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Boy at Center of Courtroom Killing Now Man on the Run

Willie Nesler is himself a murder suspect a decade after his mother shot his accused molester.

August 02, 2004|Eric Bailey and William Wan | Times Staff Writers

SONORA, Calif. — Her story has entered the lore of this Gold Rush town: More than a decade ago, Ellie Nesler took the law into her own hands, stepping purposefully into a courtroom to gun down the man facing trial for molesting her 11-year-old boy.

Now the son finds himself accused of a killing and is on the run.

Willie Nesler grew into a powerful, hulking young man, his formative years clouded by the nationwide notoriety of his mother's case, his life rattled by run-ins with the law.

His troubles escalated last week. Law enforcement officers say Nesler, now 23, inflicted a ferocious beating on David Davis, who lived on the family's junk-strewn acre north of Sonora.

The attack came July 25, just an hour after Nesler was released from jail for assaulting Davis a month earlier. Davis, 45, died the next day of massive head injuries.

And the son of Ellie Nesler is nowhere to be found. Willie Nesler dropped from sight after the assault, and the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Department has launched a manhunt throughout the Sierra foothills, putting every available deputy on the case. Nesler's relatives, who received phone calls from the fugitive after the attack, have pleaded with him to surrender.

For residents of Sonora and surrounding foothill hamlets rich with celebrated tales of Mark Twain and Gold Rush pioneers, the episode revives memories not just of Ellie Nesler but of other notorious cases that have jolted an otherwise peaceable place.

In 1999, Cary Stayner, the killer of three Yosemite National Park tourists and a park naturalist, hid some of his victims' bodies in the hills outside Sonora. A few years later, FBI divers pulled five bodies from a nearby reservoir. They were believed to be victims of the Russian mafia.

"I don't know why we get all these cases," said Sheriff's Sgt. Roger Dittberner. "Maybe people figure it's up in the mountains. They can do things in secret. They can hide. A lot of strange things happen up in the mountains."

Sonora Mayor David Sheppard remembers watching from his architecture firm across from the courthouse as the press thronged during Ellie Nesler's trial. He also recalls the bad taste it left for him and many other townsfolk.

"They tried to portray us as a bunch of gun-toting rednecks who believed in frontier justice," Sheppard recalled. "A lot of us were disgusted with that."

As a boy, William Nesler was molested at a Christian summer camp. The suspect, Daniel Driver, 35 at the time of his death, was already a twice-convicted child molester.

On April 2, 1993, as Driver faced trial on charges of molesting Nesler and a half-dozen other children, Ellie Nesler walked into the courtroom in nearby Jamestown and pumped five bullets into his head.

She later told police, "Maybe I'm not God, but I'll tell you what: I'm the closest damn thing to it for all the other little boys." Her case won national attention, with Nesler praised by some as an avenging parent, condemned by others for brushing aside the legal system to kill Driver.

Nesler was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison. A TV movie was made about the case, and her family received more than $250,000 from its producers.

After three years behind bars, Nesler won an appeal based on juror misconduct and was released. But that did not end her problems with the criminal justice system. In July 2002, she was convicted of buying 10,000 pseudoephedrine tablets used to make methamphetamine and was sent to prison for six years.

Nesler declined to be interviewed. Family members said she was distraught over her son's spiraling problems.

By most accounts, Willie Nesler was a quiet, troubled youth. His father was out of the picture, tending to a failed gold-mining venture in Africa. While his mother was behind bars, young Nesler was raised by an aunt who lived in a neighboring county.

He repeatedly landed in juvenile hall and in teenage work camps as a youth, and in jail as an adult. In the last five years, deputies have booked him into the county jail 18 times on robbery charges, drug charges, even complaints about a pet Rottweiler.

"He was always really quiet," recalled Nick Njirich, who attended elementary school with Nesler. "He missed a lot of school, and when he was there, he always seemed to be in his own little world."

When his mother was released from prison, the boy returned to live with her and his grandmother in a modular home on the 1-acre property the family owned on Shaws Flat Road, next to a dilapidated aggregate plant.

In recent years, Willie Nesler was the only family member living on the property, which became a notorious eyesore. Piles of junk and abandoned cars crowd the edges of the parcel, surrounding battered trailers.

Neighbors said that despite his troubles with the law and his muscled arms covered with tattoos, Willie Nesler was a nice guy ready to lend a hand.

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