The Other Nicole

updated 07/11/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/11/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THEY SHARED A FIRST NAME AND A BLOODY fate, though precious little else. On June 12, Nicole Brown Simpson was slashed to death along with her friend Ronald Goldman in Los Angeles, allegedly by ex-husband O.J. Simpson. The courts have yet to determine Simpson's guilt or innocence, but the couple's stormy relationship has already focused considerable attention on the problem of spousal abuse. Meanwhile, on the same day, in the southern New Jersey township of Winslow, Nicole Leps, 24, was fatally shot by her ex-boyfriend, Nicholas Spennato, 24. Only in this case, the killing went comparatively unnoticed, a local tragedy rather than a national scandal.

Call her the other Nicole—and let her stand for the roughly 2,500 women who die each year in this country at the hands of their romantic partners. Several million more are attacked and brutalized by the men in their lives. On the weekend of June 11 alone, the San Diego Police Department recorded 141 domestic violence reports, and at a battered women's shelter in suburban Minneapolis there were 36 requests for help. All across the country the number of calls jumped once news of the Simpson murder spread.

For Nicole Leps, the weekend of June 11 had been spent trying to dodge Spennato, with whom she had been trying to break up since February. On Sunday evening she had a friend drive her to a waitressing shift at the Fireside Steakhouse so that he wouldn't see her Geo Storm in the parking lot. But around 7:30, Spennato showed up at the restaurant anyway. He took a seat at the bar and began directing obscenities at Leps as she walked by. Finally the manager called the police. Officer Daniel Calabrese, 38, soon arrived and asked Spennato for some identification. He then asked what was in the fanny pack around Spennato's waist. In reply, Spennato pulled out a .45-cal. semiautomatic pistol and shot Calabrese, the father of two, in the groin and the chest, wounding him fatally.

As patrons screamed and dove for cover, Leps fled to the back of the kitchen. Spennato quickly tracked her down. A cook heard him say to her, "See what you made me do? You're not going to get away with this, Nicole!" She begged him, "Oh, no, Nick." Spennato shot her in the head and the hip, then pointed the gun into his own mouth and pulled the trigger. When police arrived moments later, they found the former lovers lying side by side.

To be, in effect, executed in a public place lent an added dimension of horror to the murder of Nicole Leps. But in many respects the tragic arc of her relationship with Spennato followed a pattern familiar to abuse experts: the intimidation, the growing isolation from family and friends, the control—all engineered by a man filled with a sense of impotence and self-pity (see box, page 39). "Batterers tend to be very emotionally dependent upon women," says Dr. Sheila King, a psychologist in West Palm Beach, Fla., and an expert on spousal abuse. "They're not so much in love as in obsession. But they want to bring this woman into control so they can feel better about themselves."

Perhaps, above all, the murder of Leps illustrates just how easily any woman can become a victim of abuse. Certainly in her personality and background, Leps hardly seemed fated to end up as a statistic. She grew up in Winslow Township, the youngest of three children of Charles and Mary Beth Leps, who until recently ran a local liquor store. Pretty and outgoing, Nicole was Homecoming Queen and captain of the girls soccer team at Edgewood Regional High School. After majoring in biology and psychology at Salisbury Slate University in Maryland, she returned home and lived with her parents while working as a substitute teacher at her old junior high school. Her ambition: to become a school psychologist.

Nicole met Spennato last fall when she and some friends went to a nightclub where he performed as an exotic dancer. Spennato, who lived in nearby Mount Holly, N.J., was a muscular 5' 10", 185-pounder who danced under the stage name Nico. The pair hit it off and began dating. But it didn't take long for hints of trouble to appear. Nicole brought Spennato home to meet her parents eight months ago. "I told her, 'I don't like him,' " says Mary Beth. "It was a mother's intuition."

Only later did the Leps learn that Spennato had a police record. He apparently told Nicole he was on parole for robbing a convenience store. In fact he had been released from prison after serving only three months of his five-year sentence for breaking into a home in 1990 and stealing $50,000 worth of musical equipment. During the robbery he and his three accomplices had tied up a woman and her son and beaten the boy savagely with sawed-off pool cues. Nicole seemed to downplay his past. "Maybe she thought she could change him," says Mary Beth.

Instead, Spennato's behavior became abusive. One night last March he and Leps were having a snack of chicken wings at her sister Zina Buete's house. Nothing seemed amiss until Nicole decided to try a little of Spennato's spicy sauce. "My sister picked up Nicholas's plate and poured a tiny bit of the juice onto hers," recalls Zina, 30. "He freaked out. He's screaming, 'What the hell's the matter with you!' and he started cursing her." Zina and her husband, Les, were stunned. Later when Les told his sister-in-law, "You better watch your ass," Nicole brushed off the incident. "She said, 'Oh, he loses his temper once in a while.' "

In the months that followed, however, it became increasingly clear that Spennato was more than just a hothead. For one thing, he was possessive to the point that he was jealous of Nicole's relationship with Zina's children, Alysha Nicole, 4, and Christopher, 21 months. "He would holler at her," says Zina. "He thought she spent more time with us than with him." As for physical abuse, Nicole never confided to family or friends that Spennato had brutalized her, but there were suspicions. "One time I saw a bruise on her face," says Zina. "She said they had been kidding around and something happened."

When Leps began trying to break up with Spennato, the time in many abuse cases when the victim is at greatest peril, he reacted with growing fury. In the weeks before the murder, he followed her, hid in the bushes across from the Lepses' home and called there constantly, hanging up whenever anyone else answered. Charles and Mary Beth later learned that he had threatened the family, telling Leps, "If you don't slay with me, I will kill everyone you love." On the night of June 11, she returned home late to find Spennato waiting outside. After she entered the house, he climbed on the roof and headed for her bedroom window. She called the police. Three officers quickly arrived, but Spennato had already gone. Leps never told the officers about the harassment and threats.

By the next evening, Nicole was dead. In the aftermath of her murder, family, friends and authorities were left feeling an enormous sense of frustration over a tragedy that seemed preventable. "She had every reason to be afraid of this guy," says Winslow police chief Anthony Bello, "but that wasn't conveyed to the police." Zina agrees, especially after seeing the Simpson case unfold at the same time. "My sister never reached out for help like the other Nicole tried to do," she says. Instead, like many other abused women, she suffered in silence, perhaps out of shame or the feeble hope that her tormentor would simply go away. Later, after her sister's death, Zina found a calendar in Nicole's room. On it the date June 4 had been circled and marked with the words "I'm through with Nicholas."

BILL HEWITT
MARIA EFTIMIADES in Winslow Township

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