A Johnson County man who shot and killed his parents and two other people before committing suicide had struggled with drug addiction for years, according to the family’s pastor.
State police on Sunday were investigating the murders of Arlene Nickell, 70, and her husband, James Wayne Nickell, 75, as well as Lindsey Vanhoose, 41, and her mother, Patricia Vanhoose, 57. Police said Lindsey Vanhoose was the shooter’s girlfriend.
The shootings unfolded at two locations in Johnson County Saturday afternoon. The parents were killed at their house and the Vanhooses at an apartment in Paintsville.
Police identified the shooter as Joseph Nickell, 45, the son of James and Arlene Nickell. Joseph Nickell killed himself after the final shooting at the Paintsville apartment, police said.
Nickell’s teenage son was at the house where the first shootings but escaped and called 911, police said.
Police had not established a motive by Sunday afternoon, said Trooper William Petry, a spokesman for Kentucky State Police.
“There’s going to be a lot more investigation,” Petry said.
Johnson County Sheriff Dwayne Price said in a Facebook post that the local 911 center received a call at 3:33 p.m. about a shooting in the rural McKenzie Branch community.
When Price and two deputies arrived at the residence, they found two people dead in the kitchen.
Those were the two parents, according to state police.
Joseph Nickell reportedly left his parents’ home in a black Toyota Camry.
The sheriff’s office, state police and Paintsville police began searching for the car and notified other counties to be on the lookout.
The Camry was found parked on Mill Street in Paintsville outside an apartment building.
Police searched the building and found Lindsey and Patricia Vanhoose and the shooter all dead in an apartment.
Joseph Nickell had killed himself with a single shot, police said, and Johnson County Coroner J.R. Frisby said all four of the victims had been shot once each with a 9mm handgun.
There was no indication of a struggle before the shootings, Frisby said.
Joseph Nickell lived with his parents.
Frisby said he understood the family had had a good day before the shootings. Arlene Nickell had fixed a meal and baked a cake, before Joseph Nickell apparently started shooting without warning, Frisby said.
“It is crazy,” he said.
Frisby said Nickell left behind a note. Frisby had not seen it, but said he understood from other authorities that it referred to the heartache his parents had felt since their daughter Becki died a few months ago.
James Kelly Caudill, pastor at Tom’s Branch Free Will Baptist Church, said James and Arlene Nickell, as well as Joseph Nickell, were members at the church.
“It’s a hard lick,” he said of the deaths.
Caudill said Joseph Nickell had struggled with drug problems for years. He had been through treatment, but seemed to suffer a setback after the death of his sister, who'd also had drug problems, Caudill said.
“This boy . . . he just never did really get over that. I think it just inflamed his addiction,” Caudill said. “It just come to a head.”
However, he said Nickell’s parents loved him and he loved them. There had been no bad blood between them that Caudill was aware of.
The three attended morning and evening worship services together Feb. 4. That night, Joseph sat between his parents on the front pew, but was “out of it” on some substance, Caudill said.
Joseph Nickell blurted out something during the service and his mother calmed him, Caudill said.
Caudill said Arlene Nickell had worked as a Christian counselor and her husband was retired from insurance sales.
They were faithful members and had raised their children in church, Caudill said.
“Just wonderful people,” he said.
A Facebook user named Michelle Burke Meyerhoff said Sunday that Arlene Nickell helped her work through a dark time after a divorce.
“What devastates me to the core, is I can visually see and hear her trying to talk her son down before he fatally shot” her and her husband, Meyerhoff wrote. “I like many other Johnson Countians knew this family, worshiped with this family and am heartbroken over this family,” Meyerhoff said.
Arlene Nickell’s sister, Debi Pinson, said Nickell was not in great health, but still worked as a counselor because she wanted to help other people, a desire her husband shared.
“That’s been their lifelong goal — to work in the church and help others,” Pinson said.
Court records list several arrests on drug and alcohol charges against a Joseph Nickell, whose listed addresses in Johnson County included one on McKenzie Branch, where his parents lived.
Petry said he could not confirm that was the same person who killed the four people Saturday.
However, Frisby said he believed it was, and in one 2015 case in which Nickell was charged with alcohol intoxication, fourth-degree assault and fleeing from police, the court file said he was released to his mother, Arlene Nickell, so that she could take him to a faith-based drug rehabilitation center.
Police cited more than one instance of finding Nickell with residue visible in a nostril from pills he had crushed and snorted.
The court record said in November 2015 that he completed treatment.
Price, the county sheriff, asked for prayer for the families in a Facebook post.
“Working a murder is never easy. Working the murders of four innocent people that are part of your community is even tougher,” Price said. “The scenes are never the same but the chilling outcome is always heart-wrenching.”