Was the young model’s death an accident, a suicide, or a murder?
He is either going to propose to me, or he is going to kill me.
- Rhonda’s last conversation with her family
Rhonda Casto was a beautiful young model from Portland, USA. She was a sweet, caring lady who often helped others. People loved her cheerful and entertaining attitude and often dubbed her as the light of the party.
But things didn’t go so well for the 23-year-old model.
Back in 2005, Rhonda’s mother, Julia, decided to rent a room. She saw an ad by a young man named Steven Nicols on Craigslist. Steve was a divorcee who needed money, and so he was renting a bedroom in his condo. They clicked immediately, and Rhonda’s mother enjoyed her time at the apartment.
She fancied his company so much that she introduced him to her daughter. Steve fell for Rhonda’s beauty and was visibly impressed with her. Rhonda also seemed to be interested in him, despite having a 10-year age gap.
Things went well, and in just a couple of years, they bought a two-bedroom condo in Oregon and moved in together. And in 2008, the couple had a beautiful daughter named Annie.
Both Rhonda and Steve like spending time outdoors. So, when they decided to go to Eagle Creek on March 16, 2009, none found it odd.
Rhonda called her mother to ask her if she could babysit Annie. She sounded happy and cheerful. As part of the conversation, she even “jokingly” told her mother,
He’s either going to propose to me, or he’s going to kill me.
The couple reached the park and began hiking, but soon, it started raining. And this is also where the details start to get blurry. What happened next is discerned from a series of conflicting accounts by Steve.
When it started raining, Steve claims that Rhonda used a blanket to cover her head and started running through the trail screaming, ‘I am a superwoman.’ But Eagle Creek trails can be dangerous. So, running on a treacherous path seems too wild.
He also reported that she said she went there all the time with a bottle of vodka and a packet of weed. But this sounded dubious because Rhonda and Steve were already together for 3–4 years. He should have known her inclination to hike at Eagle Creek because they live together.
Anyway, according to Steve, Rhonda was running at full speed, possibly high on weed, and when she took a turn, she slipped and fell off the cliff.
Strangely, Steve doesn’t remember much of what happened after this. He said it was all very hazy, and he had forgotten the actual events.
A few hours later, Steve called 911 and told them that Rhonda had fallen off the cliff. He said that he hiked down to reach her but realized it was too late. He then hiked back to his car and made the call.
The police arrived at the scene and were trying to reach Rhonda. When they asked Steve about the location of her body, he couldn’t remember. He seemed to talk more about his exhaustion and hypothermia than about her. And when they questioned him about the mishap, he said:
- Rhonda had fallen off the cliff and had landed next to the river.
- He tried to do CPR on her but was unsuccessful.
- When he was trying to reach Rhonda, he swam across the river, and that’s why he was wet and had hypothermia.
- Tired from the hiking and CPR, he fell asleep on her. That’s why it took him long to call 911.
Though his descriptions were strange, the police were especially suspicious of his tone. He was emotionless and spoke as if he was reporting an incident that happened to someone else. He was more concerned about himself than the loss of his girlfriend.
When the police finally found Rhonda, they saw a scene very different from Steve’s statement.
- They found Rhonda’s body about 50 feet away from the river and not next to it.
- She was found curled up and couldn’t have had CPR performed on her in that position.
- There was no evidence of Steve trying to reach her. There were no shoe prints, no tracks or disturbed ground around her, and no marks on her body that suggested that Steve had slept on her.
So, when the police asked Steve about these inconsistencies, he didn’t have an answer. He kept saying he was confused and didn’t remember anything. At one point, he even got angry that the police were concerned about his dead girlfriend and not his hypothermia.
The police made inquiries about Rhonda and Steve’s relationship, and the answers were conflicting. While some claimed that she was unhappy with their relationship, others vouched for it.
The police also asked Steve about his feelings for Rhonda. He claimed he was deeply in love with her and wanted to propose to her on the hike. But when the police asked him about the ring, he brushed off the question saying he misplaced it on the trail.
The autopsy report came in a few days later, and the results pointed out no foul play. But it only confirmed no use of weapon or violence; it said nothing about someone pushing her. The report also showed that she only had slight traces of cannabis in her system, not enough for her to be impaired. So, Steve’s claim of her being high was invalid.
At this point, Rhonda’s family was convinced beyond doubt that Steven Nicols had killed her, and they were pushing the police to arrest him.
The police continued to question Steve about his stories and claims that kept changing all the time. Once, he even speculated that she might have jumped herself, committing suicide. He claimed Rhonda suffered from post-partum depression because she felt disgusted by her body issues.
But Rhonda’s parents rejected his claims saying she never felt so. She loved Annie so much that she regretted none of it.
About ten days later, the police found that Steve requested to claim Rhonda’s insurance policy of $1 million.
It was strange for the police because, at 23, very few have insurance policies for a million dollars. Upon investigation, they discovered that Steve had taken the policy against her name only a few weeks ago.
Even though Steve claimed it was Rhonda’s idea to take this insurance policy, it didn’t convince the police or Rhonda’s family. In fact, Rhonda’s family presented information that Steve had lost money a few years ago, and this was probably his way of getting it back.
With more investigation, the police learned about Steve’s divorce. His ex-wife had several altercations against him and claimed him to be a psychopath.
She said that he had attempted to kill her several times. He strangled her, tried to push her over the balcony, and even tried to beat her to death.
Unfortunately, the judge had dismissed her claims and acquitted Steve.
The case didn’t move forward, despite the police trying their best to find a lead. Then Rhonda’s mother came forward to reveal a valuable piece of information.
Rhonda’s sister Melanie had had an intimate relationship with Steve. She was only 15 years old, and Steve was 34. Initially, Julia had dismissed these claims by Melanie, thinking she was trying to split Rhonda and Steve. But after all that had happened, she wasn’t so sure.
Surprisingly, Steve conceded. He said he regretted his actions and that he was at fault. Finally, the police could book him with a statutory rape charge.
Melanie reported that Steve approached her after Rhonda’s death insisting that they live together. He claimed Annie was too young to remember her mother, and she could take Rhonda’s place.
Obviously, Melanie wasn’t comfortable with this. She decided to help the police with their sting operation, where she’ll try to make Steve confess to the crime. But, despite her efforts, Steve remained tight-lipped and said nothing.
The operation was a failure.
A flicker of hope
For the next two years, there was no progress in the investigation. The police couldn’t prove that Steve had killed Rhonda, and he got full custody of his daughter, Annie.
Soon, Steve moved to China with Annie, leaving behind everything. He said that he wanted to get away from all that had happened and wanted to start a new life. He also didn’t want Annie to meet Rhonda’s family.
However, in 2014, a new Defense Attorney (DA) reopened the case. He looked at the evidence again and created a secret jury to indict Steve.
But since Steve was in China, they had to trick him to come back to the US.
The police officials claimed that there was a problem with Annie’s visa, and she would have to come to the US to clarify it. And when he flew back to the States, the police lured him into custody.
The police charged Steve with first-degree murder and underage sexual assault, and the case came to court.
However, the judge ruled out all the evidence from Steve’s previous marriage claiming them to be too persuasive. So, the prosecution had to come up with an alternate plan.
They created a simulation that showed how Rhonda could have died. They used a life-size dummy and pushed it several times down the cliff. The experiment concluded that someone must have shoved Rhonda to land at the place they found her body.
But the defense also hired a forensic expert to calculate force and distances, and he disputed the prosecution’s claim noting that the margin of error is over 50 feet.
At this point, the judge felt there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Steve and suggested that the prosecution offered him a plea deal, which Steve took. But he was charged for negligence homicide. Because if Rhonda had indeed run through the trail, he should have intervened and stopped her, which he didn’t. In addition, he was also found guilty of third-degree sexual abuse for his relationship with Melanie.
The judge sentenced him to 3 years probation with a credit of 19 months jail time.
Obviously, Rhonda’s family and the community were outraged with the verdict, but sadly, they could do nothing about it.
In 2018, a judge revoked Steve’s parental rights and sent Annie to foster care. Her mother’s insurance money is in the bank, waiting for her to turn 18. And now, Steve leads a solitary life with no friends, family, and colleagues.
If Steve had indeed harmed Rhonda, then perhaps, this is the intended punishment for his actions. Because to me, being old, lonely, and sad seems harsher than being convicted.