A Vermont family searches for answers after son’s fatal overdose in prison
Tony Nichols flips through a photo album at his kitchen table in Sheldon. He stops at a nearly 30-year-old picture that shows his son Jeffery beaming, sporting a red plaid Johnson Woolen Mill coat and matching hat. Jeffery’s got his rifle in one hand, and the other hand is wrapped around a deer, which is hanging next to him.
“He was 8 years old when he shot that deer out of a tree stand — I remember like it was yesterday,” Tony says. “And he was hooked ever since then.”
Jeffery, 35, would sometimes hunt from dawn till dusk, and he’d help anyone who needed a hand dragging a deer out of the woods, his dad says.
According to Tony, his son had a true gift for hunting. Once, Jeffery wounded a deer, but it ran off. He was out of bullets, so Tony gave Jeffery his rifle.
“I handed him my gun, I said, ‘We had this discussion at camp, everybody believed you could run a deer down — so do it,’” Tony says. “And he took off. It weren't five minutes, the gun went off, and he was laughing. He ran the deer down.”
Jeffery did more than hunt. He was a devoted father to his 10-year-old daughter. He liked kayaking, riding four-wheelers and playing horseshoes. He played piano. And Jeffery loved to make people laugh, says his mom, Kim.
“He was a hugger,” Kim says. “He liked to hug everybody. If he saw you and knew you, he wanted to give you a hug. Didn't matter if it was male or female. It didn't matter. He just loved people in general.”
In 2004, when Jeffery was 16, he was in a bad car accident and had large metal plates put in his back. The doctors prescribed oxycontin for the pain.
“We didn't know the effects of what it was at that point,” Tony says. “We said, 'You got to take your medicine' you know, just like you do, and he did, and did, and did, and then that turned into a lot more.”
"He'd get clean and struggle again, get clean, struggle again — it's not his first rodeo."Kim Nichols
Jeffery's struggle with opiates lasted the rest of his life. His family tried to help, like getting him into rehab if he relapsed, his mom says.
“He'd get clean and struggle again, get clean, struggle again — it's not his first rodeo,” Kim says. “He knew he wanted to be a decent person and knew that he didn't want to do this.”
Jeffery’s drug use also led to run-ins with the law. He picked up a handful of misdemeanors and felonies, including two counts of selling narcotics. He spent time in prison. But in the past 8 years, Tony says his son mostly stayed out of trouble. Jeffery had two jobs: one with a septic company, another with an excavation company.
“He had been doing good,” Tony says. “He had some land, he was going to build a house — he was going to build it for his daughter.”
In the weeks before Jeffery’s death, Tony suspected Jeff was using again. They didn’t have a chance to talk about it before Jeffery was arrested late one Friday night in September on a domestic assault charge. He was lodged at Northwest State Correctional Facility on $5,000 bail.
Tony and his wife were out of state on vacation when Jeffery got arrested. They figured Jeffery would be fine until his arraignment on Monday.
“He hasn't been convicted of anything, he's sitting in their jail cell for the weekend because it happened on the weekend,” Tony says. “We have full confidence that on Monday, when he got into the courtroom, that he would have been released on his own recognizance.”
But Jeffery never got out. Prison staff found him unresponsive in a cell in the booking area around 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 10. According to the Department of Corrections, staff tried CPR and multiple administrations of Narcan, an overdose reversing drug. Jeffery was declared dead at 6:49 a.m. — about 27 hours after arriving at the prison.
Jeffery’s death was ruled an accident, caused by a fentanyl overdose. Tony says his family still has a lot of questions about Jeffery’s final hours — especially how he got drugs in prison. And so far, the state has refused to give them any answers, Tony says.
“We're only asking the state to just be transparent with us on that, and give us our independent investigation,” he says. “Make us feel good. Make us feel that you guys aren't hiding anything.”
"We're only asking the state to just be transparent with us on that, and give us our independent investigation."Tony Nichols
There are three state agencies reviewing Jeffery’s death: Vermont State Police, the Department of Corrections and the Office of the Defender General. That’s standard practice when someone dies in prison. But generally, these reviews aren’t released to the public.
DOC Commissioner Nick Deml says the department is working on updating its policies to allow prisoner death investigations to be made public.
“It may be sanitized, but we should have a publicly facing version,” Deml says. “And so that's something that we're designing right now.”
Jeffery Nichols wasn’t the only person to die from an opioid overdose at Northwest State Correctional Facility last year. Shawn Gardner, 37, died in July after taking a mix of fentanyl, xylazine and cocaine.
Generally, drugs get into prisons through incarcerated people, visitors or guards smuggling them in, says Defender General Matt Valerio. During his 23 years as Defender General, Valerio says DOC has improved its screening methods.
"In general, I would say DOC has a reasonable protocol for preventing drugs from coming in, but nothing is 100%."Defender General Matt Valerio
“In general, I would say DOC has a reasonable protocol for preventing drugs from coming in, but nothing is 100%,” Valerio says.
Tony hopes that the state will give him the full story of what happened to his son. He says he isn’t looking to blame anyone — he just wants to know what happened.
“It brings closure to our family, right?” Tony says. “What would help us a lot would be knowing what happened in the last few hours.”
This fall, Tony went to hunt up on a hill where he and Jeffery spent a lot of time. While he was there, he got a call from Jeffery’s friend, who apologized for calling Tony while he was hunting.
“And I said, 'I'm glad you did' — because I was having it pretty rough, real rough,” Tony says. “And he just took the edge off, you know, so I can move through. And then I was scared to go back in for a while. So I started hunting other places and stuff like that, but it was rough here this year.”
The Nichols family plans to start work on Jeffery’s land in Montgomery this year. Tony says they want to keep one of Jeffery’s dreams alive — to eventually build a house there for his daughter.
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