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Before FSU student was arrested for parents' murder, she asked Tampa cousin for money

Nicole Nachtman, left, with attorney Dana Herce-Fulgueira, is standing trial in Tampa in the shooting deaths of her parents in 2017 at their Carrollwood home. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
Nicole Nachtman, left, with attorney Dana Herce-Fulgueira, is standing trial in Tampa in the shooting deaths of her parents in 2017 at their Carrollwood home. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Jul. 26, 2019

TAMPA — The day before her mother and stepfather were killed, Nicole Nachtman reached out to her cousin David Lehr for money.

She needed $100, she said, because she was late in securing her housing at Florida State University.

Lehr, who lived a couple miles from the Carrollwood home where Nachtman stayed with her parents, said he'd give her the cash. Minutes later, she pulled up outside his house in her Toyota Prius and he handed her the money. They hugged.

Two days later, Nachtman, now 25, was arrested on murder charges in the shooting deaths of Myriam and Robert Dienes. At the time of the killings, prosecutors say, she was worried about what her mother's reaction would be to her college housing situation.

READ MORE: Is a former FSU student a battered child, mentally ill or a liar? A jury in her murder trial will be asked to decide. Lehr testified Friday in a Tampa courtroom where Nachtman is on trial for two counts of first-degree murder. Her defense has argued that Nachtman suffered a lifetime of abuse and was mentally ill at the time she committed the killings.

Lehr, who is more than 15 years older than Nachtman, is the only witness to testify so far that he had a somewhat close relationship with her. Her mother was his father's sister. He knew her from the time she was a child. When Nachtman lived in Tampa, their families would get together for cookouts and to watch movies.

He told the jury he had given his younger cousin money in the past. He figured she asked him because she didn't want to ask her mother.

"I could tell she didn't want to tell her mom stuff," he said. "Like any other kid."

When she visited his home Aug. 19, 2015, Nachtman told Lehr she was heading straight to Tallahassee to move into her new dorm. But prosecutors say she did not arrive at FSU until Aug. 21.

That day, Lehr was at work when he got a call from Nachtman's older brother, who delivered the news that Myriam and Robert Dienes had been killed. Lehr went to the cul-de-sac where they lived and found it blocked by TV trucks and crime scene tape.

Sheriff's deputies began to ask him about Nachtman.

"I felt like she was a suspect," he said. "I tried to tell them that's not her way at all."

Worried, he phoned his young cousin.

"I was just trying to calm her," he said. "I didn't want something to happen at her school."

He told her that sheriff's deputies would probably want to talk to her. She said they were already there.

In Tallahassee, Nachtman had been busy moving items into Room 601 of Smith Hall. It was an area reserved as temporary housing for students who hadn't obtained permanent dorm rooms.

Mariel Battle, who had been assigned as her roommate, testified that Nachtman said her father was helping her move.

At one point, Nachtman told her new roommate that if anyone asked, she should say Nachtman had moved in the day before. Battle didn't think much about it.

That afternoon, Nachtman mentioned that her mother had been in an accident.

Another roommate, Petra Henry, came in the room later that day and found Nachtman sitting wrapped in a blanket. She seemed upset, Henry said.

Asked what was wrong, she said her mother had died.

"The detectives are flying in later," Nachtman said. She got up and left.

Friday was the third day of testimony in the trial, which is expected to last through next week.

The proceedings hit a snag before noon when defense attorneys raised concerns that some of the witnesses may have been exposed to TV coverage of the case and discussed their testimony before taking the stand. The defense has invoked a sequestration rule, which bars witnesses from watching the trial.

But when brought in to testify outside the jury's presence, the witnesses said they had mentioned only that it has been a long time since they had testified during pretrial depositions in the case. They had not talked about the substance of their testimony. They denied they had been watching the trial on TV.

Judge Christopher Sabella deemed the matter a "false alarm," and testimony resumed.

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com. @TimesDan.