Nicole Lovell murder: Was a Virginia teen lured to her death through a smartphone app?
Two promising college students stand trial in the girl’s 2016 death
Produced by Josh Yager
[This story previous aired on June 3, 2017. It was updated on Feb. 23, 2019]
Nicole Lovell, 13, may have thought she was communicating with a friend on the Kik chat app. Instead, she may have found her killer. With a few swipes on her smartphone, Lovell became a victim of the occasionally dangerous world of anonymous online friending, where predators hunt for victims by using fake names and profiles. "48 Hours" investigates the murder of Nicole Lovell, the case against an unusual suspect and his unlikely accomplice, and the hidden dangers of connecting online.
"It's no longer a situation where you worry about your child meeting a stranger in the park," says Pamela Casey, District Attorney in Blount County, Ala., tells correspondent Peter Van Sant. "You really need to worry about the stranger your child's meeting on the phone you gave them for Christmas. This is the new crime of our time."
Tammy Weeks [at her daughter's grave]: Every morning … I come out here, sit with her for an hour.
Tammy Weeks [crying]: It's just been a nightmare. I still hope that she would come around the corner when she gets off the bus. … Or she'll come out of her room.
The nightmare for Nicole Lovell's mother Tammy Weeks began on the morning of January 27, 2016.
Sometime in the middle of the night, the 13-year-old had climbed out of her bedroom window taking along her phone and her favorite blue cartoon blanket.
Tammy Weeks: I pushed the door open, and the nightstand was up against the door.
Tammy Weeks: That night … I was gonna knock on the wall and tell her to come in … and sleep with me like she usually does … and I didn't do it.
Peter Van Sant: Did you call her cell phone?
Tammy Weeks: Oh yeah, a bunch of times.
Peter Van Sant: And what would happen?
Tammy Weeks: It'd go straight to voicemail. I text-messaged her, everybody was calling her. Texting her.
Weeks called police and began scouring the area. Before long, a neighborhood mother gave her some chilling news.
Tammy Weeks: Nicole had been playing with her … daughters and said that Nicole had said she was goin' out on a date.
Like millions of teens, Nicole spent a lot of her social time online. So Weeks feared she might have left to see someone she'd met on the Internet.
Peter Van Sant: You must be a bit panicked at this point?
Tammy Weeks: Yeah.
NEWS REPORT: The FBI has now joined regional and state law enforcement in the search. This afternoon they canvassed from neighborhood …
Nicole's disappearance also sent shockwaves through her hometown of Blacksburg Virginia.
WDBJ NEWS REPORT: More than 1200 searchers are on a mission to find the 13-year-old…
Volunteers even brought an infrared drone to aid in the search for Nicole..
Tammy Weeks: I know she wouldn't go nowhere for that many hours without her medicine.
Nicole was born with a damaged liver and needed a transplant before her first birthday. Now a teenager, she still needed her anti-rejection medication every day to survive. Her illness and surgical treatment had left Nicole with scars on her stomach and neck. Weeks says Nicole had emotional scars as well.
Peter Van Sant: So she was being bullied?
Tammy Weeks: Yeah. She hated going to school. She would always make me write her a note for gym because they would pick on her about her scar.
Nicole's social media posts reveal a sadly typical teenage story: so lonely she'd had suicidal thoughts, longing for love and convinced nobody cared about her.
Weeks says Nicole not only had trouble fitting in, she also had a difficult relationship with her father, David Lovell. He did prison time on a drug charge and he's had other problems with the law.
Tammy Weeks: She wanted his attention. She wanted his love.
David Lovell: I have regrets that I wasn't there. I feel — you know, what did I do wrong, why wasn't I there for her more often.
He'd left Tammy Weeks before Nicole was born. The two were never married.
Peter Van Sant: When you would go to work, was there anyone supervising her?
Tammy Weeks: Yeah, my parents.
Peter Van Sant: Your parents, did they live at the house?
Tammy Weeks: Yes.
Peter Van Sant: So she never went unsupervised?
Tammy Weeks: No.
But Nicole was leading an unsupervised life online through the social media apps on her smartphone.
Alabama District Attorney Pamela Casey is on a national crusade. warning people about the dangers of social media.
D.A. Pamela Casey: It's like a loaded gun.
PAMELA CASEY PSA: If you pick up your child's phone and you don't know the password, that's a problem.
Casey began speaking out long before Nicole Lovell disappeared in Virginia. And her online safety videos have been seen by millions across the country.
PAMELA CASEY PSA: I can actually go live on Periscope and post updates to you guys… if I can do that live sitting in my office, then your child can do that live in their bedroom.
D.A. Pamela Casey: Years ago, you had to worry about your kid getting snatched. Parents don't realize that essentially your kid could get snatched — their life taken by somebody they meet in their own bedroom.
By late on the day Nicole Lovell vanished, her parents' hope was fading with the winter light.
Tammy Weeks: I didn't sleep at all that night, I waited.
But it would be three days before Nicole's parents had to face the horrifying news that her body had been found.
Tammy Weeks [crying]: Your whole world just comes tumbling down because she was my everything.
TAMMY WEEKS [to reporters]: Coley had a passion for pandas, music, dancing … Nicole touched many people throughout her short life. [Overcome with emotion, Weeks left the podium.]
Shock and sadness were everywhere, but investigators had gotten a big break. And it came from Nicole Lovell herself. She'd left behind virtual evidence of a real-life murder.
DIGITAL ROADMAP TO MURDER
Nicole's dad, David Lovell, says even before her body was found, investigators had found a solid lead — she had handwritten the usernames and passwords to all her accounts on her bedroom wall.
FBI computer forensics experts traced Nicole's account information and quickly established that she'd regularly used Kik – a popular chat app attractive to teens, in part, because they can communicate anonymously without their parents knowing.
Peter Van Sant: When you had her phone did you ever click on the Kik app just to see what was inside?
Tammy Weeks: No … I just made her delete it, uninstall it.
Peter Van Sant: Do you believe she reinstalled it?
Tammy Weeks: Yeah.
So the FBI puts in what they call an emergency disclosure request to Kik. They want to see Nicole's personal account and they make a startling discovery. It turns out that in the last two days of her life, she'd been messaging with a person who had a chilling username, "Dr_Tombstone."
Using an IP address provided by Kik, investigators traced the screen name to David Eisenhauser, 18, a freshman engineering student at Virginia Tech.
David Eisenhauer seemed the last person in the world capable of killing a 13-year-old girl. He'd been a high school track star. Former classmate Dorothy Callahan says his brains and charisma were as strong as his strides.
Dorothy Callahan: He was a very celebrated student, he always had straight A's. … And he was sort of cocky, and he was like "Yeah, I'm David Eisenhauer, I was just on the local news, I'm a big deal."
Three days after Nicole went missing, Eisenhauer was picked up by police at his dorm and taken in for questioning. His roommate, Jeremy Basdeo, walked in on the startling aftermath.
Jeremy Basdeo: I went to my room and I saw the door open. … And I got turned around by the Virginia State Police and the FBI.
Peter Van Sant: And what did they say?
Jeremy Basdeo: They said, 'Don't worry. It's not about you. It's about your roommate."
Basdeo told "48 Hours" that Eisenhauer's behavior the night Nicole Lovell vanished was really odd.
Jeremy Basdeo: He put on boots. But it wasn't raining that hard for boots. But ya know I just let it go. And then — he came back at 2:00 in the morning.
Peter Van Sant: Did you ever see a knife in the room?
Jeremy Basdeo: Yes. … He usually leaves it on his desk.
Peter Van Sant: Was it on his desk when the cops showed up?
Jeremy Basdeo: No. They couldn't find it.
Eisenhauer soon admitted to police he'd talked to Nicole outside her house that night. He was arrested and charged with abduction. Eisenhauer's statements led them to another young woman, Natalie Keepers. She was brought in for questioning, too.
What did 19-year-old Natalie Keepers know about what happened to Nicole? Keepers, another Virginia Tech freshman and another unlikely person of interest. Mark Jenkins used to be her boyfriend.
Mark Jenkins: She wanted to study engineering and be like her father who worked for NASA.
Investigators strongly suspected Natalie was involved. She too was arrested.
With two people in custody, police made a grisly discovery. Nicole's nude body was located 90 miles away in North Carolina, says Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson.
Peter Van Sant: What kind of wounds were on her body?
Sheriff Graham Atkinson: She was stabbed … her throat was cut … and then the thoughts turn to, "who are the animals who could have done something like this to her?"
D.A. Pamela Casey says David Eisenhauer may represent a new kind of predator.
D.A. Pamela Casey:Sometimes it's usually the people we least expect.
D.A. Pamela Casey:They could be your next-door neighbor. …they can stay behind their phone and hide behind their phone — just like your child is doin'.
Casey says criminals often use apps like Kik. Why? Because it's where kids hang out online. In fact, Kik, a Canadian company, claims that millions of American teens use their app every month.
With David Eisenhauer behind bars, it wasn't Kik, but an online gaming site that led investigators to the door of Bryce Dustin.
Bryce Dustin: I almost felt like he was like a little brother
It was on this gaming site that Dustin first chatted with Eisenhauer. And though they never met in person, they began a six-year-long Internet friendship.
Bryce Dustin: David, you know, kept coming back to me for advice on everything.
Peter Van Sant: What kind of problems would he ask you for advice about?
Bryce Dustin: Girls was a big one.
Dustin told "48 Hours" he remembers Eisenhauer talking about a problem he had with one girl in particular — a girl Dustin now believes was Nicole.
Bryce Dustin: He told me that he had found out she was underage and that //she wanted to be with him. And that she was going to expose him if he wasn't with her."
He says Eisenhauer was worried about being outed in a relationship with an underage girl. So he offered some big brother kind of advice.
Bryce Dustin: If she wants to be your girlfriend, you know, let her, but don't be the greatest boyfriend, just like don't text her, just ignore her. … she'll go away.
Another family was about to have one of their daughters go away as well — in the car of an online predator in Spokane Washington.
THE DANGER IS EVERYWHERE
David Lovell: Her last moments, is what flashes through my mind. That's my nightmare."
Lovell says he wishes he had done better in protecting Nicole.
David Lovell: If it can happen to my family, it can happen to anybody… I mean, flat out anybody.
It can happen to any family, including one in Spokane, Washington, about 2,500 miles away from Virginia. The parents here got a tip that their 15-year-old daughter was being targeted by a 30-year-old man. And what's worse? The two were planning to run away that very night.
Det. Elise Robertson: She was gonna leave her iPad, hop in the car … with a man she doesn't really even know.
It was June 7, 2013, when Detective Elise Robertson of the Spokane Police Department's Special Victims Unit got the kind of call cops all over the country have come to expect.
Det. Elise Robertson: A father was saying that his daughter was having an Internet relationship with a 30-year-old man and he had just found out.
Brandy Syrotchen: And that's when everything broke loose.
Until that moment, Brandy, and her husband Branden seemed to have the quintessential American family. She was teaching at a local church and was he studying for a PhD in Psychology. They'd been hands-on parents, raising their sons, Joshua and Josiah, and daughters Ariel and Elizabeth. They shared a love of God, country, sports and each other.
Elizabeth Syrotchen: My parents were pretty strict.
Sometimes too strict, said Elizabeth, 18 at the time of this "48 Hours" interview.
Elizabeth Syrotchen: I felt like my parents were holding me back from what the average kid gets to experience.
Peter Van Sant: And how much did your parents monitor your life?
Elizabeth Syrotchen: I would say that they thought that they were monitoring me … they didn't understand that they actually weren't monitoring me. … They probably had no clue about Kik and those dating sites.
But her parents did become suspicious when Elizabeth, then-15, suddenly started acting strangely.
Branden Syrotchen: She would be going to bed earlier than normal.
Elizabeth seemed distracted — less interested in family activities, in church, and even in friends. Her parents took her smartphone away and asked to see her social media accounts. She refused.
Brandy Syrotchen: At that point you're like … "OK, something's really wrong here."
They were stunned to learn just how wrong. It all started with a phone call from Elizabeth's best friend's mother — a call that turned their world upside down.
Brandy Syrotchen: "Elizabeth is dating a 30-year-old … And he plans on coming down and … getting her at 3 o'clock in the morning."
Peter Van Sant: That very day?
Brandy Syrotchen: Yeah. And we're like, "W — what???"
Elizabeth was angry and evasive, but her parents finally got her passwords and soon discovered the truth. She had been communicating with a stranger: a 30-year-old Seattle-area man named Jason.
Brandy tearfully read aloud from her daughter's correspondence with the man.
Brandy Syrotchen: Jason Richards says, "When I see you, baby, I am grabbing you. Pulling you close to me. And holding you tightly."
Peter Van Sant: And what does Elizabeth say?
Brandy Syrotchen: "No kiss?" And Jason says, "Baby, I'm gonna kiss you deeply."
Brandy Syrotchen: This guy's evil. She's fooled. She's lured in.
Initially, Elizabeth told Jason she was 18, but later admitted her real age: 15. The Syrotchens were stunned to learn that the pair had already met in person and been intimate. They were even discussing leaving the country. The two had used apps including Facebook and Kik.
Peter Van Sant: This is playing out in some ways like your own personal family horror film.
Brandy and Branden Syrotchen: Yeah.
The horror continued as the Syrotchens realized that within hours, Jason would be driving the 280 miles from Seattle to Spokane to pick up their daughter. They locked Elizabeth in her room with no phone or Internet access and called police.
Branden Syrotchen: This guy wants to kidnap my daughter tonight! He's planning to kidnap my daughter tonight!
Peter Van Sant: Were your hands kind of tied?
Det. Elise Robertson: What do you do at that moment? You have a 15-year-old girl who's your only witness who's denying everything.
Detective Robertson says that without hard evidence of an actual crime, police had to stay on the sidelines.
Peter Van Sant: So, there's nothing they can do for you?
Branden Syrotchen: There's absolutely nothing they can do for me.
Brandy Syrotchen: And when you hear that you feel totally helpless. And it's, like, "OK, well, what are you gonna do now?"
What they did was hatch their own plan to turn the tables on the man who was about to lure their daughter away.
Brandy Syrotchen: This is my daughter and nobody's gonna mess with her and nobody's gonna get her. And I'm gonna do what it takes.
Jason had already messaged from the car.
Brandy Syrotchen: I needed to communicate with him to get him to our house.
Gritting her teeth, Brandy went online — impersonating her own daughter.
Brandy Syrotchen: For 7 hours, I sat there and listened to him, "Oh baby I can't wait to see you … I can't wait to get you in my arms … lay in the same bed together, wake up in the morning …" And for 7 hours I communicated back, "Oh baby, I love you too … I can't wait."
Peter Van Sant: In the pit of your stomach it must have made you …
Brandy Syrotchen: It made me sick!
Peter Van Sant: Jason is getting ever closer to your house, ever closer to your daughter.
Branden Syrotchen: My wife was up there and she was on the iPad.
Peter Van Sant: She's communicating with him. Posing as your daughter.
Branden Syrotchen: Exactly. Yes
While Brandy kept the conversation with Jason going, in the alley behind the Syrotchens' house, Branden and his friends had set up a sting operation like something out of an action movie.
As Branden waited in his car on one side of the alley getting updates from his wife on the phone, his friend, Damon, waited in his car on the other side of the street.
Peter Van Sant: So the idea is like a pincer right you're gonna trap. It's like a bear trap that's gonna close.
Branden Syrotchen: Yes.
Branden's friend, Phil, brought his 12-gauge shotgun. He'd been trained in Special Forces and had no idea how Jason would react.
TURNING THE TABLES
It was 3 a.m. in Spokane, Washington, but could just as easily been high noon. As Branden Syrotchen and his team laid in wait, headlights appeared at one end of the alley. A 30-year-old man's sexual road trip to take a 15-year-old girl from her family was about to come to a shocking end.
Branden Syrotchen: He pulls in. At this time, we go ahead and we call Damon down here. And Damon– just books it. … And I'm pulling in here … Jason pulls in right there.
Branden's friend Phil quickly approached the vehicle, shotgun raised.
Phil: I said, "Driver … put your hands on the steering wheel. Do not move, or I will shoot you." … Couple of times he moved his hands and I said, "What part of do not move do you not understand?"
Peter Van Sant: If Jason makes some sort of move, are you prepared to pull that trigger?
Phil: If he exited the car abruptly, I would've shot him.
They called the police, who arrived minutes later and arrested Jason. In his SUV, they found cell phones and a pair of hunting knives.
Brandy Syrotchen: He was caught but it wasn't over.
Ninety minutes later, Jason comes face-to-face with Spokane Detective Elise Robertson:
DET. ROBERTSON: So, Jason, tell me a little bit about yourself.
JASON RICHARDS: I work for Royal Cup Coffee.
Detective Robertson learned Jason was actually Jason Richards, a 30-year-old, divorced coffee distributer from the Seattle area. Like David Eisenhauer and Natalie Keepers in the Lovell case, Jason Richards seemed nice and successful on the surface.
Peter Van Sant: Who is this guy?
Det. Elise Robertson: Jason is the guy next door.
He tried to turn his crime into a love story:
JASON RICHARDS [to Det. Robertson]: I pretty much fell for her very quickly … we said "I love you" pretty quickly, about a week-and-a-half into really talking with each other.
At first, Richards insisted he had no idea Elizabeth was only 15 until a policeman told him at the time of his arrest.
JASON RICHARDS: He told me that she wasn't 18.
DET. ROBERTSON: OK.
JASON RICHARDS: I responded, "Come again?" And I'm like, "She's, no she's 18."
Det. Elise Robertson: He was lying, the whole time he was lying. The whole time, over and over and over, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie.
To see if her instincts were right, Detective Robertson asked to see Richards' Facebook page. There were literally hundreds of exchanges between him and Elizabeth.
Det. Elise Robertson: And I start looking at it and I realize, "Oh, he knew, he knew before he ever came over here she was 15."
Det. Elise Robertson I looked right at him and I said … "so are you gonna tell me the truth now?"
DET. ROBERTSON: Wanna tell me the truth now?
JASON RICHARDS: I fell in love with her. And I didn't know what to do.
DET. ROBERTSON: And she told you that she was 15 and still in school?
JASON RICHARDS: Eventually.
DET. ROBERTSON: Right.
Elizabeth told her parents she was going jogging, but instead came to a parking lot near her house.
Elizabeth Syrotchen: This is our first meeting spot.
Peter Van Sant: When you actually saw him face-to-face, what did you think?
Elizabeth Syrotchen: Holy crap, like, I think it became a reality to me that it's not just somebody that I'm talking to over the Internet.
Elizabeth says Jason took her to a hotel, got down on one knee and proposed marriage — and then they got in bed. In the following weeks, he came to town again.
Peter Van Sant: On those visits you did have sex with him each time?
Elizabeth Syrotchen: Yeah, we did.
Peter Van Sant : For you, Jason is what?
Elizabeth Syrotchen: He's a sexual predator.
JASON RICHARDS: I've completely just f—-d up my life.
Elizabeth Syrotchen: My life was destroyed.
Peter Van Sant: This hits you right now like a punch across the face, right?
Branden Syrotchen: It's just absolutely unbelievable.
Richards pleaded guilty to child rape and communication with a minor for immoral purposes. His lawyer argued Richards has autism, which can be a mitigating factor for several crimes in Washington State. He got a light sentence: three years.
D.A. Pamela Casey says far too many internet predators are turning to apps like Kik, and their alleged crimes are making headlines across the U.S.
Branden Syrotchen: A lot of stuff's happening without parents knowing. … I don't think people would let, you know, a 50-year-old felon into their house to hang out with their daughter, but that's exactly what they're doing online sometimes, and they don't know.
Jason Richards served his sentence and was released in 2017 with restrictions, including a restraining order to keep him away from Elizabeth. The Syrotchens say they wish the judge had given him as much as life in prison.
Elizabeth Syrotchen: It's just hard knowing he only got three years for everything, the pain that he caused me. It's way more deserving than three years. [in tears] … And he's a danger. It's not right.
In Virginia, Nicole Lovell's mother says, there is no punishment severe enough for David Eisenhauer and Natalie Keepers.
Tammy Weeks: I want both of 'em to suffer.
And she says they aren't the only ones who should have to answer for her daughter's murder. She blames Kik, too.
Tammy Weeks: They need to shut Kik down. … It's just disgusting.
Kik is reported to be a billion-dollar company. "48 Hours" caught up with the CEO at a tech conference in Brooklyn.
Peter Van Sant: Mr. Livingston, Peter Van Sant, how are you? With CBS News. I just want to ask you a quick question. What personal responsibility do you have to make sure that children are safe who use the Kik app?
Ted Livingston: Yeah, I think I have a huge responsibility.
Peter Van Sant: I'm sure you're familiar with Nicole Lovell, a 13-year-old girl in Virginia … What would you say to Nicole's parents?
Ted Livingston: Like, when we heard about that case, that hit the office. That hit me super hard …
Like many social media companies, Kik posts an online guide for parentsand, in a statement, told "48 Hours" the company cooperates with law enforcement. Ted Livingston claims his app is as safe as the competition.
Ted Livingston: I think it's no different than Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram. You know, you have bad people going.
Peter Van Sant: As a parent, I disagree. I can check my child's Facebook account and Twitter account, I friend them. But with Kik I can't.
Ted Livingston: Yeah, I think that's no different than Instagram. You have a private mode. You can have private messaging, all that exists there.
That's true, but Kik's design is attracting millions of teens, in part, because many believe it's parent proof, the best app to keep their social lives secret.
Ted Livingston: Kids are going to use a messenger. If we were to shut down Kik tomorrow, there'll be 10 right behind it.
Kik isn't on trial, but two once promising college students would soon be in murder of Nicole Lovell.
It was Nicole Lovell's digital footprint that led police to Virginia Tech freshman David Eisenhauer. When they brought him in for questioning, he said he'd recently encountered the young girl on an anonymous chat app and they moved over to Kik:
DAVID EISENHAUER [to investigators]: …she's like, 'Hey, do you want to message me on an app called Kik … and I'm like, sure… whatever."
Eisenhauer said he met Nicole in person just once, the night she died — that he went to meet her, quickly saw how young she was, and left her – alive.
DAVID EISENHAUER [to investigators]: I see like she's like 11, and I go, "Oh no, gotta get outta here, gotta get outta here, gotta get outta here."
But Nicole's Kik account told another story altogether … that they had been on Kik for months. They had met in person at least once before, and most likely been intimate.
With reason to worry, he volunteered that he'd bought a new snow shovel and offered up his friend:
DAVID EISENHAUER [to investigators]:Would it help to mention I had someone with me when I bought the shovel for snow purposes? …Her name is Natalie Keepers.
Police rounded up that second Virginia Tech student, Natalie Keepers. They recorded her telling a stunning tale, beginning the day before the murder:
NATALIE KEEPERS [to investigators]: On Monday, there was a general idea that OK, he has to get her into a car somehow.
Keepers said Eisenhauer feared Nicole was about to expose their relationship and asked for help brainstorming ways to kill her:
NATALIE KEEPERS [to investigators]: On Tuesday, that's when the official plan started to come together.
They bought the shovel, went out to dinner, and then Eisenhauer dropped Keepers at her dorm. He had a pre-arranged date with Nicole.
Then, Keepers told the officers Eisenhauer picked Nicole up, drove her into the woods, and stabbed her to death. The next day, he and Keepers went back to Walmart for cleaning supplies and disposed of the body together:
COP: OK, where is she?
NATALIE KEEPERS: She's on the road by David's grandparents' house.
Armed with this news, officers raced to find Nicole's body.
Eisenhauer and Keepers were arrested.
For Nicole's family, a long wait was just beginning.
Peter Van Sant: Is there any doubt who is responsible for the death of your daughter?
David Lovell: No.
It took two years, but in February of 2018, Eisenhauer went on trial for her murder.
Prosecutors described Nicole's final hours as she waited for her secret date.
PROSECUTOR MARY PETTITT: She gives her mom a kiss and she tells her she's going to bed. … Nicole pushes her dresser in front of the door, she climbs out of the window into the snowy night.
And into Eisenhauer's waiting car.
Nicole's mother described the horror of finding her daughter gone.
PROSECUTOR MARY PETTITT: When was the next time you saw your Nicole?
TAMMY WEEKS: In her coffin.
Security footage showed Eisenhauer and Keepers buying the shovel. Photos revealed bloodstains and the bloody shovel found in Eisenhauer's car.
And a Walmart employee read from a receipt a list of items they purchased before discarding Nicole's body:
CHASE HERRINGTON | WALMART EMPLOYEE: Top Job, basic bleach cleaner, Great Value disinfectant wipes, and two pairs of cleaning gloves.
Eisenhauer's lawyer said Natalie Keepers killed Nicole, and he said a bloody hand print on the shovel proves it:
DEFENSE ATTORNEY JOHN LICHTENSTEIN: The palm prints that made that bloody palm print on the shovel was not David Eisenhauer. It was ruled out as being David Eisenhauer. It was Natalie Keepers.
But on the fourth day of testimony came a bombshell announcement.
Facing a mountain of incriminating evidence, Eisenhauer suddenly changed his plea from "not guilty" to "no contest." Prosecutors read one of his last Kik messages with Nicole into the court record.
PROSECUTOR PATRICK JENSEN [reading]: From the defendant: "But I can't stress enough that you don't tell anyone about me because they will find a way to hurt you." From Nicole Lovell: "Who will hurt me? Who's they? Why are you scaring me?"
The judge accepted his revised plea and ruled Eisenhauer guilty.
But Nicole's family still had one more ordeal to sit through. In September 2018, Natalie Keepers went on trial as an accessory to murder. She had already pleaded guilty to helping Eisenhauer conceal Nicole's body.
Prosecutors told new jurors the same story – that David Eisenhauer killed Nicole Lovell, but he had help from Natalie Keepers:
PROSECUTOR MARY PETTITT: Over several weeks they planned out the murder. They considered shooting her, poisoning her, making it look like it was a suicide.
Prosecutors played audio recordings of Keepers describing Eisenhauer's messages to her on Kik:
NATALIE KEEPERS: Yeah, he would say "off her, kill the bitch, kill her."
Keepers said she knew it was wrong:
NATALIE KEEPERS [emotional]: There was no emotion. He became a sociopath. He thought of me as his sociopath-in-training I guess.
Keepers' attorneys called a neuropsychologist who examined Keepers and diagnosed her with seven mental disorders, including borderline personality disorder and a disorder like schizophrenia:
DR. JONATHAN MACK: These people may look odd, their sense of reality is off, their ability to relate to others is off, their interpersonal skills are off…
The doctor said Keepers' mental state could have made her interview with the officers unreliable.
DR. JONATHAN MACK: Such a person would be highly easily influenced and gullible and would be easily led.
And Keepers' lawyers say she was playing along with Eisenhauer to keep his friendship and had no idea he would really kill Nicole.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY JOHN ROBERTS: You'll hear her actually describe that she thought it was a fantasy – something that wasn't real.
NATALIE KEEPERS [to investigators]: I thought he was joking. … I didn't think David would actually kill her.
But prosecutors disputed that notion, and read Keepers' Kik messages to Eisenhauer after the murder — telling him he deserved a good night's sleep:
PROSECUTOR PATRICK JENSEN: She's proud! She's proud of what she and Eisenhauer did. It's almost like congratulating someone for getting through five finals in a week. You deserve it, get some sleep!
The jury took just over one hour to reach a verdict: guilty.
Natalie Keepers was sentenced to 40 years in prison and David Eisenhauer was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Neither is eligible for parole. They both apologized to Nicole's family:
NATALIE KEEPERS [in tears]: I wish I could've stopped him. I never intended for this to happen.
DAVID EISENHAUER: Nothing can ever undo what has been done and for that I am deeply, sincerely and forever sorry.
Even with guilty verdicts, the question of why may never be answered. The shell-shocked community of Blacksburg still doesn't understand how two intelligent college kids, with their lives in front of them, would take the life of a 13-year-old girl.
Tammy Weeks: I wish he would've done it to me instead of her. [In tears] I would trade places with her in a heartbeat. 'Cause she deserved to live.
Nicole Lovell's death is a dark reminder of how social media have profoundly changed society.
Tammy Weeks: I hope … everybody learns from this. Hold their kids tight. 'Cause it can happen to you.
Today, our children have a host of new ways to live — and new ways to die as well.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Want to know what's on your kid's phone? Check out a list of safety tips and resources.