Brenda Nicholas was the “mastermind” who plotted to kill a 70-year-old Navy veteran and two-time Purple Heart recipient for months because she wanted to get her hands on his valuable coin and uncut bill collection, a crime she and two accomplices carried out with extreme brutality, King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Carla Carlstrom said Friday.
“The motive behind this murder was solely greed,” Carlstrom told Superior Court Judge Theresa Doyle during Nicholas’ sentencing hearing for the December 2011 stabbing death of Francis “Patrick” Fleming inside his unit at the Four Freedoms senior apartments in Seattle’s Bitter Lake neighborhood.
In addition to orchestrating Fleming’s slaying, Nicholas attempted to kill and rob another elderly man on the same day Fleming was killed, Carlstrom said. She was also charged with more than 50 criminal counts for a variety of thefts, with most of the counts related to bilking a woman in her 80s out of $1 million. Nicholas also stole from at least three landlords she rented properties from, said Carlstrom.
Before she stood trial for Fleming’s murder, Nicholas pleaded guilty to first-degree identity theft and two counts of first-degree theft in a plea deal to resolve the other criminal counts against her. In March, a jury convicted her of first-degree murder. She was sentenced Friday for all of her crimes.
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Several of Nicholas’ victims were in court on Friday. Two of them addressed the judge and spoke of the financial devastation and psychological havoc that was unleashed in their lives through their association with Nicholas.
Defense attorney Jonathan Newcomb blamed Nicholas’ Romani upbringing, saying she was “a product of her environment” who was “frankly, raised to steal, taught to steal.”
Nicholas, a mother of two teenage sons, can’t read and has been disowned by her extended family since the jury handed down its guilty verdict in March, Newcomb said.
He said Nicholas was the victim of domestic violence and had sent most of the money she stole to family members to pay her mother-in-law’s medical bills.
During trial, Nicholas tried to pin Fleming’s murder on her boyfriend, but “now she claims her upbringing, her Romani background, her hard life” is to blame for her slew of crimes, Carlstrom said.
Nicholas quietly cried through most of the hearing, and told the judge: “The boys are waiting for me, your honor” — a reference to her sons.
Doyle, however, seemed unimpressed by Nicholas’ tears. Noting that Nicholas is now 42, Doyle said it was appropriate that she wouldn’t be released until her 70s — “basically a life sentence,” she said.
“I think Ms. Nicholas is a danger to society,” the judge said, handing down the stiffest punishment she could — a little over 34 years in prison.
She said “the heartlessness, the coldbloodedness, and the inhumanity” of Fleming’s murder was both striking and disturbing.
The challenges Nicholas may have faced in her life did nothing to mitigate her crimes, said Doyle, adding that she “basically ruined” the life of Sylvia Sutton, the woman Nicholas befriended and manipulated into draining her life’s savings.
Court documents in the theft and murder cases reveal how easily Nicholas insinuated herself into her victims’ lives:
Nicholas was working as a psychic at a street fair in Seattle’s International District in summer 2007 when Sutton came into her booth to have her palm read. She convinced Sutton she had a “gray aura” about her and offered to help, but told Sutton it would cost her.
Over the next several years, Sutton made frequent cash withdrawals at Nicholas’ request.
Once Sutton became completely dependent on her, Nicholas began moving her to and from various residences, never allowing her to stay at any one place for more than a few months at a time. The Four Freedoms House, where Fleming was killed, was one of the residences.
Sutton met Fleming after moving into the apartment building in spring 2011, and introduced Nicholas to him. Fleming, who was proud of his rare and valuable collection, even showed Nicholas where he kept the items.
From the moment she met Fleming, Nicholas began plotting to rob and kill him, Carlstrom and Senior Deputy Prosecutor Page Ulrey wrote in their sentencing memo.
After an elderly man in Wallingford who had “lent” Nicholas thousands of dollars became suspicious and contacted police, Seattle officers questioned Sutton about her relationship with Nicholas.
Nicholas quickly moved Sutton out of Four Freedoms to distance herself from Fleming’s apartment building.
To carry out Fleming’s murder, Nicholas enlisted the help of Gilda Ramirez, a woman she’d met years earlier in New York who became ostracized from her family after borrowing so much money to give to Nicholas for her services as a psychic; and Charles Jungbluth, who was in love with Nicholas, according to the sentencing memo.
Ramirez and Jungbluth, who both negotiated plea deals for their involvement in Fleming’s death, testified against Nicholas during her trial.
Jungbluth pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Ramirez, who hid in the bathroom while Nicholas and Jungbluth stabbed Fleming to death with a set of kitchen knives, pleaded guilty to robbery, burglary and trafficking in stolen property and was sentenced to a little more than six years in prison.
After donning disguises purchased by Nicholas, Nicholas and Jungbluth pushed their way into Fleming’s apartment on Dec. 8, 2011, after he answered their knock; they threw him to the ground and began stabbing him — and Fleming was alive and screaming during much of the attack, according to the sentencing memo.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org