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Pushed Over Edge, Mother Chose Own Brand of Justice : Courtroom: When Ellie Nesler killed the man accused of molesting her son, she became a hero to some in town.

April 11, 1993|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JAMESTOWN, Calif. — Long before she gunned down her son's accused molester in court and at once became a heroine of this Gold Rush country and an emblem for crime victims nationwide, Ellie Nesler learned some harsh lessons of life here from her mother and grandmother.

Rely on yourself, she was told, because a woman in the Mother Lode must often go it alone. Trust in the Lord but pack a pistol just in case. And do not seek trouble--but if trouble finds you, strike first.

"We're like rattlesnakes," Nesler's 65-year-old mother, Marie Starr, said last week. "You don't know we're there until someone steps on us."

Daniel Mark Driver, 35, violated the family creed when he allegedly sodomized Nesler's 7-year-old son at a church camp in 1988. He had insinuated himself into their lives in what they considered the cruelest possible way, toting a Bible and reciting whole verses word for word. There were few transgressions worse in the eyes of Nesler, whose God-fearing mining family goes back three generations in these hills.

Still, family and friends say the 40-year-old single mother would have never walked into the Old West-style courtroom April 2 and pumped five bullets point-blank into Driver's head had she not been pushed over the edge by several events that morning.

"Ellie couldn't take it anymore," said Ardala Inks, a cousin who accompanied Nesler and her son, now 11, to court that day. They were scheduled to testify against Driver, who had been charged with seven counts of child molestation involving the Nesler boy and three other young boys, then ages 6 to 8.

"After four years trying to find this guy, after four years of watching (her son) become a Jekyll and Hyde, she had reached the end," Inks said. "Then this guy walks into the courtroom with this big smirk on his face."

In the week since the killing, a multitude of journalists, talk show and TV movie people has swooped down on this tiny town, which served as the backdrop for "High Noon" and countless other Hollywood Westerns. They have come to document what one local calls the "phenomenon of Ellie Nesler," a miner's daughter who with utter calm blew away her son's alleged tormentor.

In the process, she has found herself a local darling and a beacon for people everywhere besieged by crime and frustrated at a porous legal system.

Two area banks have set up Ellie Nesler defense funds. Shops and honky-tonks up and down Main Street here and in nearby Sonora are collecting cash in big glass jars. T-shirts and bumper stickers proclaim "Nice Shooting, Ellie." Calls of support have poured in from across the country and Canada, Italy, Spain and Denmark.

"The press says this was vigilante justice. The kind of thing we do here in 'frontier town,' " bristled Monika Gilmore, a patron at the Office bar. "Sure, we've got our share of rednecks, but this is about a mother protecting her cubs. You mess with my young, honey, and you're dead meat, too."

Nesler publicly thanked her supporters Tuesday after a Sacramento bail bondsman posted her $500,000 bail. Otherwise she has kept mum, her silence only stoking the curious. Awaiting her preliminary hearing on first-degree murder charges, Nesler hides from the gawkers, traveling back roads and hopping from one relative's house to the other.

But over the past week, in interviews with family and friends, a picture has begun to emerge of Nesler's difficult past and the events leading up to the shooting--crucial minutes that may help explain her state of mind at the time.

That Friday morning, Nesler's son told The Times, he awakened sick to his stomach in anticipation of facing the man who he said had haunted his nights for four years. The boy said Driver had threatened to kill his family if he told authorities about the "nasty things Danny did to me."

As he sat outside the one-room courtroom waiting to testify, the boy said he could not stop vomiting. Then Driver, wearing an orange jailhouse outfit, handcuffs and a belly chain, was led into the courtroom. He caught sight of the boy throwing up into a plastic garbage bag and flashed a big smirk.

"My aunt was standing in front of me so I wouldn't see him," he said in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location. "My face was in the plastic bag, and I looked up and he was staring at me with this funny grin on his face."

The boy said his mother became so enraged at the idea that Driver was mocking them that she lunged at Driver; family members stopped her.

"Ellie's eyes were crackling and her face was flushed," said Inks, Nesler's cousin. "(Her son) was puking his guts out, right down to the bile, and this guy has the gall to walk by with this big smart-ass grin."

Inks does not know if Nesler was packing the .25-caliber handgun at that point. She was pacing the hallway and trying to comfort her son when one of the other mothers walked out of the courtroom shaking her head.

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