TAMPA, Fla. — This is the story of an almost impossible friendship.
There's the tormented son of a murderer. And there's the obsessed investigator who tried her best to prove the father was even worse, a serial killer, all the while regretting that she was tormenting the son even more.
"I hate you," he shouted at one point, rejecting evidence that she spent months and thousands of dollars collecting, and that she believed added up to proof.
And yet, eventually the sleuth and the son would profess love for each other like mother and child.
Talk show host Tyra Banks once called Lynn-Marie Carty "the reunion angel." Carty liked that, because of how much she loved her job. Fifty-two, blonde, fast-talking and pretty, Carty became a professional people-finder after discovering she had a knack for research and a tenaciousness that kept her working a case long after others might have thrown up their hands.
She loved the thrill of the chase and found that, with the Internet, she could locate just about anybody, living or dead. Most were lovely stories. All rainbows and butterflies, Carty liked to say. They paid her bills, won her fans and occasionally got her on TV.
But no case had fixated her like that of Michael Nicholaou.
It came to her in 2001: Another missing-persons case, with high hopes for a happy ending.
A family friend named Rose Young was looking for her daughter and long-lost grandchildren. The woman's daughter, Michelle Marie Ashley, had gone missing in 1988, along with her two children: A daughter, Joy, and a son, Nick.
The last Young knew, Michelle was with a man named Michael Nicholaou. Before she disappeared, Michelle had told her mom about Nicholaou, and his bad temperament.
"If I'm ever missing, he killed me, and you need to track him down and find the kids," she'd said. Michelle did go missing. Police never found her.
And so, in 2001, Carty sat down at her computer to hunt for Michael Nicholaou. Fifteen minutes later she'd found him, living north of Tampa — less than an hour away from her. She picked up the phone.
"How did you find me?" Nicholaou asked, then denied knowing Michelle. Finally he told her that Michelle had run off with a drug dealer and abandoned them. The kids, Joy and Nick, were with him, he said, and were fine.
She hung up and called Michelle's mother in Vermont, who called the police.
Nick Nicholaou was less than a year old when his mother, Michelle, disappeared. His father had told him the story that his mother had left them. So Nick spent his life with his dad, living at times with relatives or Michael's Vietnam buddies, never staying in one place for very long.
The boy grew up longing for a real home, attention and affection. He thought he'd finally found the family life he craved when his father met Aileen Bowman through a personal ad in the late 1990s. They eventually married.
Soon, Nick was calling Aileen "Mom." He loved her and her daughter, Terrin, who was a couple years older than he was.
But problems arose. Michael and Aileen fought. Nick remembers seeing them abuse painkillers and other drugs. By late 2005, when Nick was almost 18, Michael and Aileen were separated.
Then the unthinkable happened.
On the night of Dec. 30, 2005, Nick's father bought some beer for him and dropped him off at a friend's house. "You'll always be my son," Michael, then 56, told him. It was the last time Nick saw him alive.
The next day, New Year's Eve, Michael showed up at Aileen's father's house, carrying a .30-caliber M-1 carbine rifle and a semiautomatic pistol concealed in a guitar case.
Aileen took him into a back bedroom to talk. Terrin followed. With police surrounding the house after receiving a 911 call, Nicholaou shot Aileen, who was 45, and the 20-year-old Terrin, then himself.
Just like that, the only real family Nick had known was gone. He was utterly lost.
Carty read about the murder-suicide in the newspaper on New Year's Day 2006.
She had so wanted to introduce Nick and Joy to their grandmother, who had since died. She wanted to tell them there were good people on their mother's side of the family. And so she tracked down Nick and made the call.
He began crying when he talked about his life growing up, moving from place to place.
"If you ever need anything," Carty told him, "my arms are open for you."
She was urging Nick to move on, but Carty, admittedly, couldn't. Something still nagged her about Michael Nicholaou.
She thought about Michelle's disappearance, and of Nick's stories of the family constantly moving, seemingly running from something. She kept investigating.
Carty searched the Internet for unsolved killings in the Northeast, where the family was living when Michelle disappeared. She read about the horrible slayings of at least six young nurses in the 1980s in what had become known as the Connecticut River Valley murders. And she read about a pregnant woman thought to be the only survivor of that killer.
Carty started peeling back the layers of Michael Nicholaou's life. She spent her own money to send away for records, and talked to anyone in his past willing to talk. Soon, the investigation was consuming Carty's waking hours.
By the middle of 2006, Carty had put together a timeline that put Michael Nicholaou in the general vicinity at the same time as most of the Connecticut Valley murders. She took that and a pile of other circumstantial evidence to police. She even showed photos of Nicholaou to the survivor, Jane Boroski, and soon Boroski also believed that he could have been her attacker.
A supermarket tabloid got hold of the story about how a private investigator in Florida was pinning the Connecticut River Valley murders on a Vietnam vet named Michael Nicholaou. One day, Nick looked up from the checkout counter and saw his dad's face on a magazine. He soon found out that a cable TV documentary was labeling his dad a serial killer, too, thanks to Carty.
This time, he called her.
"Are you crazy?" he screamed at her. "You're ruining my life. How could you do this to me? I hate you!"
She tried to explain, but Nick didn't want to listen.
Over the next few years, Nick would learn what it meant to hit bottom. He says he used drugs, couldn't hold down a job, lost his best friend in a car wreck. Mostly, though, he was tormented by the murder-suicide, and the things Carty was saying about his father.
Being Michael Nicholaou's son was like a cancer in Nick's head that dragged him into depression and hopelessness. By late summer 2009, Nick was 21 years old, had no money and was about to be kicked out of his friend's apartment. He was plagued by nightmares.
He was thinking about killing himself, just to make it all stop.
Then he thought of Carty.
She had been so nice to him at first. She kept telling him that what happened wasn't his fault, that he could still have a good life. And she had offered to help. He didn't have anyone else. He'd worn out his welcome at his sister's place and with friends.
When he finally managed to get Carty on the phone again, she was wary. Nick begged for her forgiveness — and her help. He really wasn't sure what he wanted her to do. Mostly, he just wanted to feel loved.
Carty asked him to put down on paper his thoughts, goals and dreams. On a yellow legal pad, his letter went on for seven pages.
"I want help, I want a chance at a new life and to put this all in the past and move on," he wrote. "I cannot do it on my own."
This was new territory for Carty. "There is no handbook," she would say later, "on how to handle the son of a serial killer while you're trying to nail his father's urn shut."
When she received Nick's letter, her heart ached. He was about the same age as her son, who also had lost his father — Carty's ex-husband — to violence.
There would be no happy ending for Rose Young or her daughter. Or for Aileen and Terrin. But maybe she could still help Nick.
Through some previous work reuniting families, Carty had contacts with producers at TV's "Dr. Phil" show, which she knew helped people in exchange for their stories. She sent Nick's letter to producers.
Nick and Carty met face-to-face for the first time at the show in Los Angeles this past October. The producers agreed to help him pay for an apartment and guide him through such steps as applying for benefits, earning his high school diploma, getting some mental health treatment, maybe going to college.
The end of this story is still unwritten, but it has entered a new chapter.
Finally, Nick says, he has started to feel differently about being his father's son. He thanks Carty for that. They talk on the phone frequently and e-mail. He calls her his guardian angel. To her face, he calls her "Ma."
She makes sure he's taking care of himself. When he tells her he loves her, she says it right back.
She's still trying to prove her theory about Nick's father. Investigators overseeing the Connecticut River Valley murders say they have nothing solid linking Michael Nicholaou to the slayings, but agree that Carty's information puts him in the pool of likely suspects. Michael's closest friends in Tampa say they just don't believe it.
Nick doesn't want to believe it, either, although he knows there's a chance Carty could be right.
The two mainly try to focus on the future.
This New Year's Day, Carty e-mailed Nick: "I know you have the ability to do great things in life. My prayers for you are that this is YOUR year to find your passion, work hard and be proud of yourself."