The Bizarre Kidnapping of a U.S. Biathlon Champion Ends in a Fatal Wilderness Shooting

updated 08/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At first glance it might read like a Louis L'Amour treatment of John Fowles' The Collector. Beautiful girl athlete, out for a run through Montana's peaceful Big Sky scenery, captured by a pair of self-styled "mountain men" who want to make her their mountain woman. A posse is raised, searchers fan out through the rugged country, spooking deer and elk ahead of them. Suddenly they find her—get this!—chained to a tree. There is shooting, and one of the rescuers is killed. The girl is wounded, but not fatally. The mountain men fade into the endless hostility of the roadless Spanish Peaks wilderness. Then the sheriff takes over.

But the events that transpired last week in the Madison Mountains, hard by the late Chet Huntley's Big Sky vacation resort, were uglier and far more complex than that. The kidnapping of Kari Swenson, 23, an international biathlon star, and the death of her would-be rescuer, Alan Goldstein, 36, were a tragedy of misconceptions. As the land-and-air hunt for Goldstein's killers was called off, perhaps in the belief that quiet police work might prove more fruitful, cold clouds of rain and controversy swirled over Big Sky country. Residents and vacationers alike shivered behind bolted doors, many with loaded guns close at hand. No one knows for certain why it all happened, but the how at least is clear. It all began with a grizzly bear.

The day before Kari's abduction Bob Schaap was hiking through the back-country when he saw it. Schaap, 45, is the owner of the Lone Mountain Ranch where Kari worked as a waitress. He was making his way around 11,166-foot Lone Mountain when he spotted the grizzly grazing in a meadow and stood watching silently, awestruck. Kari was thrilled when she heard. "I'd die to see a grizzly bear," she told Schaap's wife, Vivian.

Not that Kari Swenson is a tenderfoot. The daughter of Robert J. Swenson, head of the physics department at Montana State University, she had grown up in Bozeman and hiked Gallatin County most of her life. Already an accomplished white-water canoeist and Nordic skier, she had taken up the biathlon only three years ago. Tall (5'7"), slim and auburn-haired, she was an instant success. Last winter, in the first women's world championships at Chamonix, France, her skiing and marksmanship proved her the best American woman in the sport. Last spring she graduated from MSU with a biology degree intending to, pursue a career in veterinary medicine.

The day after Schaap saw his grizzly, Kari headed up to the Ulerys Lake area above the Big Sky complex for her daily workout. She had run the logging roads for weeks now, and she hoped to combine a little game watching with an easy six-mile jog. She was heading for Moonlight Creek, where Schaap had discovered the bear. Then, on the trail ahead, she spotted two sleeping bags. She stopped to look them over. Two men appeared out of the woods, looking like something out of the movie Deliverance. That's when the terror began.

When Kari didn't return for her 5 p.m. stint in the ranch's dining room, Schaap got worried. "All I could think of was that bear," he says. "I could picture her up a tree with that critter clacking his teeth down below—or worse, if you know how fast and wicked grizzlies can be. She couldn't get lost in that country, not with her knowledge, and even if she'd fallen and broken a leg, she was tough enough to crawl out. I mean, this was a woman who could take care of herself."

By dusk, though, Schaap had to act. He called Kari's parents. Jan Swenson, a strong-minded registered nurse, quickly arranged for her husband to search in a light plane with a family friend, Jack Drumheller. Then she headed for the ranch. Schaap called the Gallatin County sheriff, John Onstad, and began organizing an ad hoc search party of his own. Light was failing fast, and in the windy high country, where temperatures may drop below freezing at night even in midsummer, death by hypothermia is always a danger. Kari had been wearing only sneakers, shorts, a T-shirt and a Windbreaker. Above all, Schaap remembered that bear.

Though the rescue party had no way of knowing, Kari was right in their path, wrapped in a sleeping bag and lashed to a lodgepole pine with a dog chain, watched over by two men with guns who told her they would kill anyone who tried to save her. They had dragged her up the ridge from the trail after tying her wrist-to-wrist with the younger man. Toward dark they came to a swampy stand of pine and spruce where the men had already prepared a campsite. The older of the two was Don Nichols, 53, a lean, graying, bearded Montanan with an antipathy to mundane routine and a vision of himself as a latter-day Jim Bridger. The younger was his son, Danny, 19, a high school dropout who may well have wanted to quit the mountain-man lifestyle his father had forced on him most of his life. The two had been living in the backcountry since last August, wintering over in valleys that see six feet of snow. They lived in caves or dugouts and ate deer, ground squirrels and birds that they trapped with wire nooses. Kari was intended to be the son's woman.

According to one of Sheriff Onstad's informants, the elder Nichols knew another mountain man in the Kalispell area some 300 miles north of Big Sky, a loner who had reportedly found himself a "hippie gal" who fit right into his solitary way of life. Onstad, a big, witty man who majored in music at MSU and resembles a cultured Matt Dillon, believes the elder Nichols was afraid his son might leave him and captured Kari to keep him from straying. "These guys were people-watchers," says Onstad. "They watched everyone who passed along those logging roads." They might have spotted Kari, he speculates, noted her physical fitness and good looks, and decided to give her a tryout.

All through that first night the Lone Mountain ranchers were organizing a dawn sweep of the area. At first light on Monday 26 searchers pushed off. Bob Schaap accompanied Deputy Sheriff Brad Brisbin and his German shepherd, Bear. "Some of the guys were carrying guns, probably figuring that if Kari were up a tree with a mama bear down below, they might have to shoot to free her. Brad and I were working a ridge when Bear picked up a scent. The dog went down and snuffled around. He came up with a bone fragment. A fresh one." The bone proved to be that of a deer, probably killed earlier by the Nicholses, but at that moment Schaap was thinking of Kari.

Two other searchers had set out at 6:15 a.m. Jim Schwalbe, 30, is a blond, bearded John Denver look-alike who came to Gallatin County from Wisconsin 10 years ago. With his wife, Samantha, he runs a landscaping business when he isn't working as a wrangler and Nordic ski instructor at Lone Mountain. His partner on the search was Alan Goldstein, who had moved west from Flint, Mich, in 1982. He had run a successful furniture business in Michigan, but now impressed everyone at Lone Mountain as a consummate outdoorsman and a fine hand with horses. Goldstein and Schwalbe had become good friends running the ranch's winter sleigh rides together.

The two pushed off along a spiny ridge that skittered north past Ulerys Lake. Then they followed their search plan downhill, bushwhacking toward the head of the logging road where Kari had seen the sleeping bags. It was lodgepole country, soggy and mosquito-ridden, with blown-down trees every few steps. The two men separated. "I was coming down a crick when I heard a shot," Schwalbe recalls. "Then a girl's voice—a scream—and two guys talking real rapidly. I was thinking someone might have shot at what they thought was a bear and hit a girl instead. Then I saw them and their guns. 'All right, it's cool,' I said. I had a first-aid kit in my daypack and thought I could help. Then the old man was yelling at me, 'You got a gun?' I said no. And I could hear her screaming, 'I'm shot, help me.' Suddenly it clicked. It wasn't a bear problem at all. It was a people problem. The kid was sitting next to her beside a camp fire, and she was in this sleeping bag, chained around her waist to a tree. 'Oh God, I didn't mean to shoot her,' the kid kept saying. He looked like he wanted to cry."

What had happened, lawmen later surmised, was that as the searchers passed nearby young Nichols had accidentally fired a .22-caliber rifle bullet into Kari Swenson's upper-right chest. The bullet hit two inches below her collarbone and pierced the upper lobe of her lung before exiting 10 inches lower, out her back. Luckily it missed her spine and her liver.

"The old man had his gun on me—a rifle," says Schwalbe. "Then I saw Al coming down from above us, and I was trying to help the girl. All this took about 30 seconds—the most intense half a minute of my life, and God help me, I never want to do it again. I yelled at Al to call for help. He had a walkie-talkie with him and he said something over it. Then he pulled off his red day-pack and dove into it with his hands. He came out with something. I didn't even know he'd brought along a gun." It was a Walther PPK automatic pistol of .380 caliber, not the best gun to stop a grizzly with, but better than a pocket-knife. Showing it was the worst mistake of Goldstein's short life.

"Al went over to a tree about 20 feet from us and sat in a semicrouch with the gun out in front," says Schwalbe. "But he wasn't pointing it at anyone. He said something like 'Drop your guns, you're surrounded by 200 men.' The old man raised his rifle and I jumped up with my hands out—I thought I could grab it away from him. He swung the muzzle toward me. Then the kid and the girl were saying something and I turned back to them. When I looked up the old man had the gun to his shoulder again. I could see this look in his eyes. Like he wanted to kill. Then bang and Al was down, flat, just like that."

The bullet took Goldstein in the face, just above his mouth. Schwalbe, a hunter, knew he was dead even as he ran to his side. Then he realized fully his own danger. "The old man was yelling to the kid, 'Get that chain off her and shut up, Danny.' Did they want to chain us both up and shoot us? I kept on going right up the hill, and believe me, my back muscles were twitching every step of the way."

Schwalbe ran nearly a mile and a half until he came to the end of a logging road where he bumped into Sheriff Onstad and a party of searchers. For the next four hours they hunted, slowly and on foot, with point men up front and guns ready. Schwalbe was finally taken up in a helicopter and was able to locate the site of the shooting when Goldstein's daypack gleamed up at him. By now it was nearly noon. A deputy dropped onto a nearby slope from the helicopter's skids, and Onstad and his men were led in by radio.

During the four hours since she had been shot, Kari Swenson had displayed remarkable presence of mind. "Kari is about as levelheaded a person as you'll find," Onstad said later. "She was thirsty and cold from the ordeal, and she knew she needed energy. She crawled over to Jim Schwalbe's pack where he'd dropped it and pulled out a candy bar and some cold lemonade. The guys who'd captured her had removed the chain and the sleeping bag when they ran, so she pulled herself into Schwalbe's bag to keep warm. She told us her vision was blurring, but she didn't panic—just lay still and didn't aggravate the wound."

A medical evacuation team placed her in a litter lowered from a helicopter, then flew her to Bozeman's Deaconess Hospital where she was pronounced in stable condition. Back in the woods lay a brave man, dead. "I wouldn't be talking today if it hadn't been for Al," says Schwalbe. "I'm sure they'd have killed us all."

For the rest of the week the Big Sky was full of helicopters carrying an 11-man SWAT team from Billings, as patrols on foot and horseback combed the ridges. Madison County Sheriff Johnny France, a leathery ex-rodeo
champ, took charge of the search operations, since the kidnapping and shootings occurred in his county, while Onstad worked in a backup role and found out who the kidnappers were. The profile he came up with was not that of two cold-blooded killers. The elder Nichols, who was born in Kansas and moved with his parents to Montana during the Depression, is said to be a quiet, literate man, a former metallurgical assayer who was divorced when Danny was 6 years old. "He's a gentle, nice man who doesn't like towns," said his ex-wife last week. Danny had trouble with the law in high school, which he quit after his junior year, but law-enforcement agencies won't say just what he did, since he was a juvenile at the time. His father was hauled into court after the divorce for keeping the boy out of school to spend time with him in the mountains. Nothing really vicious about either of them, says Onstad.

Jan Swenson does not agree. With her daughter recuperating at home after an eight-day hospital stay, Mrs. Swenson is still angry about what Kari told her when she came out of shock. "At the time that Al and Jim came into the camp," the mother says, "the men had been discussing where to take Kari. They were planning to go around Lone Mountain into really wild country. If they'd done so I'm sure we'd never have seen Kari again. She thought the young man was sorry about the whole thing, at first at least. 'He didn't mean to hurt me,' she said, 'but they did kill Al.' The older man seemed to be sick—he went off a number of times to vomit and had to sit down when they were dragging Kari up to the camp. Once when he was off being sick, Kari asked the boy if he'd let her go. He considered it for a while, then turned to her and said, 'No, you're pretty. I'm gonna keep you.' "

Last week the Nicholses were still at large. No helicopters were aloft, but horse patrols moved cautiously through the Gallatin basin, alerting backpackers and fishermen that dangerous men were on the prowl. The "total paranoia" that a bartender at Huntley Lodge described at midweek had subsided to a nervous twitch. Rain clouds still swirled, and for all anyone knew the grizzly Bob Schaap had seen to trigger the whole sad affair was still grazing peacefully in the high mountain meadow.

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