Nick’s popularity soared when, at the end of his junior year, Joe rented Nick his own apartment at the Carnegie Park building on East 94th Street. At that point, his friend says, “all sense of accountability was lost.” The apartment was stocked with plates and silverware, but because Nick didn’t like cleaning, he just threw them away when they got dirty. The apartment quickly became a party destination, and though Nick realized certain Horace Mann kids were taking advantage of his hospitality, he didn’t mind. If a friend liked a jacket or a sweater of his, Nick would give it to him. If friends were having trouble at home, they were always welcome. “He never closed his door to me,” his friend says.
When people asked him how he managed to get his own place, Nick simply explained that he and Joe had agreed it was best if he lived on his own. “He loved his dad and tried to make the relationship work,” his friend says, “but they clashed a lot.” When it came to Joe and women, he adds, “something was off.” Nick’s friends knew that Joe dated much younger women and used escort services, although Nick seemed to have a sense of humor about it (“He realized Joe was a rich old man”). Nick would eventually admit to his friends that he had begun hiring prostitutes, too.
With some of the women, he allegedly placed his Oscar in their hands. “This could be you holding this Oscar,” he’d say. “If you do what I say.’’
He also told friends that his father had taken a restraining order out against his mother, but with reason—Nick seemed to believe that Susan had been a drug addict and unfit to raise him, as Joe had told him. Nick even showed people the Playboy cover. Joe also went to great lengths to keep Nick away from Amanda, telling him that if he ever dared to contact his sister or mother, his access to his trust fund would be cut off. A woman who was once involved with Joe says this was typical of his treatment of Nick. “Joe would blow up at him all the time. He didn’t talk, he screamed. He was very emotionally abusive toward Nick.” As a result, she says, Nick often seemed “blank and numb.” He “seemed really lost.”
After graduating from Horace Mann, in 2005, Nick didn’t immediately go to college but instead stayed in New York. “He didn’t really have a plan,” his friend says. Eventually, in January 2008, he enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder. But according to his freshman roommate there, Ron Knabenbauer, Nick didn’t do a lot of studying. Not long into the semester, “everybody knew Nick Brooks at a party, and if you didn’t know him, you would soon.”
“He has a presence when he walks in the room,” says another friend from Boulder. “He’d sometimes show up with a bottle of Jack and give everyone shots.” And as they had in high school, girls gravitated toward him. “All different kinds of women were interested in him. He wasn’t picky, and they weren’t picky either,” Knabenbauer says. A female classmate describes him as “a kindhearted person whom I trusted and was able to confide in.”
Soon after Nick moved to Colorado, Amanda found him on Facebook and e-mailed him. After some hesitation, he wrote back. They started talking on the phone regularly. “The connection was instantaneous. It was very emotional,” Amanda says. “We discovered similarities in our senses of humor, the movies we like, our taste in food.” (Among other things, they found that at restaurants they both had the odd habit, like their father, of ordering many dishes and having just a few bites of each.) Nick quickly grew devoted to Amanda, but also felt guilty about going behind Joe’s back. “He was scared of what my father would do to him if he found out,” she says.
Amanda flew to Boulder, where she and Nick saw each other in person for the first time in almost fifteen years. “It was as if no time had passed,” she says. They hiked and cooked and talked for hours on end. She reminded him of how he once gave her hamster a bath and then, when he tried to dry it with a hair dryer, accidentally electrocuted the animal. They recounted singing along to U2 and Bon Jovi in front of the bathroom mirror.
When Nick visited Amanda in Los Angeles that fall, Susan flew in from London. She saw her son for the first time since he was 7. Initially, the reunion felt overwhelming and awkward, Amanda says. Nick had spent years believing the worst about his mother, and she was overcome with feelings of guilt for not being in his life. On their last night together, Amanda found them holding each other on her bed, crying. “She said she’d looked for him and tried to find him and had always loved him. He said how much he missed her and how he couldn’t understand where his mom and sister had gone and whether he’d done something wrong,” Amanda says. “It was heartbreaking.”