David Nelson, a former elder at the Madison Park Congregation Jehovah's Witness Church in Phoenix, admitted to authorities that he sexually abused a teenage boy on several occasions in the early 1980s.
With a confession from the suspect, it seems like a slam-dunk case — but not for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, which brokered a slap-on-the-wrist plea agreement that Nelson signed, the terms of which landed him in county jail for six months. In addition to the jail time, Nelson was sentenced to three years' probation and must register as a sex offender.
When asked for an explanation of the seemingly light sentence, MCAO spokesman Jerry Cobb told New Times that — among other reasons — the victim in the case (whom we'll refer to as Kevin) was okay with the plea agreement.
That wasn't true. In fact, after learning Nelson had pleaded guilty to two reduced charges — not the six class-two felonies on which he was initially indicted — Kevin tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head just four days after Nelson pleaded guilty.
"Thirty-one days [Kevin] had a tube down his throat [in the hospital following the March 12 suicide attempt]. We didn't know what was going to happen," Kevin's wife (whom we'll call Laura) tells New Times.
The shooting was one of two suicide attempts, Laura says, that were a direct result of years of sexual abuse — and the lousy plea deal.
"The first time, he tried to shoot himself in the head. The second time, he took well over 300 pills," she says. "The last time was pretty bad. Now he wishes he'd never come forward . . . because of what the [County Attorney's Office] has done."
Kevin brought the years of abuse to the attention of the Phoenix Police Department on September 7, 2010 — nearly 30 years after the last time he was abused.
According to the police report, obtained by New Times through a public-records request, Kevin told police the abuse started when he was 6 or 7 years old, living with his family in New York, and attending the same Jehovah's Witness church as Nelson.
Nelson, then in his late 20s, began hanging out at the family's home to visit with Kevin's mother. Eventually, he began taking Kevin to movies and out to eat. That, Kevin told police, is when the abuse started.
When Kevin was 14 in 1980, his family moved to Phoenix. David Nelson, then a family friend, followed — and so did the abuse.
Nelson didn't live with Kevin and his family in their Phoenix apartment but would often see the boy and take him to movies or let him play video games at his house.
Kevin's mother grew suspicious of the relationship and asked both Kevin and his brother whether Nelson had touched them inappropriately. Kevin always said no — later telling detectives he had been too embarrassed to tell the truth. His brother also denied that he was touched inappropriately, though when Kevin asked him about the abuse years later, he sensed his brother was hiding something.
At one point, Kevin's brother also attempted to kill himself by jamming a knife into his wrist. He called Kevin, who rushed to his house. As he was trying to take the knife away from his suicidal brother, Kevin asked, "What's wrong? What's wrong? Is it Dave?"
Kevin's brother responded, "He's a fucking faggot."
Nelson, in his 30s at this point, would coax the 14-year-old Kevin into playing card games. The loser of the games, Nelson decided, had to remove his clothes.
As the games progressed, Nelson created new rules: The loser had to perform oral sex on the winner.
Kevin later told police that he felt Nelson lost on purpose, because Nelson performed oral sex on Kevin several times. Kevin says he also was forced to perform oral sex on Nelson, but Nelson later told police he couldn't remember whether that had happened.
Kevin told police that one time in particular, after Nelson had performed oral sex on him, Nelson hummed as he went to the bathroom to spit out the semen. Kevin says he remembers he was a freshman in high school — shortly after he'd moved to Phoenix — and it was warm outside. He was certain it was before Thanksgiving, when he was only 14 years old.
Specific memories and timing — "time anchors" — are important in proving old sex crimes, Rachel Mitchell, sex crimes bureau chief for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, tells New Times, because the age of the victim at the time of abuse can vastly alter sentencing guidelines.
"It's not uncommon for victims, especially teenage male victims, to tell you, 'I was this age when it happened,'" she says. "Then, when you get 'time anchors' from them, you find out they were actually older. It's a normal thing to do where you have a coping mechanism [in which] they imagine that they were younger, because, 'If I were older I wouldn't have let it happen.' I think that's probably a little bit of what you've got going on here."