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Brittany Lawonn, Published April 24 2007

Did child visits lead to killings?

When Donald Willey hung up the phone with his granddaughter just after 7:30 p.m. April 6, he was excited about the prospect of getting to see the 7-year-old in just two weeks.

For the past year, Willey and his wife, Alice, had been embroiled in a battle with the girl’s mother over visitation. And in February, the Willeys were awarded the right to once again see their granddaughter.

But they would never get the visit discussed that night.

Sometime in the 12 hours that followed Donald’s phone call, he and his wife were shot and burned beyond recognition in their rural Wells County, N.D., home. Aron Nichols, the soon-to-be stepfather to the Willeys’ granddaughter, has been charged in their deaths.

Though Wells County authorities won’t speak about Nichols’ motive, these and the details that follow – documented in court papers filed Monday – shed light on the gruesome crime and how a 7-year-old-girl may have been at the center of it.

Family history

Nichols’ fiancée, Tamara Sorenson, had cut off visitation between her daughter – who she had with the Willeys’ deceased son, Andrew – and the Willeys last April. Both sides claimed the girl had been molested. Sorenson accused Donald Willey. Alice Willey accused Sorenson’s ex-boyfriend.

Andrew Willey was killed in a helicopter crash in 2002. The family sued and established a $2.2 million trust for their son’s daughter. Among other things, the trust paid for the Fargo house Nichols and Sorenson share, and Sorenson’s car.

Nichols was a truck driver for Burr-line Transport in Fargo during the visitation battle and told co-workers he was upset, saying, “I might be going to jail over this.”

He told co-workers he would not allow visitation, saying in April 2006 “he was going hunting to kill some people” and had plotted out killing some of Sorenson’s daughter’s relatives, “older people,” using night vision.

On Feb. 14, Nichols purchased a .45-caliber handgun at Cabela’s in East Grand Forks, Minn.

On March 31, Nichols told a trucking dispatcher he needed to get home, referencing visitation and saying he needed to deal with things.

Fire investigated

Authorities responded to a report of a fire at the Willey’s rural Sykeston, N.D., home just before 6 a.m. April 7.

The couple’s bodies, limbs burned away, were found where the living room would have been. The man’s head also was missing from his torso, for “an unknown reason.”

In the master bedroom, the couple’s bed was still made.

Sykeston Fire Department Chief Brad Tweed noted the Willeys were at the hottest part of the structure, something he called unusual, saying people typically try to get away from a heat source.

Authorities recovered bullets at the scene and from the couple’s remains. Alice, 67, was shot in the head and back. Donald, 70, was shot behind the left shoulder.

Forensic testing showed marks on the .45-caliber shell casing found at the Willey’s home were consistent with marks on a shell casing found at Nichols’ residence at 3227 39th Ave. S., obtained during a search warrant Wednesday.

Other items obtained in the search warrant include handwritten documents describing “fire behavior,” two .45-caliber ammunition clips, a computer printout of a Forum article about the Willeys’ deaths, a notebook with writing about Alice, a “fire training certificate,” a coat that appears to have been exposed to heat, Mason jars with crystalline substance and gasoline, and multiple cards and packages from the Willeys to their granddaughter.

A search warrant executed on Nichols’ car Thursday led to the seizure of handwritten directions to the Willeys’ house, hand-drawn pictures of the layout of their home, a receipt dated April 6 for gas from Jamestown, N.D., a receipt dated April 6 for .45-caliber ammunition and an unspent .45-caliber cartridge.

About 4½ hours after the fire was reported, Nichols, Sorenson, her daughter and the couple’s 3-month-old daughter arrived at Sorenson’s father’s home in Kathryn, N.D.

Nichols and Sorenson’s father shot handguns that day, with Nichols firing a .45-caliber handgun, bullets of which authorities later obtained.

Forensic testing on a bullet recovered from Alice Willey and a bullet recovered from the property of Sorenson’s father determined the two were fired by the same gun.

Several days later, Nichols and Sorenson attended the Willey funeral, where a family friend observed Nichols “acting nervous” and rolling up the funeral program and “tearing it into strips.”

Nichols, being held on $1 million cash bail in the Cass County Jail, has denied requests for an interview.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Brittany Lawonn at (701) 241-5541