June of 1988 was warm and dry, and prices for salmon were at atmospheric levels — $2.40 per pound for sockeye — which would never be seen again. For most setnet fishermen in Uganik Bay, on the west side of Kodiak Island, it was a good year to be there.
At Noisy Island setnet site on Uganik Island, salmon permit holder Danny Nickerson, 42, from Bothell, Washington, was working with his brother Robbie, 36, and a Kodiak man they had hired for the season, Rob Shepard, 41. Danny had fished the site since the early 1970s, sometimes with his wife and young sons, but often with his brother or other single men. The Nickerson brothers and Shepard were all Vietnam veterans, and even in a bay still known for its partying ways, the men had a reputation for drinking.
Before the commercial season opened on June 9, the Nickersons sent Shepard out to their setnet site with a skiffload of supplies. Shepard ran into bad weather, however, and ended up beaching the skiff in Viekoda Bay. The skiff and the supplies were recovered, but the Nickersons were seen afterward berating Shepard on the APS dock in Kodiak. Subsequent events would prove that relations between Shepard and the Nickerson brothers did not improve after that.
On June 22, Ed Herzog and his family, neighbors from a setnet site near the Nickersons’, skiffed over to visit. Shepard told them the two brothers had been drinking the night before and were still asleep. A few days later Shepard told Herzog the Nickersons had gone to a party in the skiff and had not returned. Shepard told the same story to Ron Thompson, the skipper of the Northern Jaeger, an Alaska Pacific Seafoods tender, when Thompson stopped by to pick up the Noisy Island salmon catch. Thompson notified the Coast Guard, and at some point thereafter Herzog saw the Nickersons’ skiff aground on the back side of Noisy Island, across from the Nickerson cabin. On June 29 the Coast Guard launched a search and rescue operation and the next day the Kodiak Daily Mirror ran a headline over a story by Nell Waage: “Nickerson Brothers Missing at Uganik.”
Alaska State Troopers questioned Shepard, who told them what he’d told the Herzogs and Ron Thompson, that the brothers left the fish camp in their skiff on the morning of June 23 to go to a party and had not returned. It was assumed by the other fishermen in the bay that the Nickersons had gotten drunk, fallen out of their skiff and drowned. Such things had happened before in Uganik.
Meanwhile, Shepard remained at the Nickersons’ cabin, and was there when the Nickerson’s mother arrived to take charge of the fishing operation. Unconvinced that her sons, with their many years of skiff driving experience, would both somehow fall overboard at the same time, she told visitors to the site that foul play was at work. She dismissed Shepard and hired a young Kodiak couple to help her run the site.
In early August Mrs. Nickerson told a visitor that certain rocks lying in a grassy ravine behind the cabin seemed out of place, and when the visitor investigated, he found the bodies of Danny and Robbie Nickerson bundled in a sleeping bag. The men had been shot to death.
On Aug. 9, 1988, troopers arrested Rob Shepard and charged him with two counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of the Nickerson brothers. Shepard admitted shooting the men, but claimed the brothers were violent, gun-wielding men, and that he had acted in self-defense.
At the trial Shepard testified that on the morning of June 23, the Nickerson brothers were still asleep after a night of drinking and that he had gone out to check the nets alone. When he returned the brothers were awake and angry that Shepard had taken the skiff without permission. Shepard testified that Dan Nickderson, armed with a handgun, told his brother Robbie to get out of the way so he could get a clear shot at Shepard. Shepard testified that he used Robbie as a shield to move into a bedroom, where he grabbed his rifle and shot Dan Nickerson in the head. When Robbie Nickerson came after him with a knife, Shepard shot him in the shoulder, and moments later, when Robbie aimed a shotgun, the men fought over the weapon and it discharged, killing Robbie. He then disposed of the bodies in the nearby ravine, and cleaned up the blood and bullet holes in the cabin.
Forensic evidence backed up Shepard’s account, but the state maintained that his initial false testimony to troopers and disposal of the bodies indicated criminal intent. Shepard’s public defender attorney, Mike Karnavas, argued that Shepard had acted deceptively out of a fear of authority due to post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by combat and his experiences in a Marine brig in Danang, Vietnam. Karnavas attempted to have two expert witnesses testify on PTSD, the first to describe the psychological effects of PTSD on Vietnam veterans, and the second, who had examined Shepard, who believed his behavior was consistent with a PTSD victim acting in self-defense.
The state, however, objected to the PTSD witness who had not examined Shepard, arguing that he was merely providing a psychological profile. The judge, Roy Madsen, agreed with the state and denied his testimony.
The jury acquitted Shepard of both first-degree murder charges, but found him guilty of manslaughter for the killing of Robbie Nickerson. Shepard was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
In February 1993, however, the Alaska Court of Appeals ruled that the expert PTSD witness who had not examined Shepard should have been allowed to testify, and reversed the manslaughter conviction. Rather than retry Shepard, the state agreed to let Shepard plead guilty to criminally negligent homicide and a burglary charge for remaining in the Nickerson cabin to clean up the scene of the killings. Shepard was credited with time served and in August 1993 was freed on 10 years’ probation.
In prison Shepard quit drinking and earned a college degree, and claimed later that the five years he spent in jail were the best five years of his life. He lives today in eastern Washington.
Toby Sullivan is executive director of the Kodiak Maritime Museum.