American Mother Exclusive Extract

An Exclusive Extract of American Mother, the latest True Crime story from Gregg Olsen.


Though only half an hour drive away, the South King County cities of Auburn and Kent are worlds away from high-rises loaded with tech workers that make up Washington State’s largest metropolis, Seattle. Surrounded by the Olympics, the Cascades, and both the waters of Puget Sound and sailboat-specked Lake Washington, Seattle is as beautiful and as cosmopolitan as the Northwest gets: galleries, symphony, opera, and the home addresses of tech titans like Bezos and Gates.

All of that is glitz and glamour.

The milky, glacial-fed White River roars down from snow-clad Mt. Rainier to meet the meandering Green River near Auburn and Kent. This is the Pacific Northwest of Boeing factories and warehouse jobs. It’s pool tables and darts. It’s a world of overpriced tract homes and the region’s last stand for trailer parks and mobile homes on acreage.

Pleasures might be smaller here, but dreams can be big.

And sometimes dreams morph into nightmares.

American Mother book sits on a white table next to an old fashioned red phone and a splatter of blood.

At 5:02 p.m. on June 5, 1986, a volunteer fire department Plectron radio receiver announced an emergency. A man was in the throes of a seizure at his residence, a mobile home off Lake Moneysmith Road in the hills above Auburn. His name was Bruce Edward Nickell. His wife, Stella, had made the call for help.

Volunteers Lori and Bob Jewett drove with practiced urgency, lights flashing. Adrenaline pumping. Though they were familiar with the area, finding the address proved difficult. No street markers pointed the way, and mailboxes were huddled in a cluster, away from addresses written on reflective tape with Sharpies.

Woodsy with thick stands of firs and alders, privacy had been part of the dream for those who lived there.

After turning onto a narrow road, Bob stopped the aid car in front of a mobile home.

“It didn’t seem like the right place,” Lori later remembered. “Usually there is somebody at the end of the driveway waving their arms… just can’t wait for you to get down the dirt road.”

At that particular address, no one was there to greet them.

After what seemed like a minute or so, the screen door slowly creaked open, and a woman who identified herself as Stella Nickell waved them over. She was mid-forties, with long dark hair, and a thick smear of apple red lipstick on her lips. She dressed in dark jeans and a button-down western shirt. Silver drop earrings swung from her ears as she moved.

She led them to her husband who was still damp from a shower and clad in a terry bathrobe. On his back in front of a living-room couch, Bruce’s eyes were fixed, but he was struggling to breathe. His mouth gaped like a caught salmon.

“After his shower, he went over to the sliding glass door to the deck to watch the hawks,” Stella said. “He turned to me and said, ‘Stella, I’m feeling light-headed’… then he fell.”

“Is he on any medication?” Bob asked.

“Just aspirin,” she answered.

She went on to explain Bruce had taken a couple of Excedrin capsules and, as had been his custom of late, had retreated to the deck to relax and watch the hawks circle the sky above their property. Throughout her explanation with its multiple references to Excedrin, Bruce continued to gasp. It was not only audible, it was wrenching enough to be felt.

It was not a symptom the volunteers had ever seen before. Neither was Bruce’s strange two-tone coloration. He was cherry red from the neck up, white below. It was such a contrast, it looked as though a line had been drawn separating red and white. It was baffling. If this were carbon monoxide poisoning the victim would be red from head to toe. Bruce had a pulse, but he wasn’t breathing. Just gasping.

When paramedics arrived moments later, they bagged the lanky man with thinning dark hair and the calloused hands of a mechanic with an oxygen mask and called for a helicopter.

Within minutes, he was loaded onto a helicopter and was bound for Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Everything happened so fast. Lightning fast. The arrival of the volunteer fire department, the paramedics, and the speedy ride to a landing zone on a nearby pasture for a helicopter—all of it was a blur.

All but one thing.

Stella’s behavior when the Jewetts first arrived. There had been no urgency. No calling for help. Stella hadn’t rushed out to greet them. In fact, she had done the opposite. She took her sweet time. It was strange. Watched through the screen door. Drank coffee? She stood behind the door, motionless.

It was almost as if she was stalling.

Later, some would wonder if Stella Nickell had been waiting for her husband to die.

American Mother

Gregg Olsen

Published: 08 November 2022