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You. It was the morning after Christmas. 90 97 Bremerton, Washington, just across Puget Sound from Seattle. Holiday lights twinkled in the foggy air. A building contractor named Jeffrey Richardson was up early. He was headed to his assistant's home to pick up some paper work. He pulled up to the man's house on Jensen Avenue at about 07:00 a.m. As he got out of his truck, Richardson heard a loud crackling noise from somewhere behind him. Then what sounded like glass breaking. That's when he saw it. Flames and smoke leaking out of a window at the house across the street. He banged on the door and yelled, fire. There was no response. Engine three from the Bremerton fire department rolled up. In five minutes, firefighters contained the blaze and made their way to the main bedroom. It had been completely scorched. The ceiling joists were black with soot and ash, and they were starting to collapse into the room. On the charred bed, investigators saw a body in a sleeping position. At about 10:15 a.m.. A 27 year old man named Nick Hackney arrived. He identified himself as a pastor from a church on nearby Bainbridge island and said he'd been on a hunting trip.


Earlier that morning, Nick looked at the smoking wreck of a home and told a cop, that's my house. And then he heard the grim news. There was a body in the bedroom. Nick Hackney put his head in his hands, and then he said he knew who it probably was, his 28 year old wife, dawn. Word quickly spread among Nick's flock at his church. Nick's young wife of just seven years was gone. It was all so heartbreaking, so shocking, so dreadful and so unfair. They didn't know the half of it. This is a story about religion.


They're singing their hymns, they're saying their prayers, and they're getting caught up in something just a notch at a time until it seems like it's too late to turn back.


It's about the power of prophecy. And one of the charismatic gifts is the gift of prophecy, where you hear an inspirational word from the Holy Spirit or from the Lord.


She made a comment to him. She said, I'm ready to go. She said, if I were to die, I'm ready.


Oh, and it's also about sex, a lot of it.


So you could serve God by providing physical comfort to one of his servants.




And finally, this is a story about murder.


There is God. There is also a devil.


And this was the devil.




I'm Josh Mankowitz, and this is mortal sin, a podcast from Dateline, episode one. Ashes to ashes. As firefighters hose down what remained of his home, Nick Hackney was left sitting on the back of a fire truck on the street outside. He told police the fire must have started when wrapping paper left over from presents he and dawn had opened in their bedroom the night before had gotten too close to the space heater they were using. He'd also been storing propane bottles in the room. For all of that, Nick blamed himself for not being more cautious. And to investigators, Nick's theory about the fire made sense.


There was no indication that there was a concern that this was nothing more than a house fire that resulted in the death of a young woman.


Sue Schultz was a patrol officer at the Bremerton PD. When the fire broke out, the Hackneys.


Were remodeling their house, and there was no heat in the house. So they were using a space heater.




And this was the day after Christmas. So logical that there'd be wrapping paper lying around.




And so space eater plus loose paper frequently equals house fire.




As for the cause of death, that seemed obvious.


We had a young woman that was in a house, seemingly asleep when the fire broke out. Investigators at the time contributed her death to the fire.


There was one odd thing, though, about the death by fire theory.


I guess the unusual piece is that if it had been started by wrapping paper, if dawn had been in the bed when that fire started, alive, breathing, there would have been smoke, there would have been soot in her lungs. In her lungs.


And there wasn't.


And there wasn't.


But the coroner had a theory about that.


Correct. And that theory was developed by the coroner at the time. As this unusual event that occurs when you have a high instant heat, like.


The heat of a flash fire from a leaky propane tank ignited by a spark. That was the coroner's theory.


Your throat can close up, and therefore, there wouldn't be any soot in your lungs.


Correct. There was an explanation to the cause.


Dawn's death was determined to be an accident. However, much of what would follow in the coming weeks, months, and years would not be accidental, and it would become harder and harder to believe.


Hi, everyone. I'm Jenna Bushhager from today with Hoda and Jenna and the read with Jenna Book Club. There's nothing I love more than sharing my favorite reads with all of you, except maybe talking to the exceptional authors behind these stories. And that's what I'll be doing on my podcast, read with Jenna. I'll be introducing you to some of my favorite writers. These conversations will leave you feeling inspired and entertained.


To start listening, just search read with.


Jenna wherever you get your podcasts. Almost as soon as the fire was out, the members of Christ Community Church, where Nick was youth pastor, started sharing the news with one another.


Early in the morning, a phone call came in from another church member that I was a close friend with.


That's parishioner Annette Anderson. She and her husband Craig, were at her mother's house in Oregon when she heard about the fire.


She said that there had been a fire and that dawn was dead. It had been at Nick and Dawn's house, and I was completely devastated. It was completely shocking. I mean, we had just part of company with these people. To think that our close companions had just had a terrible house fire and one was dead was incomprehensible.


You don't have people die like that and hadn't in our life. It was a tragedy. It was horrific. The Andersons headed back to Bremerton to the home of Bob Smith. He'd founded Christ community Church and brought in Nick as the youth pastor. There was a group had gathered there throughout the day for support for Nick. And Nick was there.


He was peaceful. He looked exhausted. He seemed like he was welcoming everyone that came through the door. We were part of a large crowd that had entered, and he seemed happy to see us.


He sounds remarkably composed for someone who had just suffered such a horrible loss.


Remarkably composed. And that was within the context of Nick's extravagant personality that we knew. So it didn't seem weird. It almost seemed confirming, know what a remarkable man of God he is. People were devastated, and Nick seemed to know. Holding it together.


Dawn's mother, Diana Parmley, heard the awful news from her husband.


He said, it's dawn. He said there was a fire and that she was gone. And I just. Well, I went into shock. I just fell apart and I felt like my heart had just been ripped out and I didn't want to go on.


It was hard for Diana to wrap her head around it. She'd talked with her daughter just the night before. Dawn had said she wasn't feeling well and had taken some allergy medicine, Benadryl, before bed. Now there was a funeral to plan. So many people wanted to come to Dawn Hackney's funeral that it couldn't be held at Christ community church.


It was packed. It was at a different church that could hold more congregants. Nick was stoic. He was so strong again. It was just another moment to see him in a remarkable way that he could deliver his wife's funeral.


What kind of things he say about Dawn?


I remember one thing he did say was he would not grieve for Don or cry for dawn because it was impossible to be sad for one that was in heaven.


Now, Dawn's mother also came away impressed by Nick's eulogy.


I thought that it was amazing that he could come up with such a lengthy eulogy in such a short amount of time that he had to prepare it.


As you would expect, it was all very moving for the mourners. At the same time, there was also something quite unexpected that happened. Annette Anderson says it came after the funeral service when church members gathered for coffee.


Afterwards, Nick came over to me and gave me a big hug there. Inappropriate, but almost within his know.


He did that kind of person. He did that kind of thing all the that.


It was a little more unusual in that situation because somebody saw it and suggested to me that that was a little extreme. And then he brought me over and introduced me to some of his mom's friends as Don's very best friend, which I thought was a little over the top, too.


You were not Don's very best friend.


I felt like if I was Dawn's best friend, then that made me sad because I didn't feel like I knew her enough to be worthy of being called that.


People grieve in different ways, as we always say around here. So maybe a hug that was a little too tight and went on a little too long could be understood in that context. And in the days after Dawn's funeral, it seemed to Annette and some of the other women in the congregation that Nick really was desperate for help.


Nick had a lot of needs. It seemed he was without a house. He had not only lost his wife, but his home and all his things, and he projected need to several of us.


Annette says the stoic version of Nick, the pastor, who in the days after the fire showed such incredible strength. Well, that man seemed to have disappeared.


He was kind of collapsing a bit more into neediness at the think, you know, we were just in what can we do? Mode for a friend who lost his wife.


Nick Hackney did not lack for people to lean on. After Dawn's sudden death. The church community cradled him in its collective arms and swaddled him in a blanket of love and support. That was all quite public. That's why Annette went over to Pastor Bob's house, where Nick was staying, to help Nick with some insurance forms.


When I walked into the house, gave me another one of his fantastically huge hugs. And that had been a progression of several hugs over weeks time. And I told him, enough. Stop hugging me like this. Enough hugging and let's get to work. And he apologized for that a little bit, regretted that he couldn't help it or whatever.


She says Nick did not stop there.


He went and laid on the couch where he had a blanket, and I looked over at him and asked him to continue on helping me. And he said he couldn't help it. He was preoccupied about what it would be like to kiss me. And you thought that he was nuts. I thought I had just finished reading a book that his mom had suggested I read on grief, a story of a man who'd lost his wife and child. And the book said that people, when they grieve, they will act strange, and they need their close friends not to abandon them. And so I just kept putting it in that category. You're acting strange. I'm not going to abandon you.


Annette says Nick wouldn't give up, so she told him to stop.


Knock it off. Knock it off. And he went further with it, told me he want. What would I say if he wanted to run me upstairs and make mad, passionate love to me? And I told him to knock it off, that he was sinning, that it wasn't right what he was talking about.


His wife's been dead how long at this point?


Probably three weeks. Two or three weeks.


And he's coming on to you, right? You chalk that up to bizarre behavior. Spawn from grief, right?


Nick's behavior with Annette was about to go to places no one in this church could have imagined. If you visited Christ community church in the mid 1990s, you'd have found it sitting on a low hill, a brown, one story building with a peaked roof, nestled amid the cedars and pines on Bainbridge island, not far from the Hackney home. If you're thinking a small town church from a movie, you're not wrong. So now that you have that image, think about this. Very little that went on there may make any sense to you at all in terms of what occurred under the umbrella of religion, what church members were expected to do, and how the unacceptable suddenly became reasonable when it was framed as having come from not man, but from God. From his pulpit, Nick was captivating and charming, and his enthusiasm for the gospel was infectious, as you can hear in this church recording.


Open your bibles. Amen. Amen. Praise God. Get used to it, people. We're raising up a generation of young people that are excited about the word of God. Amen.


Excited, perhaps, but unaware as they listened from the pews of the sins that would spill out in their midst, making some of what Nick preached eerily prophetic.


This issue of readiness, this issue of preparedness. And so I believe with all my heart that God is giving us this time and is pressing us now to ask why? What is it that we're preparing for?


In early 1997, before dawn died, Nick had been leading marriage counseling sessions at the church. Annette and Craig Anderson were one of the couples he was working with.


He was extremely helpful. He was very good at counseling. We thought at that time he was really relational and seemed to know how to break down the barriers and cause the root issues to come out, and he did that.


And the two of you, what, got a little closer as a. Yeah, yeah.


Annette says there came a time during their early days of counseling when Pastor Nick took her aside and told her she needed to trust God more.


So he had me do this exercise where he had us both stand up in his office, and he stood behind me and he told me to fall backwards. And I was asking why? And he said, just do it. Turn around. I'll be here to catch you. And so I did it. And he said, that's how God is. He's going to catch you when you fall. You just need to trust more. I probably did think and question more than the average person, and his answer.


To that was no. It's like falling backwards. You just need to trust that God will be there. Don't question.




Just trust.


Just like I caught you, God's going to catch you.


Usually that exercise is something that counselors do for couples. Not one member of the couple and the counselor.


Wow, I didn't really know that.


Okay, correct me if I'm wrong here, but it sounds as if Nick was maybe drawing you in a little bit more to him promising you a special, closer relationship with God if you had a special, closer relationship with him.


Yeah. As time went on, he did use me as his confidant more. He called me and told me I was in his prayer circle. I was in the inner circle of his ministry.


Nick began counseling Annette one on one author, Greg Olson, whose book a twisted faith is about Nick Hackney in Christ Community Church, says one on one sessions were typical for Nick and there was a pattern to them.


When Nick's doing marriage counseling, he inevitably ends up talking more with the women than with the men.


Yeah, it seems like the guy is booted out the door after the first.


Session, and he says, I need to spend more time with your wife.


That's right.


It was around this time that Dawn Hackney seemed to have become concerned. Maybe she was losing her husband's attention, or maybe it was worse than she knew. In her faith community, Dawn Hackney stood out.


She worked, which in this situation was kind of different than what the rest of her peers at our church would have been like. We were staying home. A lot of the women were homeschooling their kids, and Don had a career and Nick talked like they'd planned it that way. Don was going to be the breadwinner and Nick's job was to work for God.


Because she worked at the credit union, she had to skip many church events.


A lot of people sort of felt sorry for her that way. They thought, oh, too bad she can't be here with Nick at the retreat, or she can't be here tonight at the youth group meeting because she's having to work late. Yet every other woman, I mean, he's know, stand by me, I am the man in charge. Yet she was pulling down the money and taking care of things at home.


Olsen says people who knew dawn described her as being tolerant, even as Nick spent their money to help out other church members and also ministered to them at all hours. He says dawn seemed content to let Nick be Nick.


She never said, don't do that. She never said, that's a mistake. She never said, you're hurting me, you're hurting our marriage. Nothing. How many of the women in that church sort of saw their role in what might be thought of as a sort of more fundamentalist way, that their role in life was to be maybe not submissive to men, but subservient or secondary.


They all saw that because that's what the church taught them. I mean, that is the role the woman is, to be submissive to the man.


As the summer of 1997 turned to fall, some church members got the feeling that it was becoming harder for dawn to be the dutiful wife of a busy preacher?


She complained to a couple of people. I mean, she complained to her friend that she had missed him and that she was trying to lose some weight. She's probably fragile because her husband is away.


During the Christmas season in 1997, the church and congregation were in full celebration mode. At the same time, Annette Anderson saw some sadness in her friend.


Well, I saw dawn crying several times. I saw a different part of dawn in several occasions where she was sad and reaching out for something, but she'd stopped short of maybe completely expressing what it was.


She told you once that she was trying to make herself more attractive for Nick.


She was trying to lose weight. Yeah, she had a complete breakdown at a baby shower where she actually did open up to myself and a couple other ladies. And she said she was trying to make herself more pleasing to Nick and that he hadn't been around very much, and that she was trying to cook better meals and she was just trying to restrategize, to get his attention because.


She thought he was losing interest in her as a man.


She seemed to let that out at that moment. Yeah, that was a part of us. She showed for a moment. Yeah, it was sad.


You ever get any sense before that, that Nick wasn't attracted to his wife any longer?


Well, if Nick gave any signals that were od, I'd always ask him about it, and I would ask him, what about dawn? And he would assure me that dawn was exactly where God wanted her to be and that everything that was going on in Dawn's life was what God had planned for her, that I wasn't worried about anything.


Dawn's mother, Diana, I know that pastors and people that minister are away a lot from their families because there's a lot of needs out there. And I just figured he was doing what he was supposed to do in that position.


And then in the fall of 1997, a shadow fell into Nick's life. He told Annette about it. Something was coming, something bad.


Nick talked a lot about. Something was going to happen, something was going to happen, and I wasn't to be alarmed. It was part of God's plan. Nick was going to go through some terrible things. It was all going to be part of God's plan.


He made it clear that the terrible thing that was going to happen was going to happen to him, to Nick.




Not to you, not to anybody else.


No, it was going to happen to him. And I wasn't to be alarmed at what happened to him because he knew, know we cared about him.


Did you say, what's the thing? What's going to happen?


Yeah. And he wouldn't allow me to ask that. And he said, don't ask and I won't answer. There's no use in even asking. He would shut me down before I even asked.


You were pretty close to him by that point. You'd spent a lot of time with him, right? Was he trying to pass you some signal, do you think, or did he just really not want to tell you?


Well, he was giving me as much information as he wanted me to have. I don't know if there was a signal in that or if he just didn't want to tell me. I assume he didn't want to tell me?


Right before Christmas, dawn, too, seemed to sense something very dark ahead. On Christmas Eve, her friend Eunice Cody had worked late. When she got home, she saw that dawn had called.


And there was a message on my machine from dawn saying, we need to get together soon, pretty much as soon as we could. And it was late, so I didn't call that night. And the next morning, it was early, I woke up, and I just felt something was not right.


That same night, her mother says dawn told her father something chilling.


She made a comment to him. She said, I'm ready to go. She said, if I were to die, I'm ready. And this was, what, a day before she passed?


Did you know about that comment at the time?


Not at the time, no. I had been in the other room, so I didn't hear their conversation. She said she was ready. She knew she was right with God. And, I mean, that was dawn. She was always all the way through her life here that she. With anything. She was prepared.


It sounds to me like you take a little comfort in that.


Oh, yes.


I mean, was this the remark of someone predicting their own death?


It was almost as if she knew something.


After dawn died, Annette Anderson flashed back to those conversations she'd had with Nick in which he told her something bad was going to happen.


I had asked him shortly after Don died, is this what you were talking about? And he just shushed me, shut me down, know. Don't ask. Don't ask.


I'm thinking that the two of you have not spent quite as much time around murder stories as I have. But I can tell you that when someone predicts something bad is going to happen and then something bad does happen, frequently there are people who will see a sort of link of causality there, which you guys didn't seem to see. That never occurred to.




No way. No way. He was a man of God. It didn't occur to us ever. Not once.


So you took Dawn's death as a sign that Nick really did have a prophecy.


He saw it coming, right? Yeah. And we felt that was a wow. That he saw it coming. Confirmation of his close relationship with God and. Yeah, that he was going to be walking through some terribly hard things.


She didn't know it then, but Annette herself would soon be dealing with some very hard things, too. This season on mortal sin.


He pulled me into the tanning room and kissed me.


And you kissed him back?


I did. Because in his calling, he felt like God wanted us to be together intimately.


He was able to get these women to do these incredible things to break their marital vows, to do all sorts of things that don't make sense.


She actually arranged to come into the department and provided information about Don's death.


You ever have a stranger case than this?




Oh, you answered that very quickly.






Mortal Sin is a production of Dateline and NBC News. Jessica Knoll is the producer. Brian Drew, Kelly Laudine and Marshall Housefeld are audio editors. Carson Cummins and Keanu Reed are associate producers. Adam Gorfane is co executive producer, Liz Cole is executive producer, and David Corvo is senior executive producer. From NB Audio sound mixing by Bob Mallory and Catherine Anderson. Bryson Barnes is head of audio production.