When Mercy Reigns

Dan and Lillian Howard moved to Georgia a few years ago, bringing an incredible story of sorrow and forgiveness with them. When their 18-year-old son was brutally murdered by someone they knew in 1997, faith was the only rock left on which to stand.

by Kari Apted

Nick Howard told his family he was heading home. When his mother, Lillian, saw his empty bed the next morning, she knew something was wrong. It was Feb. 5, 1997, and the 18-year-old high school graduate still lived at home with his parents in Sacramento, California. Unlike many peers his age, Nick kept his parents updated on his whereabouts via pagers and answering machine messages. It was completely out of character for him to just vanish.

“Nick loved us,” Lillian said. “He would always let us know where he was.” 

Lillian and her husband, Dan, contacted the sheriff’s department to report Nick missing. Officers did not seem too alarmed initially, as 18-year-old males are notoriously impulsive. The Howards were close-knit and even worked together at the family’s auto repair shop, where Nick was a mechanic. They began searching for him along his usual route home on a road beside the Sacramento River. Police soon joined the search, on land and in the water. 

Volunteers discovered tire tracks leading into the river two days into the search. It did not take long to find Nick’s Mazda resting on the riverbed 18 feet below. However, he was not inside. His bent and broken eyeglasses were there, along with his wallet. A weird film of oil covered every interior surface. Forensics revealed that a plastic engine oil bottle cap had been wedged into the throttle—a clue that someone had rigged the engine to run without a driver behind the wheel. 

The Howards held out hope that Nick was somehow still alive. Rumors were circulating that he had been duped into faking his death as part of an insurance fraud scheme. On the surface, it sounded preposterous that a man so young could be part of such a plot, but the other name attached to the rumors made it seem plausible. 

“God has given me little pieces of truth along the way to be able to stop feeling guilty.”

Lillian Howard

Ralph Marcus had been obsessed with Lillian since high school, even though she never returned the admiration. Despite her telling him she just wanted to be friends—and even after she married Dan—Marcus stuck around, befriending Lillian’s mother and later, self-imposing into Nick’s life. He always lurked in the background but was cunning enough to retreat at times. He worked hard to convince everyone he only had the best intentions for the Howard family.

The Howards warned Nick not to associate with Ralph, but he often did so anyway. Lillian thinks her son spent time with Marcus out of sympathy. “Nick was the type who would befriend outcasts,” she said. “He was so generous. If you needed something, he would help you get it.” Therefore, it was not initially odd that Marcus was one of the volunteers who pointed out the tracks that led searchers to Nick’s immersed car. Suspicions arose when it was discovered that Marcus was listed as the beneficiary on an $850,000 life insurance policy bearing Nick’s name. The Howards never believed Nick had plans to fake his own death.

“Nick was empathetic, but he wasn’t stupid,” Lillian said. “He was making plans to visit his grandparents, had scheduled lunch with his friends, was getting flowers for his girl. He was not planning to disappear.” 

The Howards were devastated when Nick’s body was found in the river three weeks later. Their pain only deepened after the autopsy revealed his death was not accidental. Ligature marks around his neck indicated strangulation. His face and abdomen bore signs of blunt force trauma, and water in his lungs proved he was still alive when someone dumped his unconscious body into the river. Further forensic investigation linked Marcus to the crime, and he was arrested for first-degree murder. Testimonies during the trial revealed Marcus was a lifelong fraudster, repeatedly destroying property to receive insurance payouts, dealing cocaine and gambling heavily. Though he was a skilled carpenter, he never held a job for long, preferring to scam people instead. 

The Howards believe Marcus’ real motive for murdering Nick was to get back at Lillian for years of unrequited love. He had told people, including Lillian’s sister, that the only way she could understand his pain was by losing a child. When police searched Marcus’ home, they found photos of Lillian, evidence of the life insurance fraud plan and indications he planned to harm other members of the Howard family. On Jan. 13, 2000, Marcus was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The television series “Forensic Files” found the case details gripping enough to film an episode about it. What it—and other published accounts— failed to reveal is the emotional and spiritual side of the story.

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The Howards have fielded accusations of not doing enough to keep Marcus out of their lives. “Everyone doesn’t understand dealing with toxic people,” said Lillian, who describes him as a sociopathic liar. Over the years, it became more evident that Marcus had completely duped Nick. They learned more about his evil deeds against others, including elder abuse of his stepfather and burning down his own home for insurance money. 

“God has given me little pieces of truth along the way to be able to stop feeling guilty,” Lillian said. “Sometimes you have to wait until the other side to know the whole truth.” 

Although the death of a child is perhaps the most traumatic loss a person can endure, Lillian, a Christian, remains determined to honor her son and God through telling Nick’s story. People are often amazed to hear she has been able to forgive Marcus. 

“God demands it,” she said. “He gave everything for the sake of forgiveness. The Bible says that when we don’t forgive, it’s like we’re holding that other person in bondage. Would you want to stand before God and explain why you held someone else in bondage? We have to let go.” Lillian’s healing process has included three visions in which she feels God let her see Nick fully restored in Heaven. “He’s more alive than I am,” she said. “He came to me when I was in twilight sleep. There was no conversation, but he held me and I knew it was him. He looked so beautiful. His skin was almost like this translucent bronze. The first time, I started crying and woke myself up. The second time, I also cried. The third time, I just thanked God for letting me see him again, and I thought about how it was three times—the progression of healing.”

Lillian believes God will restore joy after tragedy, if we will let Him. 

“When he gave us our granddaughter, she is a lot like Nick,” she said. “She is a joy. I believe He wants us to move forward.” 

Click here to read more stories by Kari Apted.

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