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The Murder Divide: An essay from Gregg Olsen

The true-crime author describes what it's like to be on the forefront of drama, again and again.
"A Twisted Faith," Gregg Olsen's book.
"A Twisted Faith," Gregg Olsen's book.

For those trapped in a true-crime drama, the story never ends.

This is true whether they are on the prosecution’s or defense’s side of a murder case. As a true-crime author of many books, I know that all too well.

It was almost two years ago, June 20, 2008, a hazy summer’s day, when the players in a saga beginning more than a dozen years before filed into Judge Anna Laurie’s courtroom on the second floor of the Kitsap County Courthouse in Port Orchard, Wash.

It was like an awkward wedding, where participants are unsure on which side of the spectator’s gallery to sit. The killer’s or the victim’s?

In the years since 28-year-old Dawn Hacheney died in a house fire in Bremerton, Washington, a Navy town viewable from the courthouse across Sinclair Inlet, all lives touched by the tragedy have been scarred and, to some extent, rewritten. In the intervening years, some had divorced. Some had remarried. Some had new babies. And those of whom were children at the time, were now off to college. Most had scattered to the winds, seeking new lives and ways to distance themselves from the circumstances inside the courtroom on that particular summer’s day.

As it had been from the beginning, Nicholas Hacheney, now almost 40, was at the center of the drama. That afternoon, he was a silent performer, entering the courtroom wearing a blood-orange jumpsuit that, curiously, matched the color of his mother’s blouse. Was it a show of solidarity? Coincidence? If he spoke, no one in the gallery heard him. At one point, he wrote down a response to the judge; his hands restricted by jangling belly chains.

His parents, Sandra and Dan Hacheney, had brought along a friend for moral support. Sandra was a stern and sometimes sad figure, a woman who told me during an interview that she hoped God would answer her prayers—someday. After years of disappointment, she and her husband felt they were owed some good news.

Dan Hacheney wore light-colored khakis, the waistband tugging at a mid-section that had expanded in the years since his son’s initial incarceration. He took out a pen and pad of paper to write a note to himself. Dan was always making notes. Nick’s appellant lawyers were doing a good job, he told me, but even they needed help.

In all the years since his son’s incarceration, Dan Hacheney has never given up on having the conviction overturned. He told me several times his support came from a deep-seated belief in Nick’s innocence, not simply a parent’s unquestioning conviction in their child. Dan is convinced that someday the truth will come out and Nick will be free of the injustice of being known as a wife killer; a murderous minister.

“He didn’t kill anyone. There wasn’t even a murder. It was an accident,” Dan has said more than once. He lays the blame for his son’s troubles at the feet of Sandy Glass, Nick’s former lover and Church prophetess.

When Scott Nickell, a barrel-chested fellow with an easygoing smile and a slow, almost southern, speaking cadence, held out a hand to shake, Dan pointedly refused it. A mechanic by trade, Dan sees things as broken or working; black or white. When it came to the “murder divide,” Scott was clearly on the opposite side of the Hacheneys.

It was Scott’s wife, the former Sandy Glass, who had declared to the world that Dan’s son was a cad and scoundrel, a failed pastor, worst of all: murderer. Sandy, Scott explained to another spectator, couldn’t find the strength or desire to come to these proceedings. She’d done her part already when she testified in 2002.

“She’s a very strong woman,” he said of his wife. The couple, once high school sweethearts who had gone their separate ways, had reconnected in the years after Dawn’s death and Sandy’s divorce.

Also among the missing was Nicole Matheson, a woman who stood by Nick as his fiancé at the time of the trial. She, like Dawn’s mother, Diana, had opted to stay home. Nicole couldn’t bear the sight of Nick, now her husband, in belly chains and county-issue flip flops. (Diana later told me the truth was she couldn’t bear the sight of Nick. Period.)

Everyone was there for a reason, of course. Nick was being re-sentenced after winning a ruling from Washington’s Supreme Court that his original aggravated homicide charge had been in error. Under Washington law, aggravated murder occurs when a homicide is committed in conjunction with another felony. The death of a teller in a bank robbery is an oft-cited example. Since the high court agreed there was no real proof that the fire came before – or after – Dawn’s death, Nick no longer carried the burden of a never-ending “life without.” Someday he’d be a free man. That day they were going to give a new number, set the clock on the wait time for his freedom.

Annette Anderson, up from her home in Oregon, had traveled to the proceedings hoping to speak. She’d brought a lengthy, carefully composed letter, which she intended to read aloud. Although ten years had come and gone, Annette wanted the court to know that the crime’s devastating impact had not yet abated. Annette waited nervously in the back row for her chance to finally speak her piece.

I watched Annette as she folded and refolded the paper. Take her out of that setting and she’d be the nice young woman next-door. Smart, attractive, alert. She didn’t look like a woman who would fall for a pastor’s line that God wanted them to have sex.

But she had.

Her friend, Julie, also a former Christ Community Church member, patted her on the shoulder.

Annette was there for a reason and she was ready.

“Yes, I’m embarrassed about this stuff, but that pales compared to what’s at stake here. Dawn is dead. Someone needs to speak for her. Our church needs to stand up for her.”

Kitsap County prosecutor Claire Bradley urged the judge to allow a victim’s impact statement for the re-sentencing.

Defense counsel Mark Yelish argued that no one should be permitted to provide one. What could be said that already hadn’t been the first time around? Further, the defense argued, Annette had no standing as a victim. She wasn’t a family member.

They relented, however, when Dennis Tienhaara stood to speak. He was, after all, Dawn’s younger brother. It was an emotional appeal for the maximum sentence still in play—26 years.

“Where is the justice in enabling a cold-hearted, emotionless killer to live out more years in freedom than we were blessed to share with Dawn?” he asked.

Good point, I thought, and a familiar one. It humanized Dawn and brought a bit of reality to the situation.

Meanwhile, Dawn’s father, Donald Tienhaara, glared at Nick. He balled up his fists and repeatedly pounded his knees, as the defense lawyer laid out all the good works that Nick had accomplished in prison. The list, which included pastoring, charity drives, and legal aid for other inmates, was impressive.

“He’s doing good things in prison,” muttered Donald to another audience member, “and that’s fine. Keep him there.”

Annette waited patiently.

Most of those present knew that she’d been the catalyst in the series of events that eventually led to Nick’s arrest and conviction years before. Yet few in the courtroom knew what kind of bravery it took for her to do what she finally did. No one knew firsthand what it was like to be duped, humiliated and heartbroken by a supposed man of God.

Annette did.

She also knew the power or speaking the truth, and how it could deliver a sinner from evil.

On this day, in this venue, however, she would not get her chance.

“Dawn deserves the truth and she’s depending on us to tell it,” she said.

A gavel slams down and Nick’s new sentence of 26 years is the cause for both joy and sadness for observers in that courtroom; depending of course on whose side they found themselves.

Yet that isn’t the end.

As a true-crime author over the years, I’ve seen the personal anguish that comes to those on opposite sides of a murder. As the shuffle out, not speaking to the opposing faction, one has to consider how awkward these get-togethers are. None of the players has chosen their role. They are bonded by the worst thing that had ever happened to them.

And none can ever break free.