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Mother’s Tragic Tale a Lesson for Truants

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before she speaks, Shelly Holland scans the faces of a dozen teenage truants slouched in plastic chairs and staring at her with indifference.

She has come to this Oxnard classroom, where police run an after-school program for wayward teens, to tell the story of her own daughter. She passes around a faded photograph and a tiny silver-and-glass vial she wears on a chain around her neck.

“So what do you think this is?” she asks the teens as they silently examine the finger-thin decanter. “No guesses? This is my daughter in this little bottle. She called one night and said, ‘Mom, I’ll be right home; leave the door open,’ and she never came home.”

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Nichole Hendrix, 17, was stabbed and beaten to death, allegedly by two skinhead gang members who mistakenly thought she had reported them to police for selling stolen property.

Her body was packed into a trash can filled with wet cement and dumped into the Ventura County back country. When it was recovered six months later, animals had dragged away most of the remains.

“When I got her back, all that was left were three ribs, her head and her pelvic bone,” Holland tells the teens. “That is why she fits in this little bottle.”

During the past few months, Holland, 40, of Ventura has appeared five times as a guest speaker for the Student Truancy Offender Program, which strives to keep youths cited for truancy in class and out of Juvenile Hall.

Though it’s difficult, she talks about her experiences because she knows firsthand that skipping school and doing drugs often lead to more serious crime, and she hopes that her daughter’s story will prompt some teens to rethink the choices they make.

“My daughter is dead and there is nothing I can do to bring her back,” Holland said of Nichole, one of two children by her first marriage, who would have turned 21 today.

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“But if I could help one kid change their mind about the life they are leading, then that is one less kid that grows up to be a thug or a victim,” she said.

Many parents of crime victims turn to political activism and volunteer causes as a way of coping with their grief. Some of the most sweeping changes in public policy trace their roots to mothers whose children were killed by drunk drivers, or fathers whose daughters were kidnapped and slain.

Holland’s crusade exists on a more intimate scale.

“She has a lot of issues she’s dealing with and this is a way to get it out,” said Oxnard Police Senior Officer Karl Dyer, who supervises the truancy program and asked Holland to share her experiences.

“She really wanted to talk to kids and tell her story to help deal with her pain,” Dyer said. “I jumped all over it, because it is a good opportunity for the kids to hear what can really happen.”

During her presentations, Holland talks about her struggles raising a rebellious girl who in middle school began skipping class and experimenting with drugs.

At one point, she followed her daughter to class every day for a month to make sure she wasn’t ditching. She didn’t know what else to do, she said.

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Nichole transferred to a continuation high school, but problems persisted. When Holland picked up her daughter from the police station after a drug-related arrest Oct. 15, 1998, she warned her: “Nikki, something bad is going to happen to you if you don’t straighten up.”

Nichole was killed that same night.

Holland is haunted by her words. She wonders whether she could have done more to prevent her daughter’s death.

Just days before her disappearance, Nichole had agreed to enter a lock-down drug rehabilitation program in Arizona.

“She knew she needed help,” Holland said. “She wasn’t a perfect person, but as a mother you don’t want to see those things. And for her to be killed, and so much left unsaid ....”

After three years, Holland still fights to keep her emotions in check. Regret, rage, guilt and depression have left her raw and nursing an ulcer.

In the crazed days that followed Nichole’s disappearance, Holland paged her repeatedly. She hounded Ventura County sheriff’s detectives for information and refused to leave the house, fearful Nichole would call and no one would be there.

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As weeks and months passed, Holland ventured out seeking answers.

She looked in ditches and called morgues in seven states and Mexico. Frustrated by the investigation, she walked neighborhoods frequented by drug sellers and knocked on doors in search of information.

“I did some crazy things,” she said during a recent presentation. “But I don’t think what I did was any different from what any other parent would do.”

While her work with the truancy program is cathartic, it has also been a distraction from the protracted legal issues unfolding in the murder cases pending against her daughter’s alleged killers.

Skinheads David Ziesmer, 29, and Michael Bridgeford, 25, both of Oxnard, were indicted on murder charges in August 2000 after admitting in interviews to stabbing Nichole. A grand jury also indicted Bridget Callahan, 30, of Ventura for murder. She allegedly witnessed the slaying.

Legal Disputes Put Trials on Hold

Trials for the trio were scheduled to begin this month but are on hold, pending legal disputes.

Callahan’s lawyers last fall accused prosecutors of deceiving her with false promises of immunity. The misconduct allegations, which came amid a contested election for Ventura County district attorney, led the state attorney general’s office to take over the case.

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Last month, the case suffered another setback when state prosecutors dismissed Callahan’s indictment after reviewing a ruling by a Santa Barbara judge, who found the grand jury contained too few women and was therefore “defective.”

Callahan was arraigned on new murder charges Friday. Meanwhile, Ziesmer is trying to have his indictment dismissed on the grand jury issue. A hearing is set for next month.

Through it all, Holland has watched in frustration from the front row of a Ventura County courtroom.

“You can’t even imagine how it feels to be so helpless,” she said. “There are days I just want to scream.”

And there are days she wants to talk. So she talks to her counselor. She talks to the parents of other crime victims she has met, and she talks to the teens in Oxnard’s program.

Today, she will drive to the place where Nichole’s remains were found and talk to her. She will place flowers, balloons and a card at the roadside.

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And she will wish her daughter a happy birthday.

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