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When Michael Nicholaou shot his wife, her daughter, then himself in Tampa, say police, he left mysteries.
By ALEXANDRA ZAYAS
Published January 8, 2006
Michael Nicholaou's medal-winning tour in Vietnam followed him through a troubled and nomadic life. Later, so did an investigator and a detective who wondered what had happened to another wife.
Update: This story has been changed to correct the description of medals Michael Nicholaou received for his military service in Vietnam.
TAMPA - To the Cowboys of the Army's 335th Assault Helicopter Company, Michael Nicholaou was frozen in time as "Nick the Greek," a fearless 20-year-old gunship commander who flew through 57 bullets to save a comrade's life.
He earned medals that included a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Bronze Star. Then, in October 1970, he and seven others were accused of strafing civilians on a reconnaissance mission in the Mekong Delta. The soldiers languished in a stockade in South Vietnam for six months until the Army dropped murder and attempted murder charges.
Nicholaou left Vietnam, feeling bitter and betrayed, but Vietnam never left Nicholaou. He hired a lawyer to sue the Army. He spent his life both fleeing the war and clinging to it, glory days captured on news reels and shared by fellow Cowboys at reunions. He became obsessed with telling his story and found a teacher he hoped would write it.
Decades blurred into a roaring whirlwind of paranoia, failed jobs, criminal charges, disconnected phone numbers and dysfunctional relationships.
The noise ceased when the bullets did, a week ago in Tampa.
Nicholaou had a Massachusetts detective on his trail over the 1988 disappearance of former wife Michelle. Georgia police had questions, too, after his latest wife, Aileen, claimed he and his son ran her over with a Jeep last month, breaking her shoulder.
Wearing a black leather trench coat, hiding guns inside a guitar case, Nicholaou, 56, appeared at Aileen's childhood home on Walnut Street in West Tampa, where she was recovering.
After an hourlong police standoff, Nicholaou, 56, lay dead.
With him, police say, he took Aileen, 45, and her 20-year-old daughter, Terrin Bowman.
And he took the answers to so many questions.
Whispered gossip from family members surrounded his childhood in New Jersey.
Nicholaou told people his mother molested him and his father beat him. He was always finding substitute father figures - a high school buddy's dad, a superior soldier, his father-in-law.
He was a portrait of teen bravado. He rode a motorcycle to Farmingdale High School in Long Island, where friends cheered him at wrestling matches.
Afterward, they would take their girlfriends to a local hamburger joint.
It was Nicholaou who came up with the idea of dropping a rooster into the women's bathroom and skipping out on a check, said Mark D'Angelo, a lifelong friend.
"Okay," he remembers Nicholaou saying, "when the girls start screaming ..."
He craved adventure. In the Army he could fly Huey helicopters with no college degree. He boasted about stealing a helicopter while in boot camp and leaving it on a roof.
After boot camp, the stories slowed. At a welcome home party, Nicholaou said he wasn't allowed to talk about Vietnam.
They lost touch. D'Angelo went into the insurance business.
Nicholaou worked jobs in restaurants and on construction sites. He always seemed to be moving. Charlottesville, Va. Richmond, Va. Holyoke, Mass. Fort Lauderdale. Great Bend, Kansas. Tampa. Dade City. Houston. Lutz. Hiawassee, Ga.
With Michelle Nicholaou, he fathered two children; his next wife, Aileen, already had Terrin.
Over the years, people confused him with a Virginia cousin by the same name, causing problems for the cousin. There were unpaid fines. A hit-and-run crash.
"Bring back my daughter," cussed and screamed Michelle Nicholaou when she thought cousin Nicholaou was her husband. That was 1986, the year their first child was born.
Michelle Marie Ashley had met Nicholaou in New York. They married in the mid 1980s, and she went from being a bubbly young woman to a paranoid wife, her family said.
"He ran her life," said her aunt, Linda Glamuzina. "It was like taking over another person."
When Nicholaou and Michelle visited the Glamuzinas in Louisiana, he wore skimpy shorts Glamuzina found indecent. He brought a stash from his Charlottesville, Va., porn shop. Disgusted, Glamuzina threw it in the Mississippi River.
"There was something scary about him," Glamuzina said.
Michelle thought so, too, her family said.
In December 1988, relatives entered the Nicholaou apartment in Holyoke and discovered it deserted. Michelle's baby diaries were there. There was food left behind. But no people.
Family hadn't seen Michelle, or her toddler Joy and baby Nicholas, in a month.
Just days after the family vanished, Michael Nicholaou met up with a female acquaintance in Charlottesville. The kids were dirty and hungry, and he stole the woman's brand new car, the woman later told Michelle's aunt.
There were calls to police, but nothing panned out. Michelle's family hired a private investigator. Her mother, Rose Young, told the investigator something Michelle had once said.
"If I'm ever missing, he killed me, and you need to track him down and find the kids."
Michael D'Angelo and his son Mark bumped into Nicholaou when he was working at Pete's Restaurant in Boca Raton in 1992.
He told them Michelle was dead, Michael D'Angelo said. He had told other people that she ran off with a Cuban drug dealer.
Nicholaou later visited D'Angelo and his wife at their home. Joy, then a mature 6-year-old, told them she brewed her dad coffee every morning. Nicholas, 4, asked D'Angelo if he could be his grandfather. Their sneakers were worn, and they looked hungry. They had been living in Nicholaou's car, Nicholaou later admitted in a letter to D'Angelo.
Nicholaou wanted D'Angelo to help write a book about Vietnam.
In 1996, Nicholaou wrote from an in-patient unit of the post traumatic stress disorder clinic at a Miami veteran's hospital. He had been under treatment for a year.
He complained that the military had left him with "isolation and avoidance behaviors" that kept him from flying, yet he drew just $338 a month in disability benefits.
"Not too many commercial qualified pilots are afraid of heights and give up careers in aviation to become bums," he wrote.
He said he left Fort Lauderdale because the state wanted his kids.
He called them his "sole reason for living."
Once, in 1997, he and his kids stayed with a friend in Dade City. Nicholas, then 9, got into a fight with the boy next door. Nicholaou later pleaded no contest to torching the neighbor's car and got three years probation.
It was October 2001 when the private investigator, Lynn-Marie Carty of St. Petersburg, tracked down Nicholaou, living with Aileen in Tampa, and called.
"How did you find me?" she remembers him asking.
He said he had the kids, and they were fine. Carty asked about Michelle.
"She's a slut," he said. "She was doing drugs at the time. She ran off, and she just abandoned the kids."
The next day, his phone number was disconnected.
Holyoke police detective Kevin Boyle, in an interview last year with a Boston television station, said, "The factors surrounding this case are suspicious, and Michael's actions are suspect."
Boyle did not return a telephone call from the Times.
Relatives describe Aileen Nicholaou as a bola de humo, a Cuban fireball who charmed every man she met. Her only flaw, her sister Adnery Almirola recalled, was that she had poor judgment.
Aileen and Michael connected eight years ago through a newspaper personals ad. Two weeks later, Nicholaou and his kids moved into Aileen's Tampa home. When relatives visited, Joy sat on Aileen's lap and called her "mom."
"They were love-starved, it seemed," Almirola said.
Nicholaou seemed charismatic. He called Aileen's father, Arnaldo Toranzo, papi as he helped him cook Christmas Eve dinners.
About four years ago, they married in a Las Vegas wedding chapel. In the wedding photo, their faces are superimposed over other people's bodies.
Then, in September 2004, a family friend discovered an online news story about Michelle Nicholaou's disappearance. Aileen had no idea. Nicholaou convinced her Michelle had run off, but her family suspected he had killed her.
Four weeks ago, after a heated argument with Aileen in their Hiawassee, Ga., home, Nicholaou and his son got in their Jeep to leave. According to a Towns County Sheriff's Office report, Aileen approached the Jeep. She needed Nicholaou's military sticker to get on base to buy groceries. She told deputies Nicholaou threatened her with a pistol and told Nicholas to step on the gas. The Jeep hit Aileen and the two men took off.
Through a family spokesman, Nicholas denied doing anything wrong. Towns County has a warrant for his arrest, confirmed Tampa Police spokesman Joe Durkin. Nicholas' attorney, Allison Perry, did not return a Times call.
Tampa relatives learned Aileen was recovering in a hospital, and brought her to her father's Walnut Street home. Her daughter Terrin brought magazines to her bedside.
Terrin Bowman, 20, had a firm handshake and a flirtatious wink. She had a job waiting tables but was so bright she had taken college courses as a 16-year-old.
"She wanted to fly to the moon," said her cousin Shawn Lhota, 21.
Terrin had friends across the world she met while backpacking through Europe. Her friend Lorena Bledsoe recalls Terrin's favorite quote: "The purpose of living is to prepare for dying."
About 3 a.m. Dec. 31, a friend saw Terrin heading home to her aunt's house in Town 'N Country.
Relatives, after talking with police, think that Nicholaou held Terrin hostage in her bedroom for at least five hours as her aunt and uncle slept. Cigarette ashes peppered Terrin's typically tidy room, along with marijuana residue, pills and fiberglass tape, relatives said.
They think Nicholaou used Terrin to get access to the West Tampa home where Aileen was staying.
Just after noon, when Aileen's sister, Audrey Leon, opened the door on Walnut Street, Terrin rushed in and hugged her tightly.
"I could tell she was scared," Leon said.
Leon remembers what happened next:
Nicholaou stepped into view.
"You didn't think you were ever going to see me again," Nicholaou announced, entering the house. He approached Aileen in the dining room.
"What are you doing with a gun?" Aileen asked him.
Leon told him to get out.
"No, no, no," Nicholaou responded. "I'm going to shoot myself over your mother's grave."
The sisters had struggled with their mother's recent death.
As Leon scrambled to get her two children out of the home, call her father and call police, Nicholaou, Aileen and Terrin walked toward a bedroom.
"Alina (Aileen) tells me really calmly, she goes "Look, we're going to go to papi's room to talk, okay?' I'm like "Terrin, Terrin, come here.' She wouldn't budge. She went in there. She wouldn't come out. Either he had her afraid or she didn't want to leave her mom," Leon said.
Leon greeted police in the driveway. When an officer announced herself and walked toward the bedroom, Nicholaou pointed a rifle at her. Aileen threw herself at the door, closing it.
Outside the door, police and family heard the gunshots.
In the room, they found Aileen and Terrin, both shot in the head. Terrin, fatally wounded, was lying on her mother's body. Terrin died the next day. Her mother was already gone.
Police said Nicholaou shot them before turning a gun on himself.
In Massachusetts, Michelle's sister Tammy Patla hopes for a reunion with Nicholas and Joy.
She also hopes for more.
That the answer to Michelle's disappearance didn't die with Michael Nicholaou.
Times news researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Staff writer Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3354.
[Last modified January 8, 2006, 00:43:05]