Transcript: 193. The Murder of Nick Howard | USA

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As Patty Howard of Sacramento, California woke up one February morning, she felt something wasn’t quite right. She made her way to the kitchen, and noticed that her 18-year-old son, Nick, was not in his bed. This was very unusual, and she immediately knew something must have happened.


She woke her daughter Jaime, who said that she had received a message from Nick around midnight, saying that he was having car trouble, but that he would be home soon. She fell asleep before he returned and didn’t know if he ever made it home.


The Howards were close, and there was no reason why Nick would have wanted to leave on his own accord. But what if someone, known to the family, was intent of breaking them, causing them unimaginable harm? Never in her wildest dreams would Patty ever have thought that one of her friends would resort to such desperate measures to get her attention…


>>Intro Music

In 1997, high school sweethearts, Daniel and Patty Howard, lived in Sacramento with their two children, 18-year-old Nick and his younger sister, Jaime. Together, the Howards ran an auto body shop in town, and enjoyed life as a close-knit family who lived and worked together. 


When the Yolo County Sheriff’s department received a call from Patty on the morning of February 5th to report her son, Nick missing, they weren’t too concerned at first. An 18-year-old kid who lived at home… Perhaps he decided to go away and forgot to tell his parents. Maybe he was at a friend’s place. Either way, patrol officers went to the Howard home to interview Patty and she told them that she had not seen or heard from Nick since the previous evening. It was unlike him not to come home, or at least to call and let her know where he was. 


Nick worked at the family’s Auto Body Shop when his mom had locked up the night before. He told his mom that he had left his driver’s license at a restaurant and was heading there to pick it up, and he would be home later. Patty would never have thought that this would be the last time she’d ever see her son.


Nick called at midnight to say that his car was playing up, and that he would make his way home, but he never did. He also called a friend and mentioned that he was heading home from Sacramento. Because Nick worked as a mechanic at his family’s business, no one was greatly concerned, they knew Nick was able and capable to get his car going if it had broken down. 


Although Nick was 18, and free to come and go as he pleased, his family knew that something was terribly wrong. He had no reason to stay away and they feared that he had been in an accident of sorts. The police assessed the situation and agreed to look into Nick’s disappearance. It was plain to see that Nick was close with his family. He was responsible and he did say he was making his way home, but he never showed up.


Police, together with Nick’s family and friends, searched for Nick along the usual route he drove home. But there was no sign of the teen anywhere. Two days into the search, two volunteers alerted police about tyre tracks leading from a parking area, into the Sacramento River. With enough cause for concern, the police search turned to the river. And before long, members of the Yolo County Boat Patrol and police divers retrieved Nick’s Mazda, on the riverbed 18ft below.


But Nick’s body was not inside, or anywhere near the vehicle for that matter. They did however find his wallet, his prescription glasses, bent and broken, implying that he hit the dashboard with his face. Nick’s family held out hope that Nick had survived the accident, that perhaps he had memory loss or something preventing him from coming home, and that they would find him soon enough.


When the car was found, the passenger window was rolled down slightly and the driver’s side window was down all the way. There was oil all over the inside of the car, and an empty oil bottle was found in the trunk, without a cap. A forensic examination of the car found a plastic bottle cap inserted in the engine’s throttle. 


Technicians examined the scene where the car went into the river and concluded that it could not have been moving faster than 14 miles per hour when it left the road, going onto the shoulder. It did not speed into the river, nor did it leap or skid – it was a steady, controlled roll.


A highway patrol officer conducted an experiment, placing a cap of the same size in the throttle of a car similar to Nick’s, and found that, on turning the ignition on, the vehicle shot forward, the engine running at the high rate of 5,000 RPM, causing it to reach a speed of about 20mph. It was a way to make the car move, without having a driver in the seat. This proved that someone had rigged Nick’s car to go into the river.


According to CHP accident reconstructionist Steven Walker, the car was driven to the location and parked close to the river, facing the water. The person then turned the car off, put the gear into neutral, placed the cap from the bottle of oil in the carburettor linkage, walked back over to the driver’s side window, started the car while standing outside of it and saw it propel into the river.


A of Nick’s visited local police and told them that he suspected Nick was still alive and had faked his own death, to benefit from a life insurance policy he had taken out. This seemed far-fetched but investigators felt it would be prudent to follow up.


In going through Nick’s room, investigators found the paperwork to a policy. Nick was only 18 years old and in good health, it was rather unusual for someone like him to even consider life insurance. Unless his friend was right: that it was all part of a fraudulent scheme. The policy cited that a sum of $750,000, to be paid to Ralph Marcus in the event of Nick’s accidental death. It also contained an accidental death clause. Curiously, Ralph was one of the searchers who had alerted police about the tyre tracks leading into the river where Nick’s car was eventually found. 


His parents, Patty and Daniel had known Ralph since they were all in high school, and over the years, their relationship had become strained. They knew that Nick spent time with Ralph but did not understand why he would make him the beneficiary of a life insurance policy. They knew about the policy, but the last they heard, they were the beneficiaries. Of course, they protested at the time, and couldn’t quite understand why Nick wanted insurance in the first place. But Nick was 18, and capable of making his own decisions.


A friend of Ralph’s, Andre Inocelda, recalled a conversation with Ralph regarding the life insurance policy. Ralph said that Nick had given him a letter, instructing him what to do with the insurance pay-out: a portion was to be paid to his parents, some to his sister, some had to be invested and of course there was provision for Ralph also. However, Ralph told Andre that he had lost the letter, and wrote down his own version of what he remembered it to have been. According to Ralph, Nick wanted him to be the beneficiary, because he doubted his parents’ ability to manage the money. This, of course, was completely unfounded. The Howards ran a successful business for many years and were more than capable of managing funds.


Police, believing that Nick had staged his own death, were eager to speak to him and efforts to find him intensified. Being named as the beneficiary of his life insurance pay-out, police took Ralph Marcus in for questioning. He denied any involvement in Nick’s disappearance and claimed to know nothing about the possible life insurance scam. He also claimed to be surprised that Nick had named him as the sole beneficiary, although by this time, Patty had already told him. Ralph’s mother, Blondell Neel, provided an alibi, stating that Ralph was with her the entire day and night when Nick disappeared. Police did not have any reason to arrest Ralph at this point and he was released. 


Nick’s friend, Jason Smalling, told investigators about the last time he saw Nick. It was the Saturday before he vanished and they met for dinner at a restaurant called Tony’s Place in Walnut Grove. According to Jason, he had not seen much of Nick before that night, and they had drifted apart after school. Nick was using drugs and partied a lot, while Jason was on course to become a youth pastor. Nick allegedly told Jason that he wanted to sort his life out, maybe go away for a while. Jason claimed he also hinted at coming back to church and was open to Jason’s guidance. When they left the restaurant, Jason did not notice Nick leaving anything behind. 


Yet, when Nick saw his mother the last time, he told her he had forgotten his ID at the restaurant. On that Saturday night, Nick said goodbye to Patty, and left to have dinner with another friend. They were done around 9:15pm, after which Nick left, also telling his friend he was heading to Walnut Grove to pick up his ID from Tony’s Place. 


On Saturday, the 25th of February, three weeks after Nick disappeared, police finally found Nick. Sadly though, he was no longer alive. His body washed up from the Sacramento River, three miles from where his car had been found. Dental records quickly confirmed that the body was indeed Nick Howard. 

Although they did not support an alleged crime, Nick’s family held up hope that perhaps the insurance fraud story was true, if that meant that he was alive. His sister Jaime said this about Nick:

“He was the best friend I ever had. He was the best friend to anybody he ever met. He didn’t usually have a mean word to say. He was very easy-going, very happy-go-lucky. Just kind of… A cool kind of kid.”

His death shook the community and left a void in the Howard family, who had lost their son, brother, co-worker and friend. 


At first, it looked like an unfortunate drowning accident. However, an autopsy found suspicious ligature marks around Nick’s neck. So, there were two possible causes of death: manual strangulation AND asphyxia due to drowning. Although he had drowned, it was because he had been strangled that he had died. He was alive but unconscious when he entered the water. There was also evidence of a blunt force blow to the body before he died, possibly a kick.


Then there were some strange findings too, things that didn’t quite add up. When his body was discovered, he wore a glove on one hand only. There was no motor oil on his body, yet, when the car was processed, there was oil all over the interior. It was evident that the seatbelts were not in use, and Nick’s broken eyeglasses implied that his head hit the dashboard. Yet, the steering wheel was not damaged or bent. In testing the impact of a dummy, with the same weight as a human head on a steering wheel, investigators also concluded that the glasses would not have been bent the way Nick’s were. Someone must have planted the glasses in the car to suggest that Nick had hit his head.


Also, with the direction of water flow from the river, it would have been impossible for Nick’s body to float out of the vehicle. Had he been unconscious, he would have drifted to the passenger side, from where there was no way out. The window was only open slightly, his body would never have fit through it.


When Nick’s body was found, Ralph Marcus was terribly distraught and told anyone who’d listen what a good friend the young Nick had been to him. He was like a son to him. With Nick deceased, he was no longer suspected of insurance fraud, and all eyes were on the sole beneficiary: Ralph Marcus.


Nick’s friend Jason contacted police, and said he had some information. He said that Ralph Marcus had called him after Nick disappeared and suggested they went out and searched for him. Jason hardly knew Ralph, but as Nick’s friend, he agreed. Jason told police that Ralph Marcus took him to a pier on the Sacramento River. Jason knew that it was one of Nick’s favourite spots in the area, and that he liked hanging out there with friends. Jason spotted a black glove lying on the pier, and when he pointed it out to Ralph, he quickly kicked it into the water. Realising that Jason had seen him, Ralph backtracked and said he meant to pick the glove up, but it had fallen into the water. This incident bothered Jason, but he left it at that. When investigators showed him the glove on Nick’s hand when his body was found, Jason confirmed that it was exactly the same as the one Ralph had kicked off the pier. This was highly suspicious, seeing as police never made information regarding the glove public, there was no way Jason could have known about it. 


44-year-old Ralph Marcus had a strange connection to the Howard family. Patty had met Ralph in 1973, when she was 14 and he was 17. They went on one date, but Patty recalled the date ending with Ralph using a wrestling move on her, and once he disabled her, her tried to kiss her. Patty pushed him away, and made it clear she was not interested in him romantically. Even though Ralph backed off that night, he would be chasing after Patty for many years to come.


Patty kept Ralph at arm’s length and always shielded herself with friends and boyfriends. However, when she met Daniel Howard at the age of 17, he was not just a buffer from Ralph’s unwanted advances. She knew she wanted to spend her life with him and they married straight out of high school.


Ralph remained on the periphery, befriended Daniel and wormed his way into Patty’s family. When Patty’s daughter Jaime asked Ralph why he never got married, he replied: 


“Because Patty married Danny.” 


And once, when he saw Patty looking at a dress, bought it, gave it to her mother to pass it on to Patty. When Patty learned that the dress came from Ralph, she returned it, and gave him his money back, stating loud and clear that she did not want any gifts from him. But Ralph was undeterred, and even offered her mother a large sum of money if she could break up Patty’s marriage. When Patty and Daniel split up for a while, Ralph was waiting in the wings, ready to claim Patty for himself. But she told him to back off and reconciled with her husband.


In 1993, the relentless Ralph offered Patty $50,000 for one of her eggs so he could have a child by her, using a surrogate. He put his hand on her and said:


“I’d really rather that you carried the child, but I know that’s not possible.”


Patty felt that, after many years of harassment, he had finally overstepped too far. Mainly because of his request, but also because of his constant interference, Patty said that he was no longer welcome near her or her family. 


However, her grown son Nick was fond of Ralph and admired his way of life. When he was 16, Nick worked for Ralph, maintaining his lawn and garden, for some pocket money. Well, technically it wasn’t Ralph’s garden, seeing as he was living with his mother and stepfather, rent-free. His stepfather passed away in 1997, and his mother took out a reverse mortgage on the house. This meant that, if she were to die, the house would become property of the mortgage holder. This threatened Ralph’s inheritance.


Throughout his adult life, Ralph portrayed himself as a successful professional gambler, at the top of his game. He was also a conman, who never held down a steady job. Yet he always had money, and flaunting his cash, he took the young Nick under his wing. Like Ralph, Nick also did not feel that he was cut out for a 9 to 5 job and believed there were easier ways of making a living. Ralph would tell people that he was Nick’s godfather and made sure everyone knew how close they were. He took Nick with him to Tahoe and Reno, teaching him how to gamble. He introduced him to women, drugs and alcohol – all very exciting to the fresh-out-of-high-school Nick.


What Nick didn’t realise at the first, was that most of Ralph’s income was due to fraudulent schemes. But soon Ralph dragged Nick into his murky world of shady business. And ultimately, in one final, grand plan, he used the impressionable teen to get his final revenge against Patty for rebuffing his advances for twenty years. 


Ralph convinced Nick to take out a universal life policy from Farmers Insurance in April 1996, soon after he turned 18. Farmers Insurance turned him down, but he was not deterred, and went to Allstate. This time, he had a story ready, to explain why he – as an 18-year-old – wanted life insurance. Nick claimed that he was planning on getting married soon and that he would take over his parents’ business. His application for $500,000 coverage was approved and he nominated his parents as his beneficiaries. A couple of months later, he applied for additional coverage of at least $250,000 in case of accidental death.


However, Nick neglected to sign and return an amendment to the application, so it was never officially changed. Unaware of his oversight, four months before his death, Nick went ahead and requested a change of beneficiary. He stated that a ‘friend’ would be the new beneficiary, and only provided a social security number, but no name. It didn’t take investigators long to determine that the social security number belonged to none other than Ralph Marcus.


For Ralph, this was a masterful scheme in the making, and he bided his time. Once all the paperwork was done regarding the change of beneficiary, Ralph was ready to continue on to the next phase. Together with Nick, they hatched a plan to fake Nick’s death, after which Ralph would collect the insurance pay-out, and split the money with Nick. Nick also stipulated that he wanted to make sure his family received some money too. Ralph agreed that he would take care of it, but the 44-year-old career conman had a darker plan all along… 


Nick was new to the life of fraud and was not as discreet Ralph. His parents knew about the life-insurance policy and he had told them they were the beneficiaries. However, he told his sister that he wanted to change that. When Jaimee learned that Ralph Marcus would be the new beneficiary, she couldn’t believe it. However, Nick didn’t see why she had a problem with it. According to Nick, Ralph ‘knew what to do with money’ and because he cared so much for the Howard family, he would take care of them. He shrugged it all off telling his sister that he would change it again when he got married, then his wife would be the sole beneficiary anyway. However, Nick didn’t even have a serious girlfriend at the time, so marriage was not on the horizon.


It was evident that Nick was really just a naive kid though. He went around telling two of his friends about the policy too, and even named his beneficiary. Nick also commented to his sister that he was worth more dead than he was alive, in fact, close to a million dollars.


He had a conversation with his neighbour, Susan Von Niessen about his ‘investment’ and claimed that Ralph had advised him regarding the policy. In Nick’s mind, he was going to be rich living in another country, knowing his presumed death would leave his family with a financial windfall. Susan was concerned and explained to him how it all worked, spelling out that Nick would not benefit from a life insurance policy – that all money would go to his beneficiary. And that the implication was he had to die in order for that to happen. According to Susan, Nick wasn’t concerned about logistics and explained that he and Ralph had it all worked out: Nick would hide out in Mexico for a while and eventually return home, with pockets lined with cash. Susan warned him that it wouldn’t be that simple and that the pay-out would only occur if there was a body, or if not, only once he had been declared dead after seven years. A week later, Nick disappeared. 


On the night he went missing, he made what would be his last two phone calls at midnight: one to his sister, and another to a friend, Samuel Taylor. He left Jaime a voice message, saying that his car was playing up, but that he would be home in half an hour or so and ended saying that he was ‘wiped out’. He spoke to Samuel and said that he was trying to get a hold of his sister. He also told him about his car trouble, but said it was no big deal, and that he had fixed it. Nick mentioned that he was QUOTE hella tired after being awake for about 32 hours END QUOTE. Jaime received the message at 12:10am when she arrived home. She immediately tried to page him, but he never called again. After a while, she went to bed. It wasn’t till the next morning that Nick’s family noticed he never made it home.


As soon as they realised, Daniel Howard went looking for his son, driving along the Sacramento River, but came up empty. Yolo County District Attorney’s special investigator, Cary Tommeraason said:


"It was all part of the plan. He wanted people to think he was driving back along the Sacramento River, had fallen asleep, driven into the river and drowned.” 


According to Nick’s father Daniel:


"The plan was for Nick to go to South America and hide out till they got the money. But Marcus had no intention of having Nick simply disappear. He planned to kill him!”


So where did things go wrong? Why was Ralph, who had been in love with Patty for most of his life, ready to turn to murder? According to Daniel things took a sinister turn after Patty refused to give Ralph one of her eggs. Daniel said:


"That was the last straw. She wrote him, telling him to get lost. We think that's when he decided to seek revenge by killing our son."

Ralph had reportedly even told Patty that she deserved to lose a child. It was time to close in on their prime suspect, and police obtained a warrant to search Ralph Marcus’s home. They found paperwork out on a writing desk, proving that he was in the process of claiming the $750,000 pay-out from Nick’s life insurance. However, what Nick hadn’t realised, was that the policy was not yet active, as he was supposed to provide additional information. So, even if police had not uncovered the scheme, Ralph Marcus would not have been successful in claiming the money.


On February 10th, five days after Nick went missing, Patty approached Ralph and told him about the life insurance policy and he seemed genuinely surprised. He claimed he was touched that Nick had chosen him to be a beneficiary but promised Patty he would never take any money from her family. However, when Daniel asked Ralph to waive his claim in writing, Ralph dodged the request, saying he had to speak to the insurance company first. Patty then learned that the change of beneficiary was never approved. She told Ralph Marcus about this and recalled that he suddenly became ‘very quiet’.


During their search of Ralph’s property, police also found a bottle of Valvolene Motor oil in the garage, with the same lot number as the bottle found in the trunk of Nick’s car. The walls were closing in on the ever-hustling Ralph Marcus. Police arrested him, and he was arrested and charged with first degree murder.


The Prosecution’s case stated that Ralph Marcus and Nicholas Howard had agreed to fake his death, collect the life-insurance pay-out and split it. Nick met Ralph in the early morning hours of February 5th 1997, on a levee road in Yolo County. He trusted his friend and never would have imagined that Ralph would harm him. The attack must have come as a complete surprise, and Ralph quickly gained the upper hand, strangling the 18-year-old to the point of unconsciousness and then dumping his body into the Sacramento River. Once Nick was out of the way, Ralph Marcus set out to rig his vehicle, rolling it into the Sacramento River. 


In the end, Ralph’s plan backfired, because of strangulation marks found on Nick’s neck during the autopsy. And that, together with the insurance policy made Ralph the only suspect in this case.


Ralph’s brother Ron also came forward with critical information, blowing Ralph’s alibi out of the water. According to Ron, their mother told him that Ralph left the house around midnight, saying he was going to a neighbour’s house. Ralph’s sister, Cheryl Leber, claimed that their mother was very upset about having lied to police before. It was because of Ralph’s influence, that she had confused the dates in question. Cheryl also claimed that Ralph had written her a letter from prison, instructing her what to say to police when they asked questions, especially about the bottle cap in the carburettor. Cheryl was distraught and burnt the letter, realising her brother most likely was involved in Nick’s death. In in that moment Cheryl decided she would only ever tell the truth, even if it meant sending her brother to jail.


The motive for murder was quite simple to figure out. Firstly, financial gain from the life insurance policy and secondly to take his revenge on Nick’s mother for not returning his affections.


According to Ralph Marcus’ defence team, there was no crime: Nick’s car went off the road and he drowned accidentally. Experts, testifying for the defence disputed the prosecution’s experts' findings that Nick had been strangled, but was still conscious when he entered the water, and that Ralph then rigged his car.


Ralph Marcus took the stand in his own defence, but this move probably harmed his case more than it helped. His past also came back to haunt him, with evidence of multiple fraud incidents (although he was never charged for any of them), and details of a prison escape earlier in his life. According to testimony from former acquaintances, Ralph once burnt down his own house for insurance money. He had also reported a car stolen, the same car which he had asked a friend to sell on his behalf. And the list goes on, all the way back to the 1970s.


But ultimately it was his obsession with the victim’s mother, Patty Howard, that left everyone in the courtroom feeling uncomfortable about the smooth-talking Ralph Marcus.

The verdict made it evident that the jury believed the Prosecution’s evidence, not the defence’s case. In the end: Ralph Marcus was found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

With justice served, and Ralph Marcus behind bars, the Howard family could start their healing journey. Nick, always energetic and loving, was gone forever, and they are all left wondering why they didn’t see it coming. Could they have saved Nick? The truth is, no one really knew exactly how deep and dark Ralph’s obsession with Patty was. Over the years Patty tried everything to push him away, but in the end, he got her where it hurt the most: by killing the apple of her eye, her firstborn child.

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