Bound, beaten, tortured: Students survive 40-hour ordeal
11/16/2017 1:42 pm PST
Nicholas Kollias and his college buddy spent nearly two days in hell, held captive, tortured, even shot. And just when they thought their time was up, a miracle occurred.
Growing up in an upscale suburb of Chicago, Nicholas Kollias was the all-American high school kid.
"One of four boys, just a really close-knit family, very caring parents," Nicholas tells Crime Watch Daily. "For me playing sports and especially football was a huge aspect in my life. I always wanted to continue playing football in college. I was the first one out of my direct family to go to college."
His gridiron goal became a reality at the University of Rochester in New York.
"Very small school, private university, only 8,000 undergrad, and so the football team was extremely close," said Nicholas.
But Nicholas wasn't all tackles and touchdowns. He's also a classical pianist.
Senior year, and fall semester at the University of Rochester is in full swing. But this Friday night out would be like no other. Nicholas and his fellow teammate and fraternity brother Ani Okeke Ewo are hanging out when Ani gets messaged on social media.
"Ani kind of looked over to me and he was like 'Hey I have these two girls who wanna hang out,'" said Nicholas. "So I said 'Sure. Why don't you have the two girls come over to my apartment and we can hang out with them there.' So Ani took a quick picture of me and sent it to them."
The girls must have liked what they saw. Not long after Nicholas and Ani meet them in the parking lot of Nicholas's apartment.
"They didn't want to go in my apartment and they suggested that we go over to their place," said Nicholas. "They were in a nice car. Nothing seemed unusual or abnormal."
The students jump in the girls' car and off they go. But soon the changing scenery catches Nicholas's attention.
"I started to notice that the neighborhood was not so good anymore," said Nicholas. "Then before I knew it we showed up at the house."
The address: 22 Harvest Street.
"It was dark out and from the outside it seemed like a decent house," said Nicholas.
A decent house and pretty girls. The night ahead was looking good. But once inside, that all changed.
"I sat down on this couch in the living room and next thing I knew it was just, the lights went out and about five to 10 men in just masks come out just screaming, so many loud noises, and just they're all armed with bats and bars and knives, guns, and the first thing that just pops in, I mean, fight or flight. I got up as fast as I could and tried running to the side door," said Nicholas. "I only made it about halfway across the room before I felt something like being pressed up to the side of my upper leg, and then the next thing I remember is just being on the ground."
Nicholas had been shot in the leg.
"My leg was like gel. It was just flopping around, and somehow I managed to get back to my feet and get to the door," said Nicholas.
He may have made it there, but he wasn't home free.
"And I remember looking out the door and seeing these two other girls that were standing on the outside and they were holding the door closed from the outside, just making sure we couldn't escape," said Nicholas. "Two different girls."
What had seemed like an innocent college date night was suddenly looking like a vicious setup. But why?
Now Nicholas was injured and delirious.
"There was nothing I could do, and then I just remember getting hit over the head with a bat and I'm laying on the ground and these men are just screaming, just 'Don't fight us, just take it and don't try and escape,'" said Nicholas.
It's Friday night, Dec. 4, 2015. It's only the beginning of a 40-hour nightmare.
"They tied up our hands and legs and dragged Ani and I into this bathroom," said Nicholas Kollias.
Nicholas is beaten with a hedge-trimmer, a bat, a pipe, then hit over the head again, this time with a fluorescent bulb.
"I just remember like touching my head and having all this blood just coming down everywhere," said Nicholas. "They were having so much enjoyment with it that they started recording it."
The video they shot is graphic. While one of the kidnappers records, two of the others are seen threatening Ani Okeke Ewo with a hedge-trimmer, and then prodding Nicholas lying on the floor covered in blood.
After hours of torture, the masked men leave. Both students, but especially Nicholas, are in bad shape. It's not over. The monsters return early the next morning for more.
"They were extremely organized," said Nicholas. "They had nicknames. They had roles for individuals. They'd take our wallet, everything from me, my keys, my phone, my wallet."
The captors put Ani in the bedroom. They keep Nicholas in the bathroom.
"They put me into the shower where they started washing me, and the entire tub is just red," said Nicholas.
Turns out Nicholas had been shot twice, once in each leg.
Did he feel like when they're washing him, they going to let him go?
"Honestly, while they were bathing me, they had other individuals who were cleaning the house and bleaching everything down," said Nicholas. "So it was almost as if they were like trying to cover their tracks."
The plan is not to let them go.
"I thought about my parents and how much I mean to them and how much they mean to me and I didn't want this to be the end," said Nicholas.
Now in the bedroom with Ani, surviving is what Nicholas is desperately trying to do.
"That's when these individuals were holding me at gunpoint and they were making me call all these different financial institutions to get my withdrawal limits increased, and doing whatever they could to get money out of my accounts," said Nicholas.
But is all this really just about money? While the football players are negotiating for their lives, their absence is not going unnoticed. Friends and family contact the University of Rochester Department of Public Safety, which alerts Rochester Police.
"As we started to put all this whole story together, we realized something really was not right," said Rochester Police Deputy Chief Scott Peters. "First of all both phones were turned off. The second thing was both gentleman were prolific on social media, always updating what they were doing, where they were, and that it stopped cold Friday night. Also the fact that they had been out of contact with everybody else."
Rochester Police launch a full investigation, getting search warrants for the boys' phones and Facebook accounts.
"Trying to track down the two women that they had met up with," said Peters.
Find the girls and maybe they'll find the boys. While cops are quickly working to identify who these two women are, Nicholas and Ani are coming to grips with the reality that there's no way out. They're trapped.
"There was always someone, at least one or two individuals that were kind of watching over us," said Nicholas. "I mean obviously he was in better shape than I was, he wasn't shot. He was scared, but throughout the whole ordeal he kind of had this like optimistic view, 'They're going to release us,' but it was hard for me to kind of see that light. It only got worse as time went on."
So much worse.
University of Rochester Public Safety officers and Rochester Police know the clock is ticking. They soon catch a break when they track down the girl who messaged Ani. Her name is Samantha Hughes. Hughes was less than helpful.
"She was trying to give us the runaround. She had to go to work, so she said 'Can I meet up with you tomorrow and we can finish this,'" said Deputy Chief Scott Peters. "At that point she really wasn't free to leave."
Then they find the second girl, Leah Gigliotti. Neither of them are making it easy for investigators.
"It was exhausting," said Peters. "So they'd give us a little bit of a lead and we'd be able to follow up on that, we'd wind up in the dead end, we'd have to come back and get more information."
Then a chilling admission.
"They said 'Don't worry, they're not gonna be hurt,'" said Peters. "A normal person that you meet up with is not gonna tell that to the police, so we knew that it wasn't normal."
Then the ones who lured the football players into the sadistic trap give up even more.
"After about six hours we were able to get a couple of good locations where these girls last saw Nico and Ani," said Peters.
Are they getting closer to finding the boys? Undercover officers monitor the two locations. Then Rochester Deputy Chief Scott Peters puts together a plan with the SWAT commander.
"This is gonna be a hostage rescue," said Peters. "I said 'Here's the two locations, plan cold hits on both houses, you're gonna do one and then we're gonna have to do the second one if the first house wasn't right.'"
Getting it right the first time could be the difference between life and death.
It's now Sunday morning at 22 Harvest Street, more than 30 hours in. Things have reached a fever pitch.
"They came into the room with their masks on and guns and weapons," said Nicholas. "They started saying that I was lying to them and that my cards weren't working anymore and then they said that they were going to kill us."
Nicholas says the kidnappers turned on loud music to cover the sounds of what's to come.
"They were just spraying bullets everywhere and they were putting the gun down our throat and putting the gun to our body and just moving it at the last seconds," said Nicholas. "And I was holding Ani's hand and I just knew that like one of these bullets were going to hit me and I was going to die."
It's now Sunday night, 9 p.m., almost 40 hours into this kidnapping nightmare.
"My body was in such bad shape," said Nicholas Kollias. "I was just kind of feeling worse, not optimistic at all that we would be found."
What Nicholas doesn't know is that the cavalry is on the way. Samantha Hughes and Leah Gigliotti, the girls who lured the football players to that house of horrors, eventually gave police two addresses.
SWAT is now ready to hit the first address: 22 Harvest Street. They don't even know if it's the right house. They roll up.
"It was eerily silent," said Rochester Police Deputy Chief Scott Peters.
Then out of the darkness a figure appears. Someone from inside comes out and sees the swarm of heavily armed SWAT officers.
"Very quickly he ran back inside and shut the door," said Peters.
"The individual who was nicknamed 'The Caretaker' came into the room, and this was the only time I actually saw any of the individuals' faces without a mask on," said Nicholas. "He was like trying to untie us real fast."
Outside, a SWAT team sets explosive charges on two doors and breaches them.
"The house just lit up and just shook," said Nicholas.
"The door gets blown inside," said Peters.
"I didn't know what was going on," said Nicholas.
Upon entry, the SWAT team sees two individuals.
"There was two suspects inside the living room, took them in custody," said Peters.
Cops still aren't certain they're in the hostage house. They make their way through the kitchen. Then they see a closed door.
"As they go through the door, they look in there and sure enough, there's the two football players sitting on the floor," said Peters. "There was remnants of tape around their ankles and hands. They just looked like they had been through hell."
"I thought the house was being burned down," said Nicholas. "In reality they were saving my life."
"We rolled the dice on the first house we hit was the correct one," said Peters. "This is a once-in-a-career rescue."
"At first I was kind of scared because there was more individuals just covered in body armor and these huge guns, I was just terrified," said Nicholas. "So I put my hands up and I'm like, 'I'm innocent, please don't shoot me again.' They got us out of the house, got me into an ambulance and off to the hospital."
After more than 40 hours of sheer hell, Nicholas and Ani are reunited with their families.
"I just remember seeing both of my parents, and more specifically my father, he just came over to me in the stretcher and stuff, and he was like 'You're safe now and you're going to be all right,'" said Nicholas.
Nicholas spent the next 25 days in intensive care.
As the investigation begins, cops find a stomach-churning video on one of the violent kidnapper's cellphones. It's deeply disturbing. Ani lies bleeding on the floor as the attacker prods and threatens him with an electric hedge-trimmer. Then the camera swings right to reveal Nicholas curled up in pain as the kidnappers throw slurs and prod his injured leg.
Cops believe the students were rescued in the nick of time.
"The plan really was to basically drain all the bank accounts," said Scott Peters. "Nico had a pretty good sum of money. What the bad guys didn't know is you can't access those funds on the weekend, so they were waiting until 8 o'clock in the morning when they could actually access those accounts, and I'm sure once they did that they probably would have killed them."
A month later, all of the perpetrators are in custody: nine in total, five men and four women.
Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley says this case was like no other and deserved special attention.
"I knew that it was going to be high-profile and it affected a lot of people in this community personally, so I really wanted to make sure that my best people were on it," said Doorley.
Of the nefarious nine suspects, five end up taking plea deals, including Samantha Hughes and Leah Gigliotti, the women who lured Nicholas and Ani to the house that night. The five receive sentences of 13 to 35 years in prison. The other four take their chances at trial.
"The evidence was overwhelming. As Christine and I got ready for this trial, it was harder to figure out what we weren't going to use than it was to figure out what we were going to use. There was just that much," said Monroe County Assistant District Attorney Matthew Schwartz.
But there was one key piece of evidence the jurors would see.
"The cellphone video was clearly, in my opinion, the most essential piece of evidence and perhaps yes, also the most damning as well," said Schwartz. "It essentially showed 30 seconds of torture, and when you put that in perspective that was only 30 seconds out of almost 40 hours, so you can only imagine what they went through during the other 39 hours and change."
Ani Okeke Ewo and Nicholas Kollias, who both testify against their kidnappers, watch that grotesque video in court. The ringleader, Lydell Strickland, played a starring role in that video. He's also seen in other damning videos cops found around town.
"There were just multiple banks all over the city of Rochester that Lydell Strickland was seen using Nicolas's TD Ameritrade card," said Monroe County Assistant District Attorney Christine Callanan. "It's clearly his face. In one video he actually pulls up still wearing a mask that he was wearing during the other cellphone video."
After a month-long trial, all four defendants are found guilty on all counts. Three of the defendants are sentenced to seven to 15 years in prison. Lydell Strickland gets 155 years to life.
"I feel like for each of these defendants and for these victims, that justice was served," said Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley.
Nicholas Kollias has filed a $10 million lawsuit against the nine kidnappers.
What was the monsters' motive for perpetrating this horrific crime? It was not just about money, but revenge. It turns out the kidnappers got the wrong guys Cops say the target was a completely different University of Rochester football player named Isaiah Smith.
Smith, a star athlete and well-known drug dealer, found a spare key to Ani and his twin brother's apartment. Cops say Isaiah Smith then used that apartment to rob Lydell Strickland and his gang of thugs. Strickland and company then wanted revenge. So they told the girls to go get the football players who ripped them off.
"The drug dealers, when they came back, were looking for the people who lived in that apartment, not realizing that it was just being used by somebody else. So it was definitely a case of mistaken identity," said Scott Peters.
Nicholas says there's more to the story, and he's holding the University of Rochester responsible. He says after Isaiah Smith was arrested, a football coach bailed Smith out of jail, then failed to inform the student body of the severity of the crime, all in an attempt to give their star athlete preferential treatment.
"The university was just completely negligent in what they did," said Nicholas. "My life was put in jeopardy on numerous occasions all because of Isaiah getting bailed out, and poor decision-making on many university officials."
Nicholas plans to file a civil suit against the University of Rochester. Crime Watch Daily contacted the University of Rochester. The university responded in part:
"We disagree with Mr. Kollias's assertions... but we continue to wish him the best as he moves forward after this traumatic experience." -- University of Rochester Spokesperson Sara Miller
Sadly, Nicholas and Ani are no longer friends. He says during their 40-hour ordeal, he received more of the abuse than Ani did, and he thinks he knows why.
"I just feel like with everything that happened, I feel like he had more to do with it than he will ever admit," said Nicholas Kollias. "I was the one that got the majority of all of the beating and abuse, and so, you know, it was just not a good experience to have someone who you thought you could trust and just kind of being the complete opposite to you."
Crime Watch Daily reached out to Ani Okeke Ewo for comment, but he never responded.
There was no evidence presented at trial that Ani was in any involved in planning or carrying out the kidnapping. Ani Okeke Ewo has never been considered anything other than a victim.
Nicholas is now trying to move on with his life. He says although the nightmare he survived will never leave him, he's working hard to not let it define him.
"For me, I have always said I don't want this to hold me back, I don't want this to label me," said Nicholas. "I am not going to let these individuals mess up the rest of my life, and so that's why I am trying to be optimistic and just positive and move forward in the best way that I can."
Even with all he went through Nicholas Kollias still managed to graduate college a semester early and now works for a financial services firm. He still has a titanium rod in his left leg and a bullet lodged in his right calf.