An Oregon man accused of killing his girlfriend by pushing her off a 100-foot cliff eight years ago has pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and coercion in her death, PEOPLE confirms.
Stephen Wagner Nichols, 42, was sentenced earlier this week to 19 months for each of the felonies as well as three years’ of probation. But he received credit for his time already in custody, meaning he will not spend any more time behind bars.
Nichols was accused of killing 23-year-old girlfriend Rhonda Casto during a hike along Oregon’s scenic Eagle Creek Trail in March 2009. Authorities alleged he pushed her off a cliff to her death in order to collect on a $1 million life insurance policy.
But Nichols’ defense attorney, Mike Arnold, says his client was “falsely accused,” and he welcomed the recent plea.
“It was a long time coming,” Arnold tells PEOPLE. “It is an amazing outcome. It is not every day that somebody charged with murder ends up with criminally negligent homicide and a probation sentence.”
The Hood River County, Oregon, District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted the case, declined to comment.
“I am kind of numb,” says Casto’s mother, Julia Anne Simmons. “I feel awful. I think he [Nichols] should be in prison.”
Casto, her mom says, was “very precocious, loud and funny. She was 23 and in the prime of her life. She had everything going for her.”
Simmons believes that Nichols killed her daughter, whom he met in fall 2005, because she was gearing up to leave him and take their infant daughter, Ava, with her.
“She was going to move out,” Simmons says, “but she was trying to get up the courage to do it. She was disillusioned about Steve.”
Nichols has adamantly denied he had anything to do with Casto’s death. He told police that she accidentally slipped and he hiked down to her battered body to help her — but without a cell phone, he hiked back up to the trail, headed to the parking lot and called for help.
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Investigators initially ruled Casto’s death accidental. But six years later, in April 2014, a grand jury handed down a secret indictment against Nichols and an arrest warrant was issued for him days later.
He was arrested in February 2015 at the San Francisco International Airport, after he returned from China with his daughter.
The case made national headlines and was featured on CBS’ 48 Hours. Nicholas was scheduled to go to trial in the summer of 2018.
“This is so unfair — this is the justice system being stupid,” Simmons says of the sentencing. “I am just disgusted with the outcome.”