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Kidnap Victim Decries Myth of Mountain Men

July 10, 1989|ANN JAPENGA

Then 22, and a recent graduate of Montana State University in Bozeman, Swenson had just set out on a six-mile training run when the Nichols father and son blocked her path. She was still basking in the recent thrill of winning the first medal ever for the United States in world biathlon competition in Chamonix, France.

Kidnaped at Gunpoint

The men grabbed her by the wrists. When Swenson struggled, the elder Nichols hit her on the left side of the face. She was led away through the woods, tethered by a rope to Dan Nichols, with Don Nichols walking behind her, his rifle aimed at her back.

The athlete's parents and friends organized a search that night when Kari failed to report for dinner duty at the Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky where she worked. By dawn, about 40 local people had assembled with their horses and motorbikes to help search.

About 8 that morning, 18 hours after Swenson was kidnaped, one of the searchers, Alan Goldstein, found the Nicholses in their camp. Kari was chained to a fallen lodgepole pine nearby. In an incident he later would testify was accidental, Dan Nichols shot Kari Swenson in the chest. Then Don Nichols shot and killed Allan Goldstein.

A second searcher, Jim Schwalbe, entered the camp after Goldstein, witnessed the shootings and ran for help. When Kari saw that the Nicholses were going to flee the scene, the wounded athlete begged them to leave her a sleeping bag so she could stay warm (it was a cold morning), but they dumped her out of the bag onto the ground.

For almost four hours, until Schwalbe returned with help, Swenson was left alone with ants and flies invading her bleeding wounds. "I thought I was probably going to die at any time," she later told the Madison County District Court jury.

Near Death

Swenson survived the wait only to come near death again as she was being airlifted out of the campground and her stretcher--dangling beneath a helicopter--collided with a tree.

Once Swenson was hospitalized in Bozeman, the media seemed to quickly lose interest in her and shifted their focus to the Nicholses. It was here that the mythologizing process took over and the campfire tale was born.

The Nicholses fascinated the press and the public, according to historian William Lang, because they fit neatly into a pre-existing archetype in the mold of legendary mountain men such as Yellowstone Kelley and Liver Eating Johnson, also known as Jeremiah Johnson. Lang is the former executive editor of Montana: The Magazine of Western History.

As a Sports Illustrated article said in a story on the abduction: "Some people were delighted at the ease with which the fugitives eluded capture and regarded 'old Don and Dan' as harmless throwbacks to an earlier, less trammeled era in the West."

In a similar vein, a newspaper headline called the elder Nichols a "Nice Man Born 100 Years Too Late."

So, while the Nicholses grew larger than life, Kari Swenson was "overwhelmed and obliterated" by the myth-making process, Lang said.

Rescuer Was a Hero

Janet Swenson says she thinks that Alan Goldstein, the man who died trying to rescue Kari, also was unfairly depicted--as a bumbling "James Bond city slicker" who had no business being in the mountains in the first place. (Goldstein, 34, had owned a men's clothing store in Michigan and had moved to Montana only the year before his death after discovering the majestic region during a cross-country ski vacation.)

The new book is dedicated to Alan Goldstein and restores him to his proper role as a hero.

It also recasts Kari Swenson as a survivor who was at least as resourceful as her captors.

"Victims" shows Swenson studying the terrain as she was dragged through the woods so she could find her way out if there was a chance to escape. She risked her captors' rage by dropping items such as her wristwatch to leave a trail for search parties. And she deliberately pressed the imprint of her running shoes in the soft dirt of gopher mounds and ant hills.

Even when shot, Swenson didn't behave like a victim. "I lay still and experimented with different types of breathing, trying to find the pattern that caused the least gurgling and sucking (in her collapsed lung)," she said in the book. Drawing on her athletic conditioning, she said, "I closed my eyes and concentrated on slowing my pulse."

Kari Swenson was a solitary woman even before she was kidnaped, happy to spend days alone with her horse, or running trails and wading creeks in training for the biathlon. The kidnaping and the media frenzy that followed have made her even more guarded.

Her written statement, which is included in the press materials for the book, expresses her ongoing reluctance to talk about the case: "I am a private person and I was not certain I wanted to relive the tragedy that affected so many people in my life. However, I decided having the facts published was important to all of us."

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