Chapter 1: Chris is Dead

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In September 2017, Nikki Addimando, a young mom of two, shot her partner of nine years, Chris Grover. Nikki was sentenced to 19 years to life in prison for murder but she claims she was acting in self-defense. In this first episode, journalist Justine van der Leun takes us on a journey that starts with the night of the killing and ends at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York.


Justine van der Leun is the host, lead reporter, and producer. The supervising producer is Kristen Lepore, associate producer is Giulia Hjort, and production assistant is Rory James Leech. Additional reporting by Kristen Lepore and Giulia Hjort. Mixing and sound design by Kegan Zema. Music by RRA aka Sara Abdelaal. Fact checking by Justin Kloczko. Additional audio engineering from Ivan Kuraev. Story editing from Jackie Danziger. Our executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer.

Believe Her is created in partnership with Spiegel & Grau. Follow them on Twitter and Instagram at @spiegelandgrau.

Follow Justine on Twitter at @justinevdl and on Instagram at @jvanderleun.

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To follow along with a transcript, go to shortly after the air date.



Justine van der Leun, Nikki Addimando, Michelle Horton, Elizabeth Clifton, Lou

Justine van der Leun  01:26

Before we get started, a content warning. This episode contains accounts of domestic and sexual violence. Nikki Addimando is a young mom who would do anything for her kids. And tonight she says she made a decision to protect them and to protect herself. She made a decision to survive.

Justine van der Leun  02:02

In the dashcam footage we’re listening to Nikki is talking to two police officers. She’s been idling at a stoplight. An officer drives up behind her. And even though her arms are heavy and numb, she manages to open the car door and get out. Now, Nikki is trembling. She’s frantically spitting out words. It’s just after 2AM and Nikki’s kids are sleeping in the backseat. For the past nine years, Nikki has been in a relationship with Chris Grover, a local gymnastics coach and the children’s father. Tonight, Chris’s blood is on Nikki’s leggings. Her own blood is in her underwear. She’s explaining this to the cops right now. She says there was a gun. She says oh my god, it’s over. As the cops continue to question Nikki for two hours on the side of the road, the kids wake up. Nikki tells them that they just need to drive over to the police station to work things out. But her four-year-old son Ben does not want to go. Nikki is sure she acted in self-defense. She thinks the fight for her life is finally over. I’m here to tell you that fight is just beginning. Because in our world, the only good victim is a dead one.

Justine van der Leun  04:32

This is BELIEVE HER. I’m Justine van der Leun. Chapter One, still not free. We love a true crime story when the woman is dead. Her naked body is the starting point of most podcasts and shows and books, including one of my own. I’m a journalist. And years ago, I wrote a book that looked at the murder of a woman. It was about a lot of other things. But the murder was the starting point. In these true crime stories, along comes the hero. The hero is a hard drinking cop with his own demons, where the heroes an honorable prosecutor with a heart of gold. In any case, the hero is on a quest for justice. And in that quest, the end game is always a trial that results in hard prison time. This is the only way we can envision justice. The woman is dead, and her killer is locked up. And then it happens all over again. Another person dead. Another person in prison. What a pathetic cycle. But it’s how it goes. Only in death. Can a woman secure her status as the perfect victim, no voice, no power, no pulse, then, she deserves our sympathy. That’s why Nikki’s story is the upside-down story. It’s the story we don’t tell, the one where she doesn’t die. This is the story of survival.

Justine van der Leun  06:38

This story of survival begins in a leafy suburban town called the Poughkeepsie, which sits along a sparkling stretch of the Hudson River in upstate New York. It’s a lovely place to raise a family. And Poughkeepsie has a pretty big circle of modern hippie moms. They’re semi progressive, they buy organic, there are a lot of essential oil schemes going on. And they gather at this maternity boutique called Wattle and Swaddle. They talk babywearing and home births and nursing toddlers. Nikki was one of those moms. And like many of them, she took her kids to music classes. She and Chris didn’t have much money. But Nikki was always trying to find a way. Family had gifted their son Ben a semester at the coveted mid-Hudson music together classes, because Ben, everyone could see was a baby musical genius. The music together teacher was a woman named Elizabeth Clifton. Back some years ago, when Elizabeth and Nikki met, the classes were held in a spacious room at the Jewish Community Center. Parents came with their kids, sing silly songs danced around.

Elizabeth Clifton  08:02

I mean, I see a lot of parents who are all doing their best at parenting, right? But Nikki stood out to me from the very beginning. She was there fully present in the moment.

Justine van der Leun 

Elizabeth is also a present person, and she’s perceptive. Before she was a music teacher. She was a social worker. She’s the kind of woman who always has snacks in her back. High protein snacks, especially during a crisis.

Elizabeth Clifton 

I’m packing my bag of Turkey pepper; I was really hungry.

Justine van der Leun 

You’re sitting there eating slices of turkey pepperoni.

Elizabeth Clifton 


Justine van der Leun

After Nikki and Elizabeth met in class, they became friends. And eventually Elizabeth turned into one of Nikki’s confidants. Elizabeth is trustworthy. Plus, she didn’t know anyone in Nikki’s family or circle of childhood friends. So who on a practical level, could she tell about Nikki secrets? Nobody. Let’s go back to the stoplight. And the dash cam video where you first heard Nikki talking to the cops. Just before that, Nikki’s down the street at her apartment, apartment 7K, trying to wrap her mind around what just happened with the gun. And one of the first phone calls she makes is to Elizabeth, they have this long-standing deal. Elizabeth will always answer if Nikki is calling.

Elizabeth Clifton 

It was a little after two. I woke up and saw her name and like sat bolt upright in bed to answer the call and she’s just started like talking and saying he pulled a gun out of the couch and said he was gonna kill me. This thing that I had been afraid of for like a year and a half was happening now and this was the moment so she was there, she was alive.

Justine van der Leun  10:23

To Elizabeth, Nikki’s been living in a potentially lethal situation with Chris for years. So when she hears Nikki’s voice on the other end, and when she learned that a gun is involved, she immediately thinks Nikki’s in serious danger. She runs downstairs.

Elizabeth Clifton 

In my mind, like she had a little Headstart or something and I could maybe tuck her safely into my garage.

Justine van der Leun 

Elizabeth is thinking, if Nikki has just left Chris, Nikki is going to need to hide, especially if Chris is armed. But then Elizabeth gets another call. This time, Nikki’s with the cops. She’s asking, can Elizabeth come meet them? Sure. Okay. So Elizabeth drives to the scene. The cops Usher her to the bowling alley parking lot nearby. She’s just sitting there, possibly stressed gnawing on her turkey pepperoni.

Elizabeth Clifton 

And then officer came back and said, the kids were didn’t want to leave Nikki, and they were scared. So could I drive to the police station. And so that’s what we did. And the police station is just down the road.

Justine van der Leun 

In fact, if Nikki had taken a left, she would have been there in a few minutes. It’s an enormous beige metal warehouse. At night, it looks especially unwelcoming.

Elizabeth Clifton 

I walked in first and was like sitting and waiting. And then the door opened and Nikki and the kids came in. And I just like hugged her. And they took Nikki through a door.

Justine van der Leun  12:08

So Elizabeth stays behind with Nikki’s kids.

Elizabeth Clifton 

The kids were like in their pajamas, like no shoes. I had to like help Ben go the bathroom and all I had with me was my phone. And I like remember looking at apps and doing games with the kids on the phone and listening to music and some officers like we were getting hungry at that point. They offered to go get us breakfast from McDonald’s.

Justine van der Leun 

Egg McMuffin for Elizabeth and pancakes for Ben and his little sister Faye, the cops moved them to something called the family room. There’s some stuffed animals and picture books. It’s freezing. It’s one of those warm September nights but the air conditioning blasting.

Elizabeth Clifton

Like it was just as the night shifts today. And I can remember being on the sofa like and there was a blanket there. So I like pulled Faye onto my lap and covered us with the blanket and shivering and the kids. I know it just felt like I needed to kind of cuddle them. So we did. And we sat there for a long time. They had asked me to get all the kids clothes, including their diapers and underwear and everything. So that was sort of like more I was like, well, that’s weird. Like, why would you? Why would you need their clothes, right?

Justine van der Leun 

Elizabeth is taken aside for questioning. But she’s still not getting it.

Elizabeth Clifton 

I just remember them saying at one point like, well, we want to help your friend. But I have to tell you that Chris is dead. And she shot him. And I was shocked. And also I can remember saying something along the lines of like she doesn’t even like to kill insects. So I don’t know how this could have happened unless she was in danger.

Justine van der Leun  14:21

At this point, people with badges are filing in and out of the station. They look very serious, very stressed. Over the years, so many people have seen that Nikki was being badly hurt. And those people start showing up. Her therapist, a social worker, even the Special Victims Unit prosecutor. The county has a service dog, a golden retriever that comforts people who’ve been through a trauma. So at some point, a counselor is assigned to help Nikki and she asks, hey, can we get the dog down here for Nikki? Because she’s a victim of sexual abuse. Nikki knows this dog. She’s had him by her side before and she’s in obvious distress right now, but the powers that be replied, No. Not for Nikki. Not this time. Somewhere else in the building in a small fluorescent lit room detectives question Nikki. These are big, beefy dudes. These are dudes who, like a good belt, could bid a gear, fine buzz cut, New York version. And in the footage, there’s this large man, he’s leaning back. manspreading. A formality, he says, and then there’s Nikki curled up on a chair in the corner.

Justine van der Leun  16:24

She says she and Chris had sex that night. She’s bleeding from it. Was it rape? She’s not sure. After 9PM, on the night in question, Chris comes home from his late shift. He loads his gun, Nikki says, and hands her a bullet. You’re not gonna do anything. And you watch this footage and you think, Nikki, you have a dead body and you need a lawyer. But like every accused person on every crime show, she’s talking, she’s explaining she’s appeasing, what Nikki says to the cops is this. After the gun is loaded, she leaves the room, heads to the bathroom, and turns on the shower. Chris follows her and gets in with her, after, they move to the living room, and he makes her have sex on the couch. As all of this is unfolding, the gun is nowhere to be seen. At this point, it’s clear to Nikki that something bad is coming. But she’s not sure how this is going to end. She says after they have sex. Chris tells her to lie with him. And she obeys. He locks her in his arms. Time goes by, she waits. When she thinks he’s asleep, she tries to sit up. And this is when he pulls the gun from the couch cushions. And she needs him in between his legs.

Justine van der Leun  18:40

So now Nikki says, she has the gun held to him. And Chris tells her. He tells her you’re going to give the gun to me and I’m going to kill the both of us and then our kids will have no one. When he mentions the kids, that’s when it happens. That’s when she lunges and pulls the trigger more after this break. Nikki’s interview with the detectives continues. They want to know more about the gun. A black one, she says with like, bullets that go into it. So we do not have an NRA member here, folks. Let’s take a moment. Can you tell a story backward? Tell me something that happened six hours ago. Do it backward? How’d that go? Now. Can you do it when you’ve been awake for 24 hours and your nerves are raw and your kids are who knows where and your underwear is bloody. And there’s two burly buzz cuts staring at you. And your boyfriend is dead on the couch with a gunshot wound to the brain. And you’re the one who shot him. And so it seems to dawn on Nikki. These people don’t necessarily believe me.

Justine van der Leun  24:20

If the detectives don’t think it’s obviously self-defense, then what do they think? Do they think she plotted out a murder? And if they think that, then who is Chris in all of this? Who is the victim and who is the perpetrator? What Nikki will soon find out is that in this system, you can only be one or the other. Night bleeds into morning, the sunrises and the cops show up in a nearby town called Pleasant Valley. They knock at the door of an apartment nestled in a tidy condo development. This is where Nikki’s Big Sister, Michelle Horton lives with her eight-year-old son.

Michelle Horton 

There were lots of questions that we had, can’t answer that ma’am. Is Nikki okay. She’s okay. What happened, can’t answer that ma’am. And wouldn’t tell us anything. Just said someone needs to come pick up the kids.

Justine van der Leun 

Nikki’s Sister, Michelle, is relentlessly poised, like is it from mindfulness meditation? Is she about to spontaneously combust? Could it be both?

Michelle Horton 

I assumed it would all blow over. So I went to work and just kept checking in with my mom. And she’s like, panicking.

Justine van der Leun 

In retrospect, the fact that Michelle just drives off to her nine to five is bananas. It goes to show how little Michelle understood at that point. She works all day typing, emailing, yada, yada. When she gets home, her apartment is in disarray. Her mom is there flipping out. Nikki’s kids are there running around, Michelle’s own son is there. Then time itself, the information coming into Michelle’s world, everything starts moving at warp speed. And in the middle of all this chaos, a social worker from Child Protective Services, the child welfare agency shows up unannounced.

Michelle Horton  26:19

And my mom’s like white in the face. And then we just have to like, do the next thing, which is talk to CPS. My mom had a slip of paper that had Elizabeth’s name on it said I picked up the kids from the police station. This woman Elizabeth was there, I was like oh, I know who Elizabeth is. That’s the music teacher. Right? Like I’ve heard her name. Ben is obsessed with her.

Justine van der Leun

So Michelle calls Elizabeth to get some answers. Keep in mind, this was the first conversation they ever had.

Elizabeth Clifton 

I felt a lot of weight because I knew what had been going on. And her family didn’t. And I knew that they didn’t. I mean, that would have been the late afternoon early evening of it was still light outside. I remember going out in my front yard and being on the phone looking at this tree and my heart and hearing her voice and, I said Chris was a bad man. He was hurting her really badly.

Michelle Horton 

And I was like, tell me everything. And she did. She told me as much as she knew and I was like, oh my god, like everything makes sense now.

Justine van der Leun 

Later, Michelle will look back at photos and she will see so many injuries. The burn marks, the scarves in the summer. The bruises behind sunglasses. Nikki’s excuses from back then. Now, they seem so lame. Why had Michelle accepted them? What had she done? And then, Michelle will find out that there are other people who Nikki had confided in. There had been investigations, files, cops, prosecutors, social services. There’d been curious gymnastics moms, there’d been worried preschool teachers. Why hadn’t anyone said anything to Michelle?

Michelle Horton  28:32

There were entire text threads of friends talking about this, how to keep her safe, people that I knew. First of all, not one single person came to me and said, I think something’s going on with your sister.

Justine van der Leun 

In Poughkeepsie, long before Chris’s death, Nikki had been this object of concern and of gossip. People saw, people talked, and people did not know what the hell to do.

Elizabeth Clifton 

People would confront her and they just backed off. You know, when she said no, everything’s fine.

Justine van der Leun 

And still, with so many people in the know, Nikki was never able to find her way to safety. Now, Michelle is beginning to piece together what happened to her little sister. After all, the questioning is done after Nikki asks for a lawyer, she’s arrested. That same day cops cuffed her and they take her to the local jail. She stripped searched a stranger appears deeply into her bodily cavities. They give her an orange jumpsuit knockoff kids a weird little deodorant stick a toothbrush and they put her in a very loud cell with no pillows. But all of that is nothing compared to the toll of being apart from her kids. Nikki has pretty much never been away from them. When they were separated by the police. Nikki promised those kids she’d be right back. But now, Michelle has the kids and Nikki’s in jail. So, Ben and Faye have lost their dad and their home. And their mom is calling from some mysterious place, telling them that their dad has had an accident. And she’s working with police to find out what happened. She has to stay away for a little while. And she doesn’t know how long that will be. Sometimes, during these first few months, when Nikki is in jail, Ben goes and he stands in a corner of Michelle’s apartment, and he screams, where is she? Where is she? After she’s arrested, Nicki is driven three miles west to Dutchess County Jail, one of the worst jails in New York state. There, she sits in this dank, filthy cell, and she replays what she’s done. And then she replays it again, with her sister.

Michelle Horton  31:12

And even then, I didn’t understand the full scope. It was kind of like layers and layers were being revealed over the course of a few days, where it was like what else am I going to find out?

Justine van der Leun 

Here Nikki is less than 24 hours after the shooting, calling Michelle from jail. Nikki’s thinking about Chris. She’s missing him. And she’s thinking about Chris’s parents. Gail and Pete Grover, Nikki have considered them family.

Michelle Horton  32:36

And with each revelation, it was like reality just flipped again and again and again. I always felt like I wanted the truth, even if like there was something in me subconsciously that didn’t want the truth. So it was really an opportunity for me to just be completely immersed in whatever horror, like what’s the next terrible thing that I’m going to hear and I just had to keep moving through that.

Justine van der Leun 

During her many months in jail, Nikki barely ate. The food was disgusting. And she had no appetite anyway. And she quickly went from very slender, to skin and bones. Every chance she got; she called her family. She called Ben and Faye and she’s saying to them and she comforted them. And she called Michelle, her dad Al and her mom. Belinda. Belinda Addimando. As you will soon find out. Nikki had been through so many traumatic things from the time she was five years old. And although Nikki and her mom Belinda had always been close, they also had a very complicated relationship. Because when Nikki was living through her traumas, Belinda looked away. Here’s Michelle again.

Michelle Horton  34:38

My mom’s own traumas, and my mom’s own societal indoctrination or programming. rewired her own alarm bells. So she didn’t have the capacity to be able to really see this for what it was, for all the reasons we have blind spots, all the reasons that it would make her feel like a bad mom that she failed. I really don’t think that it was conscious in any way. I think it was very subconscious until the very end when it all exploded and we were all like, oh my God, what didn’t we see? What did we do?

Justine van der Leun 

Belinda never wanted to confront the violence that her daughter had experienced. It was too hard. If you know, then you have to do something. You have to wrestle with the depth of your child’s pain with the enormity of the damage. There’s no guidebook here. And so Belinda just pretended that everything was fine. Until this call. This call happens on September 30th, two days after Nikki’s arrested on this call, Belinda finally faces it, she finally really sees Nikki, she finally believes her. More of this story after the break.

Justine van der Leun  38:01

I first heard about this case back in 2018 when I saw a hashtag on Twitter, #freeNikki. It was posted by an organization called Survived and Punished, which advocates for survivors in women’s prisons. It was a new organization, and I was intrigued. I found my way to a website called We Stand With Nikki where Elizabeth the music teacher was listed as a contact. I called her. Elizabeth sounded super nervous, but she agreed to meet me and to bring Michelle, I had a new baby at home. And I couldn’t travel far. Poughkeepsie seemed feasible. A day trip from my apartment in Brooklyn. I thought, let’s go, find out a little bit more about Nikki about Chris, write a piece about this young mom who killed her partner, a guy she said had abused her. I never expected to go so deep into this story. But since then, I’ve spent nearly three years poring over court documents sifting through evidence tracking down almost every single person who had anything to do with this whole situation. And I can’t stop. Like, I cannot stop thinking about it.

Justine van der Leun  42:00

Because as I looked into this, I started to wonder, wait, is it really possible that in our name with our tax dollars, people employed by our government would attack and discredit a person who was brutalized for a lifetime and then fought back? Just that one time. I kept looking for evidence to support the case that New York State built against Nikki, that she was a murderer, a manipulator, a malingerer, a slut, brilliantly conniving, a criminal mastermind. And that’s not at all what I was finding in my reporting. Now, in hindsight, just asking this question, would our legal system really do this, seems naive, because that’s how it works. There are 220,000 people incarcerated in women’s and girls’ correctional facilities in the US. That’s a 700% increase since 1980. That’s more than any other country in the world. And though Nikki is White, people of color are disproportionately affected. Like Nikki, the majority of people in women’s prisons were abused before they entered prison. Here’s Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Clifton 

There’s no single moment, right? Where it’s like, okay, this is the exit or this is way out. What the rest of the world doesn’t see is all of the everything that came before it, right? It’s like so gradual. And she and other survivors think that the reason it’s going wrong is because of them, right? Because the abuser is so good at convincing them that it’s their fault. Any person who’s trying to survive abuse is going through their life, like maybe reaching out for help maybe like Nikki trying to find a therapist, find someone you can trust, lay the seeds, lay the groundwork for maybe leaving the relationship when you can see an out in it, right? and a lot of the times that pathway leads with the woman debt. In this case, that’s what almost happened. And she got lucky. And they try to go backwards and look at everything from that perspective, rather than starting here, which is at the beginning with all the people who walked through this with her and saying, Yeah, this is the story of a woman who was being severely abused and tortured, and she saved herself.

Justine van der Leun  45:08

In the spring of 2019, a year and a half after the shooting, Nikki was tried by the state of New York. The case is called The People vs. Nicole Addimando. FYI, we are the people, the state is prosecuting on our behalf. After her trial, a jury convicted Nikki of murder in the second degree. A judge sentenced her to 19 years to life in prison. She was transferred to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York’s only women’s maximum-security prison. Nikki and I message all the time on the prison email system. Bedford Hills is just over an hour from my apartment in Brooklyn. I go there every few months. Recently, when the prison opened back up to visitors after a long pandemic shutdown, I went to see her and for the first time I got permission from the prison to bring in a recorder. Okay, just well, so it’s been a year. I’m just pulling in Bedford Hills, barbed wire, we were accompanied by a media liaison. His name’s Lou.

Lou  46:19

There’s absolutely nothing you can say that I’ve never heard before. I’ve been doing this for many years. The only things that I have to report is if you, you know, if you say anything like you’ve been sexually abused or sexually harassed by staff, or by another inmate, but if it’s anything having to do with your past or with your case, nothing to worry about. Okay? I just want to give you that reassurance.

Justine van der Leun 

Welcome to my fun, relaxed one on one interview. How are you?

Nikki Addimando 

See, don’t ask that question. That’s too big of a question. I’m here. So there’s that. I don’t know anymore.

Justine van der Leun 

Nikki, and I sat there in our masks, and I finally got a chance to ask her something that’s been on my mind. What should you have done?

Nikki Addimando 

I asked myself that question every day. If someone could please tell me what I should have done in that moment. If I could go back in time, I still don’t know in that moment. What I could have done. And it happened so fast. I mean, do you know what I should’ve done? Because I’ve been searching for the answer.

Justine van der Leun 

I mean, I guess, lived or died was may be the only two options? I think you chose one. I think maybe some people would prefer you chosen the other.

Nikki Addimando  48:14

It’s probably the only way I would have been believed.

Justine van der Leun

A lot of people say there was a third option. Nikki should have left. If she was being so badly abused, she should have left the relationship. Or at the very least, she should have escaped when she was holding the gun. When Chris was just laying on the couch. She should have opened the door and walked away. But the people who say that, they haven’t retraced Nikki steps through her childhood and to where we are now. But I have the more I looked into this case, the more there was to look at, this story will pull you in deeper into Nikki and Chris’s relationship, deeper into the abuse and then deeper into the criminal legal system. This season on BELIEVE HER. Can someone kill but not be a murderer? Could Chris have been a nice guy and a good gymnastics coach but also have done some really gruesome things behind closed doors? Could Nikki have been a beat down victim and still have been powerful enough to defend herself in one moment? Can we confront all the complexities held within this story for what they really are, and then start to unravel them? Who’s more powerful, those who want Nikki in prison, or those who want her to be free.


BELIEVE HER is a co-production of Lemonada and Spiegel and Grau. I’m your host Justine van der Leun. The production team includes me and our supervising producer Kristin Laporte, our Associate Producer Julia York, and our production assistant Rory James Leech. Mixing and sound design by Kegan Zema music by Sara Abdullah. Factchecking by Justin Classico. Story editing from Jackie Danziger. Additional audio engineering by Ivan Kuraev. Our executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Spiegel and Grau. Thanks to Ariana Giles for editorial feedback. Special thanks to Michelle Horton and Elizabeth Clifton for archival tape. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, use a safe computer and contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at the or call 1-800-799-7233 help others find our show by leaving us a rating and writing a review. Follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms or find me at @JustineVDL. You can also get bonus content and behind the scenes material by subscribing to Lemonada Premium. You can subscribe right now in the Apple podcasts app by clicking on our podcast logo and then the subscribe button. If you want to continue the conversation with other listeners please join our Believe Her podcast community on book clubs. Join for free at Thank you so much for listening.

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