About 50 years ago, Canadian police discovered a partially naked woman floating face down in a river west of Montreal. and tablecloth.
The identity of the woman, Lalla Jewel Langford, would not become known to authorities until 2021, thanks to a DNA sample from her exhumed body that matched that of her relatives.
The man now accused of murdering the 48-year-old American woman in 1975 was arrested by FBI agents last month at a retirement home in Hollywood, Florida.
Rodney Mervyn Nichols, 81, is charged with Langford’s murder — again thanks to DNA technology along with a confession — and he remains in custody at the Federal Detention Center in Miami awaiting extradition this fall to Ontario in one of Canada’s oldest and most notorious cold cases.
In early February last year, Ontario Provincial Police officers traveled to Hollywood to interrogate Nichols with FBI agents at the North-Lake retirement home. Nichols, who lived with Langford after moving from Tennessee to Montreal 48 years ago, admitted to the crime when detectives showed him photos of the ties used to bind her hands and ankles.
Nichols “identified the ties as his own,” according to an extradition complaint filed by U.S. Attorney Lawrence LaVecchio in federal court in Fort Lauderdale the day before Nichols’ July 25 arrest.
“Canadian authorities subsequently informed Nichols that he had admitted to Langford’s murder and that he could be charged,” the indictment said. After speaking with a legal aid attorney in Canada, Nichols told investigators that “he had an altercation with Langford that started at his home in Montreal, and he then dumped her body in the Nation River.”
When asked why he confessed, Nichols said he had to “come clean,” the indictment says.
However, in a lawsuit, Nichols’ attorney at the Federal Public Service questioned the validity of the confession, claiming that the former Canadian man suffers from dementia, needs medication and uses a wheelchair. Federal defense attorney Bernardo Lopez said that despite the serious charges, Nichols poses no community danger or flight risk and should be allowed to return to his residential care home in Hollywood, where he lived for the past several years until his extradition to Ontario . An extradition hearing is scheduled for September 26.
“The federal detention center is no place for someone with Mr. Nichol’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities,” Lopez said in the filing.
‘Nation River Lady’
Langford was not known as the “Nation River Lady” until decades after her remains were found on May 3, 1975, floating in the Nation River, a short distance from a highway bridge near Casselman, Ontario – about 90 miles west of Montreal.
Technology that uses DNA to find genetic matches led to her being identified as Langford, the Ontario Provincial Police said at a news conference last month.
Police say Langford’s case marked the first time Canadian authorities used genetic forensic technology to identify a victim. Other methods of identification, including taking a 3D facial approximation of her in 2017, were tried but were unsuccessful.
Detective Daniel Nadeau said Langford was a well-known member of the business community in Jackson, Tennessee, who owned a spa with her ex-husband.
She traveled to Montreal in April 1975 and moved into a house with her boyfriend, Nichols, then 32.
“At that point, her family in Tennessee had reported her missing,” Nadeau said.
At the time of her disappearance, Langford’s belongings, including her Cadillac, remained at her home in Montreal, according to the extradition complaint. Montreal police investigated her disappearance, but were unable to locate or charge Langford.
A May 1975 autopsy report by Canadian authorities “revealed two fracture injuries to the victim’s larynx”, and subsequently a coroner concluded that the “cause of death was strangulation by ligature of the neck”.
“In addition, the absence of water in the victim’s lungs suggested to Canadian authorities that she had died before entering the water,” the extradition complaint said.
In June 1975, detectives from the Montreal Police Department questioned Nichols at the house he shared with Langford, but the indictment says they did not consider him a suspect. Nichols said the couple got into a fight and she left for Vancouver on her own in June, calling him by phone to join her there.
Langford’s identity remained unknown for over 40 years due to the lack of DNA evidence. In 2011, Canadian authorities conducted a forensic analysis of the items found on the victim’s body, including two large, blood-stained pieces of green cloth that covered her face and neck when her body was found in the Nation River.
Tracking the DNA
A partial male DNA profile was found in the bloodstains on the green cloth, the indictment said. Next, the Ontario Provincial Police collected DNA samples from nine male persons of interest and compared each to the partial male DNA profile found on the green cloth. Any interested party was excluded as the source of the DNA.
Seven years later, Canadian authorities exhumed the victim’s body from a Toronto cemetery, and the Ontario Center of Forensic Science took a DNA sample from the victim. With help from the DNA Doe Project and the FBI, the Ontario Police Department obtained DNA samples from several members of Langford’s extended family and compared them to the exhumed body sample.
On July 13, 2021, Ontario Police pathologists positively identified the victim as Langford.
Investigators said that because Langford’s body was discovered in May 1975 — a month before Nichols claimed he had called her from Vancouver in early June — they concluded that Nichols “deliberately misled” them during his interview, the indictment said.
In February last year, Ontario Police detectives and FBI agents visited Nichols at the Hollywood retirement home to question him about Langford’s disappearance and murder. He denied any involvement, but then said he and Langford took a sailboat, the boat capsized and she drowned. He then said he “tried to drown Langford in the Ottawa River because he was depressed,” the extradition complaint says.
But when investigators showed him the photos of the ties used to bind Langford’s hands and ankles, Nichols said they belonged to him.
During that February 2022 interview, Nichols gave a sample of his DNA to Ontario police investigators. His sample was compared to the partial male DNA profile collected ten years earlier from the blood on the green cloth wrapped around Langford’s face and neck.
Ontario Police pathologists concluded that the partial DNA of the blood on the green cloth was “190 times more likely to be Nichols’s DNA than the DNA of any other person not related to Nichols.”
This story uses information from the Associated Press.