BANGOR, Maine — In the estimation of many who were close to her, Nicolle Ashley Lugdon never really had a chance.
Despite athletic talent, intelligence, a sparkling personality and natural beauty, the Bangor-born Eddington resident’s life offered too many obstacles for her to conquer.
“Essentially, my belief is that Nicolle had amazingly difficult odds and struggles to overcome,” said Lisa Melendez, Lugdon’s paternal aunt. “I don’t see how you can see her as anything but a victim.”
Lugdon’s body was one of three found in a burned-out Pontiac sedan in the early morning of Aug. 13. Police have ruled the deaths of Lugdon, 24; Daniel T. Borders, 26, of Hermon; and Lucas A. Tuscano, 28, of Bradford homicides and are investigating the events leading up to their deaths and discovery of their charred bodies around 3:30 a.m. in a back parking lot at 22 Target Industrial Circle.
It was a premature and disturbing end to the life of a woman who several friends said was rarely seen without a smile on her face. Given her background, that smile may have been a mask she used to hide a lifetime of pain and sorrow.
“She had a beautiful living spirit — very kind and giving and thoughtful,” said Melendez. “She had an amazing smile that people saw most of the time, but there were times when she would sit alone and sob.”
A string of family tragedies
When Nicolle was just 2 years old, her grandmother Leanna Lugdon and uncle Theodore “Robbie” Lugdon were killed in a house fire in Bangor, according to BDN archives.
In March 2002, when Lugdon was 13, her mother died of a heroin overdose. Just five months later, Lugdon’s father, Michael Melendez, killed her grandmother Linda Melendez. Both were heroin addicts and the killing resulted from an argument over drugs. Nicolle Lugdon was in the house and hiding in a second-floor room with her 2-year-old brother while her father stabbed her grandmother 36 times. Michael Melendez was given a life sentence without parole in 2004 and is incarcerated in Pennsylvania, BDN reports state.
“She was doomed to fail with all she had happen to her in her family life,” said Lisa Melendez, a social worker for 20 years with a master’s degree in social work. “She was raised in a family atmosphere where things like theft and drug use were commonplace and even encouraged.”
Lugdon lived with Melendez from late 2002 through 2004 in Hampden before moving to Aroostook County to stay with a foster family.
“She was in a lot of pain after all that happened,” Melendez said. “When she first got here with us, we tried to institute rules and boundaries and she wasn’t used to that after being in a free environment for so long. She rebelled and she acted out in school and was suspended.”
That’s when Lugdon entered foster care and headed north to spend three years with Barb Pineau and Dan Robinson in St. David, near Madawaska.
Pineau told the St. John Valley Times that Lugdon was a “wonderful girl” who was “full of spirit.”
Pineau said “she has been my daughter” since coming to live with Pineau in 2005, and “this is where she would come back to for holidays.”
Lugdon was an honor roll student and earned varsity letters playing softball and basketball before graduating from Madawaska High School. She also became involved as a volunteer with the Can-Am Sled Dog Race, youth sports and disabled adults.
She attended the University of Maine at Fort Kent before moving to Boston.
Lugdon would periodically check in with close friends and relatives.
“I was not able to reach her, but she would call me sporadically over the last couple years,” recalled Melendez, who said she last saw Lugdon almost a year ago. “Sometimes we would see her on holidays out of the blue.”
Eventually, Lugdon returned to the Bangor area.
“She was doing amazing up there [Aroostook County], but as soon as she came back down this way, she lost it all,” said Kristina Sprague, a Bradford resident who called Lugdon her best friend for almost a decade.
The party lifestyle
Initially, Lugdon’s return to Bangor was marked with happiness. She reunited with friends such as Sprague and 26-year-old Bangor resident Tiffany Sutherland, and began dating a man with whom she would have a two-year relationship.
Despite having strong feelings for each other, they broke up. Her former boyfriend, who preferred not to have his name used in this story, said he wasn’t into the party life as much as Nicolle was because he had gotten it out of his system in college. That rift broke them up, but not before they had a baby daughter together.
Friends say the birth of Lugdon’s daughter, Mia, in 2010 seemed to inspire her.
“The whole first year Mia was there, she had her own apartment, she had her own job. … She had everything going well,” Sprague said.
But eventually the party lifestyle beckoned again and Lugdon began spending more nights out late. Close friends said that lifestyle, and some of the people associated with it, eventually introduced her to drugs.
“She was the type of person where she could bat her eyelashes at you and you’d toss her $100 because she’s that pretty,” Sprague said. “She could have any man she wanted to, but she always picked the ones who had money because they took care of her. That’s how she was raised. She was really good at getting whatever she wanted.”
Court records, family and several close friends confirm that Lugdon used drugs ranging from marijuana to prescription medications recreationally, but that recreational use became regular use of hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin in her last months.
The father of Lugdon’s daughter, who has been involved in legal hearings to secure primary parental rights for the last few months, said the very quality that endeared Lugdon to so many people was the same quality that led to her undoing.
“Nikki was always the go-to person in her family and group of friends,” he said, adding that she never did any drugs when they were together. “She never wanted to let anyone down or tell them no, but it was that same thing that made it hard for her to say no when she was offered bad choices.”
Sprague said it was Lugdon who personally helped move her back home to be with family and get her away from a bad element shortly after Sprague became pregnant last year.
Lugdon’s younger sister Katelyn told a BDN reporter by messages on Facebook that her older sister took care of her.
“[And] my sister, you already know she was like my mom [because] we have no real family,” Katelyn wrote on Aug. 19. “We only had each other.”
Several close friends and family members agree that the person Lugdon was and the people she associated with in her last two years didn’t typify the woman they came to know and call a best friend, sister, mother, relative or girlfriend.
“It doesn’t matter who she was hanging out with. We just want to make sure everybody knows the Nikki that we knew,” said Sprague, 25. “She’s an amazing person. She always cared about everybody.”
Sprague and Sutherland, who first met Lugdon when they were about 11 and 9, respectively, said they want their close friend to be known for the person she was over the first 22 years of her life, and not for the last 13 months of it.
“Many of us will miss her,” said Melendez, who adopted Lugdon’s younger brother, Mike. “She touched a lot of our lives in a good way.”
That was true both before and after she began using drugs.
“She was always the same person. It didn’t matter what she was doing,” Sutherland said. “She could have been so messed up, she couldn’t even say her own name, but she was still smiling and everyone was smiling back at her.”
Melendez knew her niece was using drugs.
“She told me. She knew she was going down a dangerous path,” Melendez said. “She didn’t want to go there, but it’s what she knew, and she was in a lot of pain.”
Friends and family said things really started spiraling out of control for Lugdon after she allowed her daughter to go live with her daughter’s father last October.
“We were living in Brewer at a hotel and Nikki decided it wasn’t a good place to be with her,” said Sprague. “I think deep down Nikki didn’t want her daughter to be around her with the drugs and she didn’t think she could stop, so that was her way of not dragging her daughter down with her.”
‘A wounded soul’
Lugdon tried more than once to stop using drugs with drug treatment programs and centers.
“In the last three months, Nicolle has tried the hardest she’s ever tried to get off drugs. I saw her do methadone, I saw her do suboxone,” Sutherland recalled. “She came home from New York with 300 methadone tablets and said, ‘I’m not doing anything else. I’m getting off drugs because I don’t like myself.’”
Melendez said Lugdon had just returned to Maine from California less than a week before her death.
“She said she was going to drug treatment twice over the last few months,” Melendez said. “The last time was just a few days before she passed.”
As people reacted to Lugdon’s death and the unusual circumstances surrounding it, Melendez noted a common misconception some had regarding her niece.
“This is purely from a self-centered standpoint. I feel like people have very much discounted the love Nicolle did get,” Melendez explained. “She did get love and support from myself and other family members, but at the same time, she wasn’t able to accept it.
“She was a wounded soul who gave a lot of love and support to others, but I don’t think she knew how to accept unconditional love and support.”
BDN writer Nok-Noi Ricker contributed to this report.