Heidi Taylor ca. 2008 (top left) with, clockwise from left, Alyssa Nicholas, Todd Taylor and Donovan Nicholas.
Alyssa Nicholas
September 16, 2018 03:29 PM

The night of April 6, 2017, was wet and cold — miserable already — when Todd Taylor and his older sister, Alyssa Nicholas, learned their mom, Heidi Taylor, had been murdered.

It was late when Todd heard the news. He’d been at work at a fast food restaurant, coming off a dinner break as his shift neared its end, when his sister called and told him to get to Heidi’s house as quickly as he could. She’d just received a phone call of her own: Something was wrong with their mom, she’d been told, and the police were involved. But nobody seemed to know where to find Donovan Nicholas, the 14-year-old son of Heidi’s longtime boyfriend, who lived with Heidi and his father in a two-story farmhouse in Urbana, Ohio.

Todd, 21, arrived to a scene already covered with police and caution tape — “I didn’t even know Urbana had so many cop cars,” he says. Amid all of the activity, he saw a body being wheeled out of the home and then he saw Alyssa, 23, wrapped in layer upon layer of blankets. She was “bawling her eyes out.”

“I’m trying to get information and finally she says, ‘That was mom,’ ” Todd recalls. “I asked who did it and that’s when one of the deputies came over.”

Says Alyssa now: “What actually happened would never have been something that I would ever have guessed in a million years.”

Heidi Taylor
Courtesy Alyssa Nicholas

‘It Wasn’t Me … He Snapped’

Donovan Nicholas, the boy who killed 40-year-old Heidi Taylor, whom he called “mom,” is also the only witness to her death.

His is the most complete version of her murder, and it is an awful one: In a stuttering voice that April night last year, he called 911 once Heidi was dead to report what had been done.

He described how Heidi had been stabbed with a kitchen knife — authorities learned she suffered some 62 or 63 wounds across her body — before being shot once in the head on her bed.

He told responding officers that it was just the two of them in the house: Heidi upstairs and him down by the back door, bleeding from an inadvertent cut sustained in his attack. He pleaded for help and he said he was not to blame.

“It wasn’t me who killed her,” he told the emergency dispatcher, knowing how that sounded.

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“This [is] really hard to explain, but I kind of have another person inside me,” Donovan said. It was this person — this “Jeff” personality — who was responsible, who had been in control during each swing of the blade.

“Jeff” was modeled after the fictional horror character “Jeff the Killer,” an eyelid-less maniac who has recurred in online stories and artwork starting around 2008.

Donovan had become enamored of “Jeff” and dressed the part for Heidi’s murder, saying he was driven to wear black clothing to look like “Jeff” and to take a small blade to slash the sides of his mouth, extending it into an impression of the character’s rictus.

“He killed her,” Donovan told 911. “He snapped.”

The teen’s voice shook. “I hate Jeff so much,” he said. “He’s going to make me die in prison.”

Donovan Nicholas (in blue) in July
Eric Albrecht/The Columbus Dispatch/AP

An Excuse or a Disease?

Prison is where Donovan will spend at least the next 28 years of his life, after which he will be eligible for parole from his life sentence. Tried as an adult for aggravated murder in Heidi’s death, he was convicted in July, days after his 16th birthday.

Everyone agrees on the who, the how, the when and the where. But the why is a struggle.

Donovan’s attorney, Darrell Heckman, who is appealing his conviction, believes he is seriously ill and should never have been removed from the juvenile system, where he could be rehabilitated. Donovan’s father, Shane Nicholas, is supporting his son’s appeal and believes he is sick. (Shane declined to speak with PEOPLE.)

In critical need of treatment, Donovan has developed still more personalities while behind bars, Heckman says. He believes Donovan has dissociative identity disorder (DID) — a rare condition in which a person’s identity fragments. DID’s roots typically trace back to extreme physical or sexual trauma in childhood, which Donovan did not experience.

While psychological experts say someone with DID could theoretically commit such violence in the grip of one of their identities, as Donovan says he did, patients with the disorder do not tend to be more violent than anyone else.

“In general they’re people who have been badly damaged,” says Dr. David Spiegel, a Stanford University psychiatry professor. “The last thing they want to do is hurt anyone else.”

Spiegel, who stresses that he is unconnected to Donovan’s case, is nonetheless somewhat skeptical of Donovan’s clothing change. “When you’re really experiencing it, you don’t need the props,” he says.

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The psychologists who examined Donovan came to no more of a consensus. All three found him legally sane under the standards of Ohio law — in essence barring Donovan from arguing at trial that he was insane — but two found that he had notable mental health issues such as depressive disorder.

None of them determined, conclusively, that he had DID.

Authorities have never been convinced. “I believe this ‘Jeff’ persona was created by the defendant as a way to try to find a legal excuse for the conduct that he engaged in,” says Kevin Talebi, the Champaign County prosecutor.

While Heckman has taken issue with Donovan being prosecuted as an adult despite his youth, Talebi phrases the issue in reverse: “How often is it that we deal with 14-year-olds who plot the murder of a person in a premeditated manner then follow through with the plan?”

Heckman takes a wider view, posing more difficult questions than he provides answers.

“We need to come to grips with the fact that severe mental illness is real,” he says. “There is an important societal issue as to what age do we give up on children for their rehabilitation prospects and what age do we not? We want to be tough, but we want to rehabilitate [those] that can be rehabilitated. And I think there also is a question of how much of a limit do we want to put on insanity? What should you be allowed to present to justify insanity?”

Heidi’s children, who were raised as siblings to Donovan, aren’t sure what to believe. Todd thinks “Jeff” must be fake — but if an alternate personality is not to blame, who is?

“I don’t know how he would go from an innocent kid,” Todd says, “to what he is now.”

A drawing of "Jeff the Killer"

What Was Going on at Home?

Prosecutors say the answer is simple: Before killing Heidi, Donovan had grown resentful and wandered deep into homicidal fantasy, exchanging numerous morbid messages with a friend from school. He was pushed over the edge when Heidi discovered him sexting with an out-of-state girlfriend and decided to take his phone away.

Heckman disputes this and says it was the “Jeff” personality who could not handle the stress of losing his connection to Donovan’s girlfriend. In Heckman’s telling, “Jeff” developed over the course of early 2017 as an alternate personality for Donovan, a studious but socially awkward boy who had dealt with depression and self-harm in recent years.

“The more he admired him, the more it took over,” Heckman says. How a dissociative identity disorder could develop in Donovan, however, he still doesn’t know. Before Heidi was killed, Donovan had not been violent and he has had no issues since.

Those closest to the teen, too, say they did not see signs of such darkness in him before the murder last spring.

Donovan, whose mother lost custody of him soon after his birth, was just a toddler when his father and Heidi — who had first met through mutual friends and later reconnected — moved in together. They formed a close-knit blended family including Heidi’s two children, who describe typical domestic scenes such as bustling weekend breakfasts and trips to hike and camp.

At some point, however, Donovan began deteriorating.

Alyssa says Heidi and Shane were aware he had been cutting himself and that Heidi had taken steps to make sure he was not alone at the house. She wanted him to get counseling, according to Alyssa. “She tried doing everything she could, just to make sure he was okay.”

Otherwise, Alyssa says, Donovan did not seem unusual — apt, as any teenage boy, to give Heidi some grief when asked to do the dishes.

But there were things Donovan did not talk about: He was skilled at masking his self-harm, according to Alyssa, and neither she nor Todd say he had mentioned “Jeff” to them.

“For my sanity, I’d like to think that there really is something truly wrong, something going on [with Donovan], just for him to be able to do something like this — just so out of the blue and so horrific,” Alyssa says.

Jailhouse Conversations

“I’m sorry”: That’s what Donovan told Todd the second time Todd visited him in juvenile detention, as Donovan awaited his trial.

“He just kept apologizing,” Todd says. “I mean, really that’s all you can do. I don’t want to hear no excuses.”

This was last year. Both Todd and Alyssa visited Donovan multiple times while he was in custody.

“Initially, for something so unexpected to happen and for the reasons he’s saying that it happened, I guess I just needed to talk to him and figure out and try to see if he really was himself,” says Alyssa, noting that they “really weren’t allowed” to discuss the murder.

The first time Todd visited, he was with Shane, Donovan’s dad, who did most of the talking. “I couldn’t take my eyes off his hands,” Todd says.

His second visit, months later (“I was too mad to go see him because the only thing standing between me and him was a metal table”), was much more charged — a confrontation, a confession and some kind of equilibrium.

“It sounds wrong, but it’s not: I wanted to kill him at the time and so I told him, I was like, ‘You don’t understand how bad I want to hurt you,’ ” Todd says. “And he’s like, ‘I’m sorry,’ and I asked him, ‘Do you ever think about what you did?’ and he’s like, ‘Yeah, every night.’ He’s like, ‘I can’t even sleep. Most of the time I curl up in the corner of my bed crying and screaming.’ “

Todd says he asked about Heidi’s murder and Donovan “kind of shrugged the question off.”

“He asked me, ‘What would you have done if I would have ran?’ and I told him what I’d do,” Todd continues, leaving the consequence unsaid. “And he told me it was understandable.”

Alyssa, who visited more often, saw Donovan a few days before he was sentenced on July 24. She was working on her victim impact statement for the court.

“I was having a really hard time just trying to decide how I did want him to be sentenced and I felt like I really did need to talk to him about how it has affected all of us,” she says, remembering their conversation.

“He told me that he understood how I felt about everything and that he wanted me to be honest because he understands that what he did has a huge impact on us and he understood how we felt. … And he said it doesn’t matter what I put in it, he was okay with it, because he knows how hard it’s been for all of us.”

‘No More Big Family’

In court, Donovan offered his regret and said he wanted treatment. He repeated his story about the “Jeff” personality, telling the judge, in part: “Before we distinctly split, I liked Jeff the Killer, I was obsessed with Jeff the Killer. Jeff became a problem when he started doing things I didn’t want him to do: destroying my room, stabbing walls.”

Alyssa’s statement was read on her behalf by a close friend. She called her mom her “biggest supporter and my best friend,” and she called Donovan her brother.

“I no longer have a parent to turn to for guidance when life gets rough,” she told the court. “I have nobody to support me and push me to be who I can be. I feel completely lost all of the time.”

Heidi, who loved to cook and garden, especially loved being a grandma to Alyssa’s daughters — ready to cancel any plans to spend time with them and never one to tell them no. The February before she died she’d left her job at Honeywell, where she had worked in various positions, to help with child care as Alyssa prepared to go to nursing school.

“There is no more big family unit that is there to love and support each other,” Alyssa said in her victim statement. “Holidays no longer feel warm. My children no longer experience the joys of having a grandmother and being able to run to a grandparent for things parents just never quite understand.”

Donovan’s absence created its own pains. Alyssa said her daughters “do not know what happened or why they haven’t seen Donovan, but they miss him and the fun times they remember with him.”

Despite the grim details of a murder that has attracted national attention, Alyssa tells PEOPLE she holds to her mother’s memory.

“I don’t want anybody to forget who she was and the type of person that she was. I just don’t want her to be another name or face in this case file. She was an actual person, and she was a very important person.”

A few days after the sentencing, Alyssa gave birth to her third child, a girl neither Heidi nor Donovan will ever meet.

“Even if they were convinced that he was okay and he was to be released, I don’t know if I would ever really be okay with the fact that he was [out],” Alyssa says.

But she knows that, were Donovan someday to go free, she would not want to see him beyond the prison walls.

“That trust just isn’t there anymore.”

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