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ON CALIFORNIA

Nice Shootin', Ellie

April 11, 1993|PETER H. KING

JAMESTOWN — For the opening shot, let's pan down Main Street, capturing the rustic look of this tiny Mother Lode town, the tourists shopping for Gold Rush trinkets and, how perfect, the "claims jumper" mannequin dangling from a rope over the wooden sidewalk. Frontier justice. Hee yaw.

Scene set, we cut to a real life talking head, some local yokel who can speak with wild-eyed enthusiasm about Ellie Nesler and how, in a courtroom on this very street two Fridays ago, she shot down a man accused of molesting her little boy.

Not just anyone will do. We don't want one of those bleeding hearts you find around the coffeehouses over in Sonora, people who talk quietly about a presumption of innocence. True story: A bartender here was called last week by a network talk show. "Good Morning, Willard Gumble," or such. The producer was seeking someone suitable for an on-camera interview. The first thing he asked was whether the bartender was fat and had a beard.

"No," was the reply, "and I have all my teeth, too."

The producer, disheartened, pressed on. What did the bartender think about Ellie? Well, he could understand a mother's instinct to protect a child, could understand frustration with the criminal justice system, perhaps could envision himself doing the same thing. Still, he could not condone killing. This, the producer said, would not do.

"We'll have to get someone else. You are waffling."

Ellie, of course, is the star of this one. The dead man, Daniel Driver, also grew up here, but no one seems to know much about him, or care. He had been convicted once before of child molestation. He befriended young boys at churches. His mother's still alive. That's about it.

Everyone, though, is talking about Ellie. They tell you how she is raising two kids alone and scrapes by on welfare and money from odd jobs, like chopping firewood. They run through the case particulars: How Driver "smirked" at Ellie's boy outside court; how the mother of another alleged victim warned Ellie that the suspect was "going to walk," how she emptied her pistol into the man's head, missing only once in six shots.

"Nice Shootin, Ellie," someone scrawled afterward on a truck window here, a message that captured the sense of pride, and almost glee, that infects her supporters.

Arrested for murder, Ellie is free on bail and keeping, as one friend put it, "to the back roads." Her decision to lie low is a disappointment to many people who have flooded into town. Movie producers. Talk show schedulers. Literary agents. Reporters. The media tribe. Many came with checkbooks open. "Right now," one of Ellie's friends explained, "the going rate is $1,000 for two minutes." Everyone agrees we are talking Movie of the Week at a minimum. Everyone also agrees Sissy Spacek gets the lead.

Those who play their cards right are allowed a free peek inside Ellie's double-wide trailer, where they can note ironic little details of the heroine's domain, such as the religious saying that decorates one wall: "Life is fragile, handle with prayer." They are watched over by a longhaired miner named James, a family friend. James is careful, but he will tell you a little about Ellie, her extended family, even the "family gun" she unloaded on Driver.

"I will say," he says, "they are a gun-oriented family."

Those who do not feel comfortable with what Ellie did--such as the sheriff and the prosecutor, for starters--complain that a minority of rednecks and all-day drinkers have created a skewed impression. These responsible types want to discuss child abuse, and gun control, and overcrowded jails, but of course no one is listening.

The story line has been set. This is a tale of frontier justice, and any killjoy who prattles on about due process must get out of the way of the better witnesses. Such as this old character with long whiskers a photographer found in a hut outside town. What do you think about Ellie? the photographer asked. Whiskers pulled out a foot-long revolver and aimed it shakily at the camera.

"If she had one of these," he said, "she wouldn't have wasted all that ammunition."

Hee yaw.

Our ending, of course, remains unwritten. One assumes a judge and jury will finish the script. But one can only assume. For, although I hate to spoil a good party, the moral of the Ellie Nesler story is this: If she can deal in her way with a child molester--and yes, admit it, the first, irrational response is to applaud, Nice shootin', Ellie!-- why can't the mother of Daniel Driver deal with Ellie in kind? Nice shootin', mom. And then maybe James can grab the family gun and go after mom. And then there's old Whiskers out there in the woods . . .

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