FREELAND — Inside a nondescript home on Chestnut Street, the living space has been transformed into a shrine to a mother’s grief, a constant reminder that Nikki Lee Bertolette died hiding a terrible secret.
Dozens of smiling pictures of Bertolette form a makeshift mural on the wall behind the living room sofa, looking across to more photos that stare forever back from a glass display case adorned with dried tie-dyed roses from her funeral.
The ashes of the 26-year-old, who died of an overdose of heroin and fentanyl on June 17, 2017, lie in a marble urn draped with a white ribbon and bronze crucifix in the dining room, paired with a picture of a blue-haired Nikki, smiling coyly.
Her mother, Lisa Bertolette, said she never understood why Nikki turned to drugs — until it was too late.
“I called the cops on her many times just to lock her up just to protect her from (overdosing), you know?” Lisa said. “Because it was coming. We just didn’t know when.”
Nikki was born in Los Angeles in 1990. Her father, Roderick Bertolette, was a caring dad but an abusive husband, Lisa said. When Nikki was about 18 months, Nikki’s maternal grandparents bought them plane tickets and they moved back east to live with them, never to hear from Roderick again.
Life was good at her grandparents’ house. Nikki had a big backyard, all-terrain vehicles, dozens of Barbie dolls and what seemed like “two of everything,” Lisa joked.
“We really spoiled her,” she said.
Lisa eventually decided to get her own place, and the family moved to Freeland when Nikki was around 10 years old.
At some point, Nikki grew curious and wanted to learn about Roderick, the father she no longer remembered. They tried looking him up, but couldn’t find him. Then their search took them to the internet and the news accounts of what happened.
The afternoon of July 16, 2001, Roderick Bertolette, an ex-con covered in tattoos of devils, skulls and swastikas, was planning to sell an undercover informant two pounds of methamphetamine in a motel room, according to an account in the Fresno Bee.
When police moved in to make the arrest, Roderick Bertolette, who was high on meth, pulled a .38-caliber handgun from his waistband and opened fire, the Bee reported. He shot Fresno police officer Julian Vinton in the left leg, left hand and left jaw before police returned fire and killed him.
The news of her father’s death was a disappointment for Nikki.
“We were sad, because she wanted to meet him,” Lisa said.
Over the course of her short life, Nikki progressed from drinking booze when she was around 15 years old to cocaine and, on occasion, methamphetamine, her mother said. Court records show she faced a steady series of driving under the influence and drug paraphernalia possession charges that began in 2009 and continued until a few months before her death.
But her mother said it wasn’t until Nikki joined the company of a man with a drug habit and reputation for using girls for their homes and money that she started shooting heroin.
“He preys on them and they fall for it,” she said. “She always wanted to help somebody. She had a heart of gold.”
On Aug. 8, 2013, the man, who at the time was Nikki’s boyfriend, crashed on East Butler Drive in Butler Twp. Nikki sustained severe facial lacerations, and testing revealed a cocktail of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and Xanax in the driver’s blood, according to police.
A few days later, in a hotel room, the boyfriend told Nikki to try a shot of heroin, according to her mother.
“He knows if he puts this needle in her arm, she’s going to become a junkie for life. And so he did that,” Lisa said. “Since then, she’s just been struggling. On and off, in and out of rehabs.”
As a result of the crash, Nikki got a $100,000 insurance settlement to cover expenses, including plastic surgery that she needed for her nose, according to her mother. She used some of the money to buy the house she shared with Lisa in Freeland, but she blew the rest on drugs, hotel rooms and expensive clothes.
Nikki’s downfall was years in the making. Lisa tried to strike a fine balance between helping and enabling her daughter.
She would bring Nikki to rehab and hound her to stay clean, yet she also gave her money because she didn’t want her daughter turning to prostitution.
During the last few months of Nikki’s life, she appeared to have turned things around. She had traded in the heroin for Suboxone, a prescription medicine that treats addiction and withdrawal symptoms. She recently landed a job as a sales rep for a subsidiary of PPL Corp. She talked about buying the “house of her dreams,” her mother said.
At long last, Nikki appeared to be happy.
“Nothing can stop me,” she wrote April 24, 2017, after announcing the new job on Facebook. “I’m all the way up.”
But that same month, another ex-boyfriend began turning up at the house, leaving presents of fake jewelry and bringing temptation to Nikki’s doorstep, according to her mother.
“She wasn’t strong enough to say no. That’s what it is,” Lisa said. “That’s what it comes down to. No one forced her to do it. But if he didn’t come around, she would have been still on the path to recovery.”
The ex-boyfriend was a “wannabe chemist” who was tinkering with heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid drug with which her daughter had no experience, she said.
But what exactly happened at the end of her daughter’s life on June 17, 2017, remains a mystery. The conflicting stories and denials of Nikki’s friends made it all but impossible to piece together the truth, she said.
“I wish I could take them on the `Maury Show’ or `Steve Wilkos’ and give them lie-detector tests, you know?” she said. “Because they’re all lying.”
What she knows for sure is that she last saw her daughter alive as Lisa left for work — providing home care to a resident a few blocks away — shortly before 2 p.m. that day. Lisa told her daughter she was making meatloaf and to be home for dinner.
“She said, ‘OK,’” Lisa Bertolette recalled. “I said, ‘I love you,’ and she said, ‘I love you too.’”
Around 6:05 p.m., Lisa Bertolette returned home and found her daughter face down on her bedroom floor. She picked Nikki up and put her on the bed, tried to perform CPR.
It wasn’t the first time, but this time was different. As Lisa blew into her daughter’s mouth, it felt like the air wasn’t flowing. She called 911 and continued chest compressions on her daughter’s lifeless body as she waited for help.
Authorities found a needle mark on Nikki’s leg and two prepared needles on her bed, Lisa said.
Later, as Lisa was going through her daughter’s belongings, she found some notes Nikki had written during one of her stints in rehab. The assignment had been to list the good and bad things in her life.
What Lisa saw on the list floored her.
Nikki had written that she had been raped by two guys during a party in the woods near White Haven when she was 13 years old. A year later, she had been raped again at another party, she had written.
“She never told me. I don’t know why she never told me. She kept it in and didn’t tell anybody,” Lisa said. “I never understood why she was so unhappy.”
Contact the writer: