Christopher J. Nichols was arrested Friday night as part of a Powell Police Department investigation into the Dec. 4 death of Jeremy W. Ernest, 30.
Ernest was initially taken to Powell Valley Hospital, unconscious and vomiting, around 1:44 a.m. and a roommate overheard a doctor saying he had opiates, a group of drugs that includes heroin, in his system, according to an affidavit from Powell Police Investigator Mike Hall submitted in the case.
Ernest was released from the hospital at 5:10 p.m., but less than an hour and a half later, another 911 call was placed from Ernest’s East Sixth Street apartment complex reporting he was struggling to breathe, Hall wrote.
Hall’s summary of the investigation suggests that after leaving the hospital the first time, Ernest may have ingested black tar heroin — an illegal and highly addictive opiate and depressant.
Ernest was pronounced dead at the hospital at 7:22 p.m.
No obvious cause of death was found in an autopsy and toxicology results will likely not be available for three or four weeks, said Park County Coroner Tim Power. Hall says hospital records indicate Ernest had opiates, benzodiazepines and THC — the active ingredient in marijuana — in his system.
Nichols has been charged with delivering the heroin to Ernest, a felony, and negligent homicide, a misdemeanor charge that alleges Nichols caused Ernest’s death “by conduct amounting to criminal negligence.” Hall quotes Ernest’s roommate, Morgan Wiles, as saying Nichols was slow to call 911 the two times Ernest collapsed and quotes two unnamed informants as saying Nichols admitted he’d provided Ernest with heroin.
Nichols claimed to have warned Ernest that the heroin was strong and he shouldn’t use it all at once, Hall wrote of the informants’ accounts. They recalled Nichols saying “‘the stupid son of a (expletive) wouldn’t listen to me’ or words to that effect,” Hall wrote.
Nichols also faces a third charge of illegally possessing a felony-level amount of anabolic steroids; police allegedly found more than .3 grams of the substance in a safe in Nichols’ bedroom, making the count a felony.
At an initial Monday afternoon appearance in Circuit Court, Nichols acknowledged having the steroids, but said the negligent homicide and heroin delivery charges “were out of the ballpark” and later added “I just think that this is ridiculous.”
In arguing for a lower bond than the $40,000 figure requested by a prosecutor, Nichols said he works as a server, goes to Northwest College as a full-time nursing student and attends church in Clark.
Nichols said unspecified attorneys have told him the individuals referenced in the affidavit are drug addicts or dealers.
“I came out here and I turned my life around, sir, like, been doing good and they (Ernest and Wiles) come over always trying to party and when all this started happening, like, I actually called 911 both times,” Nichols said in a lengthy statement. “Morgan (Wiles) never did anything.”
In contrast, Wiles reportedly told Investigator Hall that he’d insisted Nichols call 911.
When Ernest became sick in the early morning hours of Dec. 4, Nichols wanted Wiles to drag Ernest back to his own apartment next door before calling police, saying his place was “dirty” and that he couldn’t have cops there, Hall wrote of Wiles’ account.
Nichols did call 911, though when officers arrived, he “took an abnormally long time answering the door for an emergency call,” Hall wrote.
Wiles said while at the hospital, he found a small black cellophane-wrapped ball in Ernest’s pocket; Wiles put it back, but told Hall he later argued with Ernest about not using the drug anymore. A cellophane wrapper would be found by police later that night — empty — in Ernest’s bathroom, Hall said.
Wiles told Hall he went to his girlfriend’s residence after Ernest’s initial release from the hospital. Shortly after that, Wiles said his girlfriend got a call from Nichols saying they needed to come back to the apartment for Ernest. Wiles told police he found Ernest unconscious and again insisted Nichols call 911.
Police searched Nichols’ apartment on the morning of Dec. 5 and found steroids but no heroin, according to court records; Hall quotes one of the unnamed informants as saying Nichols had confided that he’d cleaned out his apartment after Ernest’s death.
After arresting Nichols at his workplace at around 9 p.m. Friday, “I started asking Nichols why it took him so long to call 911 for Ernest and why he called Wiles’ girlfriend instead,” Hall wrote. “Nichols didn’t have an answer, but said if we were going to talk about Ernest, he needed an attorney.”
Hall said when he later searched Nichols’ phone, he found all the call and text records from Dec. 4 and the days before were gone. Hall said he did find photos showing marijuana, what looked like crystal methamphetamine, a computer screen referencing heroin and morphine and an image of Nichols holding a piece of foil with a black substance.
Speaking generally of heroin in a Tuesday interview, Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt said “we hear of it, but we don’t see it very often.”
“Heroin is making a comeback nationwide,” he added. “It was kind of replaced or off the radar for awhile with meth and then that became harder to get and we saw the upsurge in prescription (medication abuse), and now with the focus on prescription meds and the lack of availability of other drugs, heroin’s making a comeback.”
In court on Monday, Deputy Park County Attorney Tim Blatt cited Nichols’ limited ties to the area (he’s been here a year), some past misdemeanor criminal charges and a risk to the community in asking Circuit Court Judge Bruce Waters for a $40,000 bond.
“Anytime you have a delivery of a controlled substance, that’s a community danger and I think in this particular case, it shows exactly what that danger is to the community,” Blatt said.
Nichols said he was not a flight risk, wanted to complete his Northwest College finals this week and said he’d been “nothing but cooperative” with law enforcement.
“I willingly gave them information, my cell phone, all this stuff,” he said.
Waters went with the prosecutor’s recommendation.
“All these sort of add up to a pretty serious situation, a very concerning situation,” the judge said.
A preliminary hearing, where Waters will weigh if there’s enough evidence for the case to proceed to a trial, has tentatively been set for Monday, Dec. 16.