Twenty-seven years ago, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in July, Kari Swenson went for a run on a forest trail near Big Sky, hoping to spot a grizzly bear she heard was in the area. She had always wanted to see one.
Instead of encountering the rare animal, she happened upon something perhaps much scarier.
Two men, grungy and armed with rifles and knives, appeared out of the woods and blocked her way.
“We just want to talk to you for a while. We don’t get many women up in the mountains to talk to,” the older man told Swenson, then 22 years old and recently graduated from Montana State University.
Swenson was trapped.
“I was concerned they were going to rape and murder me,” Swenson later testified. “They said they wouldn’t, but I didn’t believe them at all.”
What had started as a scenic run on a beautiful afternoon on July 15, 1984, turned into a bizarre nightmare that captured the world’s attention and resulted in the death of one man.
Swenson, an Olympic biathlete — a sport that combines cross-country skiing with rifle marksmanship — was pretty, with blue eyes, freckles and waist-length auburn hair.
The “mountain men” she encountered, father and son, Don and Dan Nichols, had reportedly been living in the rugged Madison Range for 12 summers and all of 1984. They poached wild game and camped in the woods. At one point, they kept a coyote puppy as a pet.
“Dad didn’t believe in the system — society, civilization,” Dan, then 20, testified at his trial in Virginia City in 1985. “When I was about 7, we drove to the mountains near Ennis for about two months. I learned how to live in the mountains.
“(Dad) taught me how to cope … how to hunt, stay alive in the winter, make things pleasant,” Dan said. “Living in the mountains is a natural way of life. In society, you go to work, get money and buy food. In the mountains, you go get your food. You don’t go through the machine of society.”
Dan’s father, Don, then 54, preferred the isolated wilderness, but he needed some form of human company.
Don and Dan had hatched a plan to kidnap a woman. Don reportedly told Swenson he needed her to keep his son in the mountains.
The father and son kept women’s clothing in supply caches hidden in the mountains. They discussed how to tie a woman up with a chain.
When Don and Dan captured Swenson on July 15 near Ulerys Lake, Don tethered her wrist to her son’s. He told her they planned to take her up into the mountains for a few days and see how she liked it.
“If you decide not to stay, at least you’ll have a hell of a story to tell your grandkids,” Don told her, according to newspaper accounts.
The Nicholses dragged Swenson through the woods for a day and a half. They chained her to trees as they moved from place to place.
Swenson tried to leave clues for anyone searching for her, dropping a headband and a watch along the way. The Nicholses found them and scoffed at her.
Swenson made up a story about being married to dissuade the pair from keeping her in the mountains.
“I made up the name of a husband and told them I didn’t have a ring on because I work in the kitchen” at Lone Mountain Ranch near Big Sky, Swenson testified.
“Dan said, ‘Don’t believe her. All women are liars,’” she said.
On July 16, the day after Swenson was kidnapped, the Nicholses ordered her to take off her bright red running shorts so Don could rub them in charcoal to camouflage them. He was worried they might catch the attention of rescuers.
Swenson was in a sleeping bag, chained to a tree, while stripped from the waist down.
She was putting her shorts back on when she heard rustling. Rescuers were approaching from different angles. When Swenson hadn’t returned to work the previous evening, her family and friends had formed a search party.
Searchers Jim Schwalbe and Alan Goldstein, friends who worked with Swenson at Lone Mountain ranch, happened upon the Nicholses camp near Jack Creek.
“Watch out! They’ve got guns,” Swenson screamed to her friends.
“Shut her up,” Don told his son.
The next thing Swenson knew, she was shot. Dan had shot her in the right chest, sending a bullet through her lung.
“Everything happened so fast,” Don testified.
He said it felt like someone was breaking into his house.
“I heard a shot, then a scream (from Swenson being hit),” the elder Nichols said. “Dan said, ‘Oh my god, I shot (her).’ He was completely hysterical.”
Goldstein, 36, had moved to Big Sky from Flint, Mich., to fulfill a desire to live in the mountains, according to reports. He had sold a successful clothing store he owned in order to make the move. He was an outdoorsman and liked to read philosophy.
“Give up!” Goldstein shouted to the Nicholses, trying to bluff them into surrendering. “You’re surrounded by 200 men. You can’t get away.”
Don shot Goldstein in the cheek.
Schwalbe ran to Goldstein, who was dead. Fearing for his own life, Schwalbe ran.
The Nicholses dumped a bleeding Swenson out of their sleeping bag and fled.
For four hours, Swenson lay on the ground trying to keep herself alive. She dragged herself to a dropped pack to find a drink and a sleeping bag and tried to signal a helicopter overhead.
Schwalbe led rescuers back to Swenson and Goldstein. Swenson was taken out by helicopter and underwent surgery at Bozeman Deaconess Hospital.
Lawmen searched hundreds of square miles for the two armed men, who had scores of supplies and plenty of caves and hiding places.
The search included a SWAT team from Yellowstone County, FBI agents, private trackers hired by Goldstein’s family, search dogs, special night-vision goggles, high-tech heat sensors and mounted posses.
Yet the mountain men slipped away.
After five months, a rancher spotted the Nicholses near Bear Trap Canyon southwest of Bozeman.
Authorities mounted a search by helicopter and snowmobile, and on Dec. 13, Madison County Sheriff Johnny France walked into their camp and arrested them without a shot fired.
Juries found both men guilty of kidnapping and convicted Don of deliberate homicide. Marc Racicot, who would later be elected Montana’s governor, was the state’s special prosecutor in the 1985 trials.
Don was sentenced to 85 years and resides in the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge. He was denied parole in 2007.
Dan was released on parole in 1991. Jurors had balked at convicting him of murder, finding instead that he had been brainwashed by his father. Dan was last reported living in southern Montana.
Swenson won a gold medal in the U.S. biathlon championships in Quebec six months after the abduction.
She graduated from veterinary school in Colorado and eventually moved back to Bozeman, where she continues to work as a veterinarian, hike, camp, ski and horseback ride. She declined to comment for this story.
Swenson’s ordeal garnered stories in Time, Newsweek and People magazines, the New York Times and newspapers as far away as Germany and France. NBC depicted the story in a made-for-TV movie titled, “The Abduction of Kari Swenson.”
The truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale is one of the most dramatic news stories to ever unfold in Montana.
Amanda Ricker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2628.