Nicole Rikard was sitting down in her hotel room getting ready to watch American Horror Story when she got the text message saying her husband hadn’t come into work that afternoon.

Although John, a patrol sergeant with the Asheville Police Department, worked the night shift, he had an early detail he took to get some overtime for Christmas. Once Nicole told officers she hadn’t heard from him either, they, along with Haywood County first responders, rushed to the couple’s Clyde home. Then, Nicole received a call from John’s lieutenant.

“Of course, I’m hysterical,” Nicole said. “I was throwing up in the tub of the hotel. The toilet’s right there, but I’m throwing up in the tub, collapsed on the floor. He was like, ‘well, John’s gone, and it appears to be self-inflicted.’ I was like, ‘what the [expletive] do you mean self-inflicted?’”

Dec. 9, 2015Nicole had been sent to a training course in Florida related to her job as a crime-scene forensic technician, and John had decided to stay home so he could get extra hours. She texted him throughout the day and received no reply. Because John worked the night shift with APD and was on a detail earlier in the day, she didn’t think much of it.

“I texted him again around 9 and said, ‘just call me, just let me know you’re okay,’” she said.

Shortly after, one of his coworkers texted Nicole to ask if she’d heard from John.

“She was like, ‘he never came into work,’” she said. “It was immediate. The feeling that everything just drops in your body and you get these warm and cold prickles all over your body, and I was like, ‘go to the house now.’”

Because the couple lived in Clyde and worked in Asheville, John’s fellow APD officers had a relatively long trek to the home. A wave of frantic anxiety swept over Nicole as she thought about what may have happened.

As an APD patrol car speeded toward Clyde, lights and siren activated, Haywood County first responders also made their way to the house.

“Then my phone went silent for 36 minutes,” Nicole said. “It was a while. In that time, I called his ex-wife to see if he’d called or talked to his son. I called my mom to see when was the last time she’d texted him. I’m trying to call some of his friends to see who talked to him last.”

That’s when John’s lieutenant called with the news.

Once Haywood County Sheriff’s Office investigators finished their work, they told Nicole they believed he’d taken his own life earlier that morning, but Nicole thought it had been the night before — his only night off all week.

“It looked like he just got up off his chair, walked down the hall to that room, reached down … unholstered the weapon, stood up and fell back,” she said. “That’s it.”

While she basically accepted the narrative they laid out for her, because she’d been on scenes of numerous suicides, Nicole obsessed over the details. What was the lighting, what was turned on, what was turned off, what was he wearing?

“I want to know every event and put out a timeline,” she said.

Those thoughts eventually turned inward.

“It’s like each step comes back,” she said. “What could I have done different? … All these shoulda, coulda, wouldas come up.”

Their story“I was married to the love of my life for a very short time, but it was still our time,” Nicole said.

John was born in Asheville and raised in Black Mountain, where he played football and was a state-champion heavyweight wrestler at Owen High School. Before going into law enforcement, he went to Western Carolina University and then transferred to Appalachian State, where he got both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Nicole said he had a commanding presence and could be intimidating given his large stature and numerous tattoos.

“But he was a big teddy bear,” she said. “He looked like one of the mean people you don’t want to mess with, then he’d put on his smile.”

Nicole grew up in Boca Raton, Florida, then went to college at Florida State. Immediately after graduating, she got an internship with the Boca Raton Police Department, where she eventually worked for 11 years. At that point, she began having serious medical problems she believes were stress-related and was placed on medical leave.

“I was so lethargic I couldn’t do anything,” she said. “That was how I left Boca PD. I never tell many people about that because I still haven’t figured it out.”

Not long before that, a friend had moved to Canton and loved it, so Nicole took a leap of faith with APD.

“I drove back and forth between Canton and Asheville, and I loved it,” she said.

Not long after moving to Haywood County, she met John at work.

“We fell in love, and we got married and everything pretty quick,” she said. “But we did a lot in that time.”

Nicole said that from the beginning, they were honest with each other about their own mental health struggles — struggles born for both of adverse childhood experiences. John’s own experience of finding his dead father as a 9-year-old left a scar that eventually led to alcoholism.

“I met him as a sober dude. He worked really hard at that,” Nicole said.

In fact, the day Nicole met John was his first day back after taking leave to take part in a 30-day treatment program.

The warning signs

Although John had told Nicole before he’d contemplated suicide during the darkest moments of his struggle with alcoholism, she had no indication he would take his own life.

“At first, I was really big on blaming some of his medication,” she said. “It could have played a large part, but it’s not the exact reason why.”

Nicole said before John died, he was still making plans. The prior summer, he’d gone and seen Rob Zombie with a fellow officer and loved it so much he bought tickets to see Megadeath, his favorite band. He also talked about volunteering as a wrestling coach at Pisgah.

“I was like, ‘do it,’” she said. “Because a lot of times he was so conflicted with work and stuff, and he couldn’t find joy through the stressors at work.”

All the while, he was showing signs of increased stress levels and anxiety. He’d been binge eating. She recalled one story.

“Him and Bristol (his bulldog) were already snoring, and I had stress from work, so I was falling asleep with the TV on,” she said. “He had the noise machines going and all that stuff, and I thought he had gotten up to binge eat. I got up to go let the dogs out, and he said ‘if you don’t turn off that [expletive] TV, I’m going to sleep on the couch.’ I was like whoa, TV off. I’m going to bed. He went and fell sound asleep. The next morning, I got up and went to day shift. When he woke up, he called me crying, and he’s like ‘I could hear the words coming out of my mouth and I couldn’t control what I was saying.’”

Beyond griefNicole’s new journey began as soon as she got that phone call from the lieutenant.

Some of the toughest moments came in the days immediately following John’s death. Along with feeling shock and devastation, Nicole had to deal with a whole host of secondary issues. First, she simply had to get back to Haywood.

“It was just unreal trying to get me back from Florida,” she said. “My aunt and uncle had to drive three-and-a-half hours to get me. My friends had to drive to get my mom, then drive five hours up to my aunt’s house to get me and my mom on an airplane to get back to Asheville.”

All the while, Nicole was dealing with funeral arrangements. John had been moved to another funeral home.

“I don’t remember giving the approval to have him moved,” she said.

She would have to plan that funeral.

“You don’t plan for when you’re 38 years old,” she said. “I’m being told, ‘it’s all on you, so I’m trying to get a funeral home for a small gathering.’”

Would he be able to get an officer’s funeral?

“Will the department even recognize him?” she said. “Will they write this off as a suicide? How does this all work?”

After the funeral, there was plenty more to handle, from handling the cable company to dealing with the bank.

“After John’s death, it was very hard to determine what was going on,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t go back and I knew I had so much to do. I’m being told that I’m going to lose the house, all these things.”

And she still hasn’t finished taking care of that business.

“To this day, I have the poor process server in Haywood County serving me with papers because the estate still isn’t closed, even though I signed those papers in March of 2018,” she said, adding that she is still sorting things out with the IRS.

Then there was the matter of her job with the city of Asheville.

“We knew I needed time off,” she said. “I was extremely scared that my first call when I got back to work would be a suicide.”

But it wasn’t that easy. Extended leave is a tricky thing to navigate, and Nicole said she butted heads with the police chief on the matter at times.

Initially, she was told she could take some time off but could only come back as a forensic technician or nothing else. Then she was told to apply for other civilian jobs within the department. After all that uncertainty, she ended up as a secretary at the city water department.

Although the Fraternal Order of Police, her former sorority sisters and some of John’s fellow officers helped Nicole navigate some of the hardships she encountered, and some officers repainted and re-carpeted the room where John committed suicide, she was also amazed to see some who wanted to forget John and how he died.

“A lot of them put on the big face,” she said. “One of his friends actually said to me well, ‘he’s gone, and he did it, so we just have to move on.’ I was like, ‘how can you forget John so quickly?’”

Nicole’s job as a forensic technician required attention to detail and a strong desire to learn all the facts. She said that over her years on the job, she’d been on the scene of over 100 suicides.

“I know they can be vindictive and messy, thought out, planned,” she said. “I had one where the lady walked around with a bunch of post it notes and said who everything was willed to.”

She was driven to find out more information about why her husband would take his own life, even as the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office investigated his death.

“I gave Haywood County a run for their money on asking questions,” she said with a laugh.

Nicole reviewed his text messages and found nothing odd. He had been talking to friends about chopping wood and going to rock concerts. But there was one thing that was troubling.

“I don’t know if he had any drinks before during that timeframe, but the night he died, his blood alcohol was .17,” she said.

Just after midnight, John had gone to a gas station and spent $10. Left in the home after he died were two empty beer cans and one full can of hard cider. Nicole still doesn’t know how much he actually drank that night, but given his size and stature, it must have been quite a bit.

A new missionBut things have gotten better.

As time went on, Nicole went to therapy and tried to learn more about her own grief so she could better cope. The more she learned, the more she wanted to tell her own story to change the way our society treats suicide.

“We don’t want it to be a normal cause of death, but we need it to be looked and treated like a heart attack or cancer,” she said. “It is part of your brain, and there is no one specific why.”

One of the things she’s been raising awareness about is the high suicide rate among law enforcement officers, as well as all other first responders. When it comes to police, there is still a stigma around seeking mental health services, which is problematic, especially considering the high-stress nature of their work and the traumatic scenes they are often exposed to.

“It’s really any responder,” she said. “We deal with things so much. We have to keep things private because they involve private matters and people’s names and things like that. Sometimes, you get to have that release at home or you can generalize and verbalize it. But some of the biggest things that haunt me is the unsolved homicides I have.”

“I always joked around that if you couldn’t talk about it, you drank or drugged about it,” she added. “Those are our coping mechanisms. Sometimes you just want to laugh it off or get out of that morbid moment. It’s a lot easier to communally fall into the drinking over it.”

Over the last few years, she has led classes on suicide prevention and suicide and firearms. She has also called for increased research.

“We’re not normalizing it and saying it’s okay,” she said. “We’re saying, we need to do something about this, because it’s killing people like cancer. It’s the number one killer of cops. We have to learn those parts of the brain.”

In addition, Nicole has begun speaking in front of some prominent groups that she believes need to address this deep issue. Over the summer, she spoke to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Assistance and at the Arizona Chiefs of Police Annual Conference.

In Feb. 2016, a friend told Nicole about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a group that puts on “Out of the Darkness” walks across the country, including Asheville. Nicole got involved right away doing everything she could to promote the walk, from raising funds to printing off flyers to promoting the event on social media. Now she’s the walk chair, and she is hoping that although the walk is in Asheville, she’ll start seeing people from all over Western North Carolina.

In her role, she said she’s had a great opportunity to meet others similarly affected by suicide.

“I’ve met a lot of people who’ve never even said the word suicide,” she said.

Nicole spoke with one girl who’s grandma, father and sister had all taken their own lives. It was the first time that girl had talked about those traumas openly.

“I watched her shoulders go from being tense all the way up to her ears,” she said. “Finally, she was able to unburden herself of this secret of awfulness. Then her tears started to flow. She said, ‘I’ve never been able to do that before.’”

Getting involved has been therapeutic for Nicole, and through that, she has helped countless people. She said her motivation is John’s story simply wasn’t over yet.

“He wanted to go out west one day,” she said. “He wanted to go to Alaska one day. He wanted to go fishing again with the guys. They were already planning the next trip.”

“Was John destined to die by suicide? I don’t know,” she added, “He had all the warning signs I guess you could say; the depression, the anxiety, the addiction, alcoholism, unresolved childhood traumas, even though he’d seek therapy and was open about it. He was the poster child for that, and it happened.”

Since she began her personal mission to help others, she has kept a dry erase board in the kitchen with the words “John Saves” at the top. She puts a tally mark for each person she’s helped guide out of the darkness.

“I think there’s like 17 on the board now, and that’s just from stories people have told me,” she said with a smile.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Out of the Darkness Community Walk will be held Oct. 6 at Carrier Park in Asheville. Registration/check-in will be at noon, and it will go until 4 p.m. Online registration closes Friday, Oct. 4, at noon. For more information, visit the event page or send an email to ootdwalk.nc.asheville@gmail.com.

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