Nichole LaDue January

My daughter, Nichole LaDue January, 30, was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head on the balcony of her third floor condo in Pass Christian, Mississippi, shortly before 10 a.m. on July 29, 2002.  Rigor and lividity indicated that she had been dead for hours.

 

Within two hours police closed the case as a suicide.  The chief investigator, Pass Christian Police Officer Tom Putsay, told our family that  no autopsy or investigation was deemed necessary.  No fingerprints were taken and there was no gun powder residue test to determine whether Nikki had fired a gun.  Strong physical evidence that somebody was on the balcony with Nikki at the time of the shooting was totally ignored, as was information from several individuals that Nikki’s death was very likely linked to an interstate drug operation involving people from the Grand Casino in Gulfport.

 

Nikki had been married for less than two years to Phil January, and both worked at the Grand Casino, as did Nikki’s former husband, Mike Williams.  According to Nikki’s friends, Phil was a jealous and controlling husband.  Her co-workers told us that our formerly fun-loving daughter had become a loner, afraid to socialize on breaks because Phil had spies watching her.  However, she did have something wonderful in her life – a  5-year-old son, Zachary, from her previous marriage.  She loved Zack with all her heart.

 

At the time of her death, Nikki was at a point of transition.  Phil had suddenly decided they should relocate to Bossier City, Louisiana, where he had found a job with Boomtown Casino’s security department under Frank Brown, his former boss at the Grand.  Nikki had stayed behind to orchestrate the move. The plan as presented was that, on July 29, Phil would drive to Mississippi, rent a U-Haul, then collect their household possessions and take them to Louisiana.  Nikki and Zack, along with Nikki’s friend, Nancy Burge, who also worked at Grand Casino, would then drive to Fort Lauderdale in Nikki’s car to spend a week with our family before Nikki dropped Nancy off at her home in Gulfport and joined Phil in Bossier City.

 

But Nikki had a plan of her own, which she had confided to only a few people.  She had told one of those friends, Keith Oliver, that her marriage to Phil was over and she had no intention of joining him in Louisiana. She and Zack were going to remain with us in Florida and start a new life there.  That decision became quite evident after her death, when we discovered that she and Nancy were going to make the 12 hour road trip in separate vehicles and that Nancy’s SUV was loaded with Nikki’s and Zack’s possessions.

 

According to friends, Nikki seemed both exhilarated and nervous.  She was excited about coming to us, but she also seemed scared.  She and Zack slept at Nancy’s house, because Nikki was afraid to spend nights alone in the condo.  She also asked a male friend to show her how to use a pistol, because she wanted to be able to protect herself.  (She died before he had a chance to do so.)  That was an unusual request, since Nikki was terrified of guns.

 

The day before Phil was due to arrive with the U-Haul, Nikki apparently decided to treat herself to a preview of her new life as a single woman.  She deposited Zack with a sitter and went on a date!  She and her new friend, Eric, went to a club and then to his apartment, where he introduced her to some of his friends.  From there they went to a sports bar.

 

Meanwhile, Phil’s calls were piling up on Nikki’s voice mail.  He even placed a frantic call to Nancy at work to find out where Nikki was.  Nancy, as Nikki’s best friend, undoubtedly knew about Eric and may or may not have told Phil.

 

At about 8 p.m. Nikki looked at her watch and exclaimed that she HAD to make a call immediately.  She refused to use Eric’s cell and called from a pay phone.  When she returned to the table she was visibly shaken and stated she had to leave "RIGHT NOW!”  That was the last time Eric saw her alive, though they did speak one final time at 12:30 a.m., when she called his cell to swear him to secrecy about their day together.

 

Once Nikki collected Zack and returned to the condo, the barrage of phone calls continued, all incoming from a blocked phone. Phil has identified those 18 calls, made between 11 p.m and 2 a.m., as a lover’s spat and told police he said some hurtful things that might have caused Nikki to search the condo for Phil’s gun and kill herself.  Months later, the detective in charge of the case told us that this statement by Phil was the basis for his conclusion of suicide. Phil also told police that he was a 20-year veteran of the police force in Wichita Falls, TX.  That was a total lie. Phil was never employed by any police department in Texas.

 

Nikki’s friend, Nancy, allegedly arrived at Nikki’s apartment at about 9:30 a.m. to help load the U-Haul.  She was let in by Zack, who said Mommy was sleeping in the bedroom.  Nancy allegedly searched the condo twice for Nikki, but never looked out on the balcony. Minutes later Phil arrived and discovered Nikki’s body. Phil has never provided us with proof of his whereabouts that night or explained why he blocked the phone records from showing where he was calling from.  He might have been en route to Mississippi, but it’s possible that he was already there and Nikki didn’t know it.  In Nancy’s call to 911, she stated that Phil “came in tonight … the (girl) was supposed to move today.”

 

Nothing about the scene of the shooting makes sense.  Nikki was found in a chair with her right knee held by the table in front of her and her left leg down. Phil, the person who found her, has stated in writing, “The gun was sitting beside her on a small padded wicker stool with rod-iron railing.” However, the police photo shows Phil’s pistol on the chair, under Nikki’s left thigh.  (How do you shoot yourself in the temple, and then place the pistol under your thigh?)   On the table lay a pack of Nikki’s Marlboro Medium 100s, but they were to her left, not to the right where a right handed person would normally place them.  On the far side of the table lay a pack of Marlboro Red 100's with a lighter beside them. To me, that says that somebody else was there that night.  There was also a portable phone, face down on the table, covered with blood. A pathologist that we hired to do a private autopsy told us that Nikki died instantly.  So who bloodied the telephone?  Since police didn’t seize it as evidence, we’ll never know whose prints were on it or on the lighter.

 

The bullet that entered Nikki’s right temple exited through a tiny hole above her left ear.  Allegedly it then hit the wall 5 feet 6 inches from the floor and 18 inches to Nikki’s left, ricocheted into the aluminum doorframe on the same wall, and then bounced back to land in a chair on the next balcony. Police took no scene photos to document those facts.  It seems strange that the exit wound was so small that three different funeral directors were unable to locate it, yet the bullet continued to travel at such a speed as to hit a wall, travel to the door frame, and have enough momentum left to fly back over Nikki’s head and land on a balcony six feet away.  There is no police diagram of the path of the bullet, just a verbal description.

 

A maintenance man found a shell casing in a swimming pool, 20 feet over from the balcony and three floors down.  The gun, which was owned by Phil, was a Sterling .380 semi automatic.  The caliber of the bullet and casing was not identified in police reports, but the man who found the casing told me he thought it was a 9 mm., which cannot be fired from a .380. The coroner told me the bullet was a metal jacket, but Phil was specific that his gun was loaded with plain lead bullets.

 

Aside from the crazy hodgepodge of physical evidence, I have personal reasons to believe that Nikki didn’t kill herself:

 

            *  Nikki’s son was found alone in the condo hours after her death.  (He was never questioned by anyone).  Had Nikki intended to commit suicide, she easily could have left Zack at the babysitter’s where he’d already spent the afternoon.  It’s inconceivable that this devoted mother would put a gun to her head with her child there.

 

* Nikki had a great fear of guns and was not known to ever have fired one. Conversely, she struggled with an addiction to prescription painkillers, and had easy access to them.  So why would she choose such a violent way to kill herself?

 

It has been suggested to me many times that I just can’t accept that my daughter was capable of suicide.  Not true.  What I can’t accept are the myriad unanswered questions and the unwillingness and/or inability of the Pass Christian Police to show me how suicide fits to form a complete picture. It appears that either Nikki’s death meant nothing to them or that some bigger factor was in play.

 

Phil; Nikki; Nikki’s former husband Mike Williams; Nancy Burge and most of Nikki’s other friends all worked at a casino.  A lot of illegal activity goes on in such places.  If Phil did not kill Nikki in a rage of jealousy – (I would love to believe that he’s innocent) – the obvious next possibility is that her murder was a warning to Phil, who had already been fired from two security jobs, to keep his mouth shut, now that he’d left the state and was no longer under the control of casino bosses.  It’s also possible a similar message was meant for Nancy, whose behavior and demeanor since the killing have been very suspicious.  Nancy didn’t even come to Nikki’s funeral.  When I told her my reasons for believing that Nikki was murdered, there was a long silence.  Then she said softly, “Then, perhaps I should be scared also.”

 

We’ve received information that, in March, 2003, the Grand Casino conducted an internal investigation of Grand personnel and their alleged involvement with the distribution of illegal drugs. In the course of that investigation, information surfaced about “The Oxy Ring,” a group of individuals at the Grand Casino who allegedly travel to New Orleans and Houston to obtain Oxycontin from crooked doctors.  Those drugs are then brought back and sold on the street.   We’ve also learned that, on Sunday, July 28, 2002, a big drug party was held at a private residence and attended by people from the Grand. Nikki is said to have attended. Allegedly no one remembers what time she left or if someone accompanied or followed her.  What we do know for sure is that she was shot soon after that.  A cocktail waitress at the Grand told one investigator, "Nikki's death was definitely drug related.  And, trust me, we all got the message."

 

The possibility that Nikki’s death may be linked to organized crime is something the Pass Christian Police will not touch with a stick.  Nor will anyone else in Mississippi.  I’ve written numerous letters to state and county agencies, begging for someone to look into this matter.  From the governor to the DA, I received the same response – “Take it to the local police.”  That’s not much help when the local police won’t look at it.

 

It is my firm belief that to date the truth has not been told, and I am prepared to search for it until I die.  Nikki was a beloved daughter, granddaughter, sister, mother, niece and friend.  She was the sweetheart of our world.  No one who knew her is likely to forget the impact she made in each of our lives nor will we ever stop missing her smile.  We all deserve to know and understand why she is gone.  But, above all, Zack, who lost the most important person in his life, will one day need to be told the truth.

 

Bonnie LaDue (Nikki’s mom)

 

Update:

 

May 12, 2005:  The chief investigator in Nikki's case, Tom Putsay, has been arrested on charges of sexual battery and is being held in the Harrison County Jail under a $200,000 bond.  Putsay, a 21 year veteran of the Pass Christian Police Department, is accused of sexually molesting a juvenile female.  Putsay has resigned from the force.  Comment by Nikki's mother:  "This supports our family's belief that Officer Putsay's character and credibility as a criminal investigator are, at the very least, questionable."