To listen to Nicolas Holzer tell it, he should never have gotten married. But because he did, he had to kill both his parents, his two sons, ages 10 and 13, and the family’s Pembroke Welsh corgi, stabbing them to death with a kitchen knife in their Goleta tract home four years ago — this according to his explanation to Sheriff’s Office investigators. This case was never a whodunit. Holzer called 9-1-1 right after the stabbings. Nothing he said during his monotone confession made a lick of sense. The only question from the start was whether Holzer was sane enough to be found guilty of murder. That’s still the only question left for Judge Brian Hill to decide; the trial to find the answer starts May 30.
In the muddy audio of the Holzer interview, Sergeant Rob Minter of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office is trying to make sense of what Holzer has done. Little sense, however, can be made. Holzer explains it’s been his destiny to go to hell for an eternity and to live there by himself. He’s been told this various times since he was 5. When pressed by Minter for details, there aren’t any. It’s never clear who is telling Holzer these things. Holzer also says he killed a jogger in Isla Vista, running him over twice with his car, he said. He also drowned a 14-year-old girl in her bathtub, he said, and joined the Irish Republican Army, and had some role causing the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014 that claimed the lives of 239 souls aboard. And he always comes back to the fact that he should have never married a Mexican woman he’d met in Santa Barbara in 2001. They’d had two children, Sebastian and Vincent, before divorcing bitterly in 2006, the same year Holzer lost his job at Raytheon. He moved in with his parents, Bill and Sheila, and won sole custody of the kids.
One thing’s for certain: The Nick Holzer who’s been showing up in Hill’s courtroom this week is a far cry from the Nick Holzer, 45 at the time of the killings, who showed up in court shortly after his arrest, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, fleshy, red-faced, and pop-eyed. Since then, Holzer has lost 50-100 pounds. His hair seems darker. He’s sporting a scraggly patch of facial hair. He wears a suit, thick horn-rimmed glasses, and leaves a stooped-over, medicated impression.
This is not a jury trial. Judge Hill has stated it was clear that Holzer had psychological issues. At one point, he’d been diagnosed with depression and hospitalized. Later that diagnosis would be changed to a thyroid problem. He once tried to stab himself in the gut and had to be checked in to the emergency room. Hill has said that Holzer acted with deliberation and premeditation; he knew what he was doing as he stabbed his father multiple times in the back and then went to his kids’ room and stabbed them both. When his mother came in the room screaming at what her son was doing, he stabbed her too. Then he killed the family dog.
Defense attorney Christine Voss is arguing Holzer is not guilty by reason of insanity, known as NGI for short. NGI defenses are exceptionally hard to make, and in Santa Barbara County none has succeeded since David Attias was found legally insane when he killed four people on the streets of Isla Vista in 2001, declaring, “I am the Angel of Death!” as he stepped from his black Saab.
The burden of insanity is Voss’s to prove by a preponderance of evidence. Arguing against her is Ron Zonen, a veteran prosecutor. He intends to have Holzer’s ex-wife testify that he may have been a bad husband, but he betrayed no signs of mental instability, let alone insanity. Under California law, sanity is defined loosely as the ability to tell right from wrong and an awareness of one’s intentions. During his interrogation, Holzer told Sgt. Minter, “It was something I had to do because it was expected of me,” speaking of the killing. “I was told that I was going to have to do this.” When Minter asked by whom — as he always did — Holzer always said, “I can’t remember who.”
Minter then asked, “You know that killing [your father] wasn’t the right thing to do and wasn’t legal, but it was something you had to do?” Holzer replied, “Right.” Later, he added, “It was the most wretched thing I’ve ever done in my life, and it was the most disgusting. I hated every minute of it.” Minter ended his interview with Holzer with a statement: “It’s just really sad, Nick.”