Murderer to be freed July 9


A male who brutally killed his father’s live-in girlfriend in April of 2017 will be freed on July 9 due to a ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court that vacated his adult court conviction while faulting a discretionary decision by the juvenile court that bound his case over to the adult court.

Donovan Nicholas was 14 years old when he lured, stabbed, pursued and ultimately killed with a gunshot to the temple Heidi Fay Taylor in the family’s home on Valley Pike in Mad River Township. As a result of his age and the seriousness of the criminal act, the county’s juvenile court judge, Lori Reisinger, had the power to either keep him in the juvenile system or choose to send the case to adult court if he was not believed to be amenable to rehabilitation.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled the juvenile court erred in how it decided whether or not Nicholas could be rehabilitated within the state’s youth services treatment facilities — a decision that resulted in his case being bound over to adult court.

When first responders arrived to the murder scene, Nicholas blamed the crime on a person he said lived inside of him, “Jeff the Killer.” Nicholas also said he had multiple personalities.

Nicholas turns 21 on July 9, and due to the December 2022 ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court that vacated a 2018 conviction of Nicholas in Champaign County Common Pleas adult court, the case was returned to the juvenile court’s jurisdiction. Juvenile courts in Ohio have jurisdiction over such cases until the criminal is age 21.

Upon Nicholas turning 21, he will be a free member of society without restrictions over his liberty as a result of the previous murder conviction being vacated by the Ohio Supreme Court in a 4-3 decision.

On June 16 in Champaign County Juvenile Court before Judge Brett Gilbert, Nicholas entered an agreement with the Champaign County Prosecutor’s Office and pleaded guilty to aggravated murder with a serious youth offender (SYO) specification, but gun specifications were dropped as a result of the plea agreement. One count of murder with gun specifications was also dropped as a result of the juvenile court plea agreement.

Nicholas will remain incarcerated in the youth correctional system until July 9. Prior to the December 2022 Ohio Supreme Court ruling, Nicholas had been serving a 25 years to life sentence, plus three additional years for a a gun specification. He was incarcerated as an adult at Ross Correctional Institution when the Ohio Supreme Court vacated the conviction in December 2022.

June 16 sentencing details

On June 16 in juvenile court, Nicholas entered an admission of guilt to aggravated murder with the SYO specification. This action ceased the recent process of two new grand jury indictments in the case filed June 5 in Champaign County Common Pleas Court.

An adjudication disposition was delivered in juvenile court on June 16 after the plea agreement was accepted. An adjudication disposition is juvenile court’s version of a sentencing. After hearing statements from Nicholas, his defense attorney and Champaign County Prosecutor Kevin Talebi, Gilbert imposed a “stayed” (suspended) adult sentence of 25 years to life if Nicholas violates any terms of his plea agreement in juvenile court.

The prosecution expressed concern that Nicholas will need mental health services and help re-entering society upon begin released from incarceration, some years of which have been in adult prison. The prosecution lamented the timing of the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision because it limits how much transition assistance can be provided to Nicholas due to his impending 21st birthday quickly approaching. The prosecution is also concerned about protecting the local community from an admitted murderer with a documented mental illness.

Due to these considerations the prosecution requested Nicholas be sent to Department of Youth Services (DYS), from the youth correctional facility where he was housed after leaving Ross Correctional Facility in 2022, to provide at least some small amount of transition time for Nicholas to obtain services and fundamentals he needs for assimilation back into society, according to Talebi.

The murder victim’s two family members appeared at the hearing but did not speak. They said in a statement read by Talebi during the sentencing hearing that they do not agree with the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision and they continue to suffer.

The defense pointed out that Nicholas had no court infractions prior to the murder. Nicholas claimed to have multiple personality disorder and a mental health specialist who testified during the previous juvenile court amenability hearing in 2017 diagnosed him with DID, dissociative identity disorder.

Nicholas has reportedly obtained his high school diploma and sought and obtained mental health treatment while incarcerated, according to the defense.

With his attorneys by his side, Nicholas addressed Judge Gilbert in person on June 16. Nicholas was dressed in a maroon button down shirt and dark pants.

“When I was 14, I was not in my right mind. I believed I was truly alone,” Nicholas told Gilbert.

Nicholas said he did not seek mental health help prior to the killing nor did he confide in anyone for fear of being disciplined. According to court records, he had a history of self harm and cutting himself.

“I realize looking back I was so wrong. I had the most loving family. It was my fault for not believing them. My mind started breaking down. I felt so broken. I want to properly apologize to my family. I realize now how much they loved me. I was wrapped up in my own self pity,” Nicholas said.

“All my fears and doubts went away after therapy,” Nicholas said. “When I found God I opened up as a person.”

Nicholas said he was previously an atheist.

“I have learned to trust people,” he said.

Nicholas also said he has learned how to open up and “let people into my heart.”

“I can’t express how different I am today. I hope I can do what I can to ease my family’s pain.” Nicholas said he hopes to have a family of his own someday.

After the testimony, Gilbert spoke.

“To the victim’s family, I am sorry for the (court) process. I can’t bring her (Heidi Fay Taylor) back,” the judge said bluntly, alluding to the vacated conviction and the brief time table before Nicholas turns 21 and is no longer under the juvenile court’s jurisdiction.

Unable to order any further juvenile punishment on Nicholas, Gilbert imposed the stayed adult sentence of 25 years to life if Nicholas violates any terms of his juvenile court plea agreement. Gilbert noted the graphic details of the violent murder, explaining how Nicholas lured his victim to an area of the house before attacking her. Gilbert noted the brutal violence involving a knife and gun Nicholas used toward his mother figure, Taylor, ultimately shooting her in the temple after multiple stabbing attacks throughout the house as she tried to escape him. Gilbert noted Taylor begged Nicholas to call for help while she struggled to survive. Nicholas did not stop, did not help her and his attacks were relentless. She was stabbed at least 62 times.

“You didn’t call 9-1-1 (on the day of the killing). You hid your mental health struggles. You knew what you were doing,” Gilbert said pointedly. Nicholas blamed “Jeff the Killer” (a person he said lived inside of him) immediately after the murder. Gilbert noted how Nicholas in the aftermath of the murder tried to shift blame to the fictional Jeff.

“This is the most violent, horrific offense I’ve ever seen,” Gilbert said looking sternly at Nicholas. “You get to live. She doesn’t get to do that. That’s something you’ll have to live with every day.”

Gilbert said he hopes Nicholas seeks mental health counseling as he re-enters society, but he cannot force him to do so. Gilbert’s power over the case ceases after Nicholas turns 21.

Until he is 21, he will be lodged in DYS.

The adult sentence of 25 years to life is stayed as long as Nicholas does not violate the legal terms to which he agreed as part of his plea arrangement.

Gilbert closed by saying, “I hope at some point the family heals. But I can only hope.”

Historical details of the case

Nicholas was found guilty of brutally killing the live-in girlfriend of his father at their Mad River Township home on Valley Pike.

The reversal in the case was based on the Ohio Supreme Court’s ruling that Nicholas, who was 14 at the time he killed Taylor on April 6, 2017, should have remained in juvenile court rather than being bound over to adult court. Champaign County Juvenile Court Judge Reisinger bound the case over to Champaign County Common Pleas adult court in November of 2017 after amenability hearings. Amenability relates to a juvenile’s potential to be rehabilitated while incarcerated.

The Ohio Supreme Court’s 4-3 decision in the Nicholas case related to discretionary transfer of a juvenile for prosecution in an adult court as based on the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard for deciding a juvenile’s amenability. Facts presented to a juvenile court with respect to a discretionary transfer must persuade the court that the juvenile is not amenable to care or rehabilitation in the juvenile system.

Nicholas, now 20 years old, had appealed the verdict through his attorneys after being found guilty in 2018. The jury found Nicholas, then 16, guilty of aggravated murder and murder on July 18, 2018. Nicholas allegedly stabbed Taylor multiple times before shooting her in the head in her bedroom with a firearm located in a nightstand table in the room.

While speaking with a Champaign County 9-1-1 dispatcher after the attack, Nicholas advised that a person named Jeff, who he stated lives inside him, killed her. Prior to luring Taylor down the stairs, hugging her from behind and then brutally attacking her, Nicholas said he had taken a nap after coming home from school and cleaned his room before “Jeff” took over and carved an upward exaggerated smile into Nicholas’s face with a lancet needle prior to the premeditated attack on Taylor. “Jeff” was an anime character with whom Nicholas was familiar. Nicholas described Jeff as homicidal, but Jeff’s violent impulses were only directed toward Taylor, according to court documents.

Nicholas received a life imprisonment sentence with parole eligibility after 25 years for aggravated murder. Champaign County Common Pleas Judge Nick Selvaggio explained at the sentencing in 2018 Nicholas would serve a three-year prison sentence for a firearm specification in the case prior to serving the sentence for the aggravated murder charge. During the July 2018 sentencing hearing, the murder charge was merged into the aggravated murder charge.

Given a chance to speak at the 2018 sentencing, Nicholas apologized, saying there was no reason or excuse for his conduct.

“I do not care about myself as I do for my family,” Nicholas said at that time. “I do not care how long I am locked up for. The only thing that I want is what’s best for my family.”

Nicholas’s defense attorney at the time, Darrell Heckman, had made three motions in July of 2018 including a motion for acquittal, a motion to dismiss due to a lack of jurisdiction and a motion for limited stay of execution.

Prior to the 2018 sentencing, Heckman filed a notice of intention to file appeal and a motion seeking a limited stay of execution asking for Nicholas to remain in the Central Ohio Youth Center until the appeal was resolved or until further court order. The motion was denied by the court during sentencing.

Heckman filed an appeal within three days after the sentencing. The Second District Court of Appeals later upheld the conviction. Attorneys from the Ohio Public Defenders Office, Timothy Young and Timothy Hackett, then appealed the decision to the Ohio Supreme Court.

The following information is from documents in the Ohio Supreme Court decision involving the Nicholas appeal:

The prosecution filed a motion to transfer jurisdiction from the juvenile court to the adult court and argued that Nicholas was not amenable to care or rehabilitation in the juvenile system and that the safety of the community required that he be subject to adult sanctions.

The juvenile court ordered Daniel Hrinko, Psy.D., to conduct a competency evaluation of Nicholas. Dr. Hrinko concluded in his report that Nicholas was amenable to treatment within the juvenile system. Dr. Hrinko testified that it was “incredibly rare” for someone as young as Nicholas to have dissociative identity disorder and that the level of violence Nicholas had committed also was rare among people with dissociative identity disorder. He testified that he could point to no specific study demonstrating that adolescents with dissociative identity disorder who perpetrate violent crimes could be treated.

Dr. Hrinko acknowledged that Nicholas posed a significant hazard to the community based on the act he had committed but also on the fact that “Jeff” had intentions of harming other people. Dr. Hrinko testified that Nicholas’s “dangerousness to the community is not only based on what he did but what Jeff was talking about doing at other times to other people.”

Sarah Book, the Acting Chief of Behavioral Health Services at the Ohio Department of Youth Services (DYS), testified that DYS operates three facilities for juveniles who have been adjudicated delinquent for acts that would be serious felonies. Those facilities are equipped to offer individual and group psychological and psychiatric services to juveniles who are assessed to need them.

Book explained that if a juvenile in DYS custody is assessed to need psychological and psychiatric services, then the juvenile will receive those services. Book, who was aware of Nicholas’s diagnosis and was familiar with dissociative identity disorder in an academic sense, expressed no reservations about DYS’s ability to care for and treat Nicholas.

In its December 2022 decision, the majority on the Ohio Supreme Court stated, “The juvenile court’s findings regarding the requirements for treating dissociative identity disorder and regarding DYS’s capability to meet those requirements are based on the court’s mischaracterization of the testimony of Dr. Hrinko and Book and are not supported by evidence in the record. And it was upon those unsupported findings that the (juvenile) court determined that Nicholas was not amenable to care or rehabilitation in the juvenile system. We therefore conclude that the juvenile court’s decision to transfer Nicholas to adult court was not supported by the preponderance of the evidence and that the juvenile court abused its discretion by relinquishing jurisdiction. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Second District Court of Appeals, vacate the judgment of the Champaign County Court of Common Pleas, General Division, and remand this matter to the Champaign County Court of Common Pleas, Juvenile Division, for further proceedings.”

The minority dissent stated, “The majority is wrong on the evidence and the law. The juvenile court did not abuse its discretion in ordering Nicholas’s case bound over to the adult court. To achieve its outcome, the majority engages in judicial overreach by exercising authority beyond the scope of the appeal. In the end, the majority does a disservice to Nicholas and places the safety of other juveniles and care providers at risk.”

Members of the Ohio Supreme Court majority on this case were Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, Justice Michael P. Donnelly, Justice Melody J. Stewart and Justice Jennifer Brunner. Members of the minority were Justice Sharon L. Kennedy, Justice Patrick F. Fischer and Justice R. Patrick DeWine.


Editor’s note: Cameras were not permitted in the June 16 juvenile court hearing.

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