ABERDEEN, Ohio – Almost a year after her death, Laura Gast’s family members say they’re still waiting for answers.
But the entire case file that could give them those answers was being kept from prosecutors for more than six months, the I-Team discovered.
Laura, the wife of former Aberdeen Police Chief Clark Gast, was found hanging from a living room ceiling fan at their home on Bramel Drive around 12:45 p.m. on Aug. 12, 2013.
The Brown County coroner ruled Laura’s death a suicide. But Donna Fizer, Laura’s sister, still has questions about the case 11 months later.
"With it being a simple suicide, as the coroner ruled, why is (the investigation) taking so long?” Fizer said. “It should be open and shut if that's what it is. Apparently, there's more to the story than what we're getting."
Fizer said she hoped reading the police report would give her closure. She asked lead investigator Matt Nickolas for a copy.
That was seven months ago.
Since then, Fizer said she has asked for the report on multiple occasions and was denied access for various reasons.
"I've been back probably three or four times asking for the report, and there's always an excuse,” she said. “Either (Nickolas is) not in the office, or he hasn't had time to make a copy. The last time it was that he's turned it into BCI (Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation) and he couldn't give me a copy."
Fizer wasn't alone. The county's prosecutor and the special prosecutor separately asked for the death investigation files, but never received them.
The I-Team got the same answer as Fizer after filing a public records request.
Aberdeen Fiscal Officer Nathan Pfeffer replied to our request by stating, “Officer Nickolas has informed me that the original files are with BCI and we do not have copies.”
The I-Team then checked with Special Prosecutor Daniel “Woody” Breyer. He replied, “(Nickolas) was going to forward me all materials on the investigation. I never received anything.”
So we sent Breyer's message to Aberdeen. The village’s lawyer, David E. Grimes, responded, “I do not know why he does not have a copy of what BCI received.”
Finally, the I-Team asked Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. He answered, “I checked with BCI and special prosecutions and neither section has the file. BCI is not investigating.”
When Laura’s death was ruled a suicide, Brown County’s prosecutor wrote to the coroner "(I’m) very concerned someone's getting away with murder."
As the I-Team previously reported, the Abderdeen Police Department refused to call outside investigators when the wife of its former police chief was found hanged.
By simply demanding a copy of the police report, the I-Team discovered the file in the case was being kept from prosecutors.
"The whole file, we couldn't find nothing. We couldn't find nothing," said new Aberdeen Mayor Jason Phillips. "If we didn't have (the file), and the prosecuting attorney didn't have it… then who had it? Us not having files, it opened my eyes up. Somebody's not telling the truth here."
The very same day the attorney general told the I-Team he didn't know who had Laura’s death file, Nickolas walked into the special prosecutor's office and turned it over – six months after he supposedly completed the investigation.
"I asked (Nickolas) straight out. I said, 'Who has this?' Phillips said. “(Nickolas) said, 'I had it.' And I said, “Why you holding onto this so long, or why didn't you turn it in?” He's still yet to answer that. He won't answer that."
In the 11 month's since Laura was found dead, Aberdeen's mayor Harry Foxworthy resigned and its police chief Greg Caudill was fired on unrelated charges.
The same day Nickolas turned in the death investigation, he also turned in his resignation.
Nickolas did not comment on his reasons for holding the file when approached by the I-Team. You can watch the I-Team confront Nickolas in the video player above.
After turning in the investigation, Nickolas drove away with the only keys to the Aberdeen Police Department’s evidence room.
Acting Aberdeen Police Chief Brandon Swayne said Nickolas refused to hand over the keys unless the chief signed a notarized receipt that included a line absolving him of any criminal or civil liability.
"Anything in the evidence room -- he wouldn't be responsible for nothing," Mayor Phillips said.
Swayne and Phillips refused to sign the waiver.
Phillips said Nickolas then kept the evidence room keys and left town.
"I tried to call him on his way, and he answered,” Phillips said. “I said, ‘You need to turn around and bring the key back, because if not, I’m going to file charges because you're not turning it in. We're not signing the piece of paper. I want to make it clear, we're not signing that paper that you have.’"
After nine days – and under threat of arrest – Nickolas finally turned over the evidence room keys, according to the mayor.
Laura’s sister said she had even more questions after learning Nickolas turned over the investigation six months after she began asking for it.
“None of it makes sense,” Fizer said. “That's what I’m saying, and I’ve been saying this from the beginning. Nothing makes sense… be it suicide, be it murder. Whatever the answer is, I want that answer."
A copy of the death investigation file – the one kept from everyone for at least six months – is now in Special Prosecutor Daniel Breyer’s hands.
He said Nickolas will be asked under oath why he didn't turn over the file.
“We are going to get to the bottom of it,” Phillips said. “It's not going to be put on the back burner. We will have an answer."