WASILLA -- Nearly four years after 26-year-old Nichole M. Millsaps disappeared, the 34-year-old man who relatives say was the last person to see her alive has been charged with murder in her death.
An Anchorage grand jury indicted Simon Douglas Smith on one count of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder on Wednesday. He was already in custody on federal drug and weapons charges.
Investigators with the Alaska State Troopers suspected Smith from the start and even got a judge's permission to wiretap his jail cell, court documents filed as part of the federal court case show.
But they didn't get the break they needed until a hiker exploring the woods off Boretide Road in Indian came across Millsaps' skull in February, state and federal prosecutors said.
"There's a lot of other circumstantial evidence that we were able to tie all together with that," said Clint Campion, a deputy district attorney in Anchorage. "There had been attempts to find her in that location before; it just hadn't happened."
Investigators believe Millsaps was killed in the area, Campion said.
The case began after family members reported the young woman missing in May 2010. They couldn't reach her on Mother's Day.
Family members knew Millsaps met a bad end long before her remains were found -- and they know Smith was responsible, her older sister said.
Andrea Borsetti said she already had disturbing hints in the weeks before her little sister vanished.
Millsaps called her, crying, within days of starting a relationship with Smith, Borsetti said. She told her sister she was scared of him, that he beat her and she was afraid to get away. That was less than two months before she went missing.
"She was terrified of him," Borsetti said. "She used to have to sneak his phone while he was sleeping and she would whisper to talk to me. So I knew she was already in a really bad situation, and I knew she was with Simon."
Millsaps, who lived in Sutton but was probably couch-surfing with Smith, told her sister she owed him several hundred dollars for meth, Borsetti said.
Before she disappeared, Millsaps told Borsetti that she was headed to the ferry in Whittier and she and Smith were camping.
Millsaps said she planned to sneak onto the ferry to Seattle so she could get to California and visit her 3-year-old daughter. At the time, Millsaps was on probation for a driving under the influence charge stemming from a traffic stop near Sutton in 2009 with two young children in the car, according to troopers reports and a state courts database. It wasn't her first brush with the law. Millsaps was 18 when state and federal drug investigators arrested her and a 24-year-old man at a Wasilla home with a meth lab in it; the state later dismissed the charges against her.
The last time anyone in her family talked to Millsaps was on her 26th birthday: April 1, 2010.
"It's been a nightmare ever since," said her mother, Judy Nistler, who lives in Kenai. "It's been horrible. All our lives have been upside down."
Borsetti, who now lives in Mississippi, said she started her own investigation after Millsaps disappeared. She interviewed her sister's friends and people who knew both Millsaps and Smith in Sutton.
Her first clue: Smith never reported Millsaps missing.
Smith admitted to authorities that he was the last person to see her sister alive, she said. Troopers told the family they later found Smith with Millsaps' possessions.
One of Smith's relatives lives in Indian, Nistler said.
Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said investigators were not providing any additional details about evidence or information they've collected.
Federal court documents show that investigators put a wire in Smith's cell at Cook Inlet Pretrial Facility and taped 400 hours of conversations he had with cellmates including an informant.
During the fall of 2010, Smith made "what can be characterized as admissions" to cellmates that he killed Millsaps, assistant U.S. attorney Tom Bradley said. While the stories differed, federal attorneys plan to argue during his sentencing that the two fought over money owed for meth, he said.
Smith at one point said, "Well, I can't tell them that I ripped her off for $1,000, because they'll think I killed her," according to a transcript of a June 2011 court hearing where Bradley summarized some of the recorded conversations. "Talked about why he didn't report her. Talks about circumstances and sort of a hypothetical discussion of what could have happened to her ... and speculates, 'Well, maybe she was sneaking up on me.' "
The troopers dug into the disappearance soon after Smith was arrested on unrelated charges, court documents show.
Anchorage police first arrested Smith in May 2010 after a security guard needed help evicting him from a parking lot, according to a plea agreement filed in September in the federal case. Smith was living in a Ford Taurus behind the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. building on Boniface Parkway.
When police checked paperwork on the van, Millsaps -- by then reported missing -- came up as the owner, Bradley said. Police arrested Smith for having the wrong plates on the Taurus and for trespass.
Meanwhile, troopers got a search warrant on the seized vehicle and found a .22 caliber pistol, a 12-gauge shotgun, a .22 caliber rifle, and a bandoleer of shotgun shells, according to the plea agreement. The Taurus also held materials for a "one-pot" meth lab.
A troopers investigator serving a warrant for Smith's arrest caught up with him in June 2010 in Meadow Lakes with another vehicle, a Dodge Ramcharger, an additional gun -- and another meth lab, court documents show.
Smith has been jailed since then.
A grand jury in December 2010 indicted Smith on numerous drug and weapons charges related to the methamphetamine lab. Smith entered guilty pleas for a single drug and a weapons charge; his sentencing is scheduled for May, Bradley said.
The case went into high gear last month.
A hiker called 911 after finding a skull lying on the ground in the woods in Indian on Feb. 9. Other remains were recovered as well, Peters said. "Investigators spent a couple of days at the location in an attempt to recover and retrieve anything and everything possible related to the case," Peters said in an email.
Millsaps' family got the news several days later.
Her mother said she never thought her daughter would be found. She also said something other family members echoed: they wished they could have pulled the girl they remembered as a fun-loving, outdoorsy kid away from the drugs that turned her life into tragedy.
"It just makes me sick that she got so involved in the meth," Nistler said. "I really really tried to help her but I couldn't. That takes over."
Her sister had made a series of bad choices but she wasn't a bad person, Borsetti said.
"Who she was around the time she died wasn't the person she really was," she said. "That's not who we're going to remember. We're just going to remember (her) as happy, as she was, and with her daughter. She was a really beautiful person."
The family plans to cremate Millsaps once all of her remains are recovered.
If convicted of the charges, Smith faces a sentence of between 20 and 99 years in prison. His first court appearance is scheduled for Friday in Anchorage Superior Court.
He's being held on $1 million bail and third-party custodian on the state charges.
Reach Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 352-6705.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER