2007 Shamers: Arson turns deadly for children

By Lee McAuliffe Rambo
January 15, 2008
HallofShameLogoLife was spinning dangerously out of control for Timothy and Deborah Nicholls.

Strung out on drugs, stealing from their own businesses to finance their expensive highs, and desperate to escape spiraling debt, the couple torched their Colorado Springs home for insurance money.

But the insurance scheme turned deadly when their three children Jay-Jay (age 11), Sophia (age 5) and Sierra (age 3) died in the horrific blaze.

Timothy and Deborah ran a karaoke bar and a home-framing firm. But the couple also had a costly methamphetamine addiction; her habit alone approached $500 a week. They owed more than $200,000, much of it to a drug-dealing motorcycle gang.

Family deeply in debt

Their businesses turned sour when clients cancelled Nicholls’ framing contracts and money poured from the couple’s company coffers into drugs. Timothy even let the workers compensation coverage for his construction firm lapse to save cash.

The couple also owed the IRS about $12,000, and banks refused to grant them a second mortgage. A client withheld a $6,000 payment in February 2003, and that may have been the final straw.

Drowning in debt, they took a desperate step to bail themselves out. A fire swept through the house one chilly night in March, gutting the place. Young Jay-Jay, Sophia and Sierra died from smoke inhalation.

Suspicion quickly focused on Timothy and Deborah. Neither acted like grieving parents who had just lost all their children. Deborah didn’t even attend their funerals.

Above all, Timothy’s greatest concern was collecting the insurance money on the house, witnesses testified.

Made confusing statements

Nicholls also offered contradictory explanations for the blaze: a burning candle was knocked over, he told some people. An electrical short started the fire, he told others. Nicholls also said he fell out of a window while trying to save his children, and that he’d jumped from his bedroom window. He claimed he had broken his collarbone, received severe burns and barely escaped with his life. But doctors said his injuries were “superficial.”

Deborah also had told a babysitter not to do anything if fire broke out.

Investigators also found traces of an accelerant spread in the charred living room, and a can of flammable cleaning solvent under shrubbery outside the home. When Nicholls finally was arrested two years later, he told a jailhouse informant that he had made the children sit on the family couch after he doused it with an accelerant. Traces of that accelerant were found on their pajamas.

Nicholls received life without parole in May. Deborah awaits trial.

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