Story ideas

Vassar Road

I’d like to flush this out and write a true crime story on it. Probably never will. But I like the brainstorming part.


The Hidden Space

  • The previous owner was an old man that had become a hoarder.
  • It took the contractor weeks to clear out the first floor from all the junk.
  • The contractor started on the basement.
  • At 5 PM on June 28, 2013, a contractor found a false wall in the basement.
  • Behind it, he found a plastic container.
  • That barrel held a huge garbage bag wrapped with rope.
  • The contractor called the police.
  • The police opened the black trash bag wrapped with rope in the plastic container behind the false wall.
  • The bag contained a human skeleton.


  • James “Jimmy” Lutellus Nichols Jr. grew up during the Depression in the Delta hamlet of Alligator, not far from Clarksdale.
  • Originally known as Alligator Lake, the village took its name from the nearby oxbow lake where the reptiles had been spotted.
  • “Alligator was a thriving little town,” recalled Jimmy Pierce, who at 95 is one of the oldest residents of this place that once boasted more than 1,000. “The train used to come in.”As many as eight trains a day stopped at Alligator, and some passengers made their way to the Gibson Hotel, where they put their money down on craps games.
  • “In 1937, there were three doctors, two drug stores, grocery stores and hardware stores,” recalled Sammie Burchfield, 81, of Clarksdale. “It was a lovely place to grow up.”
  • Sharecroppers worked many of the fields, and as years passed, some slipped North for a better life.
  • When plantation owners inquired about the absence of a sharecropper, Pierce said the answer sometimes came back, “Alligator got him.”
  • Nichols was born into a beloved family. His father served as a World War I medic before working as a physician in Alligator.
  • Traveling by horse and buggy, the doctor made house calls.
  • My Uncle Bruno said he had a cough, and Dr. Nichols gave him a big pill,” recalled former mayor and current alderman Robert Fava Jr. “Uncle Bruno told him the pill was big enough to kill a horse. Dr. Nichols replied, ‘Well, if you live, you’ll be glad.’ ”
  • Burchfield remembers the physician treating all her childhood diseases. “He was a great doctor,” she said.
  • Other townspeople agreed, and the hamlet held a Dr. Nichols Day, giving him a Chevrolet.After the physician’s first wife died, he married Minnie Anderson, who showed up Sundays in her stylish best at the Alligator Methodist Church.
  • Her beauty, however, concealed her battle with the bottle.
  • One day, her car accidentally slid in front of a train at the depot. She broke her leg, but survived.
  • Jimmy Nichols was one of several children his age with no siblings. Burchfield was another.“Jimmy was different,” she recalled. “He was not affectionate, and his family was not affectionate.”
  • While classmates darted from tree to tree, pretending to be “cops and robbers,” Nichols stayed inside, playing with his electric train, Burchfield said. When he got older, he became obsessed with cars, polishing them until the sun beamed in their reflection.
  • Although he expressed little affection toward people, “he loved cats,” Burchfield said.
  • He had a girlfriend, and when he and classmates played games such as musical chairs, he would pull the chair out from under her, Burchfield said. “She would hit the floor. He didn’t do anybody else that way.”
  • Barbara Graves, now 70, of Clarksdale, kept her distance from him.
  • “He was strange, and he was extremely bright,” she said. “You were not sure if it was intelligence or craziness.”
  • Upon learning what police in Poughkeepsie found inside his basement, she replied, “Oh, my word.”


  • She had grown up JoAnn Miller on her family’s northern Louisiana farm, Sunnyslope, in a big white house with a wraparound porch and several hundred acres of peach and pear orchards and blackberry bushes. While in graduate school at the University of Mississippi, she met and married Mr. Nichols, a doctor’s son from Mississippi who was teaching at the university, and his job with I.B.M. took them to Poughkeepsie.
  • She was devoted to her religion and to her family. Each Sunday she called her mother, and each summer she returned to Sunnyslope for two months. She gave her nieces’ and nephews’ days an idyllic cast, Mr. Miller recalled, taking them to pick fruit before going back to the house to make preserves and pies.
  • Up north, she was a beloved teacher, rolling out red carpets for her students on the first day of school and bringing cupcakes for their birthdays. She tried to bring some of the South to her new home, helping found a small Baptist church near Poughkeepsie.
  • “She was a Southern Baptist girl — no drinking, no makeup, no smoking. The strongest drink she ever had was probably iced tea,” said Jeannie Foster, 71, who was a friend of the Nicholses through the short-lived Baptist church. “A lovely woman, just very laid-back. He, on the other hand, was very different. I thought he was kind of cold.”
  • Their only child, a son, drowned a couple years earlier at age of 25.
  • After his son’s death, Nichols sold the family’s property in Alligator to Fava, who turned the doctor’s old office into Mary Ann’s Antique Shop.
  • “Jimmy got rid of all the land,” Fava said. “He had been keeping it for his son.”
  • Although he rid himself of that reminder, Nichols kept the amphibious car in his backyard, drawing his wife’s ire.
  • She kept teaching at the elementary school, where she made her students feel like stars.
  • Each day, they entered class by crossing crimson carpet, and she talked of them getting “the red carpet treatment.”
  • Her teacher’s aide, Mary Jo Santagate, now 80, of Poughkeepsie, recalled JoAnn as a “very sweet Southern lady. The children loved her. She called them ‘Shugah.’ ”
  • Privately, the teacher complained about her husband’s clutter, Santagate said. “She would say, ‘I can’t move because he has so much stuff.’ ”
  • Weeks before she disappeared, JoAnn shared a gruesome finding.
  • She had gone to grab something from the freezer to make dinner.
  • What she found horrified her — the carcass of the family cat, who had died recently.
  • “After that, she didn’t cook dinner,” Santagate said. “She told him, ‘We’re eating out.’ ”
  • On Dec. 20, 1985, JoAnn taught her students for the last time.


  • In fall 1948, Nichols entered the University of Mississippi, where he majored in education, joined Future Teachers of America and competed in the chess club.
  • Four years later, he graduated with two degrees: a bachelor’s and a master’s.
  • His wife-to-be, JoAnn Miller, grew up on a 240-acre plantation in Blanchard, La.
  • As a child, she dreamed of becoming an actress but instead earned a master’s in education from LSU in 1955.
  • The two met while she was teaching in another Mississippi Delta town, Rolling Fork.
  • They married in Shreveport, La., before moving to Missouri, where he sold insurance before landing a job with IBM.
  • The couple had a son, naming him after his father.
  • In 1963, IBM moved Nichols and his family to Poughkeepsie, where his wife taught first grade.
  • In 1974, their son, James III, known as “Ticker,” followed in his father’s footsteps, majoring in education at Ole Miss.
  • He didn’t graduate, however, until 1980.
  • Two years later, tragedy struck when the 25-year-old reportedly fell off his amphibious car and drowned in Sardis Lake, dying before he could finish a degree in computer science.
  • In their yard were parked two Amphicars, novelty vehicles that could drive on land and in water, of which only about 3,800 were ever produced. At a time when computers were still relatively unknown in regular homes, the Nicholses had several, lined up in a room off the living room where Mr. Nichols also kept a police and fire scanner running at all times.

Vassar Road Back Then

  • The modest house on a tree-lined street has a small backyard enclosed by a stockade fence. On Wednesday, a large trash receptacle sat in the driveway.

Mrs. Nichols

  • “They were a married couple,” Ms. Darragh, now 62, said. “She was normal. He was not.”
  • Only to a next-door neighbor and close co-workers did Ms. Nichols hint that her husband’s oddities bothered her, too. She told Mary Jo Santagate, a teachers’ aide at her school, that she disliked the house’s clutter and wished that her husband had not kept their dead cat frozen in their refrigerator: she dreaded opening it to cook. She complained of having to hand her paycheck over to him each week.
  • When the couple’s only son, 25-year-old James Nichols III, drowned in 1982 after falling off the hood of one of the Amphicars in a Mississippi lake, she told Ms. Darragh she was upset that her husband had parked the same Amphicar in the driveway, a daily reminder of her grief.
  • “Knowing her, she tolerated it because she didn’t have the wherewithal to tell him to knock it off or I’m going to leave,” Ms. Santagate said.
  • To her family, she never complained. “She was of the old school,” Mr. Miller said. “When you’re married, you’re married for good.”
  • Barbara Wiest, a neighbor, called JoAnn Nichols, “a lovely, gentle woman.
  • “We thought she joined a convent,” she said. “She was extremely religious.”

And the Creep

  • There was his sense of humor, so dry it could be caustic, and his almost perverse knack for making people ill at ease.
  • Then there were his quirks. He rode around the neighborhood on a lawn mower, once using it to move the couple’s book collection from their first house on Stephanie Lane, the looping street just behind Vassar Road, to their second on Vassar Road.
  • “Most of us didn’t want to have anything to do with him,” said Dee Casella, 77, another neighbor. “There was a little — not fear so much as we didn’t like him. I can’t explain it, but he was weird.”
  • There was the night James Nichols introduced himself to his new neighbors on Vassar Road by walking in their front door without knocking.
  • There was the afternoon Denise Darragh asked him to help her with an injured squirrel, and he — still wearing his suit jacket — killed it with a hatchet as the children playing in her yard screamed.
  • And the day she was painting the house, wearing cutoff shorts, and turned around to see him taking photos of her from below with a long camera lens.
  • James Nichols was a loner, detached and anti-social.
  • Neighbors saw him as odd, someone who would stare into space
  • Or sit in his car to read the newspaper.
  • One remembers seeing him driving around with a mannequin in the passenger seat.
  • “He was very strange,” said Wyskida. “I never really saw him that much. And when we did, he would just be out staring without saying hello or anything.”
  • Wyskida called Nichols unemotional.
  • “Sometimes you would see him in the backyard just staring at the open space with no one there.
  • Just very weird,” Wyskida said. “He would just sit in the car and read the newspaper and just hang out in the car.”
  • Wyskida said he once saw Nichols driving down the road with a mannequin in the passenger seat.”A dummy with a hat on,” he said.
  • The Nicholses’ house was like no other in the neighborhood. Ms. Nichols loved books, and nearly every room was filled with volumes from floor to ceiling. Mr. Nichols collected cameras, guns and books about the Civil War. Neighbors marveled at the tools and gadgets he had amassed through his job at I.B.M. and his evening shifts in the Sears hardware department, including six lawn mowers.

She’s Missing

  • They had been married for about 30 years when, four days before Christmas in 1985, Mr. Nichols reported his 55-year-old wife missing. He told the police that they had eaten at a local restaurant with another couple the night before, and had come home after an argument. The next morning, he said, he returned from buying dog food to find her gone. There was a note typed on a computer, saying she was depressed after their son’s death.
  • He told the police he believed she had left to join a religious cult or had killed herself; to neighbors he simply announced, flatly, that she had left him. He said she called him on Christmas Eve to say she was fine, but hung up when he asked where she was.
  • For days, the police searched the frozen waterways and the woods by foot and by helicopter. They also walked around the cluttered house a few times, at least once going into the basement, where Mr. Nichols opened a large safe to show them his gun collection.
  • The day after she was reported missing, detectives saw her car parked in the house’s driveway. Mr. Nichols said he had found it in a nearby shopping center and had it cleaned and vacuumed.
  • Nichols, an IBM retiree, reported his wife missing on Dec. 21, 1985.
  • On a snow-filled Christmas break in 1985, first-grade teacher JoAnn Nichols, the 55-year-old wife of Mississippi native James Nichols Jr., disappeared from their home in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., apparently leaving behind a despondent note.

The Investigation

  • After Nichols went missing, police had looked into the possibility she had run away or committed suicide because her only son had drowned three years earlier, but eventually the case went cold. Until Friday.
  • Nichols told detectives their marriage was fine, Mittelstaedt said.
  • Police characterized a note left on her computer as depressed, but not suicidal.
  • When JoAnn Nichols disappeared in 1985, a detective immediately zeroed in on one man: her husband.
  • “There was no doubt in my mind that he knew where his wife was,” Mittelstaedt said Wednesday.
  • “The man was cold. I mean, seriously cold.”
  • “He sat across from me in my office, looked me straight in the face, and told us that he thought she was depressed, he hinted at maybe suicidal,” Mittelstaedt said.
  • Mittelstaedt said investigators had never searched the house because they didn’t have legal grounds to get a warrant.
  • “We had suspicions right from the start because of the way he acted,” he said.

Vassar Road Watches

  • Meanwhile, neighbors remembered a strange loner who had a sweet wife.
  • “Everybody kind of thought he was the one that was responsible, just based on his emotionless character and the condition of the house,” said Walter Wyskida, a neighbor of 16 years.
  • Wyskida said Nichols had seven sheds with debris from floor to ceiling.
  • Another friend said Nichols kept a dead cat in a basement freezer.
  • Neighbors shared stories of his strange behavior. The time he had been seen driving around with a mannequin in the passenger seat. The time he had killed a squirrel with a hatchet while wearing a coat and tie.
  • Bill Emigh, former Ground Round manager, said that James Nichols would come in nearly every day to eat, from 1983 to 1984, when he was an IBM Corp. employee.
  • “He’d have these long two-hour lunches,” Emigh said. “He told me that if I was ever in the area to stop by, so one time, I did.”
  • The house Emigh saw was the one James Nichols lived in until he died.
  • “There were magazines and stuff everywhere. Jim (James Nichols) had a vintage camera collection,” Emigh said. “JoAnn had that Southern class, she had a sense of refinement to her, so Jim must have been the dominant one,” Emigh said. “Once she went missing, our restaurant staff… definitely suspected that he had something to do with it.”
  • In the backyard of their home was an Amphicar, a floating car that had been owned by their son, 25-year-old James “Ticker” Nichols III who drowned in May 1982, Emigh said.
  • JoAnn Nichols’ loved ones said that she was “devastated” by his death.
  • Following her disappearance, police found a note on Nichols’ home computer that indicated suicide may have been a possibility.
  • But some things didn’t change, as James Nichols apparently kept up his pattern of dining out twice a day. Emigh saw him at the Ground Round after that, sometimes with a woman, he said.
  • Eventually, he began taking his meals in the Town of Wappinger Perkins Restaurant and Bakery, said former waitress Alison Burns.
  • Burns and James Nichols had lunch together once a week at Perkins for about a year, from 2004 to 2005, she said.
  • “He never mentioned he had a wife and only mentioned his son once, when I asked him if he had kids,” Burns said.
  • James Nichols was always nice and tipped well, Burns said.
  • But other Perkins staff members were uneasy about him.
  • “Someone walked by his car, he had a camera and some pictures — he had apparently been taking pictures of the Perkins employees,” Burns said. “I really do think he was asked to stop coming in after that.”
  • News of the discovery of JoAnn Nichols’ remains chilled her, Burns said.
  • “That poor woman,” she said.

Detective Mittelstaedt

  • “That’s when it started to stink,” said Charles Mittelstaedt, the chief of detectives at the time who is now retired, of Mr. Nichols’s story. Detectives set up surveillance on Mr. Nichols, learning that he had been seeing another woman.
  • When the police confronted him with photographs of the two together, however, he said he was retaining a lawyer and refused to answer more questions.
  • “He looks me right in the eye, and he says, ‘So I got a girlfriend,’ ” recalled William Holland, another retired detective. “I was a cop for 30 years, and he was the coldest individual I ever dealt with.”
  • Her brother, John Miller, hired a private detective, who would eventually cost the middle-class family nearly $150,000. Though the detective met three men he said Mr. Nichols had approached about paying to kill Ms. Nichols in a staged home invasion, nothing came of it.
  • There were other strange twists, he remembered.
  • When police visited the home after JoAnn Nichols disappeared, her car was missing.
  • When they returned, it was in the driveway.
  • James Nichols said he found it at a mall and had it driven home.
  • The car had been washed and vacuumed, Mittelstaedt said.
  • Nichols was put under surveillance, and investigators learned within weeks that he was visiting another woman.
  • When confronted with that, Nichols replied, according to Mittelstaedt: “If you don’t have a warrant for my arrest, you can talk to my lawyer.”
  • Weeks after her disappearance, detectives trailed Nichols and learned he was dating another woman.
  • When confronted, he told them he needed a lawyer.
  • Detectives told the Journal they tried to get a search warrant for his house, but were unable to and that Nichols had mentioned his wife leaving her wedding ring behind.
  • Mittelstaedt said that was the last time investigators talked to him.

Can’t Let Go

  • House was never searched because there was no legal warrant
  • Retired Poughkeepsie Detective Capt. Charles Mittelstaedt, who ran the investigation nearly three decades ago, saw more.
  • Mittelstaedt, the retired detective, never let the case go.
  • “I remember the case like it happened yesterday because every time I drove past her house, I wondered if she was in there,” he said.

Vassar Road Moves On

  • Seven years after Ms. Nichols disappeared, when she could have been declared legally dead, Mr. Miller asked a local court not to do so, his son Randy Miller said. That may have prevented Mr. Nichols from selling the house, which was also in his wife’s name.
  • And so as mold crept up the walls and dark rumors circulated, Mr. Nichols kept living on Vassar Road, perhaps because he could not sell the house, perhaps chained there by its walled-up secret. He rarely spoke to anyone. People saw him a few times a year at the local Methodist church’s roast-beef suppers, always sitting with his only apparent friend, another I.B.M. retiree. But he stopped coming in 2008 after an organizer, Patsy Boisvert, confronted him about making what others said were racist comments about Barack Obama.
  • There were signs of ill health. He collapsed in his driveway once, then again, and was taken away in an ambulance. Shortly before Mr. Nichols died, a neighbor saw him at IHOP, looking confused. Then he was not seen for a week. A neighbor called the authorities.
  • He was 82 when he was found dead on Dec. 27. It was almost 27 years to the day that he had reported his wife missing.
  • In later decades, after Mr. Nichols’s wife disappeared — she had killed herself or run away, he told relatives and friends and the police, though they had doubts — he withdrew from the neighbors as his little white house retreated from the world. On the collapsing roof, neat gray shingles gave way to drooping tar paper. In the garage, hills of junk grew higher. On the rare occasions Mr. Nichols appeared, he would be sitting in his car in the driveway, drowsing or reading the paper or maybe doing nothing at all.
  • When he was found dead in December, slumped in a chair inside his home in this Hudson Valley town, there was no will to be found, only masses of decaying books, cameras and computers.
  • Her family looked for answers from police, private investigators and a psychic, but found nothing.
  • Thirteen months after her disappearance, Nichols filed for divorce.
  • Years passed, the headlines faded, and he spent more and more time inside his home.
  • By the time he died, two days after Christmas in 2012, some neighbors had no clue he lived there.
  • Six months after that, on Sept. 18, Nichols submitted a “findings of fact” — the answer to a question of fact, according to legal definition — and a judgment of divorce.
  • A judge, according to county clerk records, never signed it.


  • Described by neighbors as an unemotional hoarder, he died at 82 of natural causes.
  • In December, he died of natural causes at the age of 82.
  • Twenty-seven years later, authorities found him slumped in his chair, dead at 82 of natural causes.
  • In the end, Nichols died in the house that became his prison, almost covered by the trash he hoarded.
  • Dutchess County Commissioner of Finance Pamela Barrack was appointed the temporary administrator of his estate by the state
  • The dwelling was in such a mess.
  • The previous owner had died six months earlier and the property was claimed by the state.
  • A contractor had to be called in to haul off the junk and trash before the place could be put on the market.

Return to The Hidden Space

  • Human remains were found in the basement of 720 Vassar Road in the Town of Poughkeepsie on Friday, where James Nichols, 82, was found deceased on Dec. 27, 2012. Nichols’ wife, JoAnn Nichols, has been missing since 1985. The remains are unidentified.
  • Schoolteacher likely murdered by her husband; her body was found in a plastic bag inside a barrel in a secret hollow space in a wall of their home, discovered after his death. A coroner determined she had died from blunt-force trauma.
  • When a contractor was hired to clean out the debris-choked house at 720 Vassar Road last week, workers found JoAnn Nichols’ skeletal remains in a container behind a false wall. Officials said she died from a blow to the head.
  • Inside, they found skeletal remains, including a skull that had been fractured by a blow. Dental records identified the remains as JoAnn Nichols.
  • “He lived with that for 28 years,” Santagate said. “People knew and the police knew he was involved, but there was no proof.”
  • Dr. Kari Reiber, the county’s medical examiner and acting health commissioner, said Monday’s autopsy revealed JoAnn Nichols’ body was placed “intact” in a container before it was sealed in a false basement wall.
  • The 55-year-old schoolteacher had had “extensive dental work,” including a partial denture, leading to a “straightforward” positive identification, Reiber said.
  • The cause of death was “apparent” and “physical,” she said.
  • Despite a police investigation, JoAnn Nichols, who was a first-grade teacher for 22 years, was never found.

The Killing

  • That night, she and Nichols ate at the Ground Round Grill and Bar with friends.
  • The carcasses of his two faithful dogs were also found in the freezer. Two chubby golden retrievers.
  • The next morning, she failed to show up for her Saturday hair appointment.

The Cover Up

  • Detectives began investigating, and Nichols pointed them to a note on the computer, where it appeared she was discussing depression over her son’s death.
  • A day after her disappearance, Nichols told police he found her missing AMC car at a nearby mall. Before detectives could look inside, he had already washed and vacuumed it.
  • JoAnn always had called her mother every Sunday between 2 and 4 p.m. The weekend she disappeared, those calls stopped.
  • More than a week later, Nichols sipped tea and talked to a reporter from the Poughkeepsie Journal. He said his wife had called him the morning of Christmas Eve to say she was OK and to say hello to their two golden retrievers.
  • “I asked her, ‘Where are you?’ and she hung up,” he told the newspaper. “There’s no reason to assume she’s dead or alive, joined a group or run off with some other man. There are a thousand possibilities. The pain is not knowing.”
  • Lt. Charles Mittelstaedt told the Journal that Nichols had shared a different version, saying his wife had told him she’d found a new name, was at peace with God and not to look for her.
  • Nichols suggested his wife may have run away because of the “pressure of the holiday season. She just couldn’t cope.”

The Wall

  • Reiber said the body had been in the container “for a very long time,” and that the bones separated after tissues and cartilage decomposed.
  • In a dry basement, buried behind a false wall and piles of hoarded items, a putrefied body might not have a strong smell, she said.
  • It was hard, on this street, to comprehend the idea that along with his tools and his trash, James Nichols had been hoarding his wife the whole time.

The Detective’s Retirement

  • Mittelstaedt gets a call in his old age.
  • The discovery of JoAnn Nichols’ remains has reinvigorated the investigation, made more difficult by a trail long grown cold.
  • “Obviously, the evidence is very, very old,” Detectives Capt. Paul Lecomte told The Associated Press. “Where we might have gotten a better opportunity … to pull fingerprints or something from it. Where here, we might not be able to. It’s so old.”
  • He would not discuss details of the investigation or what evidence had been sent to the police lab, but Lecomte said detectives want to do a fresh round of interviews. Lecomte noted most of the officers who worked on the case in 1985 have since retired or died.
  • While the motive behind JoAnn Nichols’ murder remained a mystery, I would venture a guess. Fed up with her husband’s hoarding, she had expressed her desire to divorce him. That would mean they would have to sell the house, and in so doing, rid the place of all the debris. To keep his stuff, and possibly to benefit from his dead spouse’s Social Security benefits, James Nichols murdered his wife and added her remains to his collection of trash and junk. It’s just a theory, and will probably remain so. Apparently there was nothing, not even his wife’s corpse, that this man didn’t save.
  • “It’s just a sin that he got away with it all these years,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t say this because it’s not politically correct, but I hope he rots in hell.”

Vassar Road Now

  • “I’m still upset,” said Mary Feron, a longtime neighbor. “I mean, he wrapped her up and put her in the wall and lived there and went out to church suppers and went out to IHOP and Perkins and all the time….” She shook her head. “I hate that.”
  • “It was terrible not knowing, year after year,” said Randy Miller, one of Ms. Nichols’s nephews, who kept calling the Poughkeepsie police for updates after his father, who died in 2006, could no longer do so. “I know that my father, it would’ve really surprised him to learn that the body was right there, under their feet.”
  • “Maybe this isn’t a Christian thing to say,” Mr. Miller said, “but I do get satisfaction out of the fact that he died alone and surrounded by nothing but junk. It sounds like he was right where he should’ve been, miserable and living in filth. There was no reason for him to die alone. He did it all to himself.”

The burial of James

  • After James Nichols died passed away and no one claimed his body.
  • “We found two relatives of his, but they were elderly and had no interest in handling the estate,” said Traver, of McCabe & Mack in Poughkeepsie.
  • James Nichols was buried by the Dutchess County Department of Community and Family Services, Traver said.

The burial of JoAnn

  • Santagate is saddened by the thought that there has been no funeral for her friend.
  • “I just prayed for her,” she said. “I know she’s with the Lord.”

Photo by Laura Peruchi on Unsplash