HARTFORD —Both parents of a baby who was found to have brain injuries at a routine doctor's appointment at age 12 months testified Tuesday that they saw changes in him after they let him stay with their minister in Manchester about two months earlier.
After the roughly 10-day visit with minister Robert Lee Nichols and his wife at their home on Botticello Drive in the summer of 2013, the boy was "not as happy as he normally was" and "lost the light that was in his eyes," his mother testified.
She also said during the first day of testimony in the trial of Nichols, now 44, on charges of first-degree assault and risk of injury to a child that her son would grow pale and vomit, which she said he had rarely done before.
The boy's father, now divorced from his mother, testified that the baby "looked as if he was malnourished" after his stay in the Nichols home.
"He just kind of was somber," the father added.
Hearst Connecticut Media is withholding the parents' names to protect the child's identity.
Neither parent testified to having witnessed Nichols abuse their son. The witness who is expected to offer such testimony is scheduled to testify Wednesday.
Both parents testified that they grew up in strict Christian homes. In the Pennsylvania church she grew up in, the mother said, there was illustration that used "umbrellas of authority" to show a hierarchy, with God and Jesus at the top, the pastor next, then the husband, followed by the wife, and finally the children.
After going to a small Bible college in West Virginia, then working at a church office in Missouri, she said, she came to Connecticut to work for a children's ministry, eager to partner with churches in Hartford's north end. She said she met Nichols at a networking event, where he talked about praying with people in Hartford and giving away free bread, both of which appealed to her.
She started attending services at his church, where she said she "liked the message" and wasn't troubled that attendance at services was only about 10 people.
Eventually, she and her future husband joined the church and were married by Nichols. She said they were expected to contribute 10 percent of their gross income to the church and were required to attend counseling sessions with Nichols, where the topics included their sexual relationship.
"It was very humiliating," she said.
Her ex-husband said he was encouraged to break ties with family members. He said he believed Nichols was speaking from God and that Nichols said so many times.
The Nichols family had a home day care business, and the couple enrolled their son there shortly after his birth. The wife said his roughly 10-day stay with the Nichols family started when her husband got sick and she subsequently got sick as well. When they got better, they weren't immediately allowed to see their son, she said.
She said Nichols told her "that my son was rebellious," which he attributed to her being rebellious.
But the following month, the boy's family moved into the Nichols household. When the discovery of the boy's brain injury led to a police investigation, the wife admitted, she wasn't completely forthcoming with police and offering possible explanations for the injury that she said Nichols had suggested.
She lost custody of her son for a time, which led to her leaving the Nichols home and eventually leaving her husband as well.