The Last Time I Saw My Friend She Was With The Man Who Would Gruesomely End Her Life

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When I Saw You Last: A Requiem For An Old (But Not Forgotten) Friend
Contributor
Heartbreak

The last time I saw Nicole she was with the man who would eventually end her life. 

It was the mid-90’s, an evening in the late spring, just on the cusp of summer. It was one of those nights where everything felt right in the world. I had just finished playing soccer, ran home for a quick shower, and was now primed for a night of decadence and debauchery. My buddy George and I were meeting friends of ours at a bar & restaurant that no longer exists called Tailfeathers. 

Tailfeathers was located just outside of Northeast Philadelphia in an upscale suburb known as  Huntingdon Valley. It was about 10 minutes or so from where both George and I grew up and a few blocks away from the grade school/parish we attended for eight long years, St. Albert the Great. That being the case, it wasn’t uncommon for us to run into people we knew from back in the day when we hung out at Tailfeathersm which was quite frequently in those heady days. 

And that’s how we knew Nicole: From the time we were six years old until we were 14 years old, we endured the wrath of the Catholic Church in the form of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (essentially Stormtroopers of God) who ruled St. Albert’s with dual iron fists of fear and intimidation.  

And tonight, of all nights, there was Nicole standing at the end of the Tailfeather’s bar as George and I sauntered through the front door while the last of that late spring sunlight fleetingly faded behind us. She and I almost instantly made eye contact, and to her credit (and my surprise), she approached us with a hearty greeting, “Holy shit … Jerry and George! Long time, guys.”  

I’d last seen Nicole about six or seven years previous and in that time she had grown into a woman. 

She had always been innocently cute (I teased her mercilessly in school, calling her Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm because she frequently wore her hair in braided pigtails), but Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was long gone now. What now replaced girlish ol’ Rebecca was a self-possessed beauty who would give Kate Winslet or Elisabeth Shue a run for their money. 

The three of us chatted for about fifteen minutes in an easy-breezy manner that most old friends can, catching up and the like, as I tried my level best to contain just how smitten I was. Infatuated or not, it wasn’t hard to notice the agitated guy at the end of the bar who kept glaring back at us while we were talking.

Being the Holmesian genius that I am, I quickly deduced that this rather unsettled dude must be Nicole’s boyfriend …or at least he thought he was her boyfriend. He appeared to be older than us and a bit on the disheveled side, looking like he just wandered off a construction site. Not the type of guy I pictured Nicole with, but what the hell did I know, really? 

It wasn’t until he started making snarky comments that were just in her earshot that she appeared uncomfortable. George didn’t seem aware of the situation but I definitely was, so I offered, “Hey, if you need to go or whatever, it’s cool.” 

“Yeah, I think I’d better,” Nicole sheepishly responded.  

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And with a quick “see you around” kind of wave, she made her way back to the guy who unquestionably was her rather perturbed boyfriend. 

I surreptitiously watched them for the next hour or so as he continued to act aggrieved because she dared take a few minutes away from him to talk to a couple of old friends she hadn’t seen in years.  Again, to Nicole’s credit, she tried her level best to placate him, but he just wasn’t having it, so they left in a huff.  

As they were leaving (out the side door, not the front door where they would have had to pass us), I  desperately wanted Joe Jackson’s classic tune "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" to kick on the jukebox but that didn’t happen. (If this was a movie, a classic rom-com of that era, it would have gone down that way but, alas, it did not.) 

And so, the highly dramatic Tailfeathers episode concluded rather anti-climatically with me muttering into my $3 beer:  “What in the world is she doing with that guy?” 

***

On March 31st, 2015, Nicole Rhoads Peppleman was murdered in cold blood by her ex-husband, Christopher. 

There is no way to sugarcoat the downright ugly and atrocious manner in which he took her life. He started to strangle her but when that proved to be too difficult, he attacked her with a knife and then a chainsaw.  

Yes, you read that right. A chainsaw. Like something out of a twisted, grindhouse horror flick. 

The coroner’s report cites “gaping sharp-force injuries to the abdomen” as the cause of death in both Nicole and Christopher’s cases.  

Yes, you read the right, too.

After Christopher cut down his ex-wife and the mother of his three children with a chainsaw, he turned the deadly tool on himself and took his own life.  

Now, you'd think that would be the end of the horror: Two lives ended in the most gruesome manner possible and three boys orphaned in the span of two or three minutes.

You would think that would be the end of this tale of woe … but you’d be wrong. 

Not long after two lives needlessly ended inside the posh suburban house that used to be the Peppleman family home, their 14-year-old son returned from playing basketball with friends to find the lifeless bodies of his parents in the basement. 

And this outstanding young man, somehow, had the wherewithal to call 911. 

***

The second to last time I saw Nicole was at an outdoor ice skating rink in the winter of 1989: our senior year of high school. Although Nicole opted for the public school route after grade school, my parents gave me no such option, so she was attending Lower Moreland in the Philadelphia suburbs while I went to Archbishop Ryan in the city. 

I was at the rink with my younger brothers and a few of their friends. Truth be told, I was kind of embarrassed to be there with them, but I had nothing else going on that Friday night so I went along just for the heck of it. 

Being much more comfortable on roller skates than I was on ice skates, I was precariously staggering my goofy ass around the rink in a most ungainly fashion when I almost, quite literally, ran smack dab into Nicole. Somehow, I managed to stop myself (and look somewhat cool doing so) before plowing into her, but she still had to turn and dodge a bit as I approached. 

“Woah…hey, Jerry Bonner,” was Nicole’s surprising response as she gracefully spun about. 

“Hey, Nicole. How’ve you been,” I answered as if I had seen her just last week and not four long years ago. 

It was at that moment I noticed the impossibly good-looking guy that was skating next to her. He looked like he was ripped right out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue and magically placed next to her by an overzealous casting director whose sole purpose in life was to make me feel insecure.

His expensive clothes were better than mine. His majestic hair was better than mine. And his stupidly handsome face was way better than mine. 

As I pondered how best to escape this awkward situation (Seppuku? Ninja smoke bomb? A rogue asteroid suddenly and swiftly annihilating the Earth?), Nicole questioned me about my life and what my plans were after high school. An embarrassing litany of lies, half-truths, and exaggerations escaped from my mouth as quickly as my brain could formulate them. I don’t remember what I said exactly — just that it was preposterously awful. 

“That all sounds really awesome, Jer! Best of luck!” she chirped with a killer smile that melted my heart along with the choppy ice around me. Whether she bought my silly bullsh*t or not is hard to say, but she didn’t call me on it, regardless.

We skated off our separate ways, Nicole with her chiseled, teenage god of a boyfriend and me with my pathetic stupidity and lies. And about a half-hour later, I was treated to the sight of them affectionately making out in the stands that surrounded the rink. 

At that moment, I would have slain many a man to be in Mr. Sexy Dude’s position. I distinctly recall that envious thought meandering through my brain as I watched their lips touch again and again and again.  

“Why the hell does he get to kiss her and I do…”  

My plaintive query to no one, in particular, was cut short as Nicole glanced up to see me staring at her like a lovesick puppy dog. As she locked eyes with me, I tried to pivot away so it wasn’t utterly obvious that I was being a creepy weirdo, but I forgot that ice skates were strapped to my feet and not sneakers, so I tumbled to the ice in a most ungraceful manner. 

And that painfully awkward moment right there encapsulates the majority of my teenage years.

***

When Nicole's murder was initially reported, there was only one media report that gave any inkling as to a motive: Nicole and her ex-husband still had joint business concerns to resolve. For the life of me, I cannot find that report and/or website now. I don’t know if it was taken down, or somehow “scrubbed” from the vast archives of the internet, but I know I looked (and I’m pretty damn good at finding things on the internet) and turned up nothing. 

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So, the $100,000 question remains: Why did this tragedy really happen? That complicated query has kept me up nights.

The main reason this question has become a splinter in my mind is that I can’t seem to get an answer to it. I petitioned for the police report. The Lower Moreland cops shot me down. Not to be deterred, I then contacted the woman’s shelter that was founded in Nicole’s name. And while the woman who ran the shelter was nice enough, she wasn’t much help.

She even tried, in a backhanded way, to dissuade me from writing this essay. Hell, even her older sister, a most admirable woman who took in Nicole’s three boys after they were orphaned, and her best friend from high school, who I’m still friendly with … or so I  thought, never responded when I reached out to them. 

On some level, I get it. This was an unspeakable crime and the less said about it, the better. But my raison d'être for writing this piece is that I want to celebrate the spitfire girl Nicole was — and not let the many excellent memories of her waft off into the ether.

And, on top of that, maybe, just maybe, someone out there will read this horrific tale of woe and it will pop into their head in midst of a row with a significant other …and it will give them pause. And in that moment of clarity, they’ll choose a path of communication and understanding rather than resorting to some sort of sordid violence. 

Ultimately, I don’t want to believe that Nicole was murdered over something as simple as money but until I’m told otherwise, I suppose that’s the answer I’ll have to accept.

***

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The third to last time I saw Nicole was at her 8th-grade graduation party that was held on a picturesque evening in early June of 1985. 

My classmates and I were effervescent with giddiness as we were finally liberated from St. Albert’s and that giddiness spilled over into the overall vibe of this party. My main memory of this bash was that everyone there seemed to be amped in a way that only seems possible when you are 14 years old and just concluded an eight-year period of your life that was analogous to indentured servitude.  

Nicole and I didn’t get to talk much that night, but I certainly wanted to talk with her because a couple of nights previous we slow danced together (to the awesomeness of Prince’s Purple Rain) at our graduation dance. She also wrote me a rather intriguing message in the autograph book we all received as gifts that night: “Hey Jerry … too bad we won’t see each other next year. I know you’re going to miss me! Love, Nic.” 

Even my mother, who let Nicole write in my book when she asked for it, urged me to “not let the moment pass.” I assured her that I, most certainly, would not. 

But the Fates, those cruel and unforgiving goddesses, had other plans. At the party, Nicole busied herself putting out the many ridiculous, teenage fires that seemed to crop up throughout the evening. Every time I approached her, something else would happen or someone would pull her away to ask her opinion on some teenage drama or what have you. 

The only time I did manage to command her full attention that night was for entirely the wrong reason. 

Somehow a cake fight broke out. I did not start it; I actually tried to stop it, but that led to me being at the epicenter of a confectionary shitstorm. Within moments, I was covered in pound cake and sticky icing — and it was everywhere. It was in my hair and eyes, down my shorts, and up my nose for good measure. It was not a pleasant experience, I can assure you. 

Surmising that I was the main culprit in these juvenile shenanigans, Nicole approached me with blistering fire in her eyes, “Jerry, what the hell?!?”  

I didn’t know what to do or say at that moment. This wasn’t the girl who enveloped me with those same hazel eyes during the chorus of Purple Rain, and who later that night wrote me a cryptic love note. The girl in front of me now thought I was a major-league asshole. 

So, I panicked and bolted … right through the garage then dove headlong into the in-ground pool in the yard. 

I recall hearing a plaintive, “No, not in the pool!” from somewhere behind me. I assume it was Nicole who said it, but I’m not sure as I was halfway in the water by that time.

Regardless, hitting that water was a sublime experience. Everything just released: the weirdness of that accusatory moment as well as all the cakey goo that was stuck to my body. Boom. Just gone. It felt so, so good. As long as I live, I’ll never forget how good that impromptu swim felt.  

And if I could have hidden under the water for the rest of that night, I surely would have. 

About an hour later, I was waiting at the end of Nicole’s driveway for my dad to pick me up. I made myself scarce after the cake/pool incident … and that was just as well.  

Just as my old man pulled up in his outrageous boat of an Oldsmobile, Nicole appeared in the driveway and made her way towards me. 

“Hey … are you leaving?” 

“Yeah, gotta go,” I shrugged. 

She drew close and hugged me. A hug wasn’t expected, but it sure was welcome. “Sorry, I didn’t know you tried to stop it,” Nicole apologized. 

“It’s OK. These things happen.” 

She let go of me. The girl I slow danced with a couple of nights before had returned, as beautiful as ever, but now she had a touch of bluish icing in her hair that had transferred from my person to hers during our hug. And you know what? She wore it well. 

“Maybe I’ll see you around sometime,” she suggested as she began to walk back up the driveway. “I hope so,” was all I could think to respond. 

Nicole kind of half-smiled at me, waved goodbye, then turned away in one deft motion. And then she was gone.

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If you’re experiencing domestic abuse, you’re not alone.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that approximately 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the U.S. More than 12 million women and men over the course of the year suffer from instances of domestic violence and abuse.

Jerry Bonner is a writer living and working in New Jersey … although he’ll always be a tried and true Philadelphian at heart. Check him out on Twitter if you’d like to be further entertained.