Dan Nichols, the younger of the “mountain men” who gained notoriety for kidnapping a young woman near Big Sky in 1984, has married and settled into a quiet life in Great Falls.
Nichols, 31, and his wife, Liz, 24, were married this summer in the mountains southeast of Great Falls, the Great Falls Tribune reported Monday.
The ceremony was of a nature-oriented philosophy Liz Nichols follows that is based in ancient Celtic religions. Dan Nichols describes himself as a “pagan fundamentalist.”
He is now a house parent at a group home for developmentally disabled adults. She works at a shelter for battered women.
It is a dramatic change for a young man who gained national notoriety with the kidnapping of biathlete Kari Swenson 12 years ago near Big Sky.
Nichols and his father, Don, abducted Swenson, then 22, while she was on a training run. They were trying to find a woman who would become Dan’s wife and live with them in the mountains, where they sought to escape society and its rules.
But a day later, the elder Nichols shot and killed a would-be rescuer, and Dan accidentally shot and wounded Swenson. The pair fled, leaving Swenson behind. She was later found, and she recovered from her wound.
They eluded law-enforcement officers for five months before they were captured at a mountain campsite. Don Nichols was sentenced to 85 years for kidnapping and murder, and now is serving time in a Texas prison. Dan was sentenced to 20 years.
He won parole after six years in prison and attended the College of Great Falls, graduating in 1994 with a 3.5 grade point average. Nichols said he got a taste of counseling late in his prison term, when he was put in charge of Life Skills workshops, where inmates learn skills such as applying for jobs.
“It seemed that a lot of them just needed someone to listen, and I was it,” he said.
He said he finds counseling of the developmentally disabled to be rewarding.
“The goal is to help these people become more independent, while still blending into the community,” he said. “It feels really good when you see someone doing better.”
Liz Nichols said she never questioned Nichols about Swenson’s kidnapping or about prison. Dan brought up the subject.
“After all, it’s not the kind of thing you can say, ‘Oh, and by the way, honey,”’ she said.
Nichols has been wary of publicity and reluctant to talk about that chapter in his life. He said he would happy to put it behind him, though he acknowledges that will never be entirely possible. And he said he can understand why the Swenson family would still be hostile toward him, and why they repeatedly opposed his attempts at parole.
“If I were in their shoes, I’d probably feel the same way,” he said.
He does express remorse and regret, though even that can bring criticism. Liz said that if Dan expresses remorse, people may say, “Oh, so now you’re sorry, what good does that do?” On the other hand, she said, if he doesn’t say anything, “they say he’s cold and unfeeling.”
Dan Nichols’ parents were divorced when he was 4, and for several years his time was split between them. He lived with his mother during the school year, but in the summer his father took him into the mountains to live in the wilderness.
As he grew older, Dan said, his father’s distrust of people and society had a greater impact, and his isolation in the mountains broke down his social ties with school friends. He was left with his father’s anti-societal views.
By the time of the kidnapping, “I was to the point where I didn’t understand at all the full impact of situations on people.”
But he began having doubts after the abduction. Despite his father’s assurances that whatever woman they took for his bride soon would grow to like them and would go with them willingly, “I began to realize that it wasn’t going the way he told me it would, that it wasn’t going to work out,” he said. “I began to seriously question what I was a part of.”
Dan said he is on the outs with his father, who disapproves of his new life.
“He considers me a traitor … that I’ve sold out to the enemy (society),” Dan said.