A Limestone County jury on Thursday convicted an Elkmont grandfather of raping his 14-year-old granddaughter following a three-day trial in Limestone County Circuit Court.
The 12-member jury received the case against Austin Nichols Jr., 58, of 26821 Clem Road, Thursday afternoon and reached a guilty verdict before 5 p.m. on three counts of first-degree rape.
Nichols was accused of raping his granddaughter on three separate occasions in the summer and fall of 2009 when she was 14. The victim, whose name is being withheld because she is a minor, was living with her grandparents, father and uncle at the grandparents’ Clem Road mobile home at the time. She now lives elsewhere with her father and stepmother.
Nichols, who has been a builder, landscaper and evangelist minister, had denied the allegations.
Circuit Judge Jimmy Woodroof Jr. will sentence Nichols at a later date.
District Attorney Brian Jones was pleased with the outcome.
“I would like to thank Jim Ayers and the staff of the District Attorney’s Office for their hard work on this case and for the hard work, professionalism and dedication of the investigators from the Limestone County Sheriff’s Department,” he said. “I would also like to thank the jurors for their service, their attention and their upholding the rule of law in our society. Without them, our judicial system could not function.”
Jones added that in this age of crime scene investigation, it is difficult to try a case that has been pending since 2009 with no physical evidence or forensic testimony.
First-degree rape is a Class A felony punishable by 10 to 99 years in state prison and a fine up to $20,000.
The sister of the accused, Linda Gali, 50, of Ardmore, testified Thursday Nichols had sexually molested her and once raped her as a child in Chicago.
Gali was a rebuttal witness, the last to testify in the case.
Under the law, the prosecution can call a witness that might speak about previous “bad acts” by a defendant, the district attorney said.
Because the alleged abuse occurred 43 years ago, Jones said her testimony ordinarily would have been disallowed. However, because the prosecution had previously asked Nichols if he ever had sexual intercourse with any of his siblings, and he said no, the prosecution was allowed to call a witness to rebut Nichols testimony, Jones said.
Gali said when she was 6 or 7, Nichols, who was eight years her senior, had taken her into a room off the kitchen at their parents’ home in Chicago and “touched her stuff.” She said he warned her not to tell anyone or they would get in trouble. She also said he offered her dollar bills to be quiet.
She said the molestation went on “for a while,” though she could not recall how many months or years. She said he once raped her.
“One time he took me in the room and climbed on the bed and it hurt pretty bad and then he stopped,” she said.
She said at the request of her drug rehabilitation counselor she told her mother of the activity in 1991 or ’92. She said she and her two sisters discussed the matter after Nichols was arrested in 2009. She said her sisters also said they had been sexually molested.
Out of the presence of the jury, defense attorney Garry Clem asked the court if he could call the mother to rebut this claim. When he could not immediately produce the witnesses Thursday, Woodroof said he would not wait for a witness and instructed the attorneys to prepare for their summations.
Clem did, however, question Gali about her past, which she admitted had been “troubled” partly because of her childhood sexual abuse. She said she had been married twice, had delivered 15 children, two while she was addicted to drugs. She said she had never been able to keep a job, she lives with her mother and her boyfriend is a convicted sex offender. She also said she had been drug free for the past 17 years. Nichols and his wife, Martha, had previously testified they fostered four of Gali’s children, including one whom they adopted.
On the opening day of the trial Tuesday, the alleged victim had testified that her grandfather began commenting on her developing bust line and touching her breasts when she was 13. She also said he left notes for her in which he offered to pay her $20 if she would perform oral sex on him or if she would have sex with him.
“He said he didn’t want me to give it up to some dude that would hurt me, that he wanted to be the one,” said the alleged victim, who also said she was a virgin at the time.
She said he raped her two more times in the coming months — once in the bathroom and once in her bedroom. Both times, she said, he handed her $20 after the fact and told her not to tell. She said he also gave her $20 each week thereafter to remain silent. It was days after the third incident the alleged victim decided to call her mother, Janice Brown, who lives several trailers down in the mobile home court, and tell her what had happened.
Brown testified Wednesday she screamed when her daughter told her on Nov. 1 Nichols had repeatedly raped her and when she showed her the photograph she had taken of her grandfather, then she took her to the Limestone County Sheriff’s Department to make a report.
At the center of the three-day trial was a cellphone photograph the alleged victim took of Nichols while he was standing in the laundry room. In the shot, Nichols is directly facing the camera and appears to be displaying his genitals. He is holding a portion of his genitals, which appears to be in a state of arousal, with his left hand and raising the front of his Tennessee Titan football jersey with the other. His blue jeans are unzipped.
The alleged victim said she had gone to the laundry room to retrieve some clothes from the dryer when he appeared in this manner and said to her, “Do you want it?”
She said she snapped a photo with her cellphone, which was in her hand because she had been using it to listen to music. She said she took the photo because her father once told her a picture was worth a thousand words and because she did not think others would believe her otherwise. A time stamp on the photo shows it was taken the evening of July 21, 2009.
Nichols testified Thursday he had entered the laundry room from the back door because he had been outside all day building a 10- by 20-foot deck on the back of the home. He said he was cleaning sawdust from his genitals when the photo was taken without his knowledge. He and his wife of 41 years both testified the victim sometimes hid behind a curtained area of the laundry room that concealed the water heater so that she could abruptly appear and frighten people.
Two weeks after the photo was taken, the victim said she was lying on the couch watching television when her grandfather — despite her kicking and pleading — pinned her arms down, pulled down her shorts and raped her. After the alleged incident, she said he handed her $20 and told her not to tell anyone because thy would both get in trouble and she would not be allowed to see her father anymore, with whom she said she was very close. She said she was raped twice more — once in the bathroom and once in her bedroom — while she was home along with her grandfather and her father and grandmother and uncle were gone.