After years of hiding her murder, David Nicholas said he came forward because it was the right thing to do now that he knew his mother and older brother wouldn't be hurt by it.

A tale of a twisted family secret or lies in hopes of leniency with the authorities — the State’s key witness in the disappearance and alleged murder of Eldon teenager Tammy Rothganger in 1984 testified Wednesday to what he says occurred the day she vanished. 

After years of hiding her murder, David Nicholas said he came forward because it was the right thing to do now that he knew his mother and older brother wouldn’t be hurt by it. Shocking testimony, through questioning by Assistant Attorney General Monty Platz, revealed a story of physical and sexual abuse amongst adult family members that 15-year-old Tammy got pulled into by her connection to her accused killer Martin Priest as well as to 13-year-old David.

The 34-year-old capital murder case almost came to an abrupt end though when David made a reference to Priest being well known at the Kansas Department of Corrections. Priest is serving a life term for murdering a man in Kansas, but the information has been excluded from the trial. 

A 25 minute break ensued, without the jury present, as the defense requested a mistrial to ensure their client a fair trial. Ultimately though, Judge Kenneth Hayden denied the request, explaining that the statement was vague enough that it did not pinpoint Priest as an inmate. Hayden admonished the jury to ignore Platz and David’s last question and answer without repeating the statements.

David Nicholas was the first witness called by the State on October 10, 2018 after the trial opened October 9. 

Tension was palpable between David and and his uncle, “Marty” as David took the stand, almost a stare down by David at Priest, his mother’s brother. Another look from David into the eyes of Martin Priest during emotional testimony. David distressed, shot looks of strong emotion from David toward his uncle.

David Nicholas was identified by Theresa Hicks Baughman in testimony Tuesday as the second male in the car that picked Tammy up on the morning of May 16, 1984, the day she was last seen. Smoking near the Eldon High School with Tammy, Theresa described a male who looked “Indian.” Years later, she identified David Nicholas in a photo lineup. 

Nicholas is part Cherokee. Large for his age, at 13 years old, he was already around six-foot tall.

According to David, he and Tammy met one day after school after she confronted other kids trying to get in a fight with he and his older brother Michael. They were new to town and school.

They talked and David said he became friends with Tammy.

While raised by his father’s side early on, he had moved to live with his mother, Vicky, in Osage Beach. She suffered mental health issues and regularly used Hallidol, leaving him often leaving him to stay with his grandmother, Shirley, in Eldon.

David drifted. He stayed at various family’s members trailer homes in the Lake of the Ozarks area, specifically places in Eldon and Osage Beach. Often, he didn’t go to school at all because his mother didn’t get out of bed in the mornings.

Shirley Priest, David described, as a controlling woman, with the adults of the family treating children to be seen and not heard, and do as told, or get whippings. 

Platz redirected David into a narrative of the day of disappearance after the detour into some of the inner workings of the Priest family. 

David liked Tammy as a girl, but said he didn’t talk about it specifically with his family.

Woken up the morning of May 16, 2018, he was told by his grandmother to go with Priest. He said they went in his grandmother’s car, thinking they were going to see about getting Priest’s car fixed.

They went toward the school and saw Tammy smoking outside. 

They pulled up and Tammy went over. David said Marty had him talk her into getting into the car.

Driving to a convenience store then to a remote area, they talked and David said Tammy seemed scared but he didn’t understand why. Pulled over on a path, they got out to go to the bathroom, and Tammy bolted. David ran after her and talked her into coming back to the car. Back there, there was conversation between Tammy and Martin, Tammy saying she had a way of sticking up for herself, even though he said she still seemed scared. David tried to take part in the conversation, but said he was told by Martin to shut up. Certain parts of their conversation David didn’t understand because of some seemingly inside knowledge between Tammy and Martin, referencing a vehicle and talking to Tammy’s mother about something.

At some point, David said Martin began talking about how he knew David and Tammy were boyfriend and girlfriend and that it was ok, natural. David claimed Marty told Tammy to get in the back seat, then said the two young teens should have sex. 

Describing his life with the Priest’s, David referenced a “grooming” by the Priest family to do things that were not normal, telling the court that at 13, he had previously had sex in front of family members before. 

During his time with the Priest family, he said he “experienced a wide range of things that were new to me.”

Tammy, though, he said appeared to be complying to get out of there. 

After they had sex, Tammy got back into the front seat. David said, Martin dropped something on the floorboard on Tammy’s side and asked her to pick it up.

When she did so, David said Martin hit her on the back of the head, behind her ear, with a wrench. Then began to rape her. David said he briefly tried to stop Martin but he was struck. Hunkered down in the back seat, David said he could see Tammy’s face through a crack and saw her face and heard her say no as Martin raped and strangled her, describing the physical contortions of her face and saying he had never seen sexual intercourse by force before. 

He was too scared to help his friend, saying there “wasn’t enough inside of me to help.”

Tammy was obviously dead at that point. David said Martin was angry with him, yelling and rambling that it was David’s fault for having sex with Tammy in front of him and other things David didn’t recall exactly.

This allegedly occurred in the Rocky Mount area, off of Route Z.

With Tammy’s body in the car, they took a back road from the Bagnell Dam area, getting lost a couple of times, and ended up at David’s mother’s house.

There was no talking, said David.

At the trailer, set back from other buildings, they took Tammy’s body inside to a back bedroom where family at the house discovered her. 

David, and in later testimony his brother Michael Nicholas, described a chaotic scene with screaming and yelling involving their mother and Martin. Both brothers — just 10 months apart in age — became emotional at times during their own testimony, talking of shock and a swirl or blur of activity without thinking. 

Finally Martin left, David said he went to sleep and Michael said he left the house and tried to stay away to avoid what was going on.

It was decided to hide the body.

That night, Martin returned in a truck with a barrel and tools, said David, and he was made to go with him to hide Tammy’s body. David said he attempted to run and hide. Calling out, Martin talked him into coming back, laughing. David came back and they dumped the barrel with Tammy’s body into a depression, covering it with soil.

Despite later leading police to the the general area where he believed they had been, her body was not found there and has never been recovered.

Through a dense line of questioning regarding years of conflicting stories to police and in letters to his mother and brother from jail, defense attorney Matt Willis attempted to show David’s current story as just more potential lies.

If the jury believes David, his narrative in court painted a picture of the Priest side of his family as deprived and twisted, but the defense attempted to show the Nicholas brothers as criminals. In the years since Tammy’s disappearance, they have both had multiple convictions, robbery, aggravated robbery for David and a federal firearms charge he won on appeal. Michael has convictions for stealing, assault, escape, aggravated battery, fleeing law enforcement and possession of opioids, the last being in 2015.

Both said they were in court Wednesday though of their own free will, under no deal or benefits to testify. They are not currently incarcerated.

Each described their relationship with each other as close, being just 10 months apart in age. Michael as the older brother was David’s “protector,” they said. David said Michael would take the brunt of physical abuse to protect David, Michael saying that as the older brother, being his protector was as it was supposed to be though he had failed to do so that day.

Ultimately, they both testified to extensive lies between 2010 and 2014 to police during investigations into Tammy’s disappearance out of a desire to protect each other and their mother.

Through questioning under the redirect by prosecution, David indicated letters from prison to his brother and mother saying he didn’t know anything about Tammy were also untrue, reassuring his family while not tipping anything off to censors who read inmate mail. 

Once his mother passed and he was reassured by his own attorney, David said he finally came forward with his story.

Tammy was obviously dead at that point. David said Martin was angry with him, yelling and rambling that it was David’s fault for having sex with Tammy in front of him and other things David didn’t recall exactly.

This allegedly occurred in the Rocky Mount area, off of Route Z.

With Tammy’s body in the car, they took a back road from the Bagnell Dam area, getting lost a couple of times, and ended up at David’s mother’s house.

There was no talking, said David.

At the trailer, set back from other buildings, they took Tammy’s body inside to a back bedroom where family at the house discovered her. 

David, and in later testimony his brother Michael Nicholas, described a chaotic scene with screaming and yelling involving their mother and Martin. Both brothers — just 10 months apart in age — became emotional at times during their own testimony, talking of shock and a swirl or blur of activity without thinking. 

Finally Martin left, David said he went to sleep and Michael said he left the house and tried to stay away to avoid what was going on.

It was decided to hide the body.

That night, Martin returned in a truck with a barrel and tools, said David, and he was made to go with him to hide Tammy’s body. David said he attempted to run and hide. Calling out, Martin talked him into coming back, laughing. David came back and they dumped the barrel with Tammy’s body into a depression, covering it with soil.

Despite later leading police to the the general area where he believed they had been, her body was not found there and has never been recovered.

Through a dense line of questioning regarding years of conflicting stories to police and in letters to his mother and brother from jail, defense attorney Matt Willis attempted to show David’s current story as just more potential lies.

If the jury believes David, his narrative in court painted a picture of the Priest side of his family as deprived and twisted, but the defense attempted to show the Nicholas brothers as criminals. In the years since Tammy’s disappearance, they have both had multiple convictions, robbery, aggravated robbery for David and a federal firearms charge he won on appeal. Michael has convictions for stealing, assault, escape, aggravated battery, fleeing law enforcement and possession of opioids, the last being in 2015.

Both said they were in court Wednesday though of their own free will, under no deal or benefits to testify. They are not currently incarcerated.

Each described their relationship with each other as close, being just 10 months apart in age. Michael as the older brother was David’s “protector,” they said. David said Michael would take the brunt of physical abuse to protect David, Michael saying that as the older brother, being his protector was as it was supposed to be though he had failed to do so that day.

Ultimately, they both testified to extensive lies between 2010 and 2014 to police during investigations into Tammy’s disappearance out of a desire to protect each other and their mother.

Through questioning under the redirect by prosecution, David indicated letters from prison to his brother and mother saying he didn’t know anything about Tammy were also untrue, reassuring his family while not tipping anything off to censors who read inmate mail. 

Once his mother passed and he was reassured by his own attorney, David said he finally came forward with his story.