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Ex-Convict Is Charged in Slaying of Salesclerk in Huntington Beach

March 26, 2004|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

A parolee who was released from prison last fall was charged Thursday in the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old clerk at a 99 Cents Only store in Huntington Beach, officials said.

John Steadman Nilsen, 46, of Marina del Rey faces charges of murder and first-degree robbery, as well as special-circumstance allegations that could make him eligible for the death penalty, Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Matt Murphy said.

Nilsen allegedly walked into the store Jan. 29 and demanded cash from Shawna Wolfgram, who was in her second month as a cashier. Police said Wolfgram apparently thought the gunman was joking. When she realized he wasn't -- and screamed for help over the store's intercom system, he shot her once in the heart at close range. The gunman fled with an undisclosed amount of cash, police said.

Nilsen, who was arrested at his South Bay home, was linked to the crime by witnesses and a videotape of the holdup, authorities said.

Nilsen has a history of violent crime that dates to the 1980s, police said. He was sentenced to three years in 1981 for being a felon in possession of a weapon and then sent back to prison in 1985 for attempted robbery and burglary in Los Angeles. Three years later, while on parole, he was arrested in a string of armed robberies in Newport Beach and was sentenced to 25 years. He served half his term but was returned to prison in July and released on parole in October.

On Thursday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Martin Engquist ordered Nilsen held without bail.

Store employees said they were still trying to cope with their loss. An employee recently broke into tears after a customer, who saw a makeshift shrine outside the store, asked what had happened.

"We're still really emotional about it," said Janice Ventura, a company spokeswoman. "But it's a great relief that he's caught."

Wolfgram, who was engaged to be married, was coping with the May 2002 death of her 2-month-old daughter.

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