By Karen S. Schneider
September 04, 1995 12:00 PM

MARILYN KANE COULD NOT BEAR EVEN to look at the man at the end of the table. For the past six years, her ex-husband Jeffrey Nichols had lied to her, cheated her, humiliated her, mocked her. She did not look as he took the stand and begged a judge for compassion. His business had collapsed, he insisted; there was only $5 left in a checking account. He had been depressed, he said; he had even taken Prozac for a while. He had just buried his second wife, who had died quickly after being diagnosed with lung cancer in May; he hadn’t had a chance to mourn her. From the bench, New York State Supreme Court Justice Phyllis Gangel-Jacob listened intently but was, finally, unmoved.

For the court, the issue is, simply, $580,000. That is the amount of child support Nichols owes Kane, and his is the largest prosecution ever under a new federal law designed to guarantee that children get the money to which they are entitled. If Nichols has the money, ruled Gangel-Jacob, he must pay it. If he does not have it, he must get it. “He is a sophisticated businessman, worldly wise, giving advice to others in the financial world,” said Gangel-Jacob. “I have no doubt he can raise the sum.” As incentive, the judge ordered him jailed until he comes up with at least $68,000.

So ended the chase for America’s most notorious deadbeat dad. On Aug. 18, Nichols, who until a few weeks before had been living the good life of an esteemed precious-metals consultant in his $500,000 home in Charlotte, Vt. (pop. 3,000), was led from a Manhattan courthouse in handcuffs and deposited in the Bronx House of Detention. There he will remain on contempt-of-court charges until he comes up with the cash—or wins the appeal his attorney, who declined to comment on the case, plans to file. On the courthouse steps, Kane was relieved—and triumphant. “My children have been carrying Mr. Nichols’s shame for years,” she said. “I think it’s time we gave that shame back to Mr. Nichols.”

In court, at least, Nichols, 47, seemed contrite. “Somehow I’ve gone astray in the past five years,” he said. Indeed. Since his 1990 divorce from Marilyn, who married insurance broker David Kane the same year, Nichols has done everything in his power—including moving from New York to Ontario to Florida to Vermont—to avoid his $9,000-a-month child-support payments. At one point he even claimed he was not the father of Joshua, now 22, Julie, 20, and Joseph, 15. “I don’t blame anybody but myself,” Nichols testified. “I have a great deal of guilt.”

No one would disagree. Even if he manages to pay his debt, Nichols stands charged with abandoning his wife and children. He is being prosecuted under the 1992 Federal Child Support Recovery Act, which takes aim at U.S. parents—mostly fathers—who renege on an estimated $34 billion a year in child support to 23 million children. Says Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who sponsored the support bill: “I hope this case has a therapeutic effect on all the deadbeat dads out there.”

If Nichols is not the typical deadbeat father—most are out of work and poor themselves—then neither is Kane, 47, the typical mother left in the lurch. She had the means, education and relentless determination to see Nichols brought to justice. “This is a cause for us,” says David Kane. “Most women in this situation work all day long at low-paying jobs and struggle just to survive. Without our resources, Nichols would still be living the high life.” Adds Marilyn: “I know that many women can’t afford to go after their husbands. I’m doing this for them.”

If convicted of the federal misdemeanor charges, Nichols faces up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine. As far as his older son is concerned, the penalty could not be too steep. “Mom wasn’t asking for alimony,” says Joshua, a computer graphics artist in Manhattan. “She was asking for rent. He would have preferred us to be out on the streets. How do you get repair for such actions?”

And how, wonders his mother, do you begin to explain them? When she first met Nichols in 1968 during a summer-session English class at New York University, 20-year-old Marilyn Beck thought her dreams of romance had come true. She asked to borrow a book; he asked her out for an ice-cream soda. “There was a wonderful chemistry between us,” says Kane. Six months later, as college seniors, they married.

After graduating, they landed jobs in the New York City school system—he teaching math; she, business—and lived on a tight teachers’ budget. Says Kane: “There was a lot of pizza and sangria.” In time, the family grew—as did its finances. Nichols earned a master’s degree in economics in 1972 and took a job as an economist at Citibank. That same year Joshua was born, and after Julie was born 2½ years later, the family moved from a two-bedroom place in Manhattan into a three-bedroom apartment. Nichols developed an interest in precious-metals consulting and, at about the same time Joseph was born in 1980, he moved to Goldman Sachs, where by 1985 he was a vice president earning $160,000 a year.

“Our lifestyle was always improving,” says Kane. “But we never lived beyond our means.” Their indulgences were private schools and summer camp for the kids, and for themselves, getaways to Europe. Says Kane: “It was romantic and wonderful.”

Or so she thought. In May 1985 they had just returned from a trip to Paris when her husband announced, “I really just don’t love you anymore.” Kane was stunned. Nichols had been moody and distant, but she had attributed that to business stress. He had just left Goldman Sachs to set up his own consulting company and was finding the transition difficult.

Three days later he was out of the house—and Kane was soon moving on. “My heart was broken,” she says, “but I resolved that this was going to be the second stage of my life.” Kane had been working in children’s publishing since Julie was a toddler, but after her split decided to switch directions and began studying for a real estate license. But the bulk of her expenses—some $80,000 a year in rent, food, car, garage, medical insurance and tuition for the kids—were voluntarily covered by Nichols in an informal agreement he came to with Kane. Says she: “We would not allow the children to suffer.”

For the next few years, Kane says, her estranged husband was a “warm and affectionate” father. But then, in 1988, Nichols met Suzan Jane Orris, a 34-year-old office worker, through the Single Gourmet, a social club that arranges dinners for its members in fine New York City restaurants. Nichols soon asked Orris to move into his luxury Manhattan high-rise, and under her influence, according to Joshua, his father became distant and disagreeable. “Every time we would talk, there would be tension in the air,” says the son. Especially, he adds, if the conversation turned to money—even Josh’s college tuition or the kids’ doctor bills. Says Joshua: “She made it out that all we were was an annoying expense.”

Still, nothing prepared him for the discovery in the summer of 1989 that his father had simply disappeared. Without Marilyn’s knowledge, Nichols had cleaned out his Goldman Sachs pension fund and another retirement fund—totaling more than $90,000—and left the country. Kane’s first indication he had left: the fact that she received her weekly $375 check—petty cash he gave her in addition to covering expenses—from Toronto.

Nichols set up shop as a precious-metals consultant from the posh duplex where he and Orris lived. At first he sent regular checks to his family in Manhattan. But he had stopped calling—and soon the money stopped coming. In January 1990, Nichols ceased paying the family’s $l,900-a-month rent. In February, Kane received her $375 check—the last check she would see for five years.

Unable to pay her bills, Kane fell into a depression. “I was afraid to get up in the mornings,” she says. When she did, she says, it was often to head for the bathroom and throw up. Somehow, every day she got herself to her job selling real estate. Her children did their best to provide strength and support. “They would do things without arguing,” she says. “It was like we were a team now.”

Compounding her husband’s financial abandonment were nose-thumbing acts of cruelty. In April of that year she received a postcard from Hawaii on which Nichols had written, “Marilyn, having a ball. Glad you’re not here!” A few weeks later she faxed him eviction notices she had received and got a return fax from Orris reading, “Jeff and I are delighted.”

Somehow, the insults saved Kane from the injuries. “As each act got more outrageous,” she says, “I got more determined not to allow this man to defeat me.” She stopped hoping for help and took matters into her own hands. She negotiated a payment plan with her landlord, borrowed money from her parents when she had to—and had her lawyer draw up divorce papers. In August 1990, Judge Gangel-Jacob granted Marilyn a divorce on grounds of abandonment and ordered Jeffrey to pay $9,362.82 a month in child support. He ignored her. A Canadian court order in October instructing him to pay arrived too late. Nichols and Suzan, by now married, had packed their bags and headed south.

Kane next located her ex-husband when her father came across a quote in a magazine attributed to Jeffrey Nichols of American Precious Metals Advisors in Boca Raton, Fla., late in 1990. She immediately contacted the child-support agency in New York, which in turn contacted Florida authorities. This time Nichols didn’t skip town: claiming to be sterile, he insisted the kids were not his. “I was flabbergasted,” says Kane, “beyond tears.”

After more than a year of legal wrangling, Kane and the children submitted to a humiliating round of blood tests, fingerprinting and photographs. “We tried to make a joke of it,” says Kane. “The kids mugged for the camera.” But they were wounded as well. “It was an evil ploy,” says Joshua. “We all felt sick to our stomachs that day.”

The DNA matched, of course, and Nichols was ordered to pay Kane $392,000. In the two years Nichols had been in Florida, he had created a life he enjoyed. As president of American Precious Metals Advisors, he wrote a newsletter that was required reading—at $6,000 for a one-year subscription—for international clients. He and Suzan owned a $370,000 home complete with pool and two-car garage, where he kept his Mercedes, and they had adopted two children, Zachary, now 4, and Amanda, 2 (both are currently staying with a family friend). Even so, Nichols left town again in late 1993—skipping out on a $333,000 mortgage—rather than pay child support. Says Kane: “It became his and Suzan’s mission in life not to allow me to have any money for the children.”

But his sense of mission was no match for hers. By the time she had found Nichols in Florida, Marilyn was happily ensconced in a new life. She had met David Kane, 26 years her senior, when he hired her to find an office for his insurance brokerage in 1986. The two became friends and, after Kane’s wife died in 1989, something more. They married in 1990, and he helped set up her Nichols-Kane Realty business in 1993. They share a spacious East Side apartment with her three children. “He took so much interest in the children,” says Marilyn. “It was wonderful to feel in love again.” Financially secure, Kane could have abandoned her pursuit of her ex-husband. But she refused: “I never, never, never thought about giving up.”

She found herself one step closer to success when, by chance, a representative for an insurance company told her Nichols’s address. Once again, Kane notified the local child-support bureau, and bureaucratic wheels began to turn. In a preliminary hearing at the Chittenden (Vt.) Family Court in December 1994, Nichols claimed he was earning only $130,000 a year and could barely cover his $10,000 a month cost of living. The court granted his request to temporarily lower his child support to $1,400 a month—payments he made in part to Kane until a final hearing was held last May.

Yet Nichols and his wife hardly seemed impoverished. In May 1994, they put $100,000 down on a $500,000 home—in Suzan Nichols’s name. They sent their oldest child to the West Wind Montessori school—at $3,250 a year. They took trips to Europe and Africa. What they did not do was make friends. In tiny, conservative Charlotte, the Nicholses were conspicuous consumers, he wearing a $5,000 gold watch, she sporting diamonds, an $18,000 sable coat—and what locals considered a bad attitude. “She was very brash, frenetic,” says Jennie Humphrey, a homemaker whose oldest child went to school with Zachary. “If one of the children messed something in the house, she would launch into a screaming tirade.”

Her wrath was not reserved for the children. “She was demanding, nagging, ordering Jeffrey around all the time,” says Humphrey, in whom Suzan often confided. Often, she says, the source of contention was money. In his hearing last December, Nichols listed credit card debts totaling $165,000 at stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.

Nichols, says Humphrey, simply could not say no to his wife. “He was in love with her almost in the way an emotionally abused spouse would be,” she says. “All she cared about was more and more luxury, and he got in deeper and deeper.”

As his first wife saw it, though, Nichols was not victim but partner. A fight with Jeffrey led Suzan to file for divorce in August 1994, and in a sworn affidavit she spelled out the ways in which Nichols had broken laws and lied to avoid making payments to Kane. She and Nichols later reconciled, but their financial dealings were now in the open. In the hearing last May, the child-support bureau used information provided by Suzan to assert that Nichols had recently earned more than $400,000 in about a year’s time, that he maintained a bank account in the British West Indies to hide assets from Kane, and that in the previous year, for the same reason, he had clients wire $191,000 in payments to an account in Suzan’s name. Once again, Nichols was ordered to pay in full.

Suzan was buried two days before Jeffrey was arrested by federal authorities on charges of abandonment, lending a grim twist to his story: Having turned away from his first family, he must now live with the loss of his second as well. “I almost feel sorry for him,” says Kane.

Almost. In a sense, whether they get the money or not, the family Nichols abandoned feels justice has already been served. “We’re doing great now,” says Joshua. “I have grown so much since I knew him. I feel I’ve succeeded in spite of him trying to destroy us.” Kane agrees. “I knew many years ago that whether I won my court battle or not, that I was the winner,” she says. “I had the rewards of three marvelous children who are loving and nurturing to me and to each other, and we helped each other survive. This is something Jeffrey will never have known.”


JANE SUGDEN in New York City and TOM DUFFY in Charlotte