Kidnap Victim Decries Myth of Mountain Men
On July 15, 1984, athlete Kari Swenson was kidnaped while running on a mountain trail near this resort town about 20 miles north of Yellowstone National Park.
Her abductors--who the next morning shot Kari through the chest and killed one of her rescuers--were self-proclaimed mountain men Don Nichols, 53, and his 18-year-old son, Dan. They had long shunned society, hiding out in the mountains and surviving on squirrel meat, poached livestock and caches of red beans. They believed that it was all right to kidnap a wife.
That’s what they had in mind for Swenson, then one of America’s top competitors in the biathlon, a sport that combines cross-country skiing and target shooting.
Subject of Extensive Media Coverage
The kidnaping, Swenson’s rescue and the subsequent six-month hunt for the kidnapers was the subject of extensive newspaper, television and magazine coverage. The sheriff who captured the kidnapers wrote a book, and the incident spawned a 1987 NBC television movie, “The Abduction of Kari Swenson” featuring Tracy Pollan as Swenson.
Today, Kari Swenson is a 27-year-old veterinary student. Still fearing harm from strangers, the graceful auburn-haired athlete doesn’t want people to know where she is living, and she has never talked to reporters specifically about the kidnaping. Even when she agreed to be interviewed earlier this year at her family’s home in Bozeman, Mont., Swenson said as little as possible and let her mother do the talking.
Swenson for the first time has broken her silence in print form in a book released this month. “Victims: The Kari Swenson Story” (Pruett Publishing Co.) was written by her mother, Janet Swenson. The book was written because Kari Swenson and her family are haunted by more than the memory of her ordeal. They feel that Kari was the victim not only of a crime, but of a bizarre myth-making process that turned the criminals into folk heroes.
Reflecting on the media handling of her case, Kari Swenson said urban reporters--"people who don’t understand the mountains"--managed to transform her ordeal into a ribald frontier adventure.
Barbara Walters said during a “20/20" segment aired after the Nicholses were convicted that the kidnapers’ nonconformist philosophy sounded “almost romantic.”
Esquire magazine glossed over the tragedy in this synopsis of their piece on the crime: “When some rowdy mountain men tried to snag a wife, a stubborn sheriff had to set ‘em straight on the law.”
Around campfires and in Montana mountain taverns, Swenson’s ordeal was further transmuted into a modern-day Western legend, in which the Nicholses’ ability to survive in the wilderness and make their own rules became a quality to be admired.
At the kidnapers’ trials in Virginia City, Mont., tourists solicited autographs from the “Nichols boys” as they were called. An entrepreneur tried to hawk “mountain man” T-shirts printed with an image of the accused criminals; and a bar advertised a Don Nichols look-alike contest. A prosecuting attorney put a stop to both schemes.
Even after the pair were convicted, the media continued to give them a forum for their survivalist beliefs. (Don Nichols was convicted of deliberate homicide, kidnaping and assault, Dan of kidnaping and assault. Both are serving time in a Montana prison.) “Every time they snapped their fingers, the reporters ran to them,” Janet Swenson said. The Nicholses were interviewed in prison for “20/20" (Kari Swenson declined to appear), and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle did a jailhouse interview as well as publishing letters to the editor that Don Nichols wrote from prison.
Meanwhile, Kari Swenson couldn’t help feeling that her own suffering was trivialized by the media, when, for instance, an article caricatured her as “a proper Belle of Bozeman, the perfect flower of the New West.”
She also recalls angrily the incident in which a writer for a magazine asked her to pose for photographs in a rustic cabin the magazine had rented for the purpose. She was to sit in front of a roaring fire wearing a red-and-black wool plaid shirt the art director had selected to complete the woodsy scene. Swenson refused.
According to trial testimony, five years before he kidnaped Kari Swenson, Don Nichols bought a chain with the intent of securing a suitable woman when he found one. He had a dream of starting his own “tribe” in the mountains and knew a woman probably wouldn’t go along with the idea willingly--at first, he thought.
According to his testimony, on the day of the kidnaping Dan Nichols was wrapping fish line around a stick beside Ulreys Lake when he spotted Kari Swenson jogging down the trail. She was wearing running shoes, red shorts and a blue T-shirt with the sleeves and collar cut out. Dan testified that he was pleased with his find when Swenson came closer and he saw that she was the sort of good-looking woman he had hoped for.
Then 22, and a recent graduate of Montana State University in Bozeman, Swenson had just set out on a six-mile training run when the Nichols father and son blocked her path. She was still basking in the recent thrill of winning the first medal ever for the United States in world biathlon competition in Chamonix, France.
Kidnaped at Gunpoint
The men grabbed her by the wrists. When Swenson struggled, the elder Nichols hit her on the left side of the face. She was led away through the woods, tethered by a rope to Dan Nichols, with Don Nichols walking behind her, his rifle aimed at her back.
The athlete’s parents and friends organized a search that night when Kari failed to report for dinner duty at the Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky where she worked. By dawn, about 40 local people had assembled with their horses and motorbikes to help search.
About 8 that morning, 18 hours after Swenson was kidnaped, one of the searchers, Alan Goldstein, found the Nicholses in their camp. Kari was chained to a fallen lodgepole pine nearby. In an incident he later would testify was accidental, Dan Nichols shot Kari Swenson in the chest. Then Don Nichols shot and killed Allan Goldstein.
A second searcher, Jim Schwalbe, entered the camp after Goldstein, witnessed the shootings and ran for help. When Kari saw that the Nicholses were going to flee the scene, the wounded athlete begged them to leave her a sleeping bag so she could stay warm (it was a cold morning), but they dumped her out of the bag onto the ground.
For almost four hours, until Schwalbe returned with help, Swenson was left alone with ants and flies invading her bleeding wounds. “I thought I was probably going to die at any time,” she later told the Madison County District Court jury.
Swenson survived the wait only to come near death again as she was being airlifted out of the campground and her stretcher--dangling beneath a helicopter--collided with a tree.
Once Swenson was hospitalized in Bozeman, the media seemed to quickly lose interest in her and shifted their focus to the Nicholses. It was here that the mythologizing process took over and the campfire tale was born.
The Nicholses fascinated the press and the public, according to historian William Lang, because they fit neatly into a pre-existing archetype in the mold of legendary mountain men such as Yellowstone Kelley and Liver Eating Johnson, also known as Jeremiah Johnson. Lang is the former executive editor of Montana: The Magazine of Western History.
As a Sports Illustrated article said in a story on the abduction: “Some people were delighted at the ease with which the fugitives eluded capture and regarded ‘old Don and Dan’ as harmless throwbacks to an earlier, less trammeled era in the West.”
In a similar vein, a newspaper headline called the elder Nichols a “Nice Man Born 100 Years Too Late.”
So, while the Nicholses grew larger than life, Kari Swenson was “overwhelmed and obliterated” by the myth-making process, Lang said.
Rescuer Was a Hero
Janet Swenson says she thinks that Alan Goldstein, the man who died trying to rescue Kari, also was unfairly depicted--as a bumbling “James Bond city slicker” who had no business being in the mountains in the first place. (Goldstein, 34, had owned a men’s clothing store in Michigan and had moved to Montana only the year before his death after discovering the majestic region during a cross-country ski vacation.)
The new book is dedicated to Alan Goldstein and restores him to his proper role as a hero.
It also recasts Kari Swenson as a survivor who was at least as resourceful as her captors.
“Victims” shows Swenson studying the terrain as she was dragged through the woods so she could find her way out if there was a chance to escape. She risked her captors’ rage by dropping items such as her wristwatch to leave a trail for search parties. And she deliberately pressed the imprint of her running shoes in the soft dirt of gopher mounds and ant hills.
Even when shot, Swenson didn’t behave like a victim. “I lay still and experimented with different types of breathing, trying to find the pattern that caused the least gurgling and sucking (in her collapsed lung),” she said in the book. Drawing on her athletic conditioning, she said, “I closed my eyes and concentrated on slowing my pulse.”
Kari Swenson was a solitary woman even before she was kidnaped, happy to spend days alone with her horse, or running trails and wading creeks in training for the biathlon. The kidnaping and the media frenzy that followed have made her even more guarded.
Her written statement, which is included in the press materials for the book, expresses her ongoing reluctance to talk about the case: “I am a private person and I was not certain I wanted to relive the tragedy that affected so many people in my life. However, I decided having the facts published was important to all of us.”
Among the facts the Swensons want set straight is that Kari Swenson did not proceed easily and miraculously from the emergency room to the biathlon circuit, as did her character in the television movie.
Janet Swenson, a nurse at Montana State University’s student health services, writes of Kari’s agonizing real-life recovery from a critical gunshot wound, detailing procedures such as painful respiratory exercises she performed to expand her collapsed lung.
Getting over the incident has been difficult not only for Kari, but for the rest of the family, including her father, Bob Swenson, chairman of the physics department at Montana State University, and the couple’s two other children, Paul and Johanna.
Kari Swenson did compete again after the kidnaping, traveling to Norway as a member of the U.S. Women’s Biathlon team. But, partly due to residual pain from the shooting, she retired from women’s biathlon in 1986.
Today, Swenson still skis in local races and coaches young skiers. She continues to require biofeedback and physical therapy to help control pain caused by nerve damage to her back and chest.
Another physical reminder of the kidnaping is the slender metal band Swenson wears around her front teeth to correct a jaw problem caused when Don Nichols hit her.
While Swenson has said she would like to work with other victims of violent crimes someday, she’s not ready yet.
She still sees a psychologist periodically to help her deal with fear. She often slips into the third person when talking about the abduction, and she can’t bear to call the Nicholses by name, referring to them as “the old man and the young man” instead.
“How I handle it anymore is like it (the kidnaping) didn’t happen to me,” she said. “It happened to somebody else.”