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Avram Vineto NIKA





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Robbery
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: August 26, 1994
Date of birth: 1970
Victim profile: Edward Smith (a good Samaritan who stopped to help him)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Washoe County, Nevada, USA
Status: Sentenced to death on June 1995

Avram Nika was convicted killing Edward Smith of Fallon, after he stopped to help Nika whose car had broken down on Interstate 80 east of Sparks. Nika beat Smith and shot him in the head, then dragged his body off the side of the road.


Death penalty upheld

Associated Press

December 31, 2008

A man sentenced to die for the 1994 killing of a good Samaritan who stopped to help him along Interstate 80 near Reno lost Wednesday in a bid to overturn his conviction.

In a 5-2 decision, the high court ruled against Avram Nika, who claimed a Washoe County District Court judge erred by dismissing his claims of ineffective legal counsel without an evidentiary hearing.

Nika was sentenced to death for beating and killing Edward Smith by shooting him in the forehead at point-blank range. Authorities said Smith was on his way home to Fallon when he stopped about 20 miles east of Reno to help Nika, whose car had broken down.

Nika was driving Smith's car when he was arrested in Chicago. Authorities said his clothing also had blood on it from the victim.

Chief Justice Jim Hardesty, who wrote the majority opinion, said that for Nika to succeed with an ineffective counsel claim he must prove the lawyer's acts or omissions were deficient and also show that prejudice resulted, and his claims "fail on the first prong of this test."

Hardesty also said closing arguments by one of Nika's lawyers were "disorganized and unfocused" but that problem was "defused" because there was strong evidence to support a conviction and another defense lawyer made a second closing argument.

Justices Michael Cherry and Nancy Saitta dissented from the majority ruling. Cherry wrote that Nika deserves a new penalty hearing because his trial and appellate lawyers "were deficient on several grounds."

Among other things, Cherry said jurors had "an incomplete depiction" of Nika's character because of a lack of mitigating evidence about his background. A Romanian, Nika spoke only limited English and his trial attorney should have sought help from the Yugoslavian consulate, Cherry added.

Hardesty said it's not clear what the consulate could have done to help Nika, especially since the victim's wounds, including the fatal shot to Smith's head, "evince a calculated, deliberate act" of murder.


Nika v. State


Appellant Avram Nika ("Nika") left Aptos, California, where he lived with his wife Rodika, between noon and 1 p.m. on August 26, 1994, and was traveling to Chicago so that he could fly from there to Romania to visit his sick mother.

Nika's car was full of clothes, tools, electronic items, and a small television. According to Rodika, Nika was from Romania and spoke fluent Serbo-Croatian, spoke almost fluent Romanian, and spoke only broken English. Rodika also stated that Nika did not speak colloquial English and that she had to be present when he had dealings with merchants, government officials, and other people. Nika was driving a brown Chrysler New Yorker, and testimony indicated that it takes approximately five and one- half hours to drive from Aptos to Reno. Nika's car broke down at mile marker 34, approximately twenty miles east of Reno.

Edward Smith ("Smith") was employed as a manager at a Burger King in Reno. Smith left work to go home at approximately 8 p.m. to 8:10 p.m. on August 26, 1994. The Smith family lived in Fallon, and Smith had made plans with his wife and child to attend a movie that started at approximately 9:45 p.m. Smith drove a silver 1983 BMW, and Mrs. Smith testified that the BMW often would not start, that they had to push start it, and that they had recently bought a new battery for the BMW in July 1994. Testimony indicated that it takes approximately one hour to one hour and fifteen minutes to get from the Burger King in Reno to the Smith's home in Fallon and that it takes approximately forty to forty-five minutes to get from the Burger King to mile marker 34.

Several people saw Nika standing by his car at mile marker 34 on August 26, 1994. Edward Sanchez was driving a maroon Nissan Sentra and was flagged down by Nika at approximately 7:45 p.m. Sanchez pulled his car in front of Nika's and backed up toward the brown Chrysler. Nika approached Sanchez's passenger window and said his car had broken down and that he needed help. Sanchez got out of his car and attempted to find out what was wrong with Nika's car. Sanchez stated that Nika had a thick accent, strong body odor, a day's beard growth and wore blue cut-off jeans. Sanchez offered to give Nika a ride, but Nika could not decide if he wanted to accept the ride and instead had Sanchez call a tow truck for him. Sanchez stated it was shortly after 8 p.m. when he got back into his car, perhaps 8:02 p.m. Sanchez stopped at a truck stop in Fernley and asked one of the clerks to call a tow truck for Nika.

Davina Boling was driving with her boyfriend on I-80 and saw the brown Chrysler on the side of the road around 8:30 p.m. They pulled over to help Nika, whom Boling described as looking frustrated, and Nika told them he had been there for three or four hours and needed a tow truck. They offered him a ride, which he declined, but he requested that they call a tow truck for him. As they left, Nika told them "Good-bye. Thank you, God bless."

Debra Fauvell ("Debra") stated that at approximately 8:40 p.m. she and her husband passed mile marker 34. She stated that she saw two cars on the side of the road, the first was a tan or light colored, four-door sedan which did not have any lights on and which had both driver's side doors open. About 150 feet in front (east) of the tan car she saw a dark brown sedan-type car with its hazard lights on. She saw two people standing by the first (most westerly) car. The person standing by the rear passenger side of the first car had a medium build, was about five feet ten inches tall, and was wearing a white T-shirt and light colored, faded jean-type pants. The second person was twenty feet in front of the first person, was bigger and had bushier hair than the first person, and was walking in a southeasterly direction away from the cars. Debra was shown a picture of Smith and stated that the second man's stature was consistent with Smith's. Daniel Fauvell, Debra's husband, testified that he was driving the car. He stated that he was focused on driving and did not see much, but the first car that they passed did not have any lights on, the second car had its hazard lights on, and one person was standing next to the first car.

Trooper Terry Whitehead of the Nevada Highway Patrol testified as follows. He came into contact with Nika while patrolling the highway on August 26, 1994. Whitehead was traveling westbound on I-80 when he saw a stranded BMW on the eastbound shoulder with its hazard lights on. He made a U-turn across the highway and went to help the stranded motorist. As Whitehead approached the BMW, he passed a brown Chrysler with no lights on. Because the Chrysler had no lights on, the hood was not open, and nobody was in the car, he drove further and pulled behind the BMW. The dispatch log indicates that he ran a license plate check on the BMW at 8:51 p.m. (the license plate was a Nevada plate), and he also looked at the BMW to see if it had indications that it was stolen. There were no people or items of personal property in the BMW. Because the dispatcher did not return his inquiry, he assumed that the BMW was not stolen and started to back up to check out the Chrysler, which was about 400 feet behind (west of) the BMW. As Whitehead backed up, he saw someone waving a flashlight from a southeasterly direction apparently trying to get his attention. The flashlight was coming from the area where Smith's dead body was found the next day. Whitehead got out of his car and asked Nika what was wrong with his car; Nika pointed to the BMW and stated, "Everything's wrong with it." Whitehead asked Nika if he needed a ride. Nika declined and instead asked for a tow truck. Whitehead said he would call one and asked Nika if there was anything else he could do for him. Nika stated he could use a ride to Chicago. Whitehead stated he did not patrol that far. At 8:53 p.m. Whitehead requested a tow truck for Nika. Whitehead stated that Nika was wearing white high-top tennis shoes and did not seem more nervous than any other person who had been stranded at night on the side of the road. He also stated that he did not see any blood on Nika's shoes or fanny pack and that he never asked Nika his name. Whitehead left the scene at 8:56 p.m. to answer a call for back-up assistance on a DUI case.

Karl Younger testified for the defense. He stated that he worked for Anderson Towing and received a call at his home in Reno on August 26, 1994, at 8:45 p.m. requesting tow truck assistance at mile marker 34 for a Chrysler New Yorker. At approximately 9:15 p.m., Younger saw the Chrysler and backed up toward it to prepare to tow it, at which time he noticed two other cars about sixty yards in front of (east) the tow truck. The first car in front of Younger was a silver BMW with out-of- state license plates and its lights on. The second car, a blue or brown Nissan or Datsun which also had its lights on, was in front of the first car. As he backed up to the Chrysler, two people approached the tow truck and told him that the Chrysler needed oil, that they had taken the driver to town to get the oil, and that the tow truck was no longer needed. Neither of these two men spoke with a thick accent and both spoke perfect English. Younger also noticed five to seven other people with flashlights in the area where Smith's body was eventually found. Younger then left the scene.

Loni Kowalski testified that she worked at Hanneman's Tow Service and received a call at 8:53 p.m. from the Highway Patrol requesting a tow truck for a silver BMW. At 8:57 p.m. she called Jerry Turley, an employee who was on call but at his own home, to tell him to respond to the request. Turley testified that he drove west from Fernley toward mile marker 34, looking on both sides of the highway for the silver BMW. He did not see the BMW and called Kowalski to inform her of such. Kowalski told Turley to keep looking, and Turley eventually saw two cars on the eastbound shoulder, exited the freeway and re- entered going eastbound, and put his flashers on as he arrived at the two cars. He noticed that neither car was a silver BMW, turned his flashers off, and called Kowalski at 9:49 p.m. to tell her that he could not find the BMW. Turley stated that one car was a large dark car that could have been a Chrysler and that the other car was a smaller domestic car, like a Mercury Monarch or Ford Granada, which had its flashers on. He saw two people standing by the Chrysler but could not describe them.

On August 27, 1994, Ray Hansen, a brakeman for Southern Pacific Railroad, noticed what he thought was a body lying next to the fence between the railroad tracks and I-80. The police were called, and a trooper found the body. Careflight was also called because it was first believed that a motorcycle accident had occurred and that medical attention was required. The Careflight helicopter landed approximately fifteen to fifty feet from the body, and the medics checked the body and discovered that the person was dead.

David Billau was the crime scene investigator. He stated that the Careflight helicopter which landed near the crime scene could have disturbed the crime scene. He described the crime scene as follows: the Chrysler was parked off the shoulder of the eastbound lane of I-80; south of the car was a small hillside; south of the hillside was a barbed wire fence under which Smith's body was dumped; and south of the fence and body were the railroad tracks. Drag marks in the dirt extended from the Chrysler to where the body was found. By the Chrysler's rear passenger tire was a rock with pooled blood on it. By the front tire was an area of red stained dirt in which a bullet and human hair were found. A spent shell casing was found a few feet in front of the red stained dirt. Smith's body was found under the barbed wire fence and his pants were hanging from the fence. His wallet was found with money still in it lying next to his body. Smith had been shot in the forehead.

The police traced the brown Chrysler to Avram Nika and an address in Chicago. On August 29, 1994, the Washoe County Sheriff's office called the Chicago police for assistance in locating Nika. Chicago Police Detective Tony Villardita and his partner discovered several addresses for Nika and attempted to locate him. They saw Nika exit a silver BMW, and when they asked him his name, Nika gave them a false name. Based on this information they arrested Nika for possession of a stolen vehicle and read him his Miranda rights. Nika apparently told the police that he understood his rights and that he would waive those rights and speak to them.

Nika first denied any knowledge of the BMW and said that he had walked to his house. When the police told him that they saw him in the car and that they had found the car key in his pocket, Nika said that the car belonged to his friend, but that he did not know his friend's name. The police then told Nika that the BMW was involved in a murder outside Reno. Nika said that he had left Aptos in his Chrysler, arrived in Reno at around 2 p.m., went to a casino to eat, and when he came out of the casino his car was gone but his license plates were still there. At that point three males pulled up and offered to sell the BMW to him for $300.00. He took the offer, put his plates on the car, and drove to Chicago. He also stated that he made no other stops in Reno and that the car had no mechanical problems.

The police then told Nika that the BMW was seen on the side of I-80, and Nika then said that the BMW had an oil and antifreeze problem about thirty miles east of Reno, several people stopped to help him, and he eventually got the car restarted. Nika said that he did not see his stolen Chrysler where the BMW broke down. The police told him that witnesses had seen both cars on the side of the road. Nika then told the police that he was "ready to tell the truth," and he said that he left the casino in his Chrysler and had car problems about thirty miles east of Reno. He said several people stopped to help him, and then the same three males he described earlier stopped to help him and offered to sell him the BMW for $300.00. He bought the car, changed the license plates, and loaded his personal property into the BMW.

Nika also stated that just as he was ready to leave and while the three males were still at the scene, a police officer stopped to help him. Nika told the officer that the BMW was experiencing problems but that he was able to start it, and then he drove to Chicago. Nika also stated that he went to his mother-in-law's garage in Chicago to unload his personal property, drove to get something to eat, and then was arrested by Villardita and his partner. After this questioning was conducted, John Yaryan ("Yaryan"), the Washoe County Sheriff's deputy who had flown to Chicago, questioned Nika. However, the district Judge suppressed this statement based on the fact that Nika had invoked his right to remain silent and his right to counsel and that Yaryan continued to question Nika at length. The State has not argued that the suppression was improper.

The police obtained consent to search the garage of Nika's mother-in-law. They found a fanny pack, tennis shoes, and blue denim cut-off jeans, all of which were tested by forensic investigators. The forensic investigators found blood spatter on all three items, and DNA testing indicated that the blood was consistent with that of Smith and excluded Nika as a source. The forensic investigators stated that at a minimum, 1 in 8,800 people had the same DNA pattern they discovered.

Nika was extradited from Chicago to Reno and was booked into Washoe County jail on September 1, 1994. During Nika's incarceration, Nathanial Wilson ("Wilson"), an inmate at the Washoe County jail, befriended Nika. Wilson testified to statements made by Nika regarding the events on 1-80. Specifically, Nika told Wilson that his car had broken down, a man stopped to help him, the man called him a "motherf ..... ," he hit the man in the head with a crowbar, and then shot him in the head. Nika stated that in Romania, his country of origin, you did not use the word "motherf ..... ," and that you could be killed for calling somebody that name. Nika stated that the victim was lying on the ground when he was shot in the head, that he tried to hide the body in some bushes, and that he killed the man because "he needed to get to Chicago." Nika stated that he hid the gun, which was an automatic pistol, about five miles from the crime scene. (The gun was never found despite an extensive search.) Nika told him that he had taken the battery out of his car and put it in the BMW because the BMW would not start.

Wilson was in jail on one count of selling cocaine and stated that he did not receive any deal from the prosecution in exchange for his testimony. However, Wilson spoke to the police for the first time on October 11, 1994, and was released from jail and granted probation on November 18, 1994, after pleading guilty to what he called "possession for sale," a lesser crime than that with which he was originally charged.

Dr. Anton Sohn ("Dr. Sohn") conducted the autopsy on Smith. He found three blunt trauma wounds on the back of- Smith's head where Smith had been hit with an object heavy enough and with enough force to fracture the skull beneath each wound. Dr. Sohn testified that at least one of the blunt trauma wounds was delivered to the skull while Smith was lying on the ground face down. On Smith's forehead was a bullet wound which Dr. Sohn classified as a "contact wound," stating that it was created when the muzzle of the gun was placed directly against the forehead and the gun was fired. Dr. Sohn found an exit wound in the back of Smith's head and found other lacerations on Smith's face. Dr. Sohn found scrapes or "drag marks" on Smith's chest which were consistent with Smith's body being dragged in the dirt. Dr. Sohn stated that the gunshot to the head was the cause of death and that the blunt force traumas were inflicted before Smith was shot.

At the Conclusion of the trial, the jury found Nika guilty of first degree murder with the use of a deadly weapon. At the penalty hearing, the prosecution sought the death penalty and alleged three aggravating circumstances as follows:

1. Evidence that the murder was committed by AVRAM NIKA during the commission of or attempt to commit a robbery. NRS 200.033(4).

2. Evidence that the murder was committed to avoid or prevent a lawful arrest. NRS 200.033(5).

3. Evidence that the murder was committed upon one or more persons at random and without apparent motive. NRS 200.033(9).

Anna Boka ("Anna"), Nika's mother-in-law, testified at the penalty hearing as follows. Nika had a violent temper, and in 1991 when she did not give Nika money for a trip, he threatened to kill both her and Rodika, Anna's daughter and Nika's wife. Peter Boka ("Peter"), Anna's husband, told Anna that in September 1993 he and Nika had gotten into an argument and Nika put a gun to Peter's head. (Peter later testified that he never saw a gun and that Nika only threatened to shoot him.) Anna stated on cross-examination that Peter was a very heavy drinker and had instigated the fight in September 1993. In October 1993, Nika stated that he would kill Anna if Rodika did not come back to live with him. Also in October 1993, Nika wanted to see his and Rodika's baby who was staying at Anna's house, but Peter refused to allow Nika in the house. At that point Nika flashed a gun and told Anna that if Peter did not let him see the baby, he would kill Peter. Finally, in November 1993, Nika told Anna that if Rodika did not leave Anna's house in Chicago and come back to him, he would burn down Anna's house.

Mary Ellen Izzo testified that Nika had raped her in an apartment building in Chicago in December 1989. She stated that he was helping people move into or out of the building, that she met him in the hallway, and that he later told her that his mother, who was the manager of the apartment, wished to see her. She went into the manager's apartment with Nika and he locked the door and told her to come into the bedroom because that was where his mother was. When she was in the bedroom, Nika pushed her on the bed, hit her, and sexually penetrated her. Izzo escaped after Nika let her up, and she then called the police. Nika was never prosecuted for the alleged crime, and Izzo stated that she did not proceed with the prosecution because Nika's aunt threatened to evict her if she proceeded, she had three children to take care of, and she did not have enough money to move. Izzo stated on cross-examination that she had bruises on her face and breasts as a result of the rape; however, a hospital report indicated that she had only red marks on her neck. The defense attorney asked Izzo if she was a drug user, and Izzo stated that she was not. Izzo stated that shortly after this event she received government housing and moved.

Rodika, Nika's wife, testified for the defense as follows. In reference to the alleged sexual assault, Izzo had approached Rodika's family and stated that if they did not want to see Nika jailed for rape, they had better pay her some "big money." She had heard that Izzo had a drug problem and had hung her children out of her second story window. In reference to the September 1993 incident between Nika and Peter, the police were called, and they never found a gun. She acknowledged on cross-examination that Nika was violent and had made death threats against her and her family on several occasions.

Dorina Vukadin, Rodika's sister, also testified for the defense. She stated that Nika played sports with her children and that her children liked Nika, but she also stated that he was a stern disciplinarian.

On July 10, 1995, the jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that the murder committed by Nika was aggravated by the fact that the murder was committed upon Smith at random and without apparent motive. The jury also found that no mitigating circumstances existed. Consequently, the mitigating circumstances did not outweigh the aggravating circumstances found; and therefore, a sentence of death was imposed.


Yugoslav national in Nevada

Avram Nika is a Yugoslav national born in Pancevo near Belgrade in 1970, although his family is believed to be Romanian. At the age of 19, Nika left Europe for Canada and the USA, settling with the Serbo-Croat émigré community in Chicago. He later moved, first to California and then to Reno, Nevada.

In August 1994, Nika's car broke down on a highway outside Reno as he was driving to Chicago. Nika maintains that only after repeated and unsuccessful attempts to flag down passing vehicles for assistance did a motorist, Edward Smith, finally stop. Smith's body was later found near Nika's car, killed by a shot to the head fired from his own gun.

Avram Nika, who has no reported prior criminal record, was arrested soon after in Chicago, driving Smith's car and with traces of Smith's blood on his clothing. He was informed of his Miranda rights but was reportedly denied an attorney and an interpreter during questioning by both local police and officers from Reno. Nika also alleges that he was beaten during interrogation.

He does not deny shooting Smith, but maintains he acted in self-defence after Smith held a gun to his head and then attempted to rob and molest him. Nika maintains that he wrested the gun from Smith during the struggle that ensued and shot him once in the head.

Nika stood trial in Washoe County, Nevada, in June 1995 and was convicted of first degree murder, the main evidence against him being the circumstances of his arrest and his ''confession''. Although transcripts of Nika's questioning while detained in Chicago were later misplaced, Chicago police officers testified at the trial that Nika spoke sufficient English to understand his Miranda rights and the charges against him, and that he had confessed to the murder.

The jury was not allowed to hear a statement that Nika had given to Washoe County deputies the morning after his interrogation by Chicago police officers. It is evident in this statement that he has little understanding of the situation and that, rather than a confession, his prior statement had been a declaration of self-defence.

Although the jury found only one of the aggravating circumstances submitted by the prosecution, this far outweighed the meagre showing of mitigating evidence presented by the defence. Nika was sentenced to death the following month.

At no point was Nika informed of his right to contact his consulate for assistance. To this day, his poor command of English reportedly hampers communication between himself and his attorneys. Nika faced execution in April 1998, but the date was stayed pending the outcome of his appeals. A petition for writ of habeas corpus appealing Nika's conviction and sentence has been filed in state court.



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