In Mississippi, the mother of a young boy is dead, and her family is convinced that investigators have it all wrong.
What happened to Nikki LaDue January? Crime Watch Daily goes looking for answers.
Nikki LaDue was as bright and fiery as the afternoon Gulf Coast sun.
"Nikki was an absolute sweetheart," said Nikki's mother Bonnie LaDue. "She was bubbly and vivacious. She just shone, and she was a little bit crazy. She liked to walk on the wild side a lot."
But the wild child also had a soft side. She was a doting and dedicated divorced single mother to a young son.
"She loved her child beyond anything that can really be described," said Bonnie.
The 28-year-old worked as a dealer at a nearby casino.
"Everybody wanted to be at her table because she was fun and I think that she really kind of enjoyed it," said Bonnie.
It was there that a roll of the dice would bring in a high-stakes win: her future husband Phil January, who was older than she was.
"I believe it was 14 years," journalist Norm Whitehurst tells Crime Watch Daily.
It was an unexpected love story. He had her not at "Hello," but at "Get out."
"She had an unruly patron and he came down and saved the day, and it seemed to enamor Nikki to him, and she gave him her phone number, and that's how their relationship started," said Whitehurst. "They were really only together for about eight months before they got married."
A couple of years later, Phil got a new job in Louisiana. The family is relocating.
According to Bonnie, Phil will go first. Nikki and her son will follow a couple of weeks later. But it is a move, Bonnie says, her daughter wasn't thrilled about.
"She was not looking forward to the move," said Bonnie. "I remember her saying she wasn't really into it."
But the move is happening. Tomorrow, in fact. Today, Nikki needs a babysitter to watch her son. Not because he'll be in the way while she packs, but because Nikki has plans to hang out with a guy she recently met named Eric.
"They go to two or three places, and the end of the day he took her to a sports bar, and that is where things got a little weird," said Bonnie. "She looked at her watch and she said 'Oh my gosh, I have to make a phone call.' Eric tried to hand her his phone and she goes 'Oh, no, no. No, not taking any chances on that -- meaning Caller I.D. -- so she left the table and went to the payphone and when she came back to the table, she was visibly shaken. She was upset, and she said 'I have to get out of here right now. I have to leave right now.'"
Why wouldn't Nikki use Eric's phone? Who did she call? And what got her so rattled?
Nikki leaves and picks up her son. It's now around 11 p.m. on June 28, 2002.
"She was apologetic because she was a little bit late, but she was fine," said Norm Whitehurst.
Last stop: home. Nikki and her son had been staying with a friend while Phil was in Louisiana. But on this particular night, they decided to go back to their place. Would that prove to be a tragic mistake?
The next morning at 9:45 a.m., a frantic call to 911.
Caller: "Somebody I'm concerned about, I'm terrified committeed suicide. The husband was yelling at me to call 911. He said we need an ambulance here, please!"
Dispatcher: "Who's in the apartment?"
Caller: "The husband is right now."
Dispatcher: "OK. Who else is supposed to be in there?"
Caller: "The son was."
Dispatcher: "The son?"
Caller: "We took him out. He's five years old. We took him out. I don't know what's going on. We've been very concerned about this girl. And I, we've not been able to get in touch with her. I was not able to get in touch with her last night."
Dispatcher: "You haven't been up inside the apartment?"
Caller: "I walked through. I never saw anything. He walked out on the balcony and started screaming."
Dispatcher: "Is he still inside the apartment right now?"
Caller: "I see him out on the front of the balcony right now."
Dispatcher: "OK, the officers are on the way."
When Pass Christian, Mississippi Police arrive, on the balcony they find Nikki LaDue January dead from a gunshot wound to the head. Cops talk to Nikki's husband Phil January, who arrived just moments before. He says after finding Nikki, he grabbed the phone from her lap to call 911, but it was dead, so he put it on the table. He also tells police the gun is his. Nikki had asked him to leave it for protection while he was away.
Cops also talk to the woman who called 911. Turns out as Phil was driving from Louisiana to their home in Mississippi, he couldn't get ahold of Nikki, so he asked the woman, a family friend, to go check on her. She says once there, Nikki's young son...
"He answered the door and said 'Mommy's sleeping,' went inside, could not find her, Phil shows up," said Norm Whitehurst.
According to police reports, a shell casing is found downstairs in the pool area. Two neighbors tell police they heard a loud pop in the early morning hours. Some photos are taken of the scene, then lead investigator Tom Pustay and coroner Gary Hargrove wrap up the investigation. Their belief: it's an apparent suicide. They leave without talking to Nikki's son, who was just steps away when the fatal shot rang out.
"They spent two hours. You know, it's two hours and that's it. Suicide," said Whitehurst.
Phil January calls his in-laws to tell them Nikki has taken her own life.
"My world just absolutely fell apart," said Bonnie LaDue. "And I go, 'What did Nikki take?' He goes 'What do you mean, what did she take? She shot herself.' That was just not even believable, just completely not believable. She despised guns.
"And when he told me that [her son] had been with Nikki, I go, 'There is no way that she could have done that with her beloved child there.' She absolutely worshiped and adored that kid, and she would never."
Reportedly, after the scene is cleared, Nikki LaDue January's body isn't taken the medical examiner's office.
"She was taken to the funeral home," said Bonnie.
No autopsy will be done. But Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove did examine Nikki and wrote in his report: "There is gunpowder residue and burning in and around the wound."
"There were specks of gunpowder on her right hand."
And "The imprint of the gun could be seen in her hand."
Also, Nikki tested "positive for cocaine, amphetamines, and alcohol."
But none of that convinces Bonnie Nikki committed suicide. So she buries her daughter and prepares for the fight of her life.
"If anything was ever gonna be learned, it was gonna have to be orchestrated by me," said Bonnie.
Starting with getting Phil's blessing to exhume Nikki's body.
"My husband and I decided that painful as it was we would hire a private pathologist to do an autopsy. So that's what we did," said Bonnie.
The pathologist's official finding: Undetermined. But Bonnie says he told her something more.
"I remember him clearly telling me. He said 'I am going to sign this as undetermined death, but I want to say it's a homicide,'" said Bonnie.
Nikki LaDue January's death was ruled a suicide. Her mother Bonnie LaDue says her 30-year-old daughter would never have killed herself, especially with her 5-year-old son just feet away.
"I believe she was murdered in cold blood," said Bonnie.
Bonnie, along with journalist Norm Whitehurst, who's been writing about Nikki's death, says there are a lot of questions surrounding the crime scene and investigation, starting with how the body and gun were found.
"It looks to me like a very unlikely way for a person to commit suicide," said Bonnie. "She was found sitting in the corner of the balcony with a small glass table in front of her, sitting in a chair, her right knee was propped up on the table, her left leg was outstretched."
Bonnie believes Nikki's hands wouldn't naturally end up where they did.
"The hand would go to the temple, and then as soon as the shot was made, you would think that the hand would go out, drop the gun and the hand would end up down there, and the gun on the floor. Instead, her hand is very gently covering her left hand and the gun is under her thigh," said Bonnie. "It looks completely staged."
"She's sitting on the gun," said Norm Whitehurst.
How do you commit suicide and then after the fact, raise your leg to a point where the gun is just going to neatly fall under it?
"That doesn't make sense," said Whitehurst.
Something else that doesn't make sense to them: the cigarettes on the table. One pack was Nikki's brand, the other was not.
"There was an ashtray full of cigarette butts," said Whitehurst. "They cleared the scene in two hours. Without gathering any of the forensic evidence, they just wrote this off as a suicide."
Crime Watch Daily asked forensics expert Dr. Bill Smock from the Louisville Metro Police Dept. to look at the initial investigation and give us his unbiased opinion.
You took a look at Nikki LaDue January's case. What were your initial thoughts?
"Polaroid pictures of the crime scene? No autopsy performed. Minimal effort on the part of the investigator, this is not the way to do an investigation," said Dr. Smock.
And Smock agrees that the location of the gun looks suspicious.
"The way the gun was found tucked under her leg, I think somebody, intentionally, unintentionally, moved that gun and stuck it under her left leg," said Smock.
There's also the case of the cigarette butts -- two different packages of cigarettes, no DNA test.
"No DNA test," said Dr. Smock. "This is perplexing. I think this police department should answer why, if you do not conduct an autopsy, you don't answer those basic questions about what happened, how can you clear this case if you don't do basic investigative steps?"
But Dr. Bill Smock says the blood evidence does point to something definitive: Nikki having both hands on the gun.
"I didn't see any forward spatter, where the bullet came out of the left side of her head. She did have back spatter on the back of her hand, actually on both hands, but it was predominant on the back of her left hand," said Dr. Smock.
What does that indicate?
"Well, what it can indicate is if you are holding the gun, for example, if you were to take a gun, put it to your head and then you put your left hand on the barrel to hold it steady, then you'd get spatter on the back of this hand, and it kind of protects any spatter from coming on the fingers or your forearm," said Smock. "Based upon the pattern, it looks like she had both, her left hand on the barrel, and the right hand on the handle of the gun."
Did Nikki or someone else possibly put her hands in that position? Some say Nikki's relationship with her husband Phil January may hold some critical answers. Norm Whitehurst even alleges there was emotional abuse in the house.
Describe Nikki and Phil's relationship -- their marriage in particular.
"If you talk to Phil, which I did, it was a marriage made in heaven. If you talked to her friends and family, quite the opposite," said Whitehurst. "She described feeling threatened in a way that he needed to control her. He would leave notes on cupboard doors in their apartment that would disparage her, that would call her vile names."
Was Nikki planning on staying in the relationship, or was she looking for a way out?
"According to Phil, they were going to move to Louisiana," said Whitehurst. "But there's a few friends who have said, 'No, that's not the case. What Nikki told us is that she's done, she can't take it anymore.'"
Was Nikki about to leave Phil? What was going on in the hours leading up to her death? According to Whitehurst, what was going on was a flurry of phone calls.
"There were several phone calls between Nikki and Phil," said Whitehurst. "Phil was supposedly driving back from Louisiana. The phone calls took place, I believe, between 1 and 2:30 in the morning. I think there's 14, 15 calls."
Why so many calls? What were they talking about? And did Phil January have an alibi that night? Whitehurst says cops looked into it.
"They were able to pull phone records that showed that the number was blocked, and that's all they know," said Whitehurst. "They didn't do anything like checking with cellphone towers for 'pinging' and things like that, to see what his location was. He could have been 300 miles away, he could have been in the same room as her."
According to the police report, Phil January told cops he talked to Nikki once at 1:45 a.m. And there was something else that some consider strange: After investigators found what they called a suicide note on the Januarys' home computer, Phil had the hard drive of the computer wiped clean.
"He had his teenage son erase the hard drive so he would never see that note," said Whitehurst. "Come to find out, or as Phil says, that wasn't a suicide note at all. It wasn't. She was apologizing and telling him that she wants to be a better person, or a better wife."
In Bonnie LaDue's desperate search for answers, she hires two private investigators. One of them interviews Phil January. The audio from that meeting was recorded.
P.I.: "How would you categorize your relationship with Nikki?"
Phil January: "Nikki was my life."
P.I.: "Did Nikki ever say that she did not want to go to Shreveport?"
January: "No, never."
January describes the moment he found his wife.
January: "The first thing I thought was she had fallen asleep out there. Until I actually saw her. And you've seen the pictures, so you know what I saw."
And the position of the gun, which he says he didn't touch, left him feeling unsettled.
January: "Very odd. And I remember thinking that at the time. And not only that, it's turned opposite of what, it, to me it like looks like somebody in front of her would have placed it. Not what you would have placed it yourself."
P.I.: "Now by all indications Nikki did not like guns."
January: "She hated them. She hated them."
January admits to having the computer's hard drive erased after the alleged suicide note was found.
January: "I had my son do it."
P.I.: "And what reason?"
January: "I didn't ever want to see it. I told him just to get rid of everything."
Phil January believes, like his mother-in-law, Nikki would not have taken her own life.
P.I.: "Do you think she committed suicide?"
January: "Nikki would never have done that because of [her son] if for no other reason."
So who could have wanted Nikki dead? An ominous theory has emerged.
"There are some people that think that it could have been organized crime that killed her," said Norm Whitehurst. "I've heard the word 'This was a warning, this was a warning.' Why Nikki was chosen to be the victim, I don't know, but there are people think that this was a warning, whether it was a warning to the people that were at the casino, whether it was a warning to Phil, I don't know."
Allegedly, Nikki had received three threatening notes in her locker at the casino around the time of her death.
P.I.: "The three notes did you ever see them?"
January: "No, in fact she told me she had thrown them all away."
P.I.: "What were the gist of the notes? Do you know?"
January: "She said the notes called her a [----]."
P.I.: "She was being threatened?"
Do those notes hold the key to Nikki's death?
Bonnie LaDue says her daughter Nikki LaDue January did not commit suicide. She believes her daughter was murdered.
"I believe that the only place that she could be allowed to go is to her grave," said Bonnie. "Her death took place, I believe, because she was about to start a new life. She was about to get away from the entire scenario that she had lived within."
That scenario, Bonnie believes, was the seedy underworld of the casino where she worked.
"I do not think it is out of the realm of possibility that Nikki came into contact with information that could hurt somebody," said Bonnie. "I also believe that her association with Phil January sealed her fate."
Nikki's husband Phil January also thinks it could have been foul play. Bonnie and Phil at least agree on that. But journalist Norm Whitehurst says Phil January may know more.
"Whether he actually did it, I don't know, but he may have answers," said Whitehurst.
So we thought we'd try to talk to Phil January. Crime Watch Daily emailed him but he never responded, so we went in person to see if he had any more information beyond his earlier taped interview. Anything to help Bonnie get clarification on what happened to Nikki that horrible night.
Phil January didn't want to talk.
But independent forensics expert Dr. Bill Smock did have one more thing to say. He was able to come to some sort of conclusion that could lift the veil of suspicion off Phil January, or anyone else.
So what's your gut tell you? Suicide or not?
"Based on what I saw, it's probably a suicide," said Dr. Smock.
What makes you determine that?
"Unfortunately, we have, I don't have a lot to go on," said Dr. Smock. "But from what I see, with the back spatter on the back of her hand, that's telling me that it was Nikki's hand was here on the barrel when the trigger was pulled, and in that case, I think it's a suicide."
Going forward will be an uphill battle.
Where does Bonnie go from here?
"I don't think they're going to reopen the investigation because there's nothing to investigate," said Norm Whitehurst. "The crime scene was wiped clean, there's no DNA evidence, there are no fingerprints, there's nothing. You know, short of somebody saying 'I did it,' I don't know that she's ever going to find any answers."
But Bonnie says she'll never be deterred. She'll never stop fighting, hoping someday soon that someone will come forward and help her get the answers she's so desperately seeking of what happened to her daughter Nikki.
"I do this and I will continue to do it until I have the truth," said Bonnie. "But I really and truly need to know who and why. Why my oldest daughter is in her grave rather than living her life, and some people can accept that they may never know, and I am not one of them. I just need to know. I'm a mom."
In a strange twist, the lead investigator who worked Nikki's case was himself arrested. Officer Thomas Pustay was convicted of several sex crimes against a child.
While he was in prison, Nikki's mom wrote him a series of letters hoping he would shed new light on the investigation of her daughter's death. During their lengthy conversation, Pustay wrote that he remembered thinking several things about the scene were "odd," and that he didn't have a very favorable first impression of Nikki's husband Phil January. However, to this day the investigator has "no doubt that Nikki took her own life."