- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2016

BEND, Ore. (AP) - The trial of an Oregon man accused of pushing his girlfriend off a cliff will go forward despite missing evidence.

Circuit Judge John A. Olson ruled on Feb. 22 that the case against Stephen Nichols, 41, of Bend can proceed to trial, reported the Oregonian (https://bit.ly/1Qy8GYd ). Nichols has pleaded not guilty to killing Rhonda Casto, 23, while they hiked in the Columbia River Gorge in 2009.

The now-retired lead detective investigating Casto’s death destroyed evidence on his computer, including crime scene and autopsy photos and trailhead fee envelopes from potential witnesses, according to court records.

Nichols’ lawyers urged the judge to dismiss the indictment because of the missing evidence.

“It is an affront to justice and fundamental fairness that Mr. Nichols’ life is on the line and the loss of crucial evidence in Mr. Nichols’ case and others has been kept under the rug,” defense attorney Mike Arnold wrote to the Oregon Department of Justice last year.

Olson found that the detective “intentionally wiped his hard drive clean,” causing the destruction of his investigative materials. But he also said it’s not clear that Detective Gerry Tiffany acted in bad faith, which would be necessary to dismiss the case.

“Although I acknowledge that it is entirely possible that Detective Tiffany acted in bad faith and intentionally and knowingly failed to preserve Nichols’ investigative materials, I cannot find by a preponderance of the evidence that he actually did so,” the judge wrote.

Hood County District Attorney John Sewell testified that he never investigated the missing evidence because there were “still a lot of questions about exactly what had happened.” He also said it was the sheriff’s responsibility, not his.

Sewell didn’t return messages from the Oregonian requesting comment.

In a court motion, Arnold wrote that “this was not a simple mistake of accidentally hitting the delete button; the entire hard drive was apparently erased. It is frightening that the grand jury was asked to indict this circumstantial murder case without all of the evidence.”

Nichols was arrested last February after returning from China. He had been secretly indicted in April 2014.

During the 2009 hike, Casto fell 100 feet to her death about a mile from the trailhead. Nichols called 911 that evening to say she slipped as they were hiking.

Investigators say Nichols said it took him an hour to reach her body and that he began mouth to mouth resuscitation, then lay on top of her from 45 minutes. He didn’t explain why.

Several months before the incident, Nichols increased Casto’s life insurance policy to $1 million, records show. He tried to collect it after her death and eventually agreed to split it with Casto’s mother and the estate of the child he had with Casto.

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Information from: The Oregonian, https://www.oregonlive.com

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