 (01:50):
So I grew up in the nineties early two thousands
in the Hudson Valley of New York, which is positioned
like halfway between New York City and Allpany. It was,
you know, cul the sac kind of neighborhood where everyone
kind of had two kids in a dog situation, including
my family. It was me and my little sister, Nikki,

she was born a little over two years after me.
To me, seemed very normal, you know, a breadwinning dad
and a mom who stayed at home and then did
odds and ends to make ends meet. We always had
somebody home with us, We always had food on the table,
involved in activities like dance and gymnastics. Everything from the

outside just seemed very normal. My dad grew up in
a tough environment where he was bullied. He spent a
lot of time working and was kind of emotionally checked out.
But it was who every weekend with us, and to
the best of his capabilities, he showed up for us
in ways that I know his parents didn't show up

for him. So I think from his perspective, he was,
you know, just mile above what his family was able
to do for him as a kid, and I think
he just te did his best. He was very in
love with my mom and just completely enamored with her
our whole lives. My mom is a very warm person.

She was very easy to get along with. She loved
us intensely. We were kind of her world. She always
said she felt like her purpose in life was to
birth us. She didn't have great career aspirations, she didn't
think very highly of herself as far as her own life.
She really gave everything she could to us and in

some ways kind of lived through us.

Speaker 2 (03:38):
So growing up with Nikki, what was your relationship like
as sisters?

Speaker 1 (03:43):
But we were very young we were close playmates, and
then as we got older we were always close in proximity,
but emotionally we were not. There was like teasing and rivalry,
and again, to me, it was all in the realm
of what's normal, Like you're wearing my shirt, take off

my shirt, you know that's my toy. Kind of to me,
typical sibling kind of dynamic. And then we've definitely drifted apart.
During our teenage years. We just had our own social circles,
our own lives. I was very outward focused. I looked
out for validation. I looked out for my goals and

my dreams. And I really had this sense that if
I could just be an A plus student and do
all the right things and get the right internships and
the right jobs, and I can just plan and control
my life how I wanted it to be. So I
was very tenacious, and I had ten year plans down
to like the year, and I just had a tight
grip on what I wanted my future v and I

was kind of tunnel vision as far as what I
wanted for myself. That probably contributed to our distance, because
you know, I just was really like focused on getting
out and doing big things. And we were both good kids,
you know, like we didn't really get into drugs and alcohol,
we didn't get into trouble at school, we got good grades.

I was really focused on my career what I wanted
to do. She always wanted to have babies and be
a mom. And she was just quieter. I mean, we
were both pretty quiet, but she was quieter, more timid.
We both kind of had internal lives that we were
focused on and that we didn't totally share with each other,

you know, looking back now, I know, but she was
struggling with as a kid at the time, I didn't.
I just thought she just kept to herself. She didn't
share a lot about her likes and her dreams and
her thoughts. You know, she was just a very private person.
I went away to college when she was in high school.
The family really fell apart, not because I left, just

who knows, just for a lot of reasons. Everything fell apart,
and I kind of left my sister with a lot
to handle on her own. My parents separated. We were
very distant during those times, and then I had my
son right out of college. I was twenty two, and
Nicky showed up for me in a huge way. She

was in college at the time, locally to where I
was living, and just babysat all the time, and really
showed up in a way that was different than we
had in the past. We stopped bickering, we stopped fighting,
we became friends. And then four years later she had
a baby, and it really was motherhood. I think we

both really became more ourselves through a motherhood and we
realized we liked each other and we helped each other,
and I think that's when we really started to form
a bond through the lens of motherhood. Her showing up
for me during that time was really a continuation for
how she only showed up for me since my son

was born. She was someone I could rely on and
she was just always there for me, and I definitely
confided in her a lot. When you speaking of secrets,
you know, I was married to someone who had a
crippling addiction, and it took a long time for me
to even say that out loud and to call in
help for my family for a variety of reasons. And

once I did, she never judged, she never lectured me.
She was just there for me. So when it all
fell apart and I knew I had to get out
of that situation because it was getting dangerous, she was
one of the first people I went to and she
really did help me through that.

Speaker 2 (07:39):
Did you know that your husband had an addiction or
was that something that sort of crept up on you.
Was it like frog and boiling water territory or was
it you knew and you just kept it to yourself
for as long as you could.

Speaker 1 (07:51):
I think both. I think it did come out of
nowhere for me, as far as he had a prescription
from a doctor and that prescription got pulled when he
was showing signs of dependency, and then he was moving
into street drugs and he let me in enough to
know there was a problem, but he still kept a
lot for me. So it took many years of kind

of unraveling the truth of how deep his addiction was
and how bad things really were. And in that time period,
it was like, am I overreacting? Maybe this isn't that
big of a deal. Maybe the lies he's telling you
are true, you know, in that sense, I kind of like,
wasn't making a big deal about it. And then when
it got to the level of multiple car accidents and

he's in and out of the hospital because he's you know,
crushing his pills and snorting them, and you can't breathe
in the middle of the night, and I'm pretty sure
he's going to die any day, and my bank account
is being siphoned, and it got to an extreme level
where I had to let people in because he was
going to die.

Speaker 2 (08:52):
And was Nikki among the first people that you let
in during that period of time.

Speaker 1 (08:56):
Definitely, her and my mom were some of the people
that I went to because, you know, we shared a
life they were helping me with my son, and they
were around my ex a lot, and it was becoming
obvious as something was very wrong.

Speaker 2 (09:15):
It's early twenty seventeen. Michelle has extricated herself from this
difficult relationship and is raising her son Noah as a
single mom. But she's not alone in it. She has
the help and support of her sister and her mother,
along with her tight knit community in the Hudson Valley.
She also works at a well known retreat center called

the Omega Institute, one of the most perfect places to
land after a chaotic time.

Speaker 1 (09:43):
Omega Institute is this beautiful kind of oasis in Rhinebeck,
New York. Just the grounds itself are special. There's this
healing energy that's there that is I mean, I don't
even want to sound woo woo, it's palpable when you're there.
That there is just a real connection to nature and
a connection to community that's there, And from what I

experience working there, it really transfers in the people who
work there. It's just a really beautiful, holistic environment where
they see the whole of people and situations and their
mission driven. So everyone's there because they want to do
good work. In the world, and truly, if you're in
a crisis, there's not a better place on earth you
could be. It was just this cradle for me when

I both like in the crisis of needing to get
an order of protection against my husband and separating and
all of that like chaos that I was dealing with,
I was really getting on my feet for the first
time in many years just getting out of that relationship.
It really felt like there was like a frequency that
was clearing, and I was becoming more attuned to myself

and my own needs and my own wants and healing.
In a way, Omega really introduced me to all of
these other healing modalities I never would have considered, and
I was very committed to meditation and checking in with
myself and paying attention and being mindful. It was just
kind of like an emergence of myself after that relationship ended,

and I was just so excited for my future and
I felt so hopeful that this was my time to
step into myself fully. And then in September, the end
of September, just an ordinary day, I'm going to Omega,
my son's getting ready for school. There's a very loud
and aggressive knock on my door and I open it

and there's a police officer standing there, and I'm sure
that it means my husband's dead, because of course it does,
like this is everything in my life was leading up
to my husband dying and a police officer telling me that.
He then instead says that my sister is at the
police station and we have to get her children, who

are two and four, and they give no information other
than that, and I'm just kind of thrown into this
day of complete uncertainty of what the hell is going on,
like why is my sister at the police station and
what is happening? And no one's giving us any information.
And by the end of the day, it's revealed to

me through my mom that my sister killed her partner, Chris,
someone I knew very well and the father of the
two kids, and she's arrested and potentially going to be
church with murder. I was shocked. There was nothing that
could have been crazier to me at the time, knowing

my sister, I knowing Chris, and you know, all this
normalness that we had. I was the one with all
the problems, you know, Now, all of a sudden we're
in this family crisis, and it's like reality is flipped
on its head. I felt completely groundless and numb and
just like sheets of adrenaline. That is kind of what

the physical sensations were like. And my mind was just
constantly spinning trying to make sense of it. I couldn't
come up with the like how she would have done it,
why she would have done it? Nothing made sense, Like
there was no narrative I could put to it that
made sense. So I kind of was just living in
this space of openness of well, someone's gonna tell me

at some point make this make sense, because me trying
to imagine what this is is not possible. So I'm
just going to kind of put one foot in front
of the other and completely and utterly present because there
was no reality on either side, Like everything in my
past and everything in the future was completely obsolete, and
I was just living in this strange reality where I

knew nothing.

Speaker 2 (13:52):
We'll be right back. Nicky didn't allow very many people in.

She didn't let a lot of people get too close
to her, but she had mentioned a friend she'd made
named Elizabeth. Michelle isn't sure how close Nicky and Elizabeth are,
if at all, but in her desperate need for information,
she reaches out and Elizabeth proceeds to tell Michelle that
Chris was a really bad guy. Her exact words. Okay,

so Elizabeth and Nicki were close. Elizabeth continues to share
everything that she knows, all the awful things she had witnessed,
and everything Nicki had confided in her about the abuse
she'd been enduring.

Speaker 1 (14:54):
As she was telling the story, it was like, oh
my god, this makes sense, Like all of these little
inconsistencies throughout the years, things that didn't totally make sense,
but I wasn't going to ask about it because it's like,
it's not my business, and especially in the last like
six months to a year before the shooting, like the
bruising that was on her, Niki always had an excuse.

But once Elizabeth was giving me the contact that it
was actually Chris who was doing these things, it all
made sense. I didn't know that there was a gun
in the house, Like there were so many elements of
what my sister was living that I didn't know. Elizabeth
was one of the only people that Nicki led into
her life and said, yes, I'm being hurt and I'm

trying to get out of this, and Elizabeth was working
closely with Nicki's therapist, and they were safety planning and
trying to figure out how to leave and what she
would need if she were to leave, and you know
the logistics of it, which are complicated. She was there
when Nicki would drive past her house with the kids

and then ultimately go back to an unsafe house. She
was there taking Nicki to the hospital and Nikki wouldn't
get out of the car and get help because she
didn't want to get police involved. Elizabeth had been my
sister's person for over a year at the time, so
really she was telling me so much information about my

sister that I didn't know.

Speaker 2 (16:21):
One of the things Michelle didn't know was that there
was a text chain shared by several women who were
concerned about Nicki's safety. On this chain, aside from Elizabeth,
was Sarah, Nicki's therapist, and Laurie, who had been Nicki
and Chris's landlord at one point. So on this same
day that the world is crumbling, the same day that

she's learned that her sister has killed her partner, and
Michelle is trying to sort out what to say to
her tiny nephew and niece. She's also discovering that there
was a small world of women who were terrified for
her sister, and that none of them had thought to
reach out to Michelle herself.

Speaker 1 (17:01):
There was so much going on at once that it
was almost like there wasn't even time or space for
my own feelings to emerge. It was kind of like, Okay,
I'm clocking that I'm actually feeling really angry that nobody
came to me. But when I express it in a
gentle way, because I was not, you know, there was
no space to even like really emote. But when I

would say why didn't anyone tell me, the answer was
always that Nikki didn't think I would believe her, which
is humiliating. So there's like the embarrassment that all of
these people knew what was going on and I didn't.
Shame and guilt that I'm pulling in all of this
help for myself a situation that I was like labeling

as dangerous, but I never once thought going and getting
an order of protection meant it was going to be
the end of my life, like it is for so
many domestic violence victims. You know that the level of
lethality in what my sister was dealing with was a
completely different level. All of those feelings were very cerebral,
where I was like, oh, yeah, it makes sense that
I feel like that, but I'm not dealing with that

right now, Like I'm not actually going to make space
for that in my body because there's no there's no
reason to like, this is a crisis and I just
need to gather as much information. And it wasn't really
a choice. Am I going to show up for my sister?
Am I going to take in her kids? It was
just this is what I need to do. And I

think me showing up the way that I did so
immediately helped my sister realize like, oh, actually my sister
is here for me and she is going to believe me. So,
I mean it took a long time. We're even having
these conversations in this time period that I'm living, like
going back and apologizing and because it's so deep, those

feelings of guilt and shame and embarrassment are so deep.
But at the time, it was just like information is information,
and I will deal with all of those feelings another time.
I'm also having to talk to CPS worker Child Protective
Services because there was a case that was opened right
before all of this happened of someone anonymously in the

community saying they think Nikki's being abused by Chris and
it's affecting the kids, which was really the catalyst for
what I know that was going to be a murder suicide,
and it ended up Nikki saving her life that night,
but someone opened a CPS case, so there's still an
active case that they are investigating. So as I'm talking

to the CPS workers and just kind of parroting back
what I'm learning from Elizabeth, all of the bruising that
I saw all of my own like real time confusion
and like, oh my god, I can't believe I didn't
see this earlier kind of revelations. I'm doing it to
someone who's recording it, you know, the CPS worker, And
it was very immediate that it came up of this

is deeper than just someone snapping and shooting their partner,
Like this is very, very deep, and it goes back
to Nikki's childhood and I know there was sexual abuse
when she was a kid that nobody ever got her
help for. Like it was just kind of the route
to me immediately that I knew we didn't talk about
her being sexually abused, but from what I saw in

her diary and then just putting the pieces together as
I grew up. Oh, Nikki doesn't like to talk about sex.
She's actually super disgusted by sex. I first discovered her
diaries when we were in the stage of not being
so great to each other and snooping in each other's rooms,
and you know, I went through her stuff and I

found an old diary and I brought it to my
mom then when I was in high school at the time,
and she got a little flustered and was kind of like,
I don't know, maybe, And I would bring it up
to her a little bit throughout the years, and it
was always with a question mark, like I don't know,
maybe something happened, and she would say like, well, I

did find blood in her underwear, and that was when,
you know, all of this happened, and she says, you know,
I did find blood in her underwear and she was
wetting the bed. But it brought her to the doctor,
and the doctor said it was normal because she was
you know, five, and all of her separation anxiety was normal,
and the change in her personality was normal for that age,

and there was a lot of just like authority figures
like doctors to kind of like telling her it wasn't
a big deal, so she believed it my mom, But
you know, once all of us happened, it was kind
of like really obvious that this question of maybe something
happened to her was not a question anymore. This absolutely happened.

Speaker 2 (21:41):
And the word that you use is foundational.

Speaker 1 (21:44):
Yeah, And I just knew that there was something that
happened when she was little that no one got her
help for. Then wanted the CPS workers to know that
because to me, it explains its context. I think there
was also a real escalation of violence. So before the
injuries were visible, there was such an escalation that I
didn't see. So there were so many more subtle signs

that I don't think I would have been capable of
really picking up on at all unless I was super
tuned into like the science of trauma and domestic violence.
A lot of the abuse to start was sexual which happens,
you know, where no one is seeing, and the injuries
where clothes are so there was a lot of ability

for her to hide the actual evidence of the abuse
because it wasn't showing up on her skin until it
was escalated to a highly lethal level. I don't think
I had the imagination to really grasp what was happening.
You know, her saying that she tripped or that Ben
hit her in the face with a guitar or something
was like way more plausible than the idea that she

was living in a very dangerous home, just because I
had been I had known Chris. He you know, abusers
don't just their partner, and they condition everyone around them.
So everything was very strategic on his part too, of
like who he showed himself to be, which is a
tactic where she thinks, no one's going to believe me

because this guy seems so great to everybody. So there's
that aspect of it. But then as far as like
even prior when it comes to like the childhood stuff
she went through or the very beginning of her relationship
with Chris, there were signs where even police were involved.
There was this culture of I don't want to say
something to make her upset. I don't want this is

this really my business, you know, like if she needs me,
she'll talk to me. I don't want to like rock
the boat family dynamic where we just don't want to
upset each other. As I've grown older, I've kind of
like wondered if that's kind of a part of codependent enmeshment,
where it's like I don't want to point out this
issue because then it becomes my issue because there's no

boundaries between anyone. But there's just this this element, this
unspoken element of what is appropriate and not appropriate to
talk about and to push back on. And I just
never really wanted to embarrass her or I just wanted
to keep the peace, I guess, which is just I
think pretty common and a lot of family dynamics.

Speaker 2 (24:19):
Yeah. Absolutely, it's so.

Speaker 1 (24:21):
Hard because whenever something happens and there's someone who was
an abuse there there's always people who say like, well,
he wasn't like that with me, so he couldn't have
been like that with anybody, And it's so hard. I
think whos was to me is very different than even
like his friends or his family would say to me.
He was just very distant, kind of had just a

flat personality, like he was very hard to get close to,
never really shared much about himself, was just kind of
very surface, like, hey, how were you? There was no
depth to our relationship at all. I'm sure that was
for a reason, but I just never felt like I
really got close to him ever. But he was just
very nice and he worked with kids. He was a

gymnastics coach. He was really good with kids, like as
far as my own son was very close to him,
and he seemed good with his own kids, you know,
just kind of like this goofy kid like he was
really into video games and superheroes and just seemed very
like safe and non threatening. That's just kind of how

he came off to me at the time.

Speaker 2 (25:31):
When Michelle finally sees Nicki, she learns there's even more
to the story. Nicki had felt like she was under
a constant threat in her relationship that if she ever
left Chris, he would kill her and she would never
see her kids again. That was the threat the trap.
Michelle also learns from Sarah Nicki's therapist that Chris had

also been trafficking Nicki. He was a videographer who made
horribly degrading, violent videos of his wife and put them
up on the Internet for people to watch and in
some cases, for a profit. At a certain point, the
police had received an anonymous tip about this trafficking and

this is the moment Chris threatens murder suicide, And this
is the moment Nikki says, enough, this is her breaking point.

Speaker 1 (26:26):
I mean, the way she described it is it it
wasn't really even a choice. It was just she had
the gun in her hands by crazy luck as far
as scrambling and getting the gun, and the way she
described it as like milliseconds of time of him making
the threat and then her just lunging and pulling the
trigger like without a thought. It was just her body

a natural reaction to the threat. It was not like
she hemmed it hot and made a decision or even
that she like snapped, just her body's survival instincts kicking in.
But she tells me basically what happens on the phone
that night. Because we do not know anything about the law,

We've never been in trouble, we don't really understand you're
not supposed to say things on the phone or like
you know, the role of prosecutors. We're completely naive. But
she says it on the phone, and all of the
context is able to be said to me through like Sarah,
her therapist, through Laurie, who has a background in sex trafficking,

like She's on a coalition for sexual violence and her
job is helping sex traffic youth. She just also happens
to be Nicky's landlord. Like all of these people who
have this expertise and are able to communicate it to me,
teach me and help me understand so that Nicki doesn't
have to dump all of that and like relive all
of it with me, which was great for her because

there was so much she was keeping for me that
to have to like go back like it was a
relief for her when I would come and visit her
and I already have the information, so then she can
just start from there instead of having to drop all
of these bombs about trafficking, and I mean, it was
humiliating for her. It was another layer of keeping her

tethered to him, because the blackmail of you know, well,
I'm gonna tell everyone that you like these videos and
I'm going to get your kids, and I'm going to
get custody, and you know, I'm gonna slutshame you, and
it was a real true factor in keeping her in
an unsafe situation.

Speaker 2 (28:37):
Nicki's case begins to be processed in the Duchess County
Court system. But then is abruptly moved to Putnam County.
The reasons for this move are concerning. There had already
been record in Dutchess County of Nicki as a victim
of domestic abuse. There was already an awareness within the
police department of the trafficking which they were tracking, of

a gun in the house of small children of Chris
as perpetrator. It was a tinder box of a situation,
so they were moving carefully trying to figure out how
to keep Nikki and the kids safe. So instead of
dropping the murder charges as they could have done, they
accused themselves without giving the real reason. They just say

there's a conflict. This is where Hannah, a prosecutor in
a Putnam County justice system, enters the picture.

Speaker 1 (29:30):
It takes like quite a few months for the Dutchy's
county to recuse themselves, where Nicki's just sitting in jail,
and so by the end of twenty seventeen beginning of
twenty eighteen, Hannah comes on board. And she's a woman
who previously worked prosecuting domestic violence and sex crimes down
in the Bronx. So we thought that was a good

thing that she would understand these kinds of cases, and
she was a woman, which we also naively assumed would
be a good thing. And then she came in kind
of as this person saying, I just want to understand
the truth. I'm going to investigate thoroughly. That took many months,
which is real time that my sister's doing, sitting in

jail and the kids don't know when their mom's coming home.
And then over time she really expertly manipulates the evidence
and manipulates a lot of things and concocts an alternate
narrative where my sister is, as Hanna said, a master
manipulator who planned a very imperfect murderer, and she was

pursuing a conviction very aggressively.

Speaker 2 (30:38):
Did you end up ever having any kind of theory
about why? I mean, because her reasoning was so preposterous
for why a woman would end up with these really
grievous physical injuries and hide them from everyone, So that
really the people who end up knowing are a very

small circle of people and have to figure it out.
And you know, you yourself or sister aren't seeing it.
She's hiding it and coming up with this counter narrative,
and one of the things that seemed most confounding to
me is that she uses the abuse that Nicki suffered
at the hands of Uncle Butch, and also another incident

where Niki was later abused by another man named Dave
who sort of took her in under the guise of
I'm going to protect you and then was in a
position of power over her and raped her. What Hannah's
response to that is, lightning doesn't strike twice. In other words,
there's just no way that Nicki would have been, you know,

abused this many times, and you know that that would
mean that Chris wasn't her abuser. And Sarah the therapist's
response is a really powerful one, you know, which is
you know that when it comes to sexual assault and abuse,
like thing strikes again and again and again. It's a
complete misunderstanding of what that pattern is.

Speaker 1 (32:05):
Psychologically, Yeah, it did seem like she was using every
domestic violence myths and trope and exploiting that. And I
don't know if that was purposeful or that was really
her own biases and her own misunderstandings. I've spent so
much of my life trying to like figure out what
her motivations were, because it does feel very personal. But

from what I've seen, because I've been advocating for my
sister publicly brings a lot of other people to me.
So a lot of other cases I'm privy to like
seeing how they were handled, And it does seem across
the board that this is the tactic that prosecutors use
because it's what wins cases. It's very easy, you know,

all of the cultural foundation is there to get a jury,
to disbelieve women, to blame women. It just doesn't take
a lot to like, very burn engage women. It's very easy.
There's a playbook there, and Hanna really plugged into it
and it felt personal. But I can't know if it

was really her just doing her job to get a conviction.
I don't know.

Speaker 2 (33:17):
Meanwhile, Nicki is doing time. Even that phrase doing time
is in this case so poignant. Time is passing. Michelle
and Nicky's mom suffers a stroke from which she never
really recovers. Michelle's own health is suffering. I mean, how
could it not be. She's responsible for three kids who

are all in different states of being traumatized. Thankfully, Michelle
is blessed with next level executive functioning skills. She's effective
together with Nicky's loyal, supportive friends. They rally the community
and when bail is set at four hundred thousand dollars
cash six hundred thousand collateral, raising, Nicki's bail becomes an

around the clock job and they do it a testament
to their amazing community. Nicki is released on bail and
here is where another kind of extraordinary human enters the picture.
A well known child therapist named doctor Crenshaw.

Speaker 1 (34:19):
So Sarah the therapist and Laurie the landlord both worked
with doctor Crenshaw. He does teynotes all over the world
and is very renowned in play therapy and just an
incredible human with a wealth of knowledge. And everyone was
pointing us towards him, so Sarah and Laurie pulled him

in and he was just giving us advice as a person.
We weren't paying him or anything. He just sat with
us and gave us advice. And one of the first
things he told us is that children can handle the
truth much better than they can handle the mystery, because
they are not stupid, and they're going to take the

temperature of the room and figure out something's wrong. And
if you lie or you hide things, they are going
to put a story to it that is often much
worse than what is actually going on, and that story
will often involve blaming themselves. So he encouraged us to
be age appropriate. I mean, no one could really guide

me on Okay, well, what's an age appropriate way to
say their mom killed their dad? What? So? I mean,
there really isn't really a very age appropriate way to
say that, but to answer truthfully when they ask, and
that when they're ready for the information, they'll ask for it.
You don't have to overload them with information that it's
going to be hard for them to process. Just answer

their questions as they come, as truthfully and as age
appropriately as you can. And that really was our north
star as we were figuring out how to talk to
the kids about this. He also said that it's crucial
for Ben and Fey to be able to trust the

grown ups around them, and if they get the sense
that we are lying to them, it is just fundamentally
damaging for their attachment and their sense of safety in
the world. And at that time Ben had been screaming,
he's four at the time, screaming for us to tell
him the truth, where is his mom? Because we didn't

know like, should we say she's in jail, should we
say she's away? Like what's the language? So we just
kind of weren't giving him a clear answer, and I
was very worried by that, because I was worried the
damage was already done as far as him trusting us.

Speaker 2 (36:44):
We'll be back in a moment with more family secrets.
Michelle and Nicki's mom passes away in January of twenty nineteen.
Nicki's trial is set to start in April. In the
months in between these two major family events, Michelle is

still trying to put all the pieces together of Nicky's life,
all the while trying to do right by three traumatized
kids and grieve the loss of her mother. Because Michelle
is now deeply ensconced in the world of child psychology
as she's been trying to apply it to Noah, Ben
and Fay, she begins to think more and more about

the questions that were never asked in their own childhood,
and so now in adulthood she does. She asked Nicki
about the sexual abuse she'd been through with their uncle.
What did Uncle Buche say to you, Michelle asks her sister,
And what was it that made you think Mom wouldn't

believe you.

Speaker 1 (37:51):
I couldn't imagine a world where Noah or Ben or
Fay would get hurt as much as Niki was hurt
and not come to me for that idea that they
would hold that for me was so scary, and I
didn't want to blame Nicki and say, like, why didn't
you just say something? But I wanted to understand the
psychology what was really holding her back. And Niki very

plainly said I did tell her. She didn't remember exactly
what she said, but she knows it was hard for
her to say. She remembers exactly where they were in
the backyard, and she remembers my mom's initial response was
to tell her the story of the Boyant christ Wolf
and to be careful because people wouldn't believe her, which

you know, was absolutely devastating for me, because this whole time,
I kept thinking Hannah wasn't the first person to say
they won't believe you, or her attorneys. Wasn't even Chris
saying they won't believe you. It was butch who was
the one saying they won't believe you. To me, he
was the original villain that implanted this idea in her
that no one would believe her. So then you know,

in the middle of my grief that my mom had
just passed away, and I still had all of these
conflicting feelings about feeling angry at her but also compassionate
for her, and the grief was just so big that
to then get this information that that original voice was
my mom's was crushing.

Speaker 2 (39:18):
Nicki is offered a plea deal, but of course, a
plea deal means pleading guilty in order to receive a
reduced sentence. Michelle learns that this is often the case
in the criminal justice system. Trials are time consuming, expensive
and risky. A deal is often considered the most practical
solution by the prosecutors. But there are a whole bunch

of things wrong with this picture. First, it will still
mean a significant number of years in prison away from
Nicki's young kids. Second, it will mean she will forever
be someone who's guilty of murder. And third, once a
deal is accepted, it cannot ever be appealed. Nicki decides

not to take the deal. Her trial is set for
three weeks later. The community is in an uproar. They
form the Nicole Atamando Defense Committee. Many of whom attend
the trial each day, along with journalists from local media.
Nicki takes the stand in her own defense and does

a remarkable job, something that seems almost impossible because of
the trauma she's endured. She is strong, powerful, and eloquent.
But when the verdict is handed down, it's a guilty verdict,
which carries with it a sentence of a minimum of
fifteen years to life. This is the worst day, worse

than the knock on the door, Worse than Michelle hearing
her young nephew say that everything has been taken from him, everything,
his father, his mother, his home, his whole life. Five
months later, because it's possible that Nicki's case should have
fallen under the protection of the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act,

the family is hopeful that the judge will take this
into account in his sentencing. But things do not get
better if such a thing is possible. They get worse,
and Niki is sentenced to nineteen years to life.

Speaker 1 (41:24):
It's important to know that the judge was given a
lot of evidence. Of that evidence, Hanna, the prosecutor really
tried to get a lot of it suppressed. As you know,
that's a prosecutor's job, I suppose, and he agreed to
suppress it. But he saw the screenshots of the porn

sites and how it was linked to Chris, and all
of the reports that Nicki made that named Chris, and
he saw all of it. He also was the bureau
chief in the District Attorney's office in Duchess while Niki
was being circulated as a VIC, so for all sorts
of reasons, he was very embedded in this Duchess County

system and we thought he would use the law. It
was a brand new law that was signed into law
right after Nicki's conviction, and it was a law that
took ten years to get passed, mostly because it was
opposed by the District Attorney Association and you know, people

who thought women would use it as an excuse, like
the abuse excuse they say, so they wouldn't pass it.
But all it really does is give judges a lower
sentencing structure if you think that or if it's proven
that the crime committed is connected to domestic violence. So
in Nicky's case, when she was convicted, the lowest was

fifteen years to life. Under the law, the lowest could
be five years and the highest would be fifty team
with no life. So I mean, it's very significant. And
the reason that it passed finally was that it gave
judges discretion. Judges really did not want their hands tied.
They didn't want to be told what to do. So

the judge had discretion and he chose not to apply
the law. And it was devastating because it was the
proof that the system was not going to believe her.

Speaker 2 (43:28):
Nikki's story goes from being of local to national interest.
News outlets pick it up and people from all over
the country become involved. It's a precarious time for our
country and for our world. Remember we're in twenty twenty.

Speaker 1 (43:45):
At first, it's impossible to separate it from like the
cultural context of what was happening in the world, Like
when this first happened, when the shooting happened, it was
right when the Me Too movement broke, and there was
just more organizing in general as far as the women's movement,
you know, everything that happened in twenty sixteen, and there
was just more of an attitude of organizing at least

where we were that we were able to tap into.
And then when she was sentenced, we're now in COVID
and divesting violence rates are skyrocketing. They were already skyrocketing.
It's a silent epidemic everywhere, but COVID was especially dangerous
time and people were really paying attention. And also the

judge put some things on the record, like her verdict
was very unfair, and that got more people involved. But
it was really her sentencing when the judge very publicly
said he didn't believe her and used phrases like, you know,
he thought she reluctantly consented to the abuse, which just

shows a fundamental misunderstanding of consent. And he said that
the motive for the killing is that Niki's a broken person,
which really activated a lot of people. They're like words
of abusers, and I think that did draw a lot
of attention to the case. And you know, she had

a change dot org that got six hundred thousand signatures,
like very quickly, and we as a committee organized just
relentlessly around the appeal, and then we did more around clemency.
We were hoping Governor Hokeel would give Nikki clemency. But yeah,
we definitely activated a huge movement, you know, not even

in the country, like around the world.

Speaker 2 (45:35):
So then the case is appealed.

Speaker 1 (45:37):
Yeah, the case is appealed by different attorneys than the
trial attorneys. It was the first case that this Appellate
Department decided on this new Domestic Violence Survivor's Justice Act,
and they decided that she should have been sentenced under it.
They could have said there's a mistrial because there was

so much misconduct on the prosecutor, but then that would
have just made another trial happen in front of the
same judge. They also could have said that the trial
judge leads to resentence her, which is insane because he
would have just given her the max of fifteen years.
So the Appellate Corps was pretty kind in resentencing her themselves,

and they gave her seven and a half years, which
to me, I think is still way too much for
someone who's defending their life from their abuser, but much
better than nineteen years to life.

Speaker 2 (46:32):
Nikki's sentence was reduced to seven and a half years,
including time served. She's home now. She was released from
prison in January of twenty twenty four. While she served
out her time, she became involved in a nonprofit program
called Puppies Behind Bars, and she spent her time raising
service dogs for wounded vets and law enforcement.

Speaker 1 (46:57):
So the day after she was released, we close not
a house, just the way the world worked, like the
timing of it all. So we have a house now
where we all live together. My dad lives in like
a basement apartment area, and then the rest of us
live in the upstairs and all the kids have their
own rooms, and my son's at high school and Ben

is going into middle school and Fays the last one
in elementary school. So like, you know, they're nine and
eleven now. They were two and four when this happened,
and we have been so therapeutically supported throughout this that
everything is as smooth and good as it possibly can be.
The kids, you know, it took a lot to maintain

connection to Nicki in prison, but we did it, and
I think that paid off because they still have a
bond and you know, Niki can put them to sleep,
and she went to Ben's orchestra concert for the first
time yesterday and got to be there for Fay's dance
competitions and all of these things that she missed she's
now able to experience. And it's still surreal. It's been,

you know, but like five months that she's been home,
it feels kind of like forever, but also it's still
very surreal. Even just to be able to text her
is like very surreal. So we're all really enjoying our time.
And also the layers of trauma that she endured, everything
she went through with Chris and everything that happened in

the courtroom. I didn't really understand when the people say
like they're suing for like emotional distress. I didn't really
get it until I watched what happened with Nikki, and
just having your identity decimated and your story told in
ways it didn't happen so publicly. That is something she's
healing from being institutionalized and being property of a state

for so long. You know what that's done to her psychologically.
There's just so much that she is only beginning to
heal from, and some days are really really hard for her.
But she's in therapy and she's doing everything less she
can do, and she's doing it really courageously. But it's
definitely not all rainbows and butterflies, you know.

Speaker 2 (49:16):
Here's Michelle reading one last passage from Dear Sister, a
letter Nicki wrote to her during her last days in prison.

Speaker 1 (49:27):
Dear sister. A few hours after I received my appellate decision,
I was walking up the hill to METS at six pm.
A big, bright yellow butterfly landed next to me, and
I stopped walking. Even when the officer yelled at amando,
what's the hold up? I just pointed it was so beautiful.
Two more inmates and the officer stopped next to me,

looking down at the butterfly, whose wing was half missing.
Not a small tear, a whole chunk gone. We watched
her lift off, fly in circles, and delicately land again.
Oh look she's broken, one of them said. I shook
my head. She's not broken. I said, look, she's still flying.

Speaker 2 (50:24):
Family Secrets is a production of iHeartRadio. Mollie's Acre is
the story editor and Dylan Fagan is the executive producer.
If you have a family secret you'd like to share,
please leave us a voicemail and your story could appear
on an upcoming episode. Our number is one eight eight
eight Secret zero. That's the number zero. You can also

find me on Instagram at Danny Ryder. And if you'd
like to know more about the story that inspired this podcast,
check out my memoir Inheritance.

Speaker 1 (51:15):
For more podcasts from iHeartRadio, visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts,
or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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