Editor's Note: This is the ninth in a series of articles about the Top 10 local news stories of 2017.
On May 31, 2016, 33-year-old Jason Nichols of Garden City — armed with a copy of the U.S. Constitution, a knife and a .45-caliber handgun — forced his way into 25th Judicial District Chief Judge Wendel Wurst's home and held him hostage for more than six hours.
As testimony later revealed, Nichols held Wurst hostage in a failed attempt to enlist his assistance in resolving a tax debt with the Kansas Department of Revenue. Instead, his actions resulted in a massive law enforcement response on that day in May 2016, on which he ultimately turned himself in to authorities and eventually was charged with terrorism, kidnapping and multiple other crimes.
In July, a jury found Nichols guilty on seven charges, including a count of terrorism. And in September, a judge sentenced him to life in prison.
The trial, conviction and sentencing of Nichols is The Telegram's No. 2 news story of 2017.
During Nichols’ sentencing in September, retired Chief Judge Jack Burr of the 15th Judicial District, who presided over the case to prevent a conflict of interest, said the case was different than any he had overseen in almost 40 years. While there was no question as to what took place on the day of Wurst’s kidnapping, Burr explained, Nichols’ general intent was in dispute.
As a teen, Nichols was a celebrated wrestler at Garden City High School who won two state championships in 2000 and 2001. But during the opening statements of the July trial, Nichols’ defense counsel, Jonathan McConnell of Wichita, descibed an adult Nichols as a man weighted by the stress of seeing his wages garnished by the KDR under a “false claim” that he owed taxes.
McConnell argued that the KDR refused to show documentation to Nichols that elucidated the origin and nature of his tax debt. On that basis, McConnell said, the KDR committed perjury by submitting a document to be signed by Wurst that “contained false information.”
Wurst told Nichols he had signed the tax warrant submitted to the Finney County Clerk’s Office, McConnell went on to say, leading Nichols to believe Wurst had also committed perjury and thus violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution forbidding unreasonable searches and seizures and warrants without probable cause.
It was later revealed that Wurst did not sign any such document, nor is he required to. The miscommunication, McConnell said, resulted in the citizen’s arrest turned hostage situation — that ended when Nichols turned himself over to authorities in exchange for a cigarette.
McConnell noted in his conclusion that if Nichols is guilty of anything, it’s that he “made a mountain out of a molehill” and neglected to file his income tax returns. He also emphasized that Nichols did not owe back taxes, his wages should never have been garnished and that "he was right all along.”
“Jason Nichols is not a terrorist. Jason is not a violent person,” McConnell told the jury. “Was this a sensible plan? Of course not. Jason Nichols was under stress that manifested itself in ways that even he couldn’t understand.”
Kansas law defines terrorism as the commission of a felony with the intent to influence government policy by intimidation or coercion, or with the intent to affect the operation of any unit of government — a two-part definition that gave Assistant Kansas Attorney General Jessica Domme leeway in making her case.
Though jurors found Nichols innocent of the first component of that definition — the commission of a felony with the intent to influence government policy by intimidation or coercion — they found him guilty of intent to affect the operation of any unit of government.
During closing statements on the day of Nichols’ conviction, Domme recounted Nichols’ forced entry into the Wurst home, his refusal to file tax returns, his refusal to consider a tax abatement petition, his hostile statements to KDR representatives, his failure to follow the advice of his mother and local officials, his tendency toward job hopping to avoid garnishments, the signs of premeditation demonstrated through a letter and gifts given to the mother of his child, and the effect his actions had on law enforcement and government officials.
Recordings of phone calls and videos were captured of the kidnapping, both of which were recorded by Nichols on a device embedded in his watch and with a camcorder that captured 78 minutes worth of footage.
The video played by Domme depicted Wurst seated at a table in his basement while Nichols repeatedly asked questions involving the statutes laid out before them. Meanwhile, a panicked Mrs. Wurst moved about freely but frantically in the background. She eventually stepped outside of the residence unhindered, when law enforcement officials stationed outside insisted that she leave the premises.
The video showed Wurst complying with Nichols’ demands and talking with him conversationally, gradually infusing a certain degree of levity into the situation.
Though the video abruptly ended because the camcorder lost power, Wurst testified that Nichols eventually cut his bindings with a knife and allowed him to retrieve a deck of cards from the upstairs area of the house unsupervised. Wurst said he wanted to help Nichols sort out whatever issues he was having with the KDR and that he did not intend to leave.
According to his testimony, Nichols unloaded the pistol’s magazine and set it down on the table. They attempted to watch TV together, but law enforcement had already arranged for the service to be disconnected.
“Whether you feel in your heart that you’re sorry for him or not, you have a responsibility to consider the evidence that you’ve heard and the evidence that you have, and based on that evidence, the state has proved that the defendant is guilty of every crime that he has been charged with,” Domme said during her closing statement.
During sentencing, Wurst testified that he thought a life sentence would be excessive, but that Nichols should face the consequences for his “outrageous behavior.” Wurst said in conclusion that he would support a durational departure from a life sentence to 12 years in prison.
“I don’t think we will be endangered, whether he serves 10 or 20 years,” Wurst said.
Domme used a previous felony murder case to articulate to Burr that the court would not have authority to depart from the sentencing guidelines requiring a life sentence for a certain set of crimes, including terrorism, and that any decision to do so would be illegal.
Domme went on to argue that the Wursts were not the only victims in the incident.
“The crime of terrorism is an act against our government, and that is why it is set aside from the other statutes,” she said.
Burr noted at sentencing that evidence at trial indicated multiple law enforcement agencies in southwest Kansas were entangled in the kidnapping incident, and that those agencies were “disrupted and changed their procedure and so forth in trying to deal with the situation. The Legislature has deemed that terrorism.”
“Mr. Nichols became so obsessed and frustrated with [the KDR], he decided to pick up a fairly large-caliber weapon and try and take care of it by taking hostage a person who was at best on the very fringes of this entire thing,” Burr said.
Nichols will be eligible for parole after 20 years on the terrorism charge, and sentences on each of the remaining counts, six and a half years total, can be served concurrently. He was given 473 days of jail-time credit for time already served.
“I realize that I need to swallow my pride,” Nichols said on the day of his conviction. “The world is not black and white.”
Contact Mark Minton at firstname.lastname@example.org.