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.
New Times news short
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."
Kevin, however, maintains that the abuse began when he was as young as 6 and went on throughout his teenage years. He estimates that Nelson sexually abused him on at least 30 occasions.
"This happened for 10 years — 10 whole years! — and [prosecutors] keep saying, 'It only happened once when he was 14.' This is so untrue," Kevin's wife says. "The county attorneys would not listen to us."
Nelson himself later admitted to detectives — after initially lying to police, calling the accusations of abuse "ludicrous" — that he had abused Kevin when he was 14 or 15. He even corroborated his story about often walking to the bathroom to spit out the ejaculate after he was finished, although, he didn't mention anything about humming.
Before admitting to the abuse, Nelson continuously apologized during an interview with detectives. When asked why he was apologizing, Nelson finally said: "For crippling that boy."
Nelson told detectives he'd performed oral sex on Kevin, starting, he claims, in the early 1980s, when Kevin was 14 or 15.
Nelson told detectives it was a "sin" and "against nature." He went on to say he was a "pervert" for what he'd done to the young boy and that he wished he could meet with Kevin now so his victim could "punch or kill him."
The detectives who'd taken Nelson's confession — and spoken, at length, with Kevin — recommended he be charged with two counts of sexual conduct with a minor, two counts of child molestation, and two counts of public sexual indecency, all class-two felonies with stiff sentencing guidelines. Initially, prosecutors in the County Attorney's Office, and the head of the Phoenix PD's sex-crimes unit, signed off on the charges, leading to a grand jury indictment of Nelson on each of the class-two felonies.
However, after the indictment, Mitchell and the deputy county attorney who prosecuted the case, Rachel Reames, decided they weren't satisfied with the interview Phoenix detectives had conducted with Kevin.
"When we initially got the case in early November, it was a little bit ambiguous," Mitchell says. "There had been an initial interview by a detective, and there were some concerns about the quality of that interview, um, specifically [about how the detective narrowed] down timeframes that were critical."
So Mitchell called in Wendy Dutton, a veteran forensic interviewer at St. Joseph's Hospital who specializes in interviewing victims of child sex crimes. Dutton and Mitchell have worked together on several childhood-abuse cases. In most, however, the victims were still children.
Under normal circumstances, Mitchell concedes, someone like Dutton would not be used to interview an adult victim, like Kevin. Detectives are well trained in conducting forensic interviews themselves.
According to Mitchell, though, these weren't normal circumstances.
"We had asked to have him interviewed by somebody who is a dedicated forensic interviewer. In other words, that's all they do all day long, versus being busy with investigations and detective work," Mitchell says. "[Dedicated forensic interviewers] are not limited to children and people with developmental disabilities. I would certainly say that a 30-year-old case is one of those situations where you might want to [have a forensic interviewer] look at it."
But Bill Richardson, a retired sex-crimes detective from the Mesa Police Department, disagrees that a forensic interviewer who is accustomed to dealing with juvenile victims is the proper way to go. Further, Richardson, who's handled multiple child sex-abuse cases, says it makes no sense to have a second interview conducted by someone who wasn't the detective who initially spoke to the victim.
"In all sex crimes, trust is the most important thing — the victim needs to trust the detective; [the victim] needs to tell him things he normally wouldn't tell anyone else. It's especially important with male victims, who may be ashamed they were abused by another man," Richardson says. "If the [County Attorney's Office] wanted more information, it's only logical to send [the detective] back in to interview the victim . . . Why would you want to bring a third party into it?"
By sending in someone who specializes in interviewing children to interview an adult, Richardson says, the risk is run that the victim will feel he's being talked down to.
The PPD, Richardson says, holds sex-crimes detectives to very high standards. In other words, to become a sex-crimes detective with the department, a detective must be the best of the best.
"If the issue is the county [prosecutor] doesn't trust these detectives, or doesn't like these detectives, that's a problem," he says. "In this case, [County Attorney] Bill Montgomery signed off on the charges, the sex-crimes unit [of the PPD] signed off on the charges, and a grand jury signed off on the charges. If they needed more information, you send the detective back in, not a third party."
Even Kevin was confused as to why he was re-interviewed by someone other than the detective in whom he'd initially confided.
"I'm wondering what we're doing this for. Why I'm digging up more shit that I don't want to talk about," Kevin told Dutton during her interview. "I'm sure [the detective] is doing his shit right, but if I need to talk to you, I'll talk to you. Because he did really good for me."
Kevin went on to tell Dutton that he'd continue to talk to her but that the two detectives who worked the case were the ones he "totally trusts."
The result of the interview conducted by Dutton — and ordered by the County Attorney's Office — was that Kevin was only able to identify one solid "time anchor": a movie Nelson had taken him to see before one of the times he was abused. Mitchell referred to it as "the Porky's incident."
"Tell me what you remember about that movie," Dutton asked Kevin during the interview.
"I want to say it was a, well, I'm pretty sure it was Porky's," Kevin responded. "He let me pick out the movie, and we went to see Porky's."
Porky's came out in 1982, when Kevin was 15. Because that was the only instance for which he could give a specific enough account to satisfy prosecutors, the six class-two felonies on which Nelson initially was indicted could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, according to Mitchell.
"Then [in the 1980s], as now, there's a great dividing line between the ages of 14 and 15. If a victim is 14 or younger, it's a class-two [felony]. If a victim is 15 or older, it's a class-six," she says. "It became very clear that not only was it not on the border [of 14 or 15] but that it was probably within him being 15 or older — [even] 16 or 17. Specifically, one of the anchors he gave us was the Porky's incident, and that makes him absolutely 15, because we looked up when that was released in the United States."
Kevin's account of "the Porky's incident" is about as specific as Kevin's account of other instances of abuse — for example, his time anchor of knowing abuse occurred his freshman year of high school "before Thanksgiving" — when he would definitely have been 14 or younger.
Mitchell said because Kevin couldn't narrow this down to a specific date, the allegation would be difficult to prove in court.
Kevin's wife is aghast: "They took away six counts of sexual molestation that were the charges that we wanted instead of misconduct with a minor — even though we had the proof."
Because prosecutors didn't think they could prove Kevin was 14 at the time of the abuse, Reames offered Nelson a plea deal: in exchange for pleading guilty to two counts of sexual conduct with a minor — class-six felonies — Reames would recommend his sentence not exceed one year in county jail, and three years' probation.
"[Prosecutors] had told us, 'This is the plea agreement we can do,'" Kevin's wife says. "They told us that the plea agreement [depends on] what the law was 30 years ago when this took place. That I understand. But [the year in jail] they told us [Nelson] would get, he didn't get."
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The maximum penalty for class-six felony sexual conduct with a minor — under 1981 sentencing guidelines — was 1.875 years. Had Nelson been given the maximum sentence for each count — and a judge ruled that they run consecutively — Nelson could have been sentenced to nearly four years in prison.
But Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Karen O'Connor sentenced Nelson to even less time than the year Reames had requested: six months in county jail and three years' probation.
Everyone involved in the case — the County Attorney's Office, the PPD, and the victim — agree on one thing: Nelson got off easy. The County Attorney's Office maintains Kevin and his family approved the plea deal.
David Nelson is scheduled to be released from county jail on November 5.