Rachel Brattin believed her husband was lying to her, but it wasn’t until she looked in his sock drawer that she realized how big of a secret he was keeping.
Hidden in the drawer was a document saying they were behind on their property taxes and their Mounds View home was in danger of foreclosure. Her husband at the time, Nicholas Firkus, was in charge of their finances.
Brattin knew Firkus’ previous home had been foreclosed on years earlier and then there’d been a tragedy that ended with the death of his first wife.
Now, she had questions. “I wasn’t sure how mad he would be that I knew,” she said recently of finding the paperwork about their home. “I didn’t know how desperate he would feel. I just wasn’t sure and I wasn’t willing to risk the safety of my kids to find out.”
She woke the three children she had with Firkus, buckled them into their carseats and drove away while Firkus slept.
One person who jurors didn’t hear from was Rachel Firkus, who is now remarried and goes by Rachel Brattin. Prosecutors wanted her to testify, but defense attorneys argued before the trial that “whether Nick lied to Rachel is not relevant to any issue before the court. It does not suggest in any way that Nick lied to Heidi” and a judge agreed Brattin’s testimony could unfairly sway a jury.
Still, police and prosecutors credit Brattin’s information with helping propel their decade-old case forward before they charged Firkus. They’d been investigating what Heidi Firkus knew — or didn’t know — about the foreclosure and impending eviction of her and Nicholas’ St. Paul home.
Sgt. Niki Sipes, the lead St. Paul police investigator, said when she found out Firkus had kept financial information from his second wife, it showed her that “he was capable of lying about these things and of hiding them. His assertion was that Heidi knew all of these things, but it then began to look like it was a very real possibility he had hidden it because we had seen him hide it from Rachel.”
Brattin, who was included in recent “20/20″ and “Dateline” TV news programs about the Firkus case, said she’s decided to speak out because she previously felt silenced and she wants her story to be known as one of hope.
“For people who are stuck in situations where they don’t feel like they have any hope, I understand that part, but there is hope when you can stand up for yourself,” said Brattin, 38.
From neighborhood meeting to marriage
On April 25, 2010, the day before Nicholas and Heidi Firkus were to be evicted, 25-year-old Heidi was fatally shot in their Hamline-Midway home. Nicholas Firkus, then 27, told police an unknown man broke in. He said he armed himself with his shotgun, and Firkus said he and the intruder struggled. The firearm went off and Heidi was shot in the back.
Heidi Firkus (Courtesy of Erickson family)
In the summer of 2010, Firkus was living with his brother in Hugo. Brattin was staying a few blocks away with her sister, Sarah Olson, after moving back from California.
Olson and her then-husband were in Nicholas and Heidi Firkus’ close friend group. Brattin met Heidi a few times, but didn’t know her well. She remembers her as “very sweet and very kind, very down to earth.”
Nicholas Firkus was often over at the Olson house, and Brattin and Firkus became friends. They developed a relationship and married in a small backyard ceremony in August 2012. They went on to have three children in four years.
They’d decided Brattin would be a stay-at-home mom. Firkus worked for his family’s business, home project contractors, and Brattin also did some part-time work for the business from home.
At the beginning of their marriage, they agreed Firkus would be in charge of the family’s finances. Brattin knew of his past financial problems, but she said Firkus told her “it wasn’t that bad” and she believed he’d been young and hadn’t known how to manage money. She felt reassured because they completed a course together on financial management.
“I respected the fact that he got out of debt before we were married and I know that it’s important for men to feel that they can provide for their family, so I thought, ‘He proved that he can do this and take care of it,’” Brattin said. “I wanted to give him that chance to do that.”
Firkus’ parents bought Nicholas and Rachel their home in Mounds View, and the couple paid them for it each month, Brattin said.
As time went on, Brattin’s trust in Firkus wavered. She said she’d often find food wrappers in his car and would ask him about them. He’d say he gave someone a ride and they left the wrappers behind, for example, according to Brattin.
“It may not seem like a big deal, but for us, if you’re doing that daily, the cost comes out of the grocery budget that we have for our family,” said Brattin, who said there were times they were living paycheck to paycheck.
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Brattin started getting collection calls about medical bills. She asked Firkus to take care of them and he’d tell her, “Somebody messed up” or “I tried to call, but they didn’t call back,” Brattin recalled.
Sipes, the St. Paul police investigator, later testified at Firkus’ trial about email messages in his first marriage. In March 2010, Heidi asked Nicholas to take care of an Allina Health bill and wrote, “It just scares me that I got the call. It has to be messing up our credit.”
In a response, Nicholas told her, “Hey, got off the phone with U.S. Bank. They have flagged and sent our info to their auditing department to see where the discrepancies are.” But Sipes testified that they didn’t have a U.S. Bank account at that point.
‘Ashamed and scared’
It was 2018 when Brattin found the letter from Ramsey County in Firkus’ drawer about unpaid property taxes.
“I was shocked,” she said.
Jurors in Nicholas Firkus’ 2023 murder trial weren’t allowed to hear from Rachel Brattin, but behind the scenes, police and prosecutors credit her with helping confirm a motive for the killing of his first wife, Heidi, in 2010. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)
After Brattin left with the children, she and Firkus talked and they also had conversations with his parents. Brattin used the voice recorder on her cellphone to record their conversations without them knowing. She said she did it to protect herself because she worried she’d be blamed for asking him to leave their home.
A recording was played in court during a pretrial hearing, when a judge was deciding if Brattin could testify. Jurors ultimately didn’t hear any of the audio.
In one conversation, Firkus told his parents that, when they gave him money twice in 2016 to pay their property taxes, he put the checks in their bank account instead of paying the taxes. At the time, “we were struggling really hard and I didn’t have the guts to talk to Rach about it and I didn’t have the guts to talk to anybody about it and I ignored it,” Firkus said. He said he had paid the taxes in 2017 and had just paid their past-due 2016 taxes.
He also said he’d been dishonest with Brattin — “some of it is financial,” he said in the recording. He told his parents that, when he talked to them the night before, “I was too ashamed and scared to ask for any help.”
When Firkus’ trial started in January, prosecutors Elizabeth Lamin and Rachel Kraker aimed to show that Heidi Firkus was unaware of the foreclosure and eviction. “Nick was desperate, ashamed and had run out of time, and reality was going to come crashing down on him,” Lamin said during opening arguments.
She no longer knew what to believe about homicide
In another conversation that Brattin recorded in 2018, she told Firkus and his parents that she no longer knew what to believe about what happened the day Heidi died.
“If Heidi did know all this was happening (with the impending eviction), why was there nothing packed in their house?,” Brattin asked them. “… That makes zero logical sense to me as a woman. … Neither parents knew … and they were going to tell their friends say one o’clock-ish to help them pack their whole entire house? That makes zero logical sense to me.”
Firkus responded soon after: “Heidi and I decided together that we would figure this out” because they thought they could and because “we were embarrassed and stuck.” There were things “crated up and easily ready to go,” Firkus added about packing the house.
Steven Firkus said his son’s attorney and investigator had determined in their own information-gathering process in 2010 that there was “proven documentation of Heidi having to sign documents saying she knows the foreclosure steps and the dates, and it was posted on the door with a date.” At Nicholas Firkus’ trial, his attorneys did not show foreclosure documents that had Heidi’s signature on them.
In a separate conversation between Nicholas Firkus and Brattin from around the same time, as she expressed increasing doubt about what happened to Heidi, Brattin told him, “I do not want to think these things, I don’t, but your actions have caused me to just distrust you completely. And the fact that your lying was so easy for you to do in front of me over and over and over makes me think …”
“That I could murder my wife?” Firkus asked.
“That you could lie about something,” Brattin answered.
“That I could murder my wife?” Firkus asked again.
“Yes,” Brattin said.
After Brattin spoke more, and Firkus cried and was silent, he told her, “Intellectually, I understand what you are saying. I don’t know where to go from here today.”
Police approached her
The couple separated. Brattin filed for divorce in 2019.
Sipes, the homicide investigator, heard rumblings about a separation and saw in public court records that the divorce was finalized in 2019. In 2020, she contacted Brattin.
Brattin said she didn’t know that police were still investigating Heidi Firkus’ homicide and she wasn’t sure at first if she would talk to Sipes because she didn’t think she had information that would be helpful.
“I gave it a few days, I prayed on it real hard,” Brattin said. “I could tell that she wanted to find the truth” and she agreed to meet with Sipes. She told her about the financial information she discovered Firkus had kept from her.
Sipes said she considers Brattin “a very brave woman who took a large risk in assisting us with the investigation.”
Prosecutors wanted Brattin to testify. Lamin argued at a pretrial hearing that it showed a pattern of Nicholas Firkus controlling finances, mismanaging them and lying about it.
But Firkus’ attorney, Robert Richman, said they “argued whatever happened in the relationship with Nick and Rachel, years after Heidi was murdered, it had no relevance to answering the question of who murdered Heidi. It was a different relationship, a different person” and Nicholas and Heidi Firkus’ financial circumstances were “very, very different. Whether or not Rachel knew (about her finances with Nicholas) tells us nothing about what Heidi knew.”
Conviction being appealed
Firkus, now 40, was sentenced in April to life in prison without the possibility of parole for premediated murder. Because of the sentence, the case will automatically be appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Nicholas Firkus (Courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Corrections)
Richman said he’ll argue that the case was based on circumstantial evidence and Minnesota law says in such cases “the circumstances proved have to be sufficient to be not only consistent with guilt, but inconsistent beyond a reasonable doubt with any reasonable hypothesis other than guilt. Our position is that it was a reasonable hypothesis that it happened exactly the way Nick said that it happened, namely that there was an intruder.”
Nicholas Firkus had told police that after Heidi was accidentally shot during the struggle, he and the unknown man continued to struggle and the gun went off a second time, shooting him in the upper thigh.
“A next-door neighbor heard the gunshot and heard a male voice yell, ‘You shot her,’” Richman wrote in a brief court document about the appeal. “In addition, there were tool marks in the door frame consistent with someone trying to jimmy the lock. The state’s case was entirely circumstantial.”
‘Hope is what I have chosen’
For Brattin, rebuilding her life was difficult. She spent years as a single mother. She’s now been happily married for a year to a man she’s known for more than 20 years. Her children are 6, 8 and 10.
A friend of Brattin’s started a GoFundMe to help with legal expenses that continue in family court and for ongoing therapy for her children.
Brattin has met Heidi’s parents, John and Linda Erickson, and they now count each other as friends.
“Because of knowing them, I know more of Heidi,” Brattin said.
The Ericksons said they’re grateful that Brattin “had the courage and willingness to come forward and talk about her own experience.”
Before Brattin knew Firkus, she was a licensed makeup artist. She previously started a makeup company, be Lovely, that she used to shed light on sex trafficking and to support organizations fighting against it. She recently made T-shirts with the word that means so much to her — Hope — that she’s selling through be Lovely’s website.
“I’m in a painful season of my life now,” she wrote on her website. “These products don’t come from a peaceful place when the storm has passed. They come from the deepest parts of my grief, fear, and injustice. Irrational hope is what I have chosen; the kind of hope that makes absolutely no sense based on my circumstances. I’m a firm believer that sometimes you have to speak out loud what is hard to believe in the moment.”
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