For almost 30 years, Nick Sidebottom’s children grew up and lived their lives without a father – they did not know if he was dead or alive, where he was or what he was doing. Then a reunion was made through social media, which led him to reveal all about those missing years. But the shocking truth he told his family is difficult to believe.
Born in 1943 in the city of Billings, Montana, Sidebottom certainly lived an eventful life. Growing up with an alcoholic and abusive father, the brutalized boy responded to regular beatings with wild behavior. It was his childhood habit of getting high from sniffing gasoline and joining neighborhood dogs in barking at the moon that would earn him the nickname Animal – the first of Sidebottom’s monikers – which would define his character in his early years.
As an adolescent Sidebottom turned to crime, ending up in juvenile prison at just 12 years old. Three years later Animal escaped and teamed up with Bill Cribby, a 43-year-old who had fled incarceration in Florida. The unlikely pair embarked on a spree of bank robberies across the north-western states.
At the age of 19, Animal was sent to the notoriously violent Old Montana Prison in Deer Lodge after he stole the state governor’s car. Sidebottom secured release in 1968 and moved down to New Mexico to establish himself in criminal activity on the border, using contacts that he had made in prison. His Mexican cohorts soon gave him a new nickname – El Diablo. But it was also in this southern state that he met and married a local waitress, Wanda. Despite his checkered past, and his new illicit career, the couple started a family.
However, their happiness was not to last. Soon, Sidebottom was back behind bars, and separated from Wanda. Apparently he converted to Christianity while in prison, and upon his release began an extensive preaching tour with a second wife. His new zeal took him all over the states, Mexico and Canada.
Settling in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it looked like Sidebottom was finally ready to accept a conventional lifestyle. But suddenly one day in 1980 all that changed. Sidebottom walked away from normality, taking his life in a terrifying direction that would consume him for the next three decades.
Then, in 2013, there came another twist in the tale. A young Arizona woman called Tina Ryan was alerted to Sidebottom’s profile on Facebook. Recognizing the name, Ryan reached out. Remarkably it was the beginning of a process that would see Sidebottom reconnect with his children.
In August that year he flew to Tucson, AZ, for an emotional reunion. Interviewed on film by HooplaHa, a website dedicated to positive news stories, Sidebottom recalled, “When I got off that plane and went down them steps, and my daughter and my son, just come running, and just fell on me crying. I was speechless.”
But just why did Sidebottom abandon his family all those years ago? The truth is as shocking as it is heartbreaking. And according to Sidebottom, it all began when he ran away from home as an adolescent boy. Finding himself living in a bordello at the age of 15, the prostitutes there offered him heroin.
Animal’s life of crime over the next few years was fueled by his addiction. By the time he left the Old Montana Prison, Sidebottom had made enough connections to get set up in the illegal drug trade himself. In New Mexico, he began a career in trafficking, dealing and using drugs that would take up the majority of his life. He lived down to his new nickname El Diablo, and soon rose to the top of his game.
As his relationship with his then wife deteriorated, Sidebottom’s illegal dealings went from strength to strength. At one point he claimed to have been shifting large amounts of heroin, cocaine and marijuana to cities all across the U.S. every month.
But Sidebottom was not just a drug dealer – he was also nursing a severe addiction to heroin. His use of the opioid was so extreme that even his fellow drug users were nauseated by it. And although he had a brief respite during his conversion and religious tour, he soon returned to drug dependency once more.
“I led two lives,” Sidebottom confessed on film. “One with my family and the other one the wild man. My wife asked me one time, she said, ‘Honey, if I told you that I was gonna leave, and you had to either give me up or your addiction up, what would you do?’ And I said, ‘I’ll see you later, baby.’”
Not wanting his children to see what he had become, Sidebottom left his family behind in the early 1980s. For almost 30 years he continued his criminal lifestyle, dealing drugs and abusing them. Then in July 2009, with Sidebottom at rock bottom, he experienced a life-changing revelation.
Living by now in San Gabriel, California, Sidebottom found himself preparing a shot of heroin while watching a Christian program on the television. Suddenly, he received what he believed to be a message from God. “It wasn’t like a voice booming at me or anything,” he explained to the website And Magazine in 2014. “It was just like – you need to get in.”
Interpreting the message as an instruction to get himself into a rehabilitation program, Sidebottom sought the help of Union Rescue Mission homeless shelter in downtown Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row. Two years and a lot of hard work later, he graduated from the Mission’s arduous Christian Life Discipleship Program as a clean man. During his time there Sidebottom finally picked up a more affectionate nickname – Pops.
Finally free from drug addiction after more than 50 years, Sidebottom moved into a loft apartment in the LA district of MacArthur Park. From there Pops set about piecing his life back together. One of the first things he needed to do was track down the family he lost touch with so long ago, so Pops put out some feelers online.
At first Sidebottom had little success. He learned the sad news that his second wife and eldest son were both dead – the latter of asthma complications at just 35. On top of that, Sidebottom’s long-estranged father resisted his attempts to make contact. Then Tina got in touch. It turned out that Pops was her grandfather, and she passed on his details to her mother, Sandra – Sidebottom’s youngest daughter.
Unsure of what to say to his children at their Tucson reunion, Sidebottom attempted to apologize for his past. Happily, they both forgave him. Over time, Pops also managed to build a relationship with his eldest daughter, Michelle, who he hadn’t seen since she was 13 years old.
Finally reunited with his kids, Sidebottom settled in to a happy old age volunteering at the mission where he was rehabilitated. When he died following a long illness in 2015, Pops went to the grave a redeemed and thankful man. “Now I’ve got my family,” he said before his death, “how can I lose?”