Chapter 3: The Silencing
Nikki was abused, doubted and silenced from a young age — and yet, there were still too many so-called “bad facts” that helped the prosecution build their case against her. This week, Justine talks to one of Nikki’s childhood friends about witnessing the early abuse and the cycle of trauma that followed.
- If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, use a safe computer and contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at www.thehotline.org or call 1-800-799-7233. You can also search for a local domestic violence shelter at www.domesticshelters.org/.
- If you have experienced sexual assault and need support, visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) at www.rainn.org or call 1-800-656-HOPE.
- Have questions about consent? Take a look at this guide from RAINN at www.rainn.org/articles/what-is-consent.
- Learn more about criminalized survival in New York State at www.survivedandpunishedny.org/.
- Learn more about the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act at www.nysda.org/page/DVSJA.
- Read Justine’s May 2020 investigative piece on Nikki’s case at www.gen.medium.com/nikki-had-proof-shed-been-abused-but-was-it-enough-for-self-defense-bd9f196396eb.
- Follow the We Stand With Nikki campaign on Instagram at @westandwithnikki, on Twitter at @standwithnikki and on their webpage at www.westandwithnikki.com.
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.
Stay up to date with us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @LemonadaMedia.
If you want to continue the conversation with other listeners, please join our Believe Her podcast community on Bookclubz at www.bit.ly/believeherbookclubz and our Facebook group at www.facebook.com/groups/believeher/.
Interested in bonus content and behind the scenes material? Subscribe to Lemonada Premium right now in the Apple Podcasts app by clicking on our podcast logo and the “subscribe” button.
Stay up-to-date on everything in the Lemonada world by becoming a superfan at https://joinsubtext.com/lemonadasuperfan.
Click this link for a list of current sponsors and discount codes for this and all other Lemonada series: lemonadamedia.com/sponsors.
To follow along with a transcript, go to www.lemonadamedia.com/show/believeher shortly after the air date.
Justine van der Leun 00:44
If you’re just tuning in, I suggest you go back and start listening from chapter one. Before we start a content warning, this episode contains accounts of domestic and sexual violence including child sexual abuse. One of the first things Nikki did when she got to jail was write a letter to her best childhood friend, Caitlin. Here Nikki is reading it to me
Nikki Addimando 01:49
Caitlin, it’s been a long time and I know you have travelled a rough road. I never stopped missing you and hoping that you could find peace. Do you remember the first time I slept over at Aunt Eileen and Uncle Butch’s house with you? We shared a bit; I know your eyes were closed but I can still picture your eyelids fluttering. Did you peek? Did you see, Butch? Did he do it to you, too? Do you remember?
Justine van der Leun 02:26
This is BELIEVE HER. I’m Justine van der Leun. Chapter Three, The Silencing.
Justine van der Leun 02:49
To understand Nikki’s relationship to men you have to understand her childhood. From a young age, Nikki’s body was not her own. And that opened her up to repeated exploitation. All her life people tried to erase parts of Nikki’s story. At her trial. It was no different. But there is one part. One thing that happened when Nikki was a kid that even the most determined prosecutor couldn’t erase. Because someone else had been there. Someone else saw what happened. And that person is Caitlin Sanford. Caitlin and Nikki lived across the street from each other as kids. Caitlin remembers meeting Nikki for the first time
Caitlin Sanford 03:37
I think I was playing in my little green sandbox. One of those like old school green turtle sandboxes, you know? The big Fisher Price one.
Justine van der Leun 03:58
Caitlin was in her sandbox. When Nikki and her mom walked over. It was love at first sight.
Caitlin Sanford 04:06
She was the cutest thing. Her hair was so thick and dark. Oh my god, the eyelashes off the hook. Like her mom used to have to take petroleum jelly on a little toothbrush and stroke her eyelashes before bed at night. Because they were so long that she would go to sleep. And they would get tangled together and then she would wake up in the morning screaming like..
Justine van der Leun 04:39
The girls never sat still. They spent their days outside, climbing trees playing games, trying to save little creatures.
Caitlin Sanford 04:48
On Nikki’s property. There was this big beautiful magnolia tree. And we started like a pet cemetery where like every time we like rescue one of these like baby birds or like toad or whatever and it would die. We bury it under the magnolia tree and you know Nikki so crafty, she would make little headstones for them.
Justine van der Leun 05:15
And Nikki and Caitlin had this clubhouse.
Caitlin Sanford 05:17
I had a closet. And that closet was like me and Nikki’s, like special for and you walk into the closet. And then to the right, there was like a little doorway opening that opened up into this little crawl space that we turned into like our little like for security safe room.
Justine van der Leun 05:43
A place of their own, somewhere hidden, where nobody else could reach, these kids, they really needed that safe room. When Michelle, Nikki’s sister, thinks back to those days, she remembers a good childhood, unremarkable.
Michelle Horton 06:04
From my perspective, it seemed very ordinary and normal. I know that I had a very different childhood than my sister, and I didn’t realize that until much later in life.
Justine van der Leun 06:19
As they grew up, Nikki and Caitlin stayed close. Even when they were no longer neighbors, the girls still met up for playdates and eventually parties.
Caitlin Sanford 06:30
So on my 18th birthday, we throw like a kegger. And Nikki is the lightweight, so she’s never really been a drinker. But you give the girl one goddamn beer and she’s like, with the equivalent of three or four beers to a normal human being, she just has a very low tolerance for drinking. You know, she would play beer pong and you know, drink the little half inch of beer in the bottom of the cup just for the sake of the game. And she was a good sport. She wasn’t like a super-duper prude. And like, in the middle of this like party of people, she starts saying things like, no one will ever know the things that me and Caitlin have shared in the past when we were kids, and we lost our virginity at the same time to the same person. I’m like, Oh, my God, like you’re killing me, bro. Like why?
Justine van der Leun 07:41
Nikki was bringing back memories that Caitlin had worked for years to suppress.
Caitlin Sanford 07:50
In that time period before like, I really was forced to have to like address my previous trauma. I swear it was like I could forget about it. She reminded me.
Justine van der Leun 08:07
Caitlin didn’t want to be reminded. And so at that party, she kept her mouth shut and had another drink. That story, Nikki had been trying to get off her chest at the kegger, it dates back to when the girls lived across the street from each other. Caitlin lived with her mom and her mom’s boyfriend in a house that belonged to his parents. Aunt Eileen and Uncle Butch. Butch was like a grandpa to Caitlin.
Caitlin Sanford 08:42
After dinner every night if the weather was permitting, Butch would say like, alright, like time for our midnight swing. And we had like a big swing outside. It was not a big swing. It was really the top of like one of those like five-gallon buckets with a hole punched in it and then like a rope put through it and tied. And I used to love getting pushed like super high on that swing. I love that. There are times where I’m sure it was at least 20 feet off the ground. And I’m like three and a half, four years old.
Justine van der Leun 09:23
But the midnight swing wasn’t some act of grandfatherly generosity by Butch. It was his method of getting Caitlin alone, of getting her use to his hands on her body.
Caitlin Sanford 09:38
There was a period of maybe eight months to a year where there was what seemed to me at the time as frequent abuse more than once a week, maybe? And there was just like, certain things that I can look back now and see like, oh, that’s like a grooming behavior.
Justine van der Leun 10:04
Caitlin wasn’t the only one who Butch targeted. One full day Nikki and Caitlin had their first sleepover. Nikki remembers her sixth birthday was coming up. Nikki and her mom argued, her mom wanted her to wear warm footed PJ’s. But Nikki wanted to show off her fanciest pajamas with shorts. And she got her way. She went over to Caitlin’s and they played, had dinner, and went to bed.
Caitlin Sanford 10:30
But I remember seeing the light hit like the opposite wall. And then I could hear Butch’s voice very low and he had like a low voice to begin with, but I could hear him like whispering.
Justine van der Leun 10:48
Through Nikki’s own notes and many interviews with her therapists, Sarah Caprioli, who you met in the last episode. I was able to piece together what happened that night. Nikki was tiny. Her body had warmed the top half of the sheets. Bush slid her on her stomach down to the cold bottom half. He pulled down her shorts and he pressed his hand on the back of her neck. Nikki wish she had worn the PJ’s her mom had told her to wear, maybe then this wouldn’t be happening.
Caitlin Sanford 11:16
I don’t remember what he was saying. I didn’t turn to look. But I remember hearing Nikki like kind of crying not like crying. But like sniffling crying, whimpering crying.
Justine van der Leun 11:36
Nikki recalls the searing pain of penetration. In the morning, she woke up to the smell of bacon. Nikki said her foot hurt and she needed to go home immediately. This became a joke in her family, it was such a ridiculous excuse, they thought. She clearly just missed her mom. Caitlin had wet the bed. Her mom scolded her. Caitlin was only four then. But even today, decades later, she feels responsible for what happened to Nikki.
Caitlin Sanford 12:10
If I could go back, I would easily take that abuse from her like I would willingly like you know, choose me, you know? But I was small and naive then. Just concerned about my own. Like dumb shit like wanting to sleep.
Justine van der Leun 12:38
After Butch assaulted Nikki that night, she never went to a sleepover again. The smell of bacon forever turned her stomach and she never eat meat again. This is when she became a vegetarian. To this day, every time someone touches the back of Nikki’s neck, she jumps and tenses, her body hurtles back to the cold sheets, to Butch on top of her. What happened to Nikki, it was happening to Caitlin all the time, but she was scared to tell. Nikki went home the morning after that assault. But Caitlin was home under Butch’s roof. He used that against her. Later, Caitlin’s mom broke up with her boyfriend and they moved out of that house. But even then, Caitlin obeyed Butch. She never spoke up, at least not until later, when Nikki really needed her.
Justine van der Leun 13:48
In the days following the sleepover, Nikki’s mom Belinda found blood in Nikki’s underwear. She took Nikki to the pediatrician. Was she okay? According to Michelle, the doctor said, don’t worry. This kid is a gymnast. And gymnasts have accidents. So Belinda moved on. Nikki wasn’t moving on, though. Everyone could see it. Her big sister Michelle remembers a major shift.
Michelle Horton 14:14
Her personality changed a lot when she was in kindergarten, which just seemed like you know, kids get separation anxiety, right? Like she became very quiet and scared. And to never wanted to be away from my mom. She couldn’t go to kindergarten without a locket with her picture in it. As we were getting older though. My mom would say she had hang ups. And we didn’t really talk about what that was. But she was just very, very embarrassed of her body wouldn’t even change in front of me. She was just very private and very fearful.
Justine van der Leun 15:02
Nikki wasn’t talking about what had happened, but she was keeping records. I have copies of diary entries from when she was a kid. In one, soon after the assault she wrote in […]. I don’t like Uncle Butch anymore. In another when she was older, she wrote about her mom in cursive pencil. I have secrets. She won’t care or believe me, it’s safe with you. I love you diary. This was her proof. Even if everyone acted otherwise, it did happen. Nikki had her secrets, but she was still a good student and athlete. She had close friends. She went to parties with Caitlin. Life goes on. Everyone else moved forward to including Belinda, Nikki and Michelle’s mom. Michelle told me that later on, Belinda did seem to suspect that something had happened to Nikki when she was a kid. And there was some vague chatter in the family that Butch the old neighbor did it. But that was that, nobody ever really talked about it. And maybe that’s because Belinda didn’t want to believe that it had happened.
Justine van der Leun 16:11
Was your mom a good mom?
Michelle Horton 16:13
She did her best. She had her own sex hang ups that never got resolved. And she very much took her self-worth and her like validation based on other people that other people thought of her and she was very like, I’ll show you this picture.
Justine van der Leun 16:34
Early on in my reporting, I went to visit Michelle at her condo. We talked about what it was like growing up with Belinda. And she showed me some childhood photos. A note, I was never able to talk to Belinda. That’s because she died of cancer. Two months before Nikki’s trial.
Michelle Horton 16:54
We had like a couple different versions of our mother. So this is the mother who was like a mom and she like didn’t do her hair. She wore like old woman glasses and she wore like funky sweaters.
Justine van der Leun 17:07
Michelle went off to college and Nikki stayed at home because she was two years younger. Nikki was there when her parents’ marriage fell apart. Belinda and her husband, the girl’s dad, separated and that’s when Belinda made some big changes.
Michelle Horton 17:21
When she started doing real estate, you know, she had to get headshots for her, you know the signs that you would see on the side of the road and her business cards. And she got a hair straightener and then that like really changed her then she was like feeling herself because she was such a beautiful woman. But with the hair straightener, she was like, you know, really beautiful. Everything changed. The world opened up. It was like we were brand new people.
Justine van der Leun 17:53
A newly single Belinda started managing the mountain Brook apartments in Poughkeepsie. The job came with a free two bedroom where she and Nikki lived. Belinda started going out making new friends smoking a joint here and there. She’d never been conservative. But in this new stage of life, she was super chill.
Michelle Horton 18:16
A very progressive mom and like if you want to drink, drink here and like I’ll buy you condoms and I’ll buy you alcohol. I’m a cool mom.
Justine van der Leun 18:25
In contrast, Nikki came off as a specially uncool.
Michelle Horton 18:31
I think once boys and sex got into our lives as like our reality. That’s when I started noticing that Nikki was not like us. You know, like, I would read Cosmo magazines and joke around with my friends and like, I don’t know, just like, just like talk like a like a teenage girl like exploring things and like joking around and she never, she would literally shut her if you would mention it was there was a palpable disgust around sex.
Justine van der Leun 19:03
But if Nikki wanted to date boys, she’d have to figure something out. So she went to her mom with questions. This is Michelle reading me one text exchange between Nikki and Belinda.
Michelle Horton 19:15
She wrote mom, would you be mad if you said no and woke up to them having sex with you anyway?
Justine van der Leun 19:21
Michelle Horton 19:23
You can’t expect to sleep in the same bed as him and not have sex with him. The poor guy, why buy the cow that has no milk?
Justine van der Leun 19:31
And then Nikki’s like.
Michelle Horton 19:32
Is it normal for them to do weird things? It hurts.
Justine van der Leun 19:36
And Belinda goes.
Michelle Horton 19:39
You just have hang ups about sex. You have to get past it. You’re prude, live in their fantasy you’ll see someday you’ll like it. You have to let go.
Justine van der Leun 19:47
Live in their fantasy. Let go. Belinda told Nikki that she just needed to learn to like it. Belinda didn’t seem to understand that her own past had shaped her ideas about sex about what women were expected to endure and about what they owed to men.
Michelle Horton 20:08
I knew she was date raped when she was 14. I knew that was her first sexual experience. And it was kind of presented in a way of like this is what’s going to happen to you. Like, this is what happens to women and I want to prepare you.
Justine van der Leun 20:23
Belinda had been raped. And she had also been beaten up. One long term boyfriend had punched her put cigarettes out on her body.
Michelle Horton 20:32
And her way of like, protecting us was basically to just be like, just, you know, men, men have needs and this is you know what they do, and this is what happens and she, we never had a talk of like, this is what you’re worth, and this is what your value is.
Justine van der Leun 20:58
Belinda is not some wild outlier. She lives in the same world as the rest of us. Her behavior and her views came from her own traumas, as well as the messages she got from society, larger cultural messages about sex and gender roles. And Belinda passed that on to her own daughters. She passed on the idea that it’s acceptable for a man to use your body to satisfy his pleasures and urges. Nikki was especially vulnerable to this kind of thinking because her childhood abuse was never acknowledged or treated. What began with Butch, it continued with other men all throughout Nikki’s life. More on that after this break.
Justine van der Leun 24:09
Nikki says Chris wasn’t the only one who exploited her. It’s time to address some really complicated parts of Nikki’s story, the bad facts. Bad facts are any inconvenient, inconsistent or unpleasant facts that a lawyer has to explain or contextualize for a jury. This is the stuff that comes out in the middle of any given courtroom drama, where suddenly we doubt everything. On TV, it’s usually something like a fingerprint or a bit of DNA or an alibi that turns out to be no good. For Nikki, one major bad fact involved three men, including Chris, these men overlapped in Nikki’s life for a few years. As I sat through the trial, as I heard about these men, I often thought, it seems like Nikki has experienced too much abuse by too many people and the prosecutor just can’t fathom it. Would the jury also find it far-fetched? I thought they very well might. Because Nikki’s legal team couldn’t clearly explain what happened with these three men. And they couldn’t explain it, in part because Nikki couldn’t explain it either. The prosecution used Nikki’s confusion to paint her as promiscuous and deceitful. And that’s why it’s important to clarify how these men overlapped in Nikki’s life to the best of our ability. And it’s also important to explain how her traumas played a role. And I’m not including Butch here, Butch was just the beginning. These are the men that came after. Let’s start with Cesar, man number one. From interviews with Nikki’s therapist Sarah, along with trial testimony, we understand that Nikki’s first encounter with Cesar was during the cool Belinda days when she was working as the manager at the mountain Brook apartments. Cesar was at the mountain Brook complex a lot because he was the head maintenance man there. So Nikki knew him, he was a familiar face. According to Nikki’s former therapist, Sarah Caprioli, who you met in the last episode, one day, Nikki was home alone in the apartment.
Sarah Caprioli 26:23
Cesar came in and under the guise of having to fix something like typing tile either in the kitchen or the bathroom. And it was a plausible explanation for why he was there. So shouldn’t really question it. And so she remembers then walking to the bedroom and Cesar following her in and I believe he tried to kiss her and she made some movement like either like backed up or like pushed him away or like tried to invade it in some way. And then I think he like slapped her, and then kind of like, pushed her onto the bed and assaulted her.
Justine van der Leun 27:02
Nikki was ashamed of what happened, so she didn’t talk much about it. She did divulge bits and pieces to some coworkers at the preschool where she worked. She also told Chris Grover, man number two. This was at the beginning of Nikki and Chris’s relationship. They were pretty young. They didn’t live together yet. But Chris would often stay at Belinda’s apartment at Mountain Brook. Remember, in the last episode, when Nikki told her therapist that Chris was patient in the beginning of the relationship, Nikki and Chris didn’t have sex for a year because of her childhood trauma. She didn’t want to, and Chris said, okay. But Nikki testified that the rape by Cesar, which happened more than a year into her relationship with Chris, that was a sort of tripwire. It was the turning point in her relationship with Chris. Nikki told Chris that a man quote, had sex with her. She didn’t call it assault or rape. Nikki had a hard time saying those words, but she had marks on her body. And Chris was infuriated. But not with the man. Nikki testified that he responded, is that your excuse for not wanting to have sex with me? You must like it rough. Nikki testified that soon after she told Chris about Cesar Chris began to spank, strangle and restrain her. Here’s Kellyann Kostyal-Larrier, she worked with Nikki’s attorneys as a domestic violence expert.
Kellyann Kostyal-Larrier 28:34
This idea that Chris did her a favor and was the patient partner that year of not pushing, you know, the sex piece, I feel it was all calculated from the beginning. And then when he when he couldn’t convince her like, you’re going to like it, that he just took it. And he was going to take it and punish her. Because how dare you make me hold out for a year and I’ve been patient with you. And you still don’t have your shit together. So now I’m just going to take it.
Justine van der Leun 29:03
This was all especially complicated during the trial because Nikki testified that after the initial assault was Caesar, her memories get hazy. Remember, the trial happened in 2019. The shooting happened in 2017. And all of this abuse. It took place around 2011 and 2012. So years had passed. She’d had two kids. But even though Nikki’s recollections weren’t crystal clear, she had never stopped thinking about the rapes. Here’s her therapist Sarah, again.
Sarah Caprioli 29:38
And so this is where it gets kind of messy after that first time. Um, so then she has a bunch of flashes of memory of Cesar. There are some flashes that are like flashes of being assaulted. Although, if you ask her she will say you know, I have those flashes of memory but I can’t see his face.
Justine van der Leun 30:01
So Nikki can’t remember exactly what happened with Cesar. And you might be wondering, how could she forget something so traumatic. The prosecutor in her case, also wondered this. This is when we get into a quick trauma 101 course, more than 130 years of research has shown that trauma memories are typically fragmented, disorganized, and nonverbal in nature. Traumatic Stress can change how the brain stores memories. I called Jim Hopper to learn more. He’s a clinical psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School, and he’s an expert on the biological effects of child abuse and sexual assault.
Jim Hopper 30:45
Typically, what people like journalists and others call me to talk about is memory for trauma, how people react when they’re being attacked.
Justine van der Leun 30:55
Jim says we experience and remember traumatic events differently than other events? In part, here’s why. When you live through a trauma, it is so stressful that you may dissociate. Survivors remember that they were raped, because that is the central detail.
Jim Hopper 31:15
The things that are emotionally significant that had survival value at the time that got attention. Those are the things that tend to get encoded, and then be prioritized for storage.
Justine van der Leun 31:27
But they often do not recall the peripheral details, dates, times chronology,
Jim Hopper 31:34
And that has nothing to do with her credibility. That’s just how memory can work for these things.
Justine van der Leun 31:41
Abusers count on this, that she won’t be able to get her story straight, and the criminal legal system exploits it. If she doesn’t have that perfect story. She’s not that perfect victim. Nikki told her therapist Sarah that she thought Caesar abused her more than once or twice, but I often wondered, as did others who knew this case? Could Nikki have conflated the Caesar abuse with the Chris abuse because of the trauma she’d been through. One expert witness for the defense was Dr. Dawn Hughes, a forensic psychologist who specializes in interpersonal violence and traumatic stress. Dawn conducted 16 hours of evaluation of Nikki, she found her to have no mental health diagnoses except for post-traumatic stress disorder. Dawn found that Nikki actually minimize the abuse she endured. And Dawn testified that she thought Nikki had absolutely done quote, what many women in violent relationships do, not wanting to identify the perpetrator of abuse as her partner. And I’ve seen pictures of Nikki’s injuries back during that time when she said Chris and Cesar overlapped pictures not admitted at trial. In those pictures, the injuries look a lot like later injuries that Nikki testified Chris had inflicted. Nikki just didn’t seem to have clarity on the specifics of this time period. But she did testify that both Caesar and Chris sexually assaulted her at Mountain Brook. Jim Hopper says..
Jim Hopper 33:18
All you’ve got an abstract idea of like, well, you know, I was raped by the maintenance guy and I was raped by my boyfriend. And maybe there’s just like a couple of details that they don’t even know which person or whatever they fit with. You can see how someone would have very incomplete and mixed-up memories of a chunk of their life, including traumatic stuff.
Justine van der Leun 33:40
Keep in mind, Nikki had been raped at the age of five. At that time, she developed a method of dissociating when she experienced trauma. She called it “going away”. So, Nikki didn’t have a flawless photographic memory of her rapes. And the prosecution presented her mixed-up memories as proof that she was deeply dishonest. This didn’t look good to a jury, and then it got worse. In addition to man number one, Cesar and man number two, Chris, another dude enters the picture. Man number three. Dave, Dave , he was a local cop. He’s now retired and a Mr. Todd’s gymnastics dad. Now this is going to get real small town. Dave. He’s a relative of Laurie Horning the landlord you met in the last episode.
Laurie Horning 34:47
I really want to kind of leave them out of this whole thing. I tried to tread very lightly on the fact that like, there’s family that’s been involved in this.
Justine van der Leun 34:57
So that’s how you got connected with her.
Justine van der Leun 35:01
Nikki knows Laurie through Dave. Laurie wouldn’t talk about Dave. But I will, because his name comes up time and again in this case. Dave is one of the people Nikki called from the police station on the night of the shooting. That’s because at least in part, Dave was a cop and Nikki was in a police station. For the record. I’ve reached out to Dave for years. He hasn’t responded. And to that point, I’ve also tried to find Cesar, but he moved out of state and I haven’t been able to track him down. Around the time, Nicki says Cesar raped her. While she’s dating Chris. She started showing up at her coaching job at Mr. Todd’s with bruises. Some people approached Nikki, including Dave, Nikki was his kids coach. Over time he gained her trust. Nikki wouldn’t tell Dave exactly who was hurting her. But she was banged up and in distress. She did eventually tell him it was happening to her at the Mountain Brook apartments. According to my interview with Nikki’s therapist, Sarah, Dave, the cop, he invites Nikki to move in with his family as a babysitter there, she’d be safe. So that’s what she did. She moved in with Dave, his wife and their daughter. And here it gets even messier. The prosecution calls what happened next, an affair, but Nikki’s therapist on the stand, categorize the relationship as non-consensual. One night, Dave approached Nikki, she was sleeping on the couch. Nikki says she never wanted to have any sexual interaction with him. But she felt obliged. Here’s the domestic violence expert Kellyanne again.
Kellyann Kostyal-Larrier 36:53
His excuse was he was in love with her. And you know, she’s basically a kid, she was in a position that she was extremely vulnerable. And then this guy comes downstairs and puts his tongue in her mouth.
Justine van der Leun 37:06
Kellyanne often collaborates with law enforcement. So she has a clear understanding of how Dave crossed a line.
Kellyann Kostyal-Larrier 37:15
We want to paint this picture as if this was mutual, as if this was consensual, and ultimately, on all levels, both on a personal level when you take a 22-year-old into your home that is experiencing domestic and sexual violence and is unsafe in a situation and you provide them with basic necessities, and in return, whatever think that it was appropriate to even engage or attempt to engage in, anything more than providing basic necessities.
Justine van der Leun 37:48
At trial, the lead prosecutor Hannah Kraus, called Dave […] Nikki’s paramour. Every time I’ve talked to Nikki, she’s expressed a deep regret that Dave was ever pulled into this case. But Kellyanne says it’s not Nikki’s fault.
Kellyann Kostyal-Larrier 38:05
And then how does she say no, because if she says no does she lose her safe place to sleep, and the roof over her head? And then she’s conflicted because he’s misusing that trust by saying, I want you to feel good, I want you to feel safe.
Justine van der Leun 38:18
So Dave wanted her to feel safe. He decided that there needed to be an investigation into who was hurting Nikki. He was concerned that there was a lunatic on the loose. He brought an unwilling, embarrassed 22-year-old Nikki to the town of Poughkeepsie Police Department. And by the way, Dave worked at a different station three miles away. So Dave told police that Nikki was a victim of multiple rapes that occurred at Mountain Brook a complex in their jurisdiction. I have a copy of the internal police report. It reads, Dave appear to have more information about the situations and dates than the victim. He said every time he drops her off at her mom Belinda’s apartment. She’s either sexually or physically assaulted by an unknown male. A detective named Chris Hamill, who was friendly with Dave was assigned the case. And since Nicky wouldn’t talk, as part of his investigation, Detective Chris Hamill called Belinda Nikki’s mom. He recorded the call.
Justine van der Leun 39:29
Detective Hamill explains what’s been going on with Nikki and Belinda had some questions. At the time, Nikki was also teaching at a preschool that’s connected to Vassar College. And her colleagues were really worried about her.
Justine van der Leun 40:48
I don’t know if this is a nervous laugh or what? I do know that Belinda was a loving and devoted mom at some points in her life. And in other times, she betrayed her child terribly. It’s hard to square those two facts, but that’s the truth. One thing is clear. When the detective called that day, Belinda didn’t want to deal with Nikki’s problems.
Justine van der Leun 42:11
Belinda’s the Mountain Brook manager, if you recall, and now some maintenance guy, we don’t know who, we don’t know if it was Caesar. He’s messed something up. She rushes off. It wouldn’t say this was a deep investigation, but it went on for about four months, and throughout Nikki continued to keep her mouth shut. In the back of the police file are some handwritten notes. One says quote, Chris Grover, boyfriend works at Mr. Todd’s, Dave states that Chris knows about the abuse, but not who it is. Wait, Chris, her loving boyfriend knows about these vicious attacks. He’s seen these nasty marks all over her. But Dave, the cop is the one taking action? The detective calls Belinda again. And he decides to close the case. They never find out who was attacking Nikki. Decade’s worth of research shows that abuse begets abuse and that sexual victimization in childhood raises the risk of sexual re victimization in adulthood by up to three times. I’ve had people in prison write me letters, and they’ve written it was as if each abuser left a cent on me that the next one would sniff out. But at trial, the prosecution spent a lot of time discussing the three men to create doubt about Nicki’s character. The prosecutor, Hannah Kraus told the jury that every man in Nikki’s life quote, they’re all in some way stalking or abusive to her. Think about that, when you examine her credibility. Caitlin, Nikki’s childhood friend was at the trial nearly every day, she watched prosecutor Hannah Kraus make her case against Nikki.
Caitlin Sanford 44:25
She tried to make it seem like it was so implausible that someone who is traumatized as a child would grow up and become someone that doesn’t have great relationships with men. Like it’s like funny if it weren’t horrifically, like unsettling that like this woman’s in a position of power, and like that most basic concept of like, guess what? If a man rapes you When you’re four years old, you might not develop the best ways to engage in a healthy relationship as an adult.
Justine van der Leun 45:10
So there we have them the bad facts. Nikki was likely violated by three men during one murky time period. She was young, it was traumatic. We don’t have all the details, and we will never really know what happened then. But we do know some things for sure. Like, there were five years between that time period and Chris’s death. And in those five years, Nikki only said she was hurt by one man, Chris, and yet the prosecution made Chris out to be a total sweetheart. According to prosecutor Hannah Kraus, Nikki was not a victim. She was a master manipulator. We’ll hear more about this after the break.
Justine van der Leun 47:12
Caitlin, knew that trauma can be this seed from which so much destruction sprouts, which is abuse ended back in the 90s. But the aftermath seemed infinite. As Nikki gravitated to Chris, Caitlin gravitated to drugs.
Caitlin Sanford 47:30
So I did oxy for maybe four years. And then I switched to heroin. And then I started shooting up and then within a year after I started shooting heroin, I was smoking crack shooting, taking acid, like just whatever I could find. If I could dissolve it in water, I would put it in my vein like..
Justine van der Leun 47:53
Caitlin had been on a small-time crime spree. She was arrested and sent to Dutchess County Jail. During this time, she found out she was pregnant, and she got clean.
Caitlin Sanford 48:04
So like in the space of like, four or five days, I went from being an active addiction living under a bridge to your pregnant in jail getting clean, and we just saved your life.
Justine van der Leun 48:20
Caitlin was released from jail after seven months. She’d been out only a few days. When she got the news.
Caitlin Sanford 48:29
I was heavily pregnant and I was hot. I think I had the I turn the AC on I laid down and must have been I don’t know maybe like 5pm or something for a nap.
Justine van der Leun 48:43
Her mom woke her up.
Caitlin Sanford 48:45
And she’s like, sit down and I mean, I’m like the fuck, what is going on? You know? And she was like, Nikki killed her husband. And she was like Nikki and I’m like, Nikki who? Like that’s how like, far-fetched like my brain couldn’t even what Nikki would kill who like and she was like Nikki Addimando killed her partner. She’s in Dutchess County Jail. And I was like, I just, you know, immediately started like, no, no, you’re wrong. There’s something wrong here. This is not right. This would never happen. Like something’s wrong. Like I don’t understand what’s happening but like, this is we,, I’m free. I’m out here and she’s in Dutchess County jail for murder.
Justine van der Leun 49:41
If they’d overlapped by just a day, Caitlin says, they would have shared a cell wall. Instead, they traded places.
Caitlin Sanford 49:52
If I had not been pregnant, I would have committed a crime to intentionally get arrested to get put back in. But the truth is that I ultimately could do a lot more on the outside with the knowledge that I have, than I could have done in there,
Justine van der Leun 50:13
Butch’s abuse headset Nikki and Caitlin on these different paths. But no matter which way they turned, they always circled back to this traumatic experience with Butch. And by the way, by all accounts, Butch seemed to have lived a good conventional, apparently law-abiding life, he retired on pension to Florida, lived by the sea, played golf, and died a few years ago. When Nikki sat in her jail cell, she thought of Caitlyn, of that part of herself. Here’s Nikki,
Nikki Addimando 50:54
Even though she was gone in jail, and we had gone our separate ways, she was always there. She was like this invisible like, person that was attached to me forever. We grew up with a shared experience. And it’s almost like I can so clearly see us as little girls, little like ghosts that I’ve carried around all this time. And that secrecy and the silence that we carried all those years. Being in that cell, for some reason, felt like that all over again. It felt like I was just alone with the deepest truth that I had.
Justine van der Leun 51:39
Nikki knew that early assault when she was five, it set all of this in motion. So she wrote Caitlin, a letter from Dutchess County Jail. When I visited Nicki at Bedford Hills prison earlier this year, I brought in a copy of the letter.
Nikki Addimando 51:55
I don’t even remember it. I don’t remember. I have no idea what’s on a piece of paper. Caitlin, it’s been a long time and I know you have travelled a rough road. I never stopped missing you and hoping that you could find peace. I got here to shortly after you were released. I hear you’re having a baby soon. Remember, we’re supposed to raise our kids together. Let that baby be the start of a new life for you. I believe in you. I knew you before all the bad things in your life. Cait, this is important. Do you remember the first time I slept over at Aunt Eileen and Uncle Butch’s house with you? We shared a bedroom. I know your eyes were closed but I can still picture your eyelids fluttering. Did you peek? Did you see Butch? Did he do it to you too? Can you dig down deep and uncover this memory? If you’re like me, maybe it still haunts you. But if you put it away deep inside and can’t go there, I understand to, if you saw he did to me, and he did it to you to please break the silence. Remember our secret club in your closet? We spent so many days hiding back there together safe with pillows on the ground and stickers on the wall. Do you remember? I love you always.
Justine van der Leun 53:44
After she got the letter, Caitlin went to the police station and she told the prosecution’s investigator that she saw Butch abuse Nikki. Caitlin believes that this is the only reason the prosecution never publicly doubted that had happened. I’ve been pretty fixated on this letter. Because it’s at the heart of what I’m looking at when I look at criminalized survival, this phenomenon in which women are punished for defending themselves or their kids. In Nikki’s case, and in so many other instances, there’s almost always a first violation that kicks off the whole cycle. There’s always an initial silencing. The people we lock up, we fail them early in our families and in our society, and then we look away, and then we funnel them into our criminal legal system. That system steps in where the abuser left off. And just like an abuser, our system takes away their story, discredits them controls their body isolates them. But in most cases, these early punishments aren’t recorded on a sheet lined paper, put in an envelope and mailed from jail to an old friend.
Justine van der Leun 55:13
Next week, on BELIEVE HER, we’ll go inside the month-long trial where Nikki is the perpetrator and Chris, he’s the victim.
Justine van der Leun 55:56
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 hotline.org 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 bit.ly/believeherbookclubz. Thank you so much for listening.