Digging around in Sacramento’s history isn’t for the faint of heart. The Gold Rush town was lawless and bloody with a reputation for quick frontier justice. Yet on a few occasions, the hand of mercy reached out and offered a second chance to a killer. Ida Brewer was a sex worker in the 1850’s who was acquitted of stabbing a rival prostitute. She went on to kill one of her customers a few years later–she was fined and told to leave town. You have to wonder what she knew to warrant such lenient treatment in those harsh times. It wasn’t the last time that a murderer went free only to commit another crime. While not technically a serial killer, Ida Brewer and the others mentioned today are multiple murders who have called Sacramento home.
In the 1980’s I investigated a case where a convicted murderer, Charles Fredrick Neely, was released from prison after the parole authority considered him rehabilitated. This was back in a time when a “life” sentence was anything but. If a prisoner could lay low and go along, he could earn a release based on his adjustment and performance during a parole hearing. Within a few years, Neely and a band of local misfits murdered Bruce Chester, a Cameron Park realtor during a home invasion robbery. A second chance that resulted in another murder. This crime stuck with me after all those years, and I’m writing a story that parallels some of the aspects of that crime.
But, even further back in Sacramento’s crime history is the story of Robert Henry Nicolaus. From all accounts, Robert Nicolaus was a normal, well-adjusted kid who grew up in a religious home and eventually joined the Air Force when he turned 20 in 1953. He was considered highly intelligent at the time. While enlisted, he began to drink, smoke and pick up the occasional prostitute. A drunken homosexual encounter resulted in his discharge from the service.
In 1956, Nicholaus began living with Jeannie Lara. It was a tumultuous relationship, one in which Nicolaus repeatedly demeaned Jeannie, calling her promiscuous and having low moral standards. While co-habitating, they had two children, Donald and Roberta. After the couple split apart in 1960, Robert sought custody of the children. He was told that he needed to establish a suitable wholesome home environment. Soon thereafter, he married Lisa Robinson who was pregnant at the time.
After the birth of their daughter, Heidi, Robert vowed to become a good family man, quit drinking and was attentive. But, the old patterns began to reemerge and he became controlling and prohibited his wife from seeing her mother because he felt she was a bad influence. The marriage fell apart and on May 22, 1964, Lisa told him she was leaving. If she left, it would end the chance of his regaining custody of his other two children.
Robert became despondent and following day he took Heidi, age 2, and picked up Roberta, age 7, and Donald age 5, for what was supposed to be a family portrait session. He bought each of the children a toy and candy to make them happy. Then, one by one, in the order of their birth, he took then to the truck of his car and shot them. He called it his “final fatherly act.”
After serving thirteen years in state prison for the three murders, Nicolas was released on parole. In 1978, Nicolaus reached out to Lisa, his ex-wife and asked about a joint burial plot for all three children. Lisa never responded and Nicolaus began to fume and started writing about ways to harm his ex-wife.
He lost contact with her until sometime in 1983 when he began stalking her and wrote about wanting to inflict psychological trauma upon her. On March 20, 1984, Nicolaus visited the grave of his daughter Heidi, and suffered an emotional breakdown. From statements made by Nicolaus after his arrest, he blamed Lisa for the destruction of his family and wanted revenge. The stalking and planning intensified until February 22, 1985.
At four in the afternoon, Lisa Robinson was backing her Volkswagen bug out of her apartment parking space when Nicolaus pulled behind her and blocked her with his car. He ran to the driver’s side window and began beating her, yelling, “How could you do this to me?” He went back to his vehicle and grabbed a handgun and returned to Lisa, shooting her in the chest.
Lisa fell from the car and witnesses overheard her scream, “Oh my God, my baby! Where’s my baby?”
Nicolaus walked back to his car, paused, then returned to Lisa and shot her again. He got in his car, pulled alongside of the wounded woman for a moment and drove away. Witnesses rushed to the scene, called 911, and removed Lisa’s three-year old son from a car seat in the Volkswagen. Lisa died enroute to the hospital, but was able to identify her assailant.
Detectives searched Nicolaus’s residence and found dozens of documents and lists of items he planned to use in an abduction of his ex-wife. They also located a statement written by the killer that said:
“It is my single resolve to avenge my children’s destruction before I enter my 52nd year, so that I may slip away from this world at peace with myself. Woe to the archdemon who destroyed us almost 21 years ago. Before I entered my 32nd year, my children were destroyed.
Before I enter my 52nd year, the archdemon who destroyed my children will be brought to book, so I swear. The archdemon of destruction will itself suffer destruction. I swear this. Some people, the fortunate, die quickly. Other people, the unfortunate, die slowly. I am one of the unfortunates.”
Nicolaus turned 52 years old exactly 6 days before killing his ex-wife.
An FBI most wanted manhunt located the fugitive in Pennsylvania in July 1985. He was convicted and sentenced to death. Nicolaus died of natural causes while awaiting execution on April 12, 2003.
A convicted multiple murderer out on the streets. Why should we be surprised that he kills again? With the recent rash of commutations and releases from state prison we have to ask, when will the next one occur?
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