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Kidnap Victim Decries Myth of Mountain Men

July 10, 1989|ANN JAPENGA

BIG SKY, Mont. — On July 15, 1984, athlete Kari Swenson was kidnaped while running on a mountain trail near this resort town about 20 miles north of Yellowstone National Park.

Her abductors--who the next morning shot Kari through the chest and killed one of her rescuers--were self-proclaimed mountain men Don Nichols, 53, and his 18-year-old son, Dan. They had long shunned society, hiding out in the mountains and surviving on squirrel meat, poached livestock and caches of red beans. They believed that it was all right to kidnap a wife.

That's what they had in mind for Swenson, then one of America's top competitors in the biathlon, a sport that combines cross-country skiing and target shooting.

Subject of Extensive Media Coverage

The kidnaping, Swenson's rescue and the subsequent six-month hunt for the kidnapers was the subject of extensive newspaper, television and magazine coverage. The sheriff who captured the kidnapers wrote a book, and the incident spawned a 1987 NBC television movie, "The Abduction of Kari Swenson" featuring Tracy Pollan as Swenson.

Today, Kari Swenson is a 27-year-old veterinary student. Still fearing harm from strangers, the graceful auburn-haired athlete doesn't want people to know where she is living, and she has never talked to reporters specifically about the kidnaping. Even when she agreed to be interviewed earlier this year at her family's home in Bozeman, Mont., Swenson said as little as possible and let her mother do the talking.

Swenson for the first time has broken her silence in print form in a book released this month. "Victims: The Kari Swenson Story" (Pruett Publishing Co.) was written by her mother, Janet Swenson. The book was written because Kari Swenson and her family are haunted by more than the memory of her ordeal. They feel that Kari was the victim not only of a crime, but of a bizarre myth-making process that turned the criminals into folk heroes.

Reflecting on the media handling of her case, Kari Swenson said urban reporters--"people who don't understand the mountains"--managed to transform her ordeal into a ribald frontier adventure.

Barbara Walters said during a "20/20" segment aired after the Nicholses were convicted that the kidnapers' nonconformist philosophy sounded "almost romantic."

Esquire magazine glossed over the tragedy in this synopsis of their piece on the crime: "When some rowdy mountain men tried to snag a wife, a stubborn sheriff had to set 'em straight on the law."

Around campfires and in Montana mountain taverns, Swenson's ordeal was further transmuted into a modern-day Western legend, in which the Nicholses' ability to survive in the wilderness and make their own rules became a quality to be admired.

At the kidnapers' trials in Virginia City, Mont., tourists solicited autographs from the "Nichols boys" as they were called. An entrepreneur tried to hawk "mountain man" T-shirts printed with an image of the accused criminals; and a bar advertised a Don Nichols look-alike contest. A prosecuting attorney put a stop to both schemes.

Even after the pair were convicted, the media continued to give them a forum for their survivalist beliefs. (Don Nichols was convicted of deliberate homicide, kidnaping and assault, Dan of kidnaping and assault. Both are serving time in a Montana prison.) "Every time they snapped their fingers, the reporters ran to them," Janet Swenson said. The Nicholses were interviewed in prison for "20/20" (Kari Swenson declined to appear), and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle did a jailhouse interview as well as publishing letters to the editor that Don Nichols wrote from prison.

Meanwhile, Kari Swenson couldn't help feeling that her own suffering was trivialized by the media, when, for instance, an article caricatured her as "a proper Belle of Bozeman, the perfect flower of the New West."

She also recalls angrily the incident in which a writer for a magazine asked her to pose for photographs in a rustic cabin the magazine had rented for the purpose. She was to sit in front of a roaring fire wearing a red-and-black wool plaid shirt the art director had selected to complete the woodsy scene. Swenson refused.

According to trial testimony, five years before he kidnaped Kari Swenson, Don Nichols bought a chain with the intent of securing a suitable woman when he found one. He had a dream of starting his own "tribe" in the mountains and knew a woman probably wouldn't go along with the idea willingly--at first, he thought.

According to his testimony, on the day of the kidnaping Dan Nichols was wrapping fish line around a stick beside Ulreys Lake when he spotted Kari Swenson jogging down the trail. She was wearing running shoes, red shorts and a blue T-shirt with the sleeves and collar cut out. Dan testified that he was pleased with his find when Swenson came closer and he saw that she was the sort of good-looking woman he had hoped for.

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