POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. — When JoAnn Nichols disappeared in 1985, a detective immediately zeroed in on one man: her husband.
James Nichols was a loner, detached and anti-social. Neighbors saw him as odd, someone who would stare into space or sit in his car to read the newspaper. One remembers seeing him driving around with a mannequin in the passenger seat.
Retired Poughkeepsie Detective Capt. Charles Mittelstaedt, who ran the investigation nearly three decades ago, saw more.
"There was no doubt in my mind that he knew where his wife was," Mittelstaedt said Wednesday. "The man was cold. I mean, seriously cold."
Nichols, an IBM retiree, reported his wife missing on Dec. 21, 1985. In December, he died of natural causes at the age of 82. When a contractor was hired to clean out the debris-choked house at 720 Vassar Road last week, workers found JoAnn Nichols' skeletal remains in a container behind a false wall. Officials said she died from a blow to the head.
Mittelstaedt said investigators had never searched the house because they didn't have legal grounds to get a warrant.
Nichols told detectives their marriage was fine, Mittelstaedt said. Police characterized a note left on her computer as depressed, but not suicidal. Their only child, a son, drowned a couple years earlier at age of 25.
"He sat across from me in my office, looked me straight in the face, and told us that he thought she was depressed, he hinted at maybe suicidal," Mittelstaedt said.
"We had suspicions right from the start because of the way he acted," he said.
Nichols was put under surveillance, and investigators learned within weeks that he was visiting another woman.
When confronted with that, Nichols replied, according to Mittelstaedt: "If you don't have a warrant for my arrest, you can talk to my lawyer."
Mittelstaedt said that was the last time investigators talked to him.
There were other strange twists, he remembered.
When police visited the home after JoAnn Nichols disappeared, her car was missing. When they returned, it was in the driveway. James Nichols said he found it at a mall and had it driven home. The car had been washed and vacuumed, Mittelstaedt said.
Meanwhile, neighbors remembered a strange loner who had a sweet wife.
"Everybody kind of thought he was the one that was responsible, just based on his emotionless character and the condition of the house," said Walter Wyskida, a neighbor of 16 years.
Wyskida said Nichols had seven sheds with debris from floor to ceiling. Another friend said Nichols kept a dead cat in a basement freezer.
The modest house on a tree-lined street has a small backyard enclosed by a stockade fence. On Wednesday, a large trash receptacle sat in the driveway.