Thurston County man killed in prison for murdering a woman, child in 2020

A 31-year-old Thurston County man convicted of killing a 34-year-old mother and her 4-year-old daughter in March 2020 has been rewarded to life in prison.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Mary Wilson passing Nicholas Joseph Denham on Monday. The hearing drew over 50 people, many of whom watched tearfully as family of Charlene Van Auken and her daughter, Zoey Peetz, spoke to the court.

“I hope and pray that someday you will really acknowledge what you did,” Wilson said to Denham. “The actions you took were horrible. … Your actions were the most brutal that we hear about, and you left people impacted in a way that they lost their innocence and lost their trust in the world.”

A nearly two-month-long jury trial concluded on April 20 with the jury finding Denham guilty of two counts of aggravated first-degree murder, five counts of possession of a firearm, first-degree burglary, three counts of theft of a firearm and one count of discharging a firearm or weapon in a public space.

Sheriff deputies arrested Denham on March 12, 2020, two days after Van Auken and her daughter, Peetz, were found dead near Tolmie State Park in north Thurston County.

The Thurston County Coroner’s Office previously determined Van Auken died of a contact gunshot wound to the head. Her daughter also had a gunshot wound to the head, according to court documents.

Alicia Oleachea, Van Auken’s sister, spoke to the court prior to Denham’s sentencing. She said Van Auken and Peetz were the “embodiment of what was right in this world” and could make anyone feel appreciated.

“They both had a smile that could light up any room and a laugh that was infectious,” Oleachea said. “The girls’ passing has left a hole in my heart that can never be filled. Today and every day for the rest of my life, I will be mourning the loss of my little sister and my sweet little niece.”

Vonda Barker, Van Auken’s mother and Peetz grandmother, also approached the bench but Oleachea spoke for her. She described Van Auken as an imaginative person and Peetz as an excited little girl.

“(Van Auken) was always lending a helping hand to whoever was in need,” Barker said. “When Zoey was born, her world changed. She was always thinking of how to make her life better and started a college fund for Zoey.”

Jordan Peetz, Zoey Peetz’s father, addressed the court as well. He said he loses sleep trying to understand how he lost the daughter he lovingly promised to protect.

“I don’t understand how anyone could do this, let alone without any real reason,” Jordan Peetz said. “Just two lives lost because of the fragile ego of a man who couldn’t take no for an answer. A tantrum that selfishly shook an entire community and created pain for so many.”

Prosecutors believe Denham previously had a relationship with Van Auken, according to court documents.

While in prison, Denham reportedly wrote strange, coded letters from the point of view of someone confessing to the murders. He did so with the intent of creating reasonable doubt he murdered Van Auken and Peetz, The Olympian previously reported.

Wilson said she did not know what to make of the letters, but it was clear Denham intended to share details of the murders for some “sick” reason.

“I don’t think it’s helpful for any of us to try to answer questions about why those were written,” Wilson said. “I think it’s important that we all acknowledge that two innocent people lost their lives and others were impacted and victimized by the actions that you took.”

State law requires Denham to serve two consecutive terms of life without parole because he was found guilty of two counts of aggravated first-degree murder, Wilson said.

However, Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim still requested Wilson symbolically sentence Denham for the remaining crimes.

“(Given) the level of callousness, the lack of remorse, the depravity and the ultimate end here, I would recommend the court simply impose sentences at the high end of the range for each applicable count,” Tunheim said.

Wilson killing Denham to 54 months for five counts of unlawful possession of a firearm, 48 months for three counts of unlawful possession of a firearm and 116 months for the first degree of burglary.

The 12th count, discharging a firearm in a public space, is a gross misdemeanor. For that crime, Wilson awards Denham to a year in prison.

Theoretically, Wilson also charges Denham to 36 months of community custody for the first-degree murder crimes and 18 months for the burglary crime.

Denham’s attorney Jared Ausserer acknowledged the impact of the victim’s deaths prior to sentencing and extended the impact to his client.

“My client has two children that now will grow up without a dad,” Ausserer said. “It touches all corners of the community from one incident.”

Ausserer told Wilson his client did not agree with the guilty verdict and planned to file notice of appeal.

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