Jason Nichols was found guilty Friday of multiple charges, including terrorism, stemming from an incident in May 2016 at 25th Judicial District Chief Judge Wendel Wurst's home in Garden City. Nichols could face life in prison.
Nichols, 34, was accused of forcing himself at gunpoint into Wurst's home. Nichols was charged with two counts of terrorism, two counts of kidnapping, one count of aggravated burglary, two counts of aggravated assault and one count of criminal threat. He was found guilty on all counts except one terrorism charge related to the incident on May 31, 2016. He also was found guilty of an alternative count of criminal restraint in the case of the judge's wife, Rhonda Wurst, instead of the additional kidnapping charge.
Nichols was accused of trying to coerce Wendel Wurst to get answers regarding a tax warrant and subsequent garnishment of Nichols' wages by the Kansas Department of Revenue (KDR), which he considered wrongful.
Retired Judge Jack Burr, former chief judge of the 15th Judicial District, described count one of the terrorism charges as involving kidnapping with the intent to influence government policy by intimidation or coercion. On that count, Nichols was found not guilty. The second terrorism charge, as described by Burr, involved kidnapping to affect the operation of any unit of government. On that count, Nichols was found guilty.
Friday's proceedings began with a final witness called by the prosecution, Nichols' cousin, James Freeman, who had delivered a cellphone with family and personal photos, a note and $729 to the mother of Nichols' son, Caitlin Moser. The note was written and left for Freeman shortly before Nichols gathered his things and went to the Wurst home. The content of the note indicated Nichols had premeditated Wurst's kidnapping.
Nichols' defense attorney, Jonathan McConnell of Wichita, called three witnesses close to Nichols before calling Nichols himself to testify. The three witnesses were Terry Johnson, a wrestling coach at Holcomb USD 363; Joey Rodriguez, head wrestling coach at Holcomb High School; and Allison Hiner, a former roommate of Nichols. Nichols was a two-time state wrestling champion at Garden City High School.
The three testified that Nichols was not violent and did not strike them as a person with terrorist qualities or potential. During cross-examination, each one also told Assistant Attorney General Jessica Domme they were not familiar with the legal definition of terrorism in Kansas.
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.
According to testimony, Nichols wanted to place the Wursts under what he considered a citizen's arrest. Nichols thought Wurst had signed a tax warrant authorizing what he considered the illegitimate and wrongful garnishment of his wages. Nichols also wanted answers from the KDR regarding the origin of the garnishments, to prove on camera that they had committed perjury by lying on an official document, according to testimony.
Nichols was told during a phone conversation with Judge Wurst and an attorney of then-Secretary of Revenue Nick Jordan that filing tax returns reduces tax liability.
"I knew from previous years of employment that the state would end up sending me money back, and I didn't want to possibly have a mistake made on the W2 and be fined more money," Nichols testified regarding his refusal to file tax returns.
Nichols told Domme during cross-examination that he received his first tax assessment in January 2013. Nichols also testified that after garnishments, child support fees and taxes, he once received a paycheck in the amount of $157. He said he moved from job to job to avoid garnishments, and that he couldn't work at any one job for longer than five months. In the meantime, he sold his possessions to make money, including a collection of guns.
Nichols said his pride prevented him from signing up for welfare, and kept him from allowing his mother to hire a lawyer to sort out his dispute with the KDR. The stress, Nichols said, of securing housing, food and transportation, while failing to pay child support, accumulated over the course of seven years.
Nichols testified that a regular day involved extensive rumination over his garnishment situation and its consequences. He sought an escape as a mentor in youth summer wrestling programs at Holcomb Middle School.
Nichols said he reviewed a portion of the Civil Rights Act labeled "The Conspiracy Against Rights" that led him to believe the KDR and whoever signed a tax warrant against him had committed felonies warranting up to 10 years in prison. At the time, in Nichols' eyes, that person was Judge Wurst.
Nichols said Wurst told him he had signed a document authorizing garnishment of his wages. Wurst testified on Wednesday that the document he signed simply acknowledged that Nichols was not exempt from wage garnishment.
Nichols testified that after receiving notice of a third incoming garnishment, he went to the Wurst home.
McConnell described Nichols' appearance captured in a video recording device embedded in Nichols' watch as like a "Texas lawman." The recording showed Nichols first approaching the home of the Wursts' neighbor, Deanna Berry, by mistake.
Nichols wore a suit jacket, white T-shirt and shoulder holster with two ammunition magazines strapped to each side of his chest. He had a long handlebar mustache and wore a brimmed, white felt hat McConnell called a "cowboy hat."
Berry, who testified she thought Nichols was a student because he wore a backpack, redirected him to the Wursts' home. Nichols knocked on the door, told Judge Wurst that he was under citizen's arrest while mimicking the protocol of a police officer, he testified, and ordered Wurst to get on the ground before tying his hands with plastic zip ties.
Nichols confirmed to Domme during cross-examination that he chose the Wursts because they were "easier to subdue." During closing statements, Domme led with Wurst's testimony that he and his wife were "terrorized."
She 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 other local officials, his tendency toward job hopping to avoid garnishments, the signs of his premeditation through letters and gifts, and the effect his actions had on law enforcement and government officials.
Domme also referenced a recorded conversation between Nichols and his mother, Gina Nichols, on June 3, 2016, during which she asked him if his actions were worth the results. "Yep, pretty much," Nichols said in the recording.
"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.
The defense's closing statement was constructed as a hypothetical reasoning of how the jury might deliberate. McConnell focused on discrepancies in Nichols' intent, that he did not intend his acts to be terroristic, and that he "merely wanted answers." When asked by McConnell during his testimony what he has learned, Nichols said: "I realize that I need to swallow my pride. The world is not black and white."
Nichols will be sentenced at 1:30 p.m. Sept. 15 in Finney County District Court.
Contact Mark Minton at firstname.lastname@example.org