Slain model’s cliff fall prophecy
WHEN Rhonda Casto's broken body was found at the foot of a 30 metre cliff after a hiking trip with her boyfriend, authorities thought they were dealing with a tragic accident.
But Ms Casto's family didn't buy the story told by Steven Wagner Nichols, then 34 and the father of her baby daughter Ava, who claimed the stunning blonde simply slipped and fell to her death on May 16, 2009.
They relayed their suspicions to police and in 2015 - six years after the 23-year-old aspiring model's body was found on a hiking track in Oregon - Nichols was finally charged with murder.
Investigators discovered that he had tried and failed to collect on Ms Casto's $US1 million life insurance policy and that he had been accused of attempting to push another woman off a balcony in China in 2003.
Then, in a bitter blow to her family, prosecutors made a plea deal with Nichols that saw the murder charged dropped in exchange for him pleading guilty to criminally negligent homicide and coercion.
The deal placed Nichols, 43, on three years probation with credit for the year and seven months he served in jail while awaiting trial.
But in a bombshell interview for an episode of Investigation Discovery's Real Stories, Nichols admits to having had sex with Ms Casto's little sister Melanie while she was underage.
Ms Casto's mother Julia Simmons has long suspected Nichols murdered her daughter so that he could be with Melanie, whom he groomed for sex when she was just 15.
Until now, Nicols has always denied allegations that when he first started dating Ms Casto, he was also attracted to her younger sister.
In the episode, Investigation Discovery reporter Maria Salinas puts it to Nichols that he had sex with Melanie.
"Correct," Nichols answers.
"What were you thinking?" Salinas responds.
"I wasn't," Nichols says. "It was a very stupid decision."
"Did you know it was illegal to have sex with a minor?' Salinas asks.
"I know it's illegal in Oregon," Nichols says.
"And you did it, anyway," Salinas says. In voiceover, she adds that may be "one more potential motive for Rhonda's death".
Salinas then puts it to Nichols that "this series of events … would lead people to think that you killed one sister to be with the other sister".
"You can believe whatever you want," Nichols replies. "Some people are going to believe that I'm innocent, some are going to think I'm guilty. So you believe what you want to believe."
When asked by Salinas, Nichols denies that he had anything to do with Ms Casto's death. "I did not kill Rhonda," he says.
Ms Casto died while hiking with Nicols along the popular Eagle Creek Trail in the US state of Oregon, on the country's west coast.
Ms Simmons told Investigation Discovery that she was nervous from the moment her daughter told her Nichols was taking her on the trail, which runs along the steep Columbia Gorge.
Just before setting off, Ms Casto made an off-the-cuff remark that turned out to be a chilling premonition of her own death.
"She told my mother and my sister that 'he is either going to give me a ring or throw me off a cliff, ha ha ha,'" Ms Simmons tells Salinas.
"She made a joke of it."
At the time, Nichols told authorities Ms Castro was running with a towel over her shoulders "like Superwoman" when she lost her footing along the narrow trail and plunged down a steep ravine to her death.
But Ms Simmons said she knew immediately that Nichols was responsible.
"We all told him (the detective) we believe that Steve pushed her," she tell Salinas. "This is not an accident."
Ms Simmons says at the time, she didn't confront Nichols with her allegations because "police wouldn't let me see him, because they knew I was enraged".
In another twist, Ms Simmons was sentenced to 30 days in a halfway house and three years of probation last year after pleading guilty to collecting $US39,124 ($AU52,000) in Social Security benefits intended for her granddaughter.
She has also been ordered to pay back the funds.
The Real Story With Maria Elena Salinas: The Fall of Innocence airs 10pm (US time) tonight on Investigation Discovery.