On 15 July 1984, Olympic biathlete 22-year-old Kari Swenson went for a run on a mountain trail near her home in Big Sky, southwest Montana. The beautiful route winding around the scenic mountain was meant to be a routine run before her shift started at the Lone Mountain Guest Ranch later that evening. Kari Swenson, however, was met with a terrifying ordeal that changed her life.
52-year-old Don Nichols and his 19-year-old son, Daniel Nichols, were self-proclaimed survivalists. The elder Nichols disliked society and the rules and regulations he felt impinged on his freedom. He spent much of his time in the mountains, teaching his son from a young age the basics of how to live in the wild. The pair were on the mountain that day and their chance meeting with Swenson put a long laid out plan into action. They struck up a conversation before kidnapping her, with Don Nichols tying her to his son’s wrist. She was dragged from the well-known trail and into the wilderness of the mountain bush. Forced to walk for miles and being chained at regular intervals to trees, Kari Swenson was helpless and in fear her life.
The morning after she was kidnapped, Swenson heard the voices of two friends who had been searching for her after she did not return for work the previous evening. Knowing anyone who came near were at risk from the Nichols who had openly threatened to kill anyone who tried to rescue her, she desperately called out to warn them of the danger. When Swenson started to scream and shout, Daniel Nichols was instructed by his father to ‘shut her up’. Standing over her with a rifle, he shot her in the chest. He immediately panicked Swenson would later testify in court, seemingly he had not intended to shoot her.
When the two rescuers entered the camp area, Alan Goldstein was shot and killed by Don Nichols. Jim Schwalbe, after having a rifle pointed at him, fled for his life. The Nicholses left the camp, leaving Kari Swenson seriously wounded with a gunshot wound and still tied to a tree with her friend Alan Goldstein lying dead on the ground nearby. Kari Swenson could do nothing but try to stay alive hoping she would be found in time. A second rescue party led to the camp by Jim Schwalbe did find her and she was airlifted to hospital for emergency surgery, while the body of Alan Goldstein was carried off the mountain.
Don and Dan Nichols were on the run. They managed to stay hidden for five months before their inabilities to fend for themselves on the mountainside enabled police to locate them and take them into custody in December 1984. During that time a confused message emerged from the media about these two men. Although wanted for kidnap, assault, and murder their fugitive status dominated the headlines. They were described as rugged survivalists with an underlying admiration at two outlaws resisting the system and getting away from the authorities. Their cold-blooded act of murder taking the life of Alan Goldstein, kidnapping and holding Kari Swenson captive and leaving her for dead after shooting her in the chest, becoming lost in the sensation and story of father and son on the run.
Don and Daniel Nichols were regularly described as ‘mountain men’ in the media after this crime, a title both relished but a description many disagree with, including Kari Swenson. While the pair had spent numerous summers living outside and had been living almost permanently in make-shift camps in the outdoors across 1983 to 1984, they were not men who were fully capable of surviving on the land and from nature. They relied on theft and obtaining modern-day supplies to survive, not actions or behaviours in keeping with true mountain men.
These two men had decided they wanted to live in the mountains. Knowing most women would not choose to live there with them, they had hatched a kidnap plan believing given enough time, even held against their will, their chosen woman would come to love the mountainside as much as they did. Don Nichols wanted a wife for his son so they could start a family and he was happy to hold an unsuspecting woman captive to achieve it.
On 13 December 1984, the pair were finally located after their camp was spotted by a ranger. Madison County Sheriff Johnny France arrested the two men who caused him no trouble once they realised they had been discovered. Don Nichols was charged with kidnapping, the aggravated assault of Jim Schwalbe and the murder of Alan Goldstein. His son, Daniel Nichols, was also charged with murder, kidnapping, and assault.
Daniel Nichols went on trial in May 1985 in Virginia City. His father, awaiting trial himself, testified that the plan to kidnap a woman to live with the men on the mountain was his idea. Daniel Nichols defence relied upon a portrayal of a domineering father who pressured his son into agreeing to his plans. “My dad didn`t believe in society. He didn`t think there should be laws.” Dan Nichols told the court. He was acquitted of murder and found guilty of kidnap and assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Don Nichols, during his trial one month later, admitted kidnapping and threatening Kari Swenson with physical force to keep her restrained. He admitted putting a new shell in his rifle after killing Alan Goldstein suggesting to Jim Schwalbe he was going to shoot and kill him too. Don Nichols was found guilty and sentenced to 85 years in Montana State Prison.
Kari Swenson underwent months of gruelling treatments and physiotherapy to recover from her physical injuries. The mental scars, however, the trauma of the 18 hours she was held captive and then shot and left for dead are not easily healed. In a rare statement published in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in April 2012 she said:
“We the victims have a life sentence, not Don Nichols. They invoked a death sentence on Alan Goldstein. That is the ultimate sentence. The life sentence for me is that every day of my life I have to deal with the death of a friend, the memories and horrors of being kidnapped, being chained up like an animal, being shot in the chest, and then left to die.”
Daniel Nichols was released from prison in 1991 and has not managed to keep out of trouble. He was arrested in 2012 on drugs charges and sentenced to four years in prison the following year. Don Nichols during this time remained behind bars, having each parole application since his imprisonment turned down. Janet Swenson, Kari Swenson’s mother, told the parole board, “Don’t be fooled by Don Nichols’ demeanor today. He’s a sociopath and that won’t change.” This year, however, at 86-years-old he was successful and he was released from prison in August 2017, serving just 32 years of his 85-year sentence.